FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: STEVEN GARBER ON VOCATION

I hope to be back in touch soon with part two of my thoughts on the world view of secular university, but I’m going to interrupt that thread temporarily to share a few more quotes from my commonplace book. A commonplace book, you will recall, was essentially a quote journal or intellectual diary that students were often required to keep in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I use mine to write down passages that I want to revisit regularly, quotes that challenge how I think through my calling as a Christian, historian, and teacher.

I recently finished a marvelous new book from Intervarsity Press that is a treasure trove of such passages. The book is Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber. I heartily recommend it, whatever your age, occupation, or outlook on life. Garber heads up the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture in Washington, D. C. He writes from an explicitly Christian foundation, but graciously, winsomely, and non-dogmatically, and I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone wrestling with questions about the purpose and meaning of life.

Garber

The book hinges on one simple, haunting question: “what will you do with what you know?” Garber has spent much of his life studying the history and philosophy of science and in thinking critically about the world view of the Enlightenment. For all of the advances in knowledge that the Enlightenment furthered, it erred—tragically—in promoting the belief that mind and heart could be separated. Knowledge always comes with moral responsibility, Garber insists. This is one of the key truths imbedded in the account of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis chapters 2-3. The questions “What do you know?” and “What will you do with what you know?” can never be divorced, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise.

From this initial premise, Garber observes that the hardest thing we are called to do in life is to know and still love. Modern educators naively often suggest otherwise. Indeed, one of the underlying premises of the modern multicultural education movement is the idea that increasing students’ understanding of diverse perspectives naturally increases their appreciation of diverse peoples. That may sometimes be the case, but I think that Nietszche was right when he observed (I’m paraphrasing), “If I understood you better I might hate you more.” Knowledge makes us morally responsible, not morally right. How we respond to knowledge is the key to the latter.

Garber maintains that the more intimately we know the world the harder it becomes to love. Knowing and persevering in love is rare. To know those around us truly is to know the brokenness of the world and to share in its pain. To ease our pain, our natural response is to build a wall around our hearts made of stoicism or cynicism. The stoic trains her heart not to care about the world; the cynic convinces himself that all efforts to help are naïve or futile.

Visions of Vocation is filled with stories of men and women who have refused to give in to stoicism or cynicism. Garber describes his teaching philosophy as “come-and-see” pedagogy. “We learn the most important things over the shoulder, through the heart,” he writes, and so he doesn’t waste much time on abstract assertions. Because “words always have to be made flesh if we are going to understand them,” he spends most of his time introducing us to people he has walked with, individuals who have become “hints of hope” to a hurting world by choosing to know and still love.

Two convictions distinguish these men and women, Garber finds. First, they refuse to accept the delusion of individual autonomy that shapes the modern western world. They realize that “none of us are islands. . . . We are we, human beings together. Born into family histories, growing up into social histories, we live our lives among others, locally and globally, neighbors very near and neighbors very far.” Second, in acknowledging this relationship, they have accepted also that they are obligated to others and implicated in their suffering. In sum, in acknowledging relationship they have accepted responsibility, and after accepting responsibility they have chosen to take action.

Here are two final, more extended quotes from the book to whet your appetite. The first is a word of warning:

These are the truest truths in the universe: We do not flourish as human beings when we know no one and no one knows us; we do not flourish as human beings when we belong to no place and no place cares about us. When we have no sense of relationship to people or place, we have no responsibility to people or place. Perhaps the saddest face of the modern world is its anonymity.

The second is an exhortation to daily faithfulness and perseverance:

. . . But that is what matters most in life, for all of us. The long obedience in the same direction. Keeping at it. Finding honest happiness in living within the contours of our choices. To wake up another morning, beautifully bright as a summer day spreads its warmth across the grass, or awfully cold as winter blows its way over the high prairie, and stepping into the world again, taking up the work that is ours, with gladness and singleness of heart . . .

2 responses to “FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: STEVEN GARBER ON VOCATION

  1. Thank you so much for writing this review! I like how you enjoy giving someone a morsel, to see if they’ll bite and begin to ‘learn to hunt.’ I’ve entered this book into my queue. What is the difference between being smart and being wise? It seems it is the difference in Greek philosophy and what God commends. So fearful to be always learning and never understanding… Acts 17:20-21
    Most striking to me is how you note Man’s desire to know a mind without the desire to struggle to relate personally through differences. That one wounds me, and I need to apply this more. Reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts in Life Together. Thank you for this review!

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