Professors Paulo and Adriana Ribeiro
January 25, 2011
Final Integrative Essay
“What are you doing here?”
When professor Adriana Ribeiro posed this question to my class, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. What exactly did she mean? I was sitting in her classroom because I needed to attend in order to learn and not fall behind. I had chosen the C.S. Lewis section of Developing a Christian Mind because I was interested in reading more of Lewis’s writing and discovering more about his life. My reasons for attending Calvin College were different still. I quickly realized, however, that she wasn’t looking for any of these answers. What she meant was, “What are you doing to serve the Lord, right here, right now? How are you living your life to bring Him glory?” The focus was not on me and my surroundings, but on my actions. In other words, what was I doing to live out my Christian vocation? Vocation—a calling to live in a certain way, towards a specific goal—is a central theme both in C.S. Lewis’s work and in Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s book Engaging God’s World, and though their emphases are different, both agree that the essence of our vocation is to strive passionately for God’s kingdom of shalom. In Plantinga, vocation is presented as our response to the drama of creation, fall, and redemption. Lewis both expands and narrows this view; his concept of vocation as the unflagging pursuit of Truth applies to all human beings by dint of our common nature as creatures and image bearers of God, but perhaps most clearly to college students.
It is no coincidence that Plantinga chooses to end his book with a chapter on vocation, or that he opens it with one on longing. Longing is the foundation of hope, the seed from which it springs. And hope, in turn, is an essential part of vocation. All human beings at some point in their lives, though especially in youth, experience a sense of longing desperately for something they cannot have. This longing can be clearly defined or simply a vague, overwhelming rush of “hopeless joy” (Plantinga 3). Plantinga, paraphrasing Lewis, describes this longing as “seeking union with something from which we are separated” (Plantinga 4). This could be a fond a fond memory which we wish we could revisit, a favorite place, a moving piece of music, or an absent loved one. No matter what the case, however, such longings are always unfulfillable. We cannot relive the past, and even listening to a beautiful passage over and over again or spending time with a close friend will not completely satisfy our longing for them. As Lewis says in his essay The Weight of Glory, “we discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see” (“The Weight of Glory” 8). Even sexual union with another person falls short of what we are seeking. As Christians, however, we have reason to believe that this won’t always be the case. “Some day, God willing, we shall get in” (8). This is where hope comes in. It is impossible to hope for something without also longing for it, and without hope, longing is bitter and futile. But what exactly are we hoping for? Our longings for oneness with the beauty of nature or the past which we often dismiss as “nostalgia” or “romanticism” (3) are, at their heart, longings for shalom—the state of perfectly right relationship with God, others, nature, and ourselves that we look forward to enjoying in the new creation. Deep down, we are longing for union with God. And this longing exists not by random chance, but because that is the purpose we were created for. Ultimately, our longing points to our vocation.
Plantinga defines vocation in terms of passion. A person may believe in the existence of God, and may even believe that Christ died and rose again for his or her salvation and still not be living out his or her calling. This is because vocation deals not with beliefs, but with actions. It asks, as my professor did, what a person is doing to glorify God. A person who merely believes the gospel is a citizen of the Kingdom, but someone who truly lives for Christ, who “strives first for the kingdom,” is a “prime citizen,” a person with a calling (Plantinga 110). When people hear the word “calling” they usually think of someone feeling led or being especially suited to a particular career. For example, a skilled and compassionate doctor or nurse who is completely in love with his or her job might say he or she felt “called” to the medical profession. And one’s profession—both the choice of a field and the skill and energy one brings to one’s work—is certainly a large part of vocation. It is important to use our God-given talents, resources, and opportunities to serve “where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Plantinga 118). But it is still only a part. There are many other ways in which we can live as prime citizens—for example, by getting involved in a church community and worshipping regularly, by praying and delving into scripture, by serving others, and even by being a good citizen. God created the whole universe and everything in it, and, thus, is Lord over each and every area and aspect of our lives. This has a couple of implications for our vocation. First, it means that we can serve God in everything we do, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, and that no job or activity is more “Christian” than another in any sense except in how it glorifies God. It is no more “Christian” to preach than to sweep a floor, or run a business, or to spend an afternoon in the library researching or helping a friend with his homework. All of these things can be done in a Christian manner, and all can be twisted to self-serving or sinful ends. Second, it means that we cannot ignore any part of the world, including secular culture. To ignore or avoid “un-Christian” people or places or parts of life out of fear or condescension is itself a sin, a waste of God-given talents and resources. Christ calls us to action, not simple passive endurance.
Lewis has a slightly different way of looking at vocation. In his essay “Learning in War-Time,” he responds to those who would put education on hold when faced with the crisis of war by pointing out that “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice,” riddled with calamity and overshadowed by the imminence of heaven and hell (“Learning in War-Time” 1). Faced with either eternal bliss or horror, it seems ridiculous that anyone would fritter away the precious time allotted to them pouring over books or languishing in classrooms and laboratories. Even those who don’t believe in a life after death are faced with a daunting problem—human life is so short that even after a lifetime of study a man is still a beginner in his field, no closer to knowing all there is to know than when he began (4). Yet, some people “want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable” (4). Indeed, human beings seem to have “an appetite” for “the pursuit of knowledge and beauty,” and, Lewis asserts, “God makes no appetite in vain” (3). In his essay “Man or Rabbit?” Lewis goes one step farther—not only is the desire to “[want] to know things” and “find out what reality is like” a universal human trait, it is what “distinguishes man from the other animals,” and “when that desire [has been] completely quenched in anyone…[that person] has become something less than human” (“Man or Rabbit?” 1). Not only is our thirst for knowledge so pressing that we continue to explore, to ask questions and seek answers even in the midst of upheaval and uncertainty and despite our limitations, it is what makes us human, a piece of the image of God reflected in us. It is evidence of our created nature, and, as such, a part of our vocation. As human beings as well as Christians we are called to glorify God, and one of the ways in which we can—and must—do so is through learning.
If the pursuit of knowledge is an essential part of vocation, then it would seem that college students are on the right track. But there is a difference between chasing after some evasive and particularly fascinating piece of truth and being content to sit back and passively accept those bits of information which others feed you. In “Our English Syllabus,” Lewis makes a distinction between learning and education. Education is the process by which instructors form our habits and, Lewis believes, our virtues by teaching us what they think we need most to know. It is something that is done to us. Learning, on the other hand, is what happens when our own inborn curiosity is given free reign over “the whole country” of knowledge (“Our English Syllabus” 13). Education is certainly a necessary part of human life; we can’t learn until we have been educated. College, however, is the time to put education behind us, and begin the pursuit of knowledge on our own terms. Behind my professor’s question, “What are you doing here?” is another of equal importance: what should I be doing here? If my vocation is to strive for shalom through the pursuit of truth, what does that look like in a college setting? “The proper question for a freshman,” Lewis says, “is not ‘What will do me the most good?’ but ‘What do I most want to know?’” (7). Living for Christ as a college student means setting aside all thoughts of “self-improvement” and focusing on how I can serve others. It means examining my own unique set of talents, interests, and opportunities, and seeing how I can use them not to make the biggest profit but to create the most justice and compassion. It means working not to be known by millions of people but to truly know a few. Not making my mark on history, but making a difference in the lives of those I live and work with.
Plantinga, Cornelius Jr. Engaging God’s World: A Reformed Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Print.
Lewis, C.S. “The Weight of Glory.” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time.” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “Man or Rabbit?” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “Our English Syllabus.” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011