At the Corner of Need and Calling

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The academic year is ending. In the first year seminar course I teach, the spring semester picked up where the fall had left off, moving from character and the good life to consideration of community and justice. Students embarked on service projects in the City of Lynn, near in miles but far in cultural and economic distance.

The political backdrop to the semester saw the President inaugurated for a second term, sandwiched between the averted fiscal cliff and the looming sequester. Hopeful signs accompanied a renewed debate on firearms, occasioned by the atrocity at Sandy Hook, and on immigration, occasioned by predictions of electoral extinction for the G.O.P.

The semester ends on notes of tragedy and terror. Bombings at the Boston marathon. A political rather than a popular failure to take commonsense steps to restrict gun violence, even as some in Congress excoriate federal agencies for failing to intercept the makers of an IED. Closer to home, the community memorializes a freshman killed in a traffic accident and remembers a beloved professor taken by a heart attack at the peak of his powers. Referencing these events, one student declared with refreshing transparency, “Transience is suddenly becoming a very real issue.”

A common theme emerges in my students’ final papers. There is so much injustice and so much need. Am I in the right place, going to college? What is God calling me to do? All this time spent equipping; shouldn’t I be doing?

There are, I respond, certain problems with this view. The need is great, but it lies deeper and is more varied than the most visibly urgent concerns. Short-term missions and direct aid have their place. But have we asked ourselves how much difference good government could make in most of the places where the aid is destined?

Besides this, education cannot be reduced to equipping. To the Christian, the mind is not a luxury made available only to an elite but is instead integral to human living, securing our health in the largest sense against the reductionists of our age. It is the ballast that holds us fast against what George Steiner memorably termed, “the detergent tide of social conformity.”

But I sympathize with these nineteen-year-olds. Theirs are some of the right questions. The Christian life ought to be lived at the intersection of Need and Calling. Living it there creates an appropriate tension in a fallen world, one that helps us examine our vocations for evidence of cynicism or indulged self-interest.  

Short-term needs can tyrannize, however. To meet most needs, the seed must fall into the ground and die (John 12:24). The decision to “fall into the ground” of graduate study, or the laboratory, or seminary, of entry-level positions at the State House or even the long slog of undergraduate education, is not a decision to abandon need but to meet it for the long haul.

There is another dimension to calling, less individualized than that sought by my students. As I write these words, only a small fraction of eligible voters is predicted to vote in the primary elections for Massachusetts’ open Senate seat. Citizenship is a universal calling to permanent responsibility to meet needs that are always present, and if exercised faithfully, contributes to healthy communities.

My students’ musings came to life this spring on the occasion of another death, that of my colleague and friend, Professor David Lumsdaine. As I have written elsewhere, David was a polymath if ever there was one, his degrees ranging from mathematics to engineering to political science. Widely read and a devout believer, he had pursued an academic career and written works of considerable importance, notably his Moral Vision and International Politics. But his academic career was a Christian’s vocation.  David located himself squarely at the corner of Need and Calling, pursuing scholarly research but also sacrificing it to the spiritual and intellectual needs of his students, who beat a path to his pastoral door.  

Across many walks of life, his is an example to emulate.

-Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.