Graduate Theological Union

What Can We Stand For Now? Vocation and the Sacred in the Era of "Americanization"

William M. Sullivan
The 2001 GTU Convocation Address

William M. Sullivan is Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and has been Professor of Philosophy at La Salle University, where he is now Associate Faculty. He holds the Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University. Sullivan co-directs the Foundation's project on the Preparation for the Professions. This is a multi-year study comparing professional education for the law, engineering, and the clergy. One of the special concerns of the program is the relationship between professional education and the liberal arts. Sullivan has been an active researcher in the areas of political and social theory, the philosophy of the social sciences, ethics, the study of American society and values, the professions, and education. He is co-author of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. He is author of Reconstructing Public Philosophy and, most recently, Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America.

He delivered the GTU Convocation Address on September 19, 2001.

Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the idea of vocation a secular meaning. To define the term, Emerson invoked not sacred tradition but Talleyrand, the opportunistic, and successful, survivor of the French Revolution and its turbulent aftermath. It was, then, a very worldly context that Emerson meant to invoke when he recalled the question that Talleyrand had said should be put to politicians. Not is the person rich, or committed, or even well-meaning, let alone is the person partisan, radical or conservative, but "does he stand for something?"

Top of Page ^

Emerson first applied this definition to a new ideal type that he was trying to concretize before the eyes and ears of the faculty and graduates of Middlebury College in the distant year of 1845. This was his hoped-for new "American Scholar." Today, I want to begin by re-examining Emerson's idea that vocation means to stand for something, including his first application of the term to an intellectual and pedagogical mission, as a starting point for thinking about its relevance for an institution such as the Graduate Theological Union.

The idea of standing for something has recently been given a new currency in some circles through its use by the Industrial Areas Foundation as a maxim for their kind of advocacy work in politics. The I.A.F. pioneered a style of political organizing that is rooted in religious congregations. It focuses on social justice rather than simply gathering individuals around common interests. "Standing for the Whole" is the phrase the I.A.F. uses, meaning that their political efforts intend to be more than just assertions of the interests of disenfranchised people. The phrase signals a richer understanding of politics, but also a much more demanding conception of the role of advocacy. To stand for the whole is to take on responsibility for advocating justice for the whole of society, for struggling toward realizing the potentials of a society to achieve not only life for some but also the good life for all its members. To stand for something in this sense, to have a vocation, is to commit oneself to a purpose, an end that transcends one's personal goals and wishes, though such a sense of vocation encompasses those even as it expands and transforms them.

Emerson, of course, is the most relentlessly individualistic of thinkers. That was one of the reasons that Friedrich Nietzsche says he found the Sage of Concord such bracing reading. Yet, as the I.A.F. example begins to suggest, to have found something which one can stand for is to have found a significance that transcends one's life as an individual. It is to have begun to participate in what Hegel called "Spirit," and thereby to have achieved "substantial life." This is a perspective that, unlike Emerson's, places the individual within the mundane concreteness of actual society, with its particular constellation of institutions and identities, values, and conflicts. Or, in the words of a later American philosopher, Josiah Royce, to have a vocation implicates one in loyalties, and loyalty necessarily links us to others and a larger life. This is a perspective that is hard to grasp in so Emersonian a culture as contemporary America has become, yet it is a truth of great importance.

Top of Page ^

Similarly, despite Emerson's deliberately secular references, his doctrine of vocation inescapably calls up the sacred dimension of life. Those who dedicate themselves to a cause or purpose often invoke just this sense of holiness when referring to the ideals or aims that inspire their convictions. Of course, the term vocation inevitably carries Christian overtones, and it is probably not coincidental that Emerson was, at the time he gave his address at Middlebury, a former Unitarian minister, struggling to make sense of his life. However, the political sense of vocation invoked by the I.A.F.'s sense of "standing for the whole" derives from classical Graeco-Roman humanism as well as Biblical religion. So the link between vocation and the holy extends considerably wider than Christian tradition, even if that tradition continues to be the major source of the words and images that we use to speak about the sense of calling.

The sacred, as Paul Tillich reminded us, is experienced by humanity in two different ways. It comes as the holy that is given to us, but it also is manifest as a holiness that is demanded from us. The holy is both the numinous presence that, in Sophocles' depiction of Oedipus and his children, somehow renders significant a cruel and destructive world, and it is the urgent demand of prophets in many traditions for right relation to other humans and the cosmos. The holy, that is, is the source of what we can stand for, both in the sense of orientation or meaning, and also of moral demand: the "holiness of being" in Tillich's conception, but also the "holiness of what ought to be."

Top of Page ^

Now I take it that among the uniting bonds of the GTU, an institution that stands for the possibilities of inter-religious learning, dialogue, and witness, is a shared vocation to explore and teach religious meaning. This is an important vocation, a very valuable thing to stand for, especially at this historical moment in the United States. In what follows, I want to try and develop why that is such an important mission today. Then I want to present you with what, in classical rhetoric, would be called an applicatio. Specifically, I want to argue that the context of your work today, as well as the context in which many of your students will work-those who accept and carry on this vocation to teach religious meaning-poses a pedagogical challenge of the first order. This is a pedagogical challenge, however, that I hope to persuade you is not only difficult but intellectually intriguing as well.

What is it to teach religious meaning? It is to lead persons toward awareness of the sacred dimension of existence and to encourage their engagement with it. If it proceeds well, this engagement stirs persons beyond their particularity, without negating their individuality, into the life of the whole. In a pedagogical process so momentous, and ultimately so complex, it is to be expected that there will be difficulties, failures, even harmful deviations, aplenty. Yet, it is a task that also calls out the very best in human effort and creativity.

In all the traditions of what are sometimes called the World Religions, and this includes all the schools that are part of the GTU, there is a long-standing conviction that the tradition's core sense of the holy is contained, at least in part, within certain texts that are taken as preeminently meaningful. Or rather, when placed within certain contexts of what we might think of as pedagogical ritual, they become meaningful. In this sense, the highly developed practices of reading, learning, explicating, and discussing sacred texts, whether carried on in liturgical, or pastoral, or academic contexts, are all events of teaching. Through these practices, distinctive understandings of the sacred embedded in the texts come to life, forming communities and generating webs of meaning within which individuals can both engage life and endure it. These understandings provide the creative nuclei of meaning through which religious communities can sustain an on-going effort to remain engaged with a world that often proves recalcitrant and frustrating.

Top of Page ^

As every teacher—or pastor—knows, there are enormous complexities concealed in this glib term "to teach." There is the problem of suiting texts and meanings to different audiences. There is the complexity of developing within the learner the range of capacities that are needed to engage texts that themselves engage the whole of human life and concerns. There is the need to balance the ability to see meaning in the large with the ingenuity and courage to discern the significance of that understanding for the here and now. In the case of religious meaning, however, there is a special challenge that grows out of the distinctiveness of religion: the understanding of life against the horizon of the holy. If what one stands for is the value and importance of this horizon for human existence in all its aspects, then the teacher lives with constant reminders of her limitations, highlighted by the inexhaustible horizon of meaning disclosed by the classic texts. Teachers of religious meaning can all recognize the truth in the humbling paradox of the Bodhisattva vow: "Though the dharma itself is infinite, I (nevertheless) vow to learn it all."

To teach religious meaning, then, is finally to lead others to struggle with the significance of their lives, to find their vocations. But does everyone want to stand for something? And even if they do, can everyone find something to stand for? Can everyone really discover, or develop, a worthy loyalty, a substantial life? Is this at all a reasonable, let alone a worthy, aim for today? In other words, is religious meaning viable for all? What, then, is the scope of the vocation of teaching religious meaning?

Top of Page ^

In order to answer this question, it is important to remember that all your students, as indeed virtually every one of us, is already subject to a pervasive and highly effective kind of pedagogy. This is a pedagogy carried out by many of the most powerful institutions of our civilization. I refer to the ubiquitous training in consumption practiced at great length by most of our contemporaries, in front of computer screens and, of course, TVs. This is an outlook on life that has become distinctive to our time. It is already worldwide. With the advent of faster and more efficient communications media, especially electronic interactivity, it is becoming truly hegemonic. Robert Reich has recently named this: it is the world of the "better deal." It is the everyday significance of what is more grandly termed the "new economy" or, sometimes, "globalization."

For those with access to resources, it is indeed becoming ever easier to get better deals in every area of life. "We are," says Reich, "on the way to getting exactly what we want instantly, from anywhere, at the best value for our money." Economically, he says, this is a huge boon to everyone. But, he continues, "What it means for the rest of our lives-the parts that depend on firm relationships, continuity, and stability-is acutely problematic."

There is more to it. There is also a tightening relationship between the benefits and the costs of this new, more global, intensified capitalism, what one observer has termed "turbo-capitalism." In more technical language, the new communications systems are making possible an ever-tighter link between the consumer market and the labor market. In order to obtain the resources with which to hunt for "better deals," we all face more and more pressure to scramble for the consumers' fickle favor. We must be willing to make ourselves, and our institutions, into "better deals," relentlessly, all the time. In short, Reich concludes, "the rewards of the new economy are coming at the price of lives that are more frenzied, less secure, more economically divergent, more socially stratified…. As our earnings become less predictable, we leap at every chance to make hay while the sun shines. As the stakes rise…we'll do whatever we can to be in the winner's circle and to get our children safely there as well."

This ethic of the better deal is, I hardly need to say, as antithetical as anything could be to the premises that underlie the hope for meaningful vocation. Its triumph would indeed mean the obsolescence of religious teaching, since it would mean the elimination of the human possibilities that religious traditions have sought to cultivate, the replacement of meaning with the treadmill of wants. The driving force of this ethic is indeed the increasingly globalized economic system centered on information and the manipulation of symbols. The exhilarating trajectory of this "new economy" promises the creation of unlimited wealth and opportunity to realize infinite desires. Or, at least, this is the vision of life trumpeted by many of the most successful and influential figures currently astride the world stage.

Top of Page ^

This conception of life imagines freedom as unlimited choice of experience. Beneath this view is a highly questionable, though currently widespread, understanding of human selfhood. It is the notion of the detached self, a spontaneous series of choices through which the self comes to be the sum of its experiences. This "punctual self," in Charles Taylor's phrase, has a "high culture" form in the notion of purely aesthetic perception. Another version appears in some postmodern theories of the "decentered self" floating amid a kind of virtual shopping mall of values and choices without history. It takes on a modestly different coloration in some of the current vogue for "spirituality" detached from actual practice in a religious community. But its most influential manifestation is probably in the popular equation of identity with consumer preference, as though a person really were just a sort of running tally (surreptitiously maintained in cyberspace by "cookies") of clicks on a mouse, a "shopping cart" of choices and experiences.

Despite the ubiquity of this image of the self, it is a serious misunderstanding of identity and how people in fact develop. Becoming oneself is more like apprenticeship than it is like choice in a market. What (and who) we come to admire, who we become involved with, what we learn to do, the kind of activities we immerse ourselves in, all gradually shape us, subtly shifting even our criteria of value and choice. Who we are is ultimately a moral question, bound up with the issue of whom we wish to be. It is always a matter of experiment, of judgment, and of practical effort. And unlike a disappointing purchase (which most purchases are), the choices made in actual living have consequences. There is no "Escape. Undo." command to click on.

Top of Page ^

Yet, this same global system disciplines human bodies, feelings, and minds toward an ever more efficient performance of required functions. Particularly in the United States, the way work is now organized, or is being reorganized, puts increasing pressure on individuals to scramble for ways to "retool" and "reinvent" and "repackage" themselves, to make themselves into "better deals," with the attendant losses of meaningful connection that Reich describes. The problem is that this is the result of the very expansion of consumer freedom that so attracts us. It is an ever-closing circle, usually just outside our psychic horizon, even as it shapes ever so concretely how we must use our energy and attention for most of the hours of our lives. By fraying our connections with each other, with institutions, with our past and our traditions, this system simultaneously weakens our very capacity for self-awareness and collective action. (Note the resonance with Robert Putnam's findings about declining American social capital.)

These developments are everywhere in our society today. They are affecting personal identity and meaning. Yet, the causes of these effects at the intimate level are operating at a decidedly macro-level. The range and complexity of the interconnections is vast, the processes seem to work over the heads of our individual lives, yet our efforts, as consumers, to find the better deal inevitably generate the pressure of ever-tighter competition that many of us feel as workers. One word for describing phenomena of this kind, that draw individual lives inexorably into patterns of global scope, is world-historical. Hegel introduced this term to emphasize the interconnected nature of social reality. But Hegel also insisted that world-historical, or global, processes of change only exist as concretely embodied in particular societies and institutions, with specific and contingent histories and identities. Thus, the world market system, while it has been drawing the world into interconnection for well over a century, has always been advanced by the actions of concrete national societies, especially Britain in the nineteenth century and the United States since the second half of the twentieth.

Top of Page ^

The development of the forms of consumption and work today that characterize globalization has proceeded farthest in the United States. It is American models of capitalism, and indeed American powers of finance, that increasingly determine the future of most of the inhabitants of our planet. So, it is no exaggeration to describe this increasingly planetary environment not only abstractly, as globalization, but more concretely, as Americanization. It is a British scholar, Nicholas Boyle, who has made this claim, explicitly drawing out this implication of Hegel's conception of world-history. The first society that has undergone Americanization, Boyle points out, has been the United States.

From a Hegelian point of view, however, the process of Americanization still shares with earlier forms of the world market system certain dynamics that constrain its development. From his reading of Adam Smith and other early political economists, Hegel saw the potential of market economies to expand human welfare, including providing new opportunities for individuals to lead lives of their own choosing. But, as a dialectical thinker, Hegel also recognized a serious counter-trend within the workings of this kind of social system. As it develops, this "system of needs," propelled by competition, not only brings formerly isolated groups into interdependence. It also necessarily creates inequality, producing many losers as well as winners. Hegel saw, well before Marx and other radical critics of capitalism did, that left to its own devices, the market system inevitably generates "poverty," as a widespread social and political condition.

By the poor Hegel meant the "alienated," those whose economic and social condition effectively denies them dignity and an honorable place in society. This condition makes it impossible for such marginalized persons to see themselves represented in the dominant political order. Hegel called such masses of the alienated a rabble. We might say an underclass. In the face of this ominous development, the distinctive problem of modern politics therefore becomes the prevention of the formation of such an underclass. In order to secure the positive features of modernity, including economic development and increased individual liberty, the state must intervene to save society from the destructive aspects of the market.

Top of Page ^

Hegel was thinking in the hardheaded mode of Realpolitick here, talking the language of interests rather than compassion or morality. The basic task of political leadership is at least to prevent the development of an underclass whose alienation is so widespread and profound that it turns in despair to destructive rage against the dominant political order. Such destructive outbursts, Hegel understood, could prove tragic for the societies involved. He had the French Revolution in mind, but the twentieth century revolutions could stand as even more powerful examples.

More positively put, the great political imperative of modern societies is to develop effective means for social inclusion and participation. Here, too, history is instructive. The great period of democracy and prosperity experienced in the U.S., Europe, and Japan in the decades after World War Two was made possible by a statesmanship of social inclusion, embodied in the various national variations of social democracy, the "welfare state," and the "mixed economy." Even within that largely successful framework, however, the problem of the alienated underclass made its appearance, most saliently in the United States during the 1960s. Moreover, the world context for these developments was anything but an order of peaceful cooperation. The relative stability of that era of the cold war was based upon a grim nuclear détente, accompanied by a long series of limited wars and a great deal of political terror.

Today, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with American-led globalization the dominant world-historical trend, we have recently experienced another tragic enactment of destructive, alienated rage. As Ronald Steel pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed, the intensity of symbolic wound inflicted on the United States by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington stem in part from their graphic demonstration that America is no longer protected from the destruction of war on its own soil. Terrorism is always the weapon of the weak against the strong. We might add that it is frequently the weapon of the violently alienated, driven to destroy what is to them an unredeemed evil, an intolerable order. The embodiments of that order become, often literally, demonized as evil incarnate.

Top of Page ^

This tendency is confined to no single religious tradition, or even historical period. Christians can recall the Satanic, and destructive, imagery in which the author of the Book of Revelation viewed what others saw as the civilizing achievements of the Roman Peace. The idea of the smoke of destruction rising for a millennium from the charred remains of "Babylon the Great (Whore)"—read Roman world civilization— is there presented as a satisfying vision of vengeance.

Acting on such visions can indeed produce morally terrible consequences. But, as Ronald Steel has argued, it is nonetheless important that we, as citizens of the currently dominant world power, come to understand how it is that such passions arise and how we can become their target. The United States, Steel points out, orchestrates "a global economic system that dictates what others shall produce, what they shall be paid, and whether or not they find work. We proudly declare that we are the world's undisputed Number One. Then we are surprised that others might hold us responsible for all that they find threatening in the modern world." Steel goes on to argue that "it would be a mistake to assume that the terrorism is the spill-over from the continuing troubles in the Middle East" alone. "What happened this week," he concludes, "is part of a global phenomenon not limited to any single geographical area. Today it might be focused on Central Asia, tomorrow in Latin America or Asia."

Top of Page ^

We are all bound up now in a global web, a real "system of needs" on which all humans depend for life. For those who do not want to enter the system in first place, or those who are deeply ambivalent once there, blaming the winners and the rule-setters must seem only too tempting. But what about those of us who enjoy the major share of the benefits of the system, and the great privilege of political voice that our free institutions provide? What kind of response can we, the comfortable, consider? How should we think about our response? The kind of analysis that I have tried to sketch in rough terms suggests an answer. We who benefit so much, even if largely passively, from Americanization need to recognize our place within world-history. It is we, not the terrorists and the alienated, that hold the ascendancy.

If that is so, then we also have the responsibility for making global interdependence work for the benefit of the human community. That global system is the environment upon which the future of all humanity now depends. We share this environment, this "system of needs," with the alienated and the losers. They can harm it; maybe even provoke an Armageddon that could destroy it. But only we can realize its positive potential. That is precisely the burden of power, the responsibility of privilege. This is an idea that is not fashionable at present. Indeed, it is not only apparently democratic but also morally convenient not to see ourselves in this way. But that is our actual situation. It is certainly the way others see us. I believe that what we are called to do by our situation is to attempt to stand for the whole. Not with the arrogance of claims to be Number One, or imagining that we are the whole, but rather by trying to keep the perspective of those others, including the poor and the alienated, in mind. And that means being willing to listen to other points of view, even to engage with them in seeking a common world free from poverty, and so, free from fear.

Top of Page ^

Finally, the pedagogical applicatio I promised at the beginning. Where are people, today and in our society, to learn of this perspective of the whole? Where will people learn that all humanity has value, that all count? Where will they go to engage with such a point of view, to probe it, to question it, to embrace it? Here is the great educational need of our time, one that theological institutions cannot exhaust but must share with all other kinds of public enlightenment and dialogue. In addition to perspective, however, in order to stand for the whole, we need spiritual resolve. We must as a nation not only confront the threat of terrorism, but also the global conditions that nurture terrorists.

The development of such spiritual resolve is preeminently the task of religious educators. It is a task thrust upon teachers of religious meaning by our recent experience seen in light of a vision of the whole. This vocation comes from an awareness born of suffering. It comes, indeed, as Aeschylus said of all spiritually significant suffering, as "God's grace by solemn force." Teaching the perspective of loyalty to the whole is, I believe, the special way that teachers of religious meaning can contribute to the well-being of secular society. Imagining, then developing, the conditions that can make this possible is the great pedagogical challenge of the present. But working this out is, perhaps, a topic for another occasion.

Top of Page ^