A long time ago, I spent a summer in the Valley of the Sun. Just graduated from college, I had chosen to study with an Indian philosopher, Surrendra Gangadean whom I had met a couple years earlier. Believing that ideas, necessarily, had legs, his earnest, articulate passion about the ways that learning and life were twined together, intrigued me.
So we spent the days of that summer reading, and in deep conversation about what we were reading. One of his gifts to me was that he understood the integral relationship of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, i.e. that what we believe about the world– “What is real?” –informs what we see in the world– “What is true?” –and that informs how we live in the world– “What is right?”
I still believe that, mostly at least.
And so when I gave an address last week in Tempe to a group of good people from across America, literally from San Francisco to Boston, I began with the story of my summer in Phoenix thinking through these questions and what they have meant for my life.
I was asked to speak from my book, Visions of Vocation, and given this title, “On Being Implicated.” As I thought through what I should say, I remembered again the ways that these three questions are ours, all of us. Self-conscious or not, we live our lives in their light. We cannot not.
Most of life later, I think the questions and the ways we answer them, play back-and-forth upon each other, with complexity and mystery. We are not, first of all, philosophers, consciously theorizing about the universe– even philosophers are not that. Human beings that we are, we are choosers, choosing how we will live. It is our longings and loves that form us, most deeply, forming what we believe about what is real and true and right– with complexity and mystery. And so there are no cheap answers to the questions of life because there are no cheap questions about life, and if we imagine otherwise, we are badly mistaken.
On being implicated? Of course I set before them the intensity of the challenge of living in a very messy world. Broken and bent, wounded and hurt, we are and our world is. How do we make sense of ourselves in it? None of us can be content with contemporary accounts that allow us to say, “Of course I know that, but who cares?” I offered the Hebrew vision of knowing instead, a knowing that implicates us, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out, in the way that we turn out— listening to Abraham Heschel and the prophetic tradition, musing over the word “yada.” But then we stopped along the way with Simone Weil and her very last words, found in her notebook the morning after her death— “The most important task of teaching is to teach what it means to know.” And finally remembering the story we call the Good Samaritan, asking what it means to learn to pay attention, to see ourselves implicated in what is real and true and right.
To give flesh to my words, I told a bit about my friends Hans Hess and Todd Deatherage, and the different ways that they have seen themselves implicated, responsible for love’s sake, for the way the world is and ought to be. Yes, it is worth trying to make burgers the way they’re meant to be, re. Hans’ Elevation Burgers; and yes, it matters to work for the peace of Jerusalem, re. Todd and the Telos Group.
When we see our lives in this way we begin to understand the vision of vocation, what is ours to love in this life, what is ours to care about, living as we are stretched taut between the way things ought to be and the way things someday will be.
That I am still working away at questions that were mine so many years ago sometimes seem strange to me. That is, until I remember to remember that this has become my vocation, this has been mine to care about in and through the work that has been mine. As the years pass, I understand that, through a glass darkly… and press into it, further in and further up as I go.
(Photo of Camelback Mountain, the centerpiece of the Valley of the Sun, with Phoenix spreading out on all sides. And yes, taken from the plane as I flew away on Saturday morning.)