Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Vocation: Discerning our Callings Part 2

Schuurman in chapter three of his book, Vocation, lists four characteristics needed for fulfilling our calling in life. The first one is "A sense of dependence." This is demonstrated by our faith in God. This faith conquers anxiety and resentment. The author notes, "Seen theologically, anxiety and resentment are ultimately failures to trust in the God in whom we live and move and have our being" (54). The author asserts that the concept of calling helps us to see how our dependance is "a reminder of the various ways in which we are called to love God and neighbor." God uses us to accomplish His will and uses others to meet our needs.

The second characteristic is "a sense of gratitude." Gratitude complements dependence. Schuurman asserts, "Everything that contributes to life and its flourishing is a gift freely given from God" (56). Gratitude opens us to experience God's call. We understand that God has given much to us and we are to give to others. Gratitude makes us responsive to the needs of others. We will want to serve others with the gifts God has given us.

"A sense of obligation" is the third trait discussed. The author notes, "The sense of obligation arises out of our experiences of being sustained by others, recognizing our own dependence on orderly processes, knowing that orderly processes require our participation, and realizing that others depend upon our attention and care" (61). We are interdependent beings. We have been helped by others to get to our current place of usefulness. God calls us to help others to flourish in their lives. The author also sees our current obligations as showing God's callings in our life: "Our duties as children, parents, spouses, employers, employees, friends, and citizens are particular expressions of God's command to love God and neighbor" (63). We are to be faithful where God has placed us and to fulfill our responsibilities and obligations to those around us. People too often see God's calling as future and do not see God's callings in the present.

The fourth is "a sense of meaning." Most people are searching for a way to find meaning in their life. They want their life to count for something. They want to be part of something larger than themselves. The author states that we find meaning "by identifying parts and linking them to each other, forming larger wholes . . . these wholes are goods, ends, values that give meaning and purpose to life" (65). Schuurman states that the "doctrine of vocation encourages to connect all aspects of our present, past, and future to God's plans and purposes" (66). We want to connect our callings to God's purposes for the world.

Appearance versus Reality

Guy de Maupassant, "The Necklace," 1984, translated by Marjorie Laurie.

Maupassant (1850-1893) wrote a wonderful short story called the necklace. In this story he describes a clerk's wife who is unhappy with her lot in life. The author sets up the story beautifully from the very beginning:

"She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks. She has no dowry, no expectations, no means of being known, understood, loved, wedded by any rich and distinguished man; and she let herself be married to a little clerk at the Ministry of Public Instructions."

This displays a master craftsman at work. Maupassant apprenticed for seven years under Gustave Flaubert who was a distant relative. Maupassant's writing showed a "lack of sentimentality toward his writers," as is shown in this story. We see very early that the clerk's wife is not happy with her life. Indeed she seems to hate her life:

"She suffered ceaselessly, feeling herself born for all the delicacies and all the luxuries. She suffered from the poverty of her dwelling, from the wretched look of the walls, from the worn-out chairs, from the ugliness of the curtains."

The clerk's wife was all about appearances. The author observes: "She had no dresses, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that; she felt made for that."

In a few paragraphs we know the clerk's wife well. She is unhappy with her lot. She is discontent. She feels she was born for better things. She desires to have the outward trappings of wealth: fine jewelry, dresses, and china.

This story makes me think how often we fret for what we do not have instead of rejoicing in what we do have. We are always thinking the grass is greener on the other side. We deal in appearances and not reality. We need to keep up with our neighbors. How much of our life is built on falsehood?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Return of Christian Humanism

Lee Oser, The Return of Christian Humanism: Chesterton, Eliot, Tolkien, and the Romance of History. University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Lee Oser believes that Christian Humanism can provide a rebirth to culture in our day. He observes, "At the heart of twentieth-century letters was the clash between a dogmatically relativist type of modernism and Christian humanism." The author proposes Christian humanism as a middle position between modern day extremes. He looks as three authors as models of this position: G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, and J.R. R. Tolkien.

Part one of the book covers "Humanism and Culture." Oser notes, "As creative writers of genius, Chesterton, Eliot, and Tolkien are orthodox in this humanistic sense, leaving the reader to unfold their theological and metaphysical implications." He thinks they provide examples on how belief and culture intersect. Oser notes, "The argument of this book is that Christian humanism conserves the radical middle between secularism and theocracy."

Part two discusses the three humanists: Chesterton, Eliot, and Tolkien. There is a chapter for each of them. Oser says that Chesterton "learned to defend his humanistic faith in reason and nature as a faith." Oser notes how Eliot relied "considerably on the light of reason to open his religious perspective," however, he thought faith supplied the answers to our questions and provided the orientations for our lives. Oser speaking of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: "If the great myth is a work of subcreation, a fantasy whose connection to reality is indirect, Tolkien asserts his scholarly craft in the framework supporting his myth. This framework is ineffect, a humanistic meditation on the nature of scholarship, and on the uncanny grounds of its health and continuity." The only displeasing part of this section is that it is so short. I definitely agree that Chesterton, Tolkien, and Eliot are excellent models of Christian Humanism. Oser seems to think the arguments for Eliot is the weakest because he spends most of the book defending him.

My favorite part of the book was part four. In this part the author presents his case for the radical middle position. In chapter seven he discusses the relationship between reason and nature. He speaks of the contribution of philosophy and theology to Christian humanism. In the next chapter he discusses literature. He makes an interesting comparison between Christian humanism and nihilism. Kurtz' statement: "The horror, the horror," and the Christian viewpoint that sees goodness at the bottom. The last two chapters cover "canon and literary form," and the "Romance of History."

This book was an enjoyable read. It is more of an argument of a need to return to Christian Humanism. Oser sees as the the best choice between liberalism and fundamentalism.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Conversations with Walker Percy

Conversations with Walker Percy Edited by Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer. University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

Walker Percy was a great novelist. He won the National Book Award for his first novel, The Moviegoer. He was also a moralist, a philosopher, and a Christian thinker. Some might know that he was a great conversationalist. This aspect of Percy comes out in this wonderful selected interviews with Walker Percy over the years. The majority of his works are covered in these conversations. I think the only work not covered is The Thanatos Syndrome. The first interview occurs in 1961. The last interview takes place in 1984.

One can learn a lot a about Percy in these interviews. One thing that comes out is that he is an excellent interpreter of his work. A second thing is that he likes to ask the interviewers questions. A third aspect is that Percy is a likable person. You can tell the interviewers like him. Fourthly, it is like listening in on a discussion of the great ideas.

Here are some samples of Percy's comments:

"I'm not an activist, a racial activist. I don't march in picket lines, but I am completely convinced of the rightness of the Negro struggle for civil rights. My writings I think reflect this, and I don't mind saying so."

"I think that serious novel writing, that serious art, is just as important, and just as cognitive; it concerns areas of knowing, of discovering and knowing, just as much as in any science."

"All I can say is, as a writer you have a certain view of man, a certain view of the way it is, and even if you don't recognize it or even if you disavow such a view, you can't escape that view or lack of view. I think your writing is going to reflect this. I think my writings reflect a certain basic orientation toward, although they're not totally controlled by Catholic dogma."

Reading these interviews is like having Percy over for dinner and having a conversation with him.

Calvin's Institutes

Calvin's Institutes: Abridged edition. Edited by Donald K. McKim. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Have you ever wanted to read Calvin's Institutes but was hindered because of its size? Well you do not have to be hindered any longer. Donald K. McKim has produced an abridgement of For Lewis Battles' Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. This abridged edition gives you a good feel for the Institutes. The selections are carefully chosen to show the breadth of Calvin's thought by a leading Reformed scholar. It includes an introduction that provides an overview.

Why read John Calvin today? Tony Lane provides this answer: "It is one of the most important theological works ever written and has had a profound influence upon European history . . . Its influence has extended beyond the circle of those who think of themselves as Calvinists." I would add that it is a theological treasure for the Christian believer even for non-Calvinists. I think that many non-Calvinists get caught up in the predestination issue. This is however, just a small part of the Institutes. It is not addressed until book three I think.

Some of the things that impressed me about Calvin's thought is its hardiness. It is an encouragement to endure hard times. A second thing is its realistic view of human nature. For example, he accepts the idea that believers struggle with doubt. Thirdly, I like his emphasis on discipleship. There is a strong emphasis on denying oneself, picking up one's cross, and following Christ.

McKim has done a good job with his selections. This is an excellent book for the beginner.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

C.S. Lewis and The Abolition of Man

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man Or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

David Naugle, "Education and the Abolition of Man." Naugle has written an excellent article applying Lewis' thought to modern education.

The Abolition of man was first given as The University of Durham Riddell Memorial Lectures. It provided him the opportunity to express concerns he had about education in his day. Lewis was concern with the growing popularity of relativism and the arguments against objective truth. These dangers have increased in our own day. In these lectures Lewis argues that there is a universal moral law, the Tao, and that education should cultivate "true and just sentiment" toward this law.

Lewis gave three lectures. The first lecture addressed the "widespread modern assumption that value judjments do not reflect any objective reality." Lewis was responding to an English grammar book in which the authors say, we often "appear to be saying something very important about something and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings." Lewis believed that until quite recently people believed in a universal moral law and their was a right and wrong way to respond to it. These right sentiments must be cultivated in the young. He quotes from Augustine, Plato, Aristotle and others to prove this point. Lewis observes, "Aristotle says the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought." Plato says, "The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful."

In part two Lewis speaking of this grammar book: "The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it." Lewis says the new position is outside of the Tao. Lewis shows how they are not creating any new values but just picking some values out of the Tao and rejecting others. Lewis says this about the Tao: "This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all  value is restrained."

In the third lecture Lewis speaks of the abolition of man. In the attempt to conquer nature he will conquer man. Lewis says, "what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." These conditioners who have stepped outside of the moral law will be a law to themselves. Instead of being guided by moral law, they will be controlled by their own wants and desires. Lewis says, "I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who has stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently."

I want to close with two of my favorite quotes from the book:
"In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing them were prescribed by the Tao . . . They handed on what they received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which overarched him and them alike. It was old birds teaching young birds to fly." In other words, they humanized them.

The second quote concerns the irony of modern education: "And all the time--- such is the tragi-comedy of our situation---we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful." Modern educators ridiculed the virtues but want virtuous students and citizens.

The Abolition of Man is even more applicable to our day than it was Lewis' day. What would he say today if he was still alive?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Your Grown-up Faith

Your Grown-Up Faith: Blending the Three Elements of Belief
By Kenneth L. Parker, Liguori, 2012, 108 pp., ISBN 978-0-7648-2221-6, $10.99 (paper).
This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:
Catholic Library World, March 2013, Vol. 83 Issue 3 p.213.
Kenneth L. Parker’s Your Grown-Up Faith argues for developing a mature Christian faith. He does this by describing three stages of Christian belief: “The Child’s Way,” “The Youth’s Way,” and “The Adult’s Way.” The child’s way is characterized by the acceptance of authorities and the “religious environment they create.” The youth’s way is a period of questioning and curiosity. The adult’s way is where the faith is “internalized,” “the limits of human authorities are acknowledged, and the insufficiency of human reason is recognized” (xx). A grown-up faith would be a synthesis of all three elements.
The three elements of belief were originally developed by Friedrich von Hugel in his work, The Mystical Element of Religion. Parker draws from this work and the life and writings of John Henry Newman. In addition, this work is autobiographical since the author shares his own experience of going through these stages of faith. Parker grew up in the Wesleyan Church and became a Roman Catholic during his doctoral studies in Reformation history at Cambridge University. He has been a professor of historical theology at Saint Louis University since 1992.
Parker argues persuasively that we need to mature in our faith. His autobiographical reflections on experiencing the child’s way, the youth way, and the adult way enhance the value of Your Grown-Up Faith. This would be a good book to read in a study group.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life Part 1

Douglas J. Schuurman, Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life. Eerdmans, 2004. ISBN: 9780802801371

Does God have a calling for every Christian? The idea of calling has fallen on hard times. Some Christians believe it is an important topic that must be rediscovered. Others think it is an idea that is no longer useful. Schuurman's Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life argues that the Protestant Reformers' idea of vocation needs to be rediscovered and applied to modern times.

Scuurman draws mainly from the The Lutheran and Calvinist traditions of the Protestant Reformation. He quotes from the works of Calvin, Luther, and modern reformed thinkers like Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Cornelius Plantinga, and Lee Hardy. Schuurman's primary goal "is to develop a contemporary articulation of the classic Protestant doctrine of vocation" (xi). He recognizes that many contemporary Christian thinkers reject the teaching on vocation or Christian calling. This "book is primarily for Christians who want to think about what vocation means and how it may be significant for their lives" (xiv). Schuurman does address the criticisms of the doctrine of vocation by Miroslav Volf, Gary Badcock, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.

Chapter one asks the question: "Vocation under assault: can it be salvaged? Schuurman answers in the affirmative but he creates a more nuance teaching of vocation than the reformers. In other words, he takes into consideration the criticism to make a more balanced teaching on vocation. Schuurman notes, According to the teaching of Calvin and Luther, "All relational spheres are religiously and morally meaningful as divinely given avenues through which persons respond obediently to the call of God to serve their neighbor in love" (4). Schurrman says their is the general call to follow Christ and callings in our life to serve our neighbor through the particular gifts, opportunities, position, and duties given to us by God.

Many critics of the idea of vocation think it is not supported by Biblical teaching. Schuurman believes that it is. He notes, "In the Bible, vocation has two primary meanings. The first, and by far more prevalent, meaning is the call to become a member of the people of God and to take up the duties that pertain to that membership. . . The second meaning is God's diverse and particular callings--- special tasks, offices, or places of responsibility within the covenant community and in the broader society" (17). The Biblical teaching on vocation is discussed in chapter two. Schuurman believes that the spiritual gifts given to us are related to our natural abilities. He sees the providence of God at work in our callings. He also sees that our callings relates to human needs. Schurrman notes, "To the extent that the duties of one's many places also contribute to meeting human needs, those duties are God's callings" (39).

In chapter three, Schuurman presents a theology for vocation. He shows how vocation relates to God's mission in the world. God wants to redeem the world. It is a comprehensive redemption. Schuurman observes, "God created all things; sin infects all things; God redeems all things through Jesus Christ. Christians, like the Christ whose name they bear, share in God's redemptive and creative purposes in all things. Therefore Christian vocation includes all aspects of cultural and social life (Author's emphasis)" (51). The author disagrees with the idea that only ministers working full-time on church staffs are called or have a Christian vocation. He thinks all Christians are called and have a vocation from God.

Loving Work

Loving Work: A Spiritual Guide to Finding the Work We Love and Bringing Love to the Work We Do
By Mike Hayes, Orbis Books, 2012, 118 pp., ISBN 978-1-57075-988-8, $16.00 (paper).
This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:
Catholic Library World, March 2013, Vol.83 Issue 3, p.210.
Loving Work written by Mike Hayes brings to mind an interesting interchange between the Head Elf and Hermey in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The head elf wonders why Hermey is not finished painting his toy. Hermey replies that he is not happy in his work. The other elves tell the head elf that Hermey does not like to make toys. The head elf wants to know what Hermey does like to do. Hermey tells him that he likes to work on teeth. He would like to become a dentist someday. Many people are not happy in their work. They would like to change their job to one that would be more fulfilling. Mike Hayes has provided excellent advice on how to make the transition to a more fulfilling job or how to make changes in your current job to make it more enjoyable.
            Hayes had a successful career as a sports journalist and realized that something was missing in his life. He tells how he left sports journalism and found his true calling as a campus minister at St. Joseph University and as a retreat director for Charis Ministries. Along the way he provides helpful information on how to find the work you love and how to bring love to the work you do.
            Each chapter provides a story that illustrates the principles of that chapter. For example, in chapter he narrates how he came to notice that something was missing in his life. In that chapter he provides insights on how we can find out what we are called to do. Hayes notes, “God doesn’t want us to spend a great majority of our time doing something that we’re not really called to do. Sometimes our job will be directly related to our ‘calling,’ and sometimes it is just a way to make money so we can spend our recreational time on our calling” (14). In addition, each chapter ends with questions for reflection.
            Loving Work is an excellent book to give to a young person looking for vocational guidance. It would also be helpful to adults not satisfied in their work. In addition, Hayes provides ways to enhance one’s relationship with God.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Critical Essays on Walker Percy

Critical Essays on Walker Percy by J. Donald Crowley and Sue Mitchell Crowley. G. K. Hall, 1989.

Critical Interest on Walker Percy was written a year before his death. This book was written a year before Percy's death. It includes ten reviews, a Self-Interview, and thirteen extensive essays on Percy and his work. In addition, it includes an excellent introduction that provides biographical information and reviews the critical work on Percy before 1989. This introductory chapter is excellent. The good thing about this anthology is that it covers all of the novels and the two major non-fiction of Walker Percy. Some of my favorite essays are "The Pilgrimage of Walker Percy" by Alfred Kazin, "The Parabolic in Faulkner, O' Connor, and Percy" by Sally McFague, "The Eschatological Vision of Walker Percy" by Thomas LeClair, and "Walker Percy and Modern Gnosticism" by Cleaneth Brooks.

One of the themes of these essays are the writers who influenced Percy. The prominent writers who influenced Percy are Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Sartre. This book shows some influences not mentioned much at this time, particularly Charles Peirce. Donald Crowley in the last chapter compares Percy with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne, Emerson, and even Mark Twain. It had been mostly argued that Percy was influenced by European authors. Some of these essays situates Percy as an American writer. What I have found with Percy is that what he writes is not translation of the ideas of others. What he really is doing is using some of the ideas of others to communicate his own ideas. In addition, I find Percy to be a Christian writer. He is not writing Christian fiction but what he does writes is influenced by his Christian beliefs. There is also a depth to his writings. It rewards repeated readings.

There have been many recent books on Percy but this one is still worth reading. It does a good job of looking at the overall work of Percy and how he was received by critics. Percy continues to be popular among many readers and I do not see this popularity changing in the near future.

Trust of People, Words, and God

Trust of People, Words, and God: A Route for Philosophy of Religion
By Joseph J. Godfrey, University of Notre Dame Press, 2012, 498 pp., ISBN 978-0-268-03001-8, $49.00 (paper).
This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:
Catholic Library World, Mar2013, Vol. 83 Issue 3, p204.
Godfrey’s Trust of People, Words, and God argues that trusting is central to the practice of theistic religion. Trusting that is directed “towards some people and towards some words and towards God are key to what theistic religion offers as the target of hope” (ix). The book emphasizes religion as practiced. It “includes how people live as well as what they hold to be true” (ix). A key image of the book is open hands. It illustrates the idea that trusting “is to be receptive to enhancement” (398). Godfrey asserts that trusting is something that a person does. The author analyzes the concepts of trust, faith, and belief and explores ways that connect these ways with trusting God.  
Trust of People, Words, and God is a well-argued essay on the subject of trust. The book does a good job of engaging some of the key authors on trusting and religious faith: Marcel Sarot, Paul Helm, Richard Swinburne, Annette Baier, Russell Hardin, Gabriel Marcel, Richard Foley, Hans Kung, Alvin Plantinga, and others. The author employs the tools of Anglo-American Analytic philosophy, Continental philosophy, and Scholastic philosophy in analyzing trust. Chapter one introduces the topic and defines the key terms that will be used throughout the book. Chapter two shows how trust will be explored in four dimensions: “reliance trust, I-thou trust, security trust, and openness trust.” The author draws from the thought of Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel, especially, when describing the I-Thou model of trust. Chapter four describes how analogy can bridge human trusting to religious trusting. Chapter five “considers how trusting can be virtuous” (24). The relationship between trusting and knowledge is analyzed in chapter six. It “considers how knowing is helpful for good trusting, and how trusting is helpful for knowing” (xi).  Chapters nine and ten consider whether trusting can offer an argument for God. The final chapter explores religious faith and trust. The author argues that the act of faith is neither primarily intellectual nor moral, but includes an intellectual and volitional aspect. Religious faith not only includes reliance trust, but I-Thou trusting as well. The author makes a distinction between believing that and believing in. The knowledge of God is mediated through messengers and a message. So in believing the message the believer believes in God. Godfrey notes that what connects people with God are “language, community, and the presence of God-who-is-not simply-available” (385).
Trust of People, Words, and God is a well-crafted essay on trusting people, words, and God. Religious believers will see how trusting “is connected to religious living and believing” (399). Non-believers’ understanding of trusting will be enhanced. This book will help anyone trying to understand trust, both conceptually and practically. This book will also help those who want to understand the role of trust in “human relationships, religious experiences, and the nature of knowledge.” It is recommended for all libraries.