Last night I lectured at the Hill House to a group of faculty, and undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Texas. In a series funded by the Lilly Endowment, its purpose is to deepen our national reflection on the meaning of vocation for the common good. In the last few years I have done something like this at both Cornell University and the University of Virginia, under the same grant.
Given that the last weeks of my life have been spent reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I chose to take up his fascinating focus on the Hebrew word, “timshel,” used in the conversation between God and Cain in Genesis 4. The issue is whether Cain was given a choice, or whether he was fated to kill Abel— which is why the words “thou mayest” run through history and every heart.
So I called my lecture, “Thou Mayest: On Steinbeck, Havel and Mumford, and What They Mean for Life and Learning.” Beginning with the way in which Steinbeck draws on the moral meaning of the word, “timshel,” with an account of human life under the sun that is a retelling of Cain killing Abel set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Salinas Valley of California, I then took up the life and work of Havel, the Czech playwright-become-prisoner-become-president, and the reasons that he spent years reflecting on the nature of human responsibility, and finally offered Mumford and Sons artful song, “Timshel,” with their musing over the choices we make and why they matter.
Remembering that this is Texas, I did linger for awhile over the story of the HEB grocery stores, and the Butt family who moved to Kerrville, about an hour west of San Antonio, over a century ago, whose decisions about family and work has substantially changed the Lone Star state, both with in the marketplace and its “free camps” for the kids of Texas— remembering the Laity Lodge too, set along the beautiful Rio Frio Canyon, with its 60 years of retreats for people from all over, who in their different ways long for a place where their hearts and minds can be renewed. And I brought in my two friends who founded TreeHouse, a store here in Austin that promises to be “a Whole Foods version of Home Depot,” addressing home owners and home builders who want a place to buy products that remember to remember that we are stewards of our natural environment— and with an ear to the marketplace and history know that Austin is where “green building” began in America. Finally I brought in my work with the Mars Corporation, and is effort to rethink the very nature of the marketplace, arguing for “an economics of mutuality” which requires a more complex bottom line— and yes, I noted that Waco is not only the home of the Baylor Bears, but of Skittles, Starburst and Snickers too.
Why does it matter if we believe that we are responsible, able to respond? Why does it matter if we believe that we choose, rather than that we are fated? I think this is one of the great lines-in-the-sand, and that whether human beings flourish and whether societies flourish depends on our understanding of this. If “choosing” is only a fantasy— as B.F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist of a generation ago who brought “behaviorism” into being, argued, we are “beyond freedom and dignity” —then the idea that we are responsible in any morally meaningful way is simply a fiction. We need to move on. Or as E.O. Wilson, the contemporary biologist at Harvard has written, “We are our DNA, nothing more and nothing less.” This is the secular West of evolutionary materialism.
In the pantheistic East of Buddhism and Hinduism, we are offered “karma,” which is its own way of seeing life as fixed, as determined. Things are as they are, and they will be as they will be. In both ways of understanding life, the materialist West and the pantheistic East, we are stuck in moments that we cannot get out of— and that’s a problem for us as individuals and for us in our societies.
Instead, if our choices are real, if we are honestly responsible for the way the world turns out, then as Augustine argued 1500 years ago, our ability to respond is at the heart of our humanity, and as Havel has argued in this last generation, “the secret of man is the secret of our responsibility,” then what it means to be human is something else altogether.
Thou mayest? Two simple words with far-reaching implications, affecting everyone everywhere.
(A window onto the world from the Hill House in Austin, TX.)