Only connect. Almost one hundred years ago E. M. Forester began his novel, Howard’s End, with these two words. Seeing into the mixed blessing of an industrializing world, with remarkable intuitive insight he offers a story of a businessman who lives a painfully compartmentalized life.
The point of tension is the industrialist’s inability to see the meaning of his life and labor as a coherent whole. In the language of the Gospels, he does not have eyes that see. Choices made for the “bottom-line” of his business have far-reaching consequences in the lives of other people, and yet he is morally unable-perhaps even more deeply, spiritually unwilling -to see his own responsibility. That doesn’t involve me!
The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture exists to offer another vision of vocation, one situated within the meaning of historic Christian orthodoxy and at the same time within the push-and-shove of the early 21 st-century with all of its wonders and worries. In the words of our teacher and friend, John Stott, to live “between two worlds,” the world of the ancient text of Scripture which tells a Story that makes sense of all stories, and the world of contemporary culture, for us a globalizing political economy stretched taut between modern and postmodern consciousness.
Only connect? We live on the sharp edge of irony. We are the most connected of any people ever; we are a “wired” world, after all. There are very few places on the face of earth where we can be truly out-of-touch. Cell phones, computers, faxes, radios, televisions… we are connected and wired if we are anything, “saturated selves” in Kenneth Gergen’s memorable analysis.
And yet, we are also deathly afraid of each other too. With his finger-to-the-wind, looking back on the world Forester looked into, Walker Percy called the past one hundred years “the murderous, mechanized 20th-century.” Genocides and holocausts and terrorists, each a story of horror embodied, of human beings exploiting the technological sophistication of our moment in history-and making ordinary life in our neighborhoods and cities increasingly fragile. No longer can we walk as innocents into public buildings or through terminals. We are searched and watched, for who knows… we might be intent on mass murder? The numbers 9/11 are forever etched into our collective consciousness. Everyone knows what that shorthand means-and we shiver, sighing as we do.
Yet it is in this world that we are called to live and move and have our being. We have no other time, no other place.
One effort we make to stand against the spirit of our age, captured so perceptively by Forester, is to create settings where men and women can gather around a table for what we have called “conversations of consequence,” where we explore together visions of vocation which prize a profound coherence, where private life and public life are a seamless whole, where belief and behavior are woven together into “a fabric of faithfulness.” In the The Washington Institute we call these “On Vocation.”
To live contra mundum against the world, is critical, and yet it is only half the story. We are also called to love the world, to be for the world. It was Martin Luther who understood vocation-vocatio, in his own terms –as a faithful life lived out over time. It is to understand one’s life as a response to the call of God, a calling, and therefore with a deep sense of stewardship about who I am and what I do, about where I live and what I have-and threading its way through it all, what the implications are for me and for the wider world. To have eyes that see-because I have learned to love God and to love what God loves.
A few days ago we gathered together around a table in Alexandria, VA, to think together about the relation of the church to the marketplace. After taking part in two earlier evenings around similar tables, a young pastor had asked a question: how has the church been helpful and not helpful to those who take up their service in the marketplace, for those whose work is beyond the walls of the church building?
And so for several hours we ate and talked. The people of God were there, but were there as butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers– and as communication specialists, as educators, as administrators, as military officers, as housewives, as journalists, as businessmen, as management consultants, as baristas. Together we wondered about his question– good question that it is, for many, it is a painful one.
It was a no-holds barred conversation, and yet graceful too. Everyone was sympathetic to the meaning of his question, feeling in heart and mind that it mattered. We all long for our work to matter… to feel that it does inside one’s own sense of self, so central as it is to our identities, to why and whether I get out of bed in the morning. But also we long to see that other people think that what we do has meaning; the affirmation of family and friend, of neighbor and culture.
But even more profoundly we long for our work to have eternal consequence, to understand that it is tinged with transcendence and truth… that what I do isn’t just for today. The poets over the centuries have time and again seen it simply: why not then just eat, drink, and be merry-for tomorrow we die? The Old and New Testaments both offer that question, as it is a pretty good answer-if God is not there.
But we wager on transcendence, we place our lives on the alter of truth, believing that the Creator of the cosmos has in fact called us to love him and his world through our work. Yes, vocatio… a calling that gives coherence to all that I am and all that I do, to all that I have and all that I hope.
When we are most honest, we yearn for life to be like that, for the world to be like that-sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are. And that is the raison d’etre of The Washington Institute.