To Become More Nearly Human (2003) Merold Westphal
My course syllabi always begin with a list of course objectives, and whether it is a class in Existentialism, Chinese Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy or whatever, the first goal is always the same: to become more nearly human. I assume that my students will find this less than flattering if they read it carefully and thoughtfully, but since I do not assume that syllabi are usually read this way, I call their attention to my premise that they, like me, are something less than fully human. I hasten to assure them that I have no doubts that they simply are Homo sapiens and that I would never confuse them with a computer, a cabbage, or even a chimpanzee. But I remind them that Homo sapiens can live tragically subhuman lives and be terribly inhumane to one other, suggesting that being human is not something we simply are, but rather a task. Indeed, it is the task of a lifetime, one always accomplished to a greater or lesser degree, but never finished. We are always in medias res (Latin for "being in the middle," neither at the start nor finish), and always unterwegs (German for "on the way" – you should always be on the lookout for foreign terms like these with which to impress or irritate your friends).
This task of becoming more nearly human, I would like to suggest, is our common vocation, and this in two ways. First, as a matter of personal possibility and responsibility, it is a task that each of us has. Second, as a matter of communal intertwining, it is a task that none of us undertakes alone. To speak this way about vocation or calling implies that it concerns the whole life of all people. But these days, two common usages of the term "vocation" seem to suggest otherwise. All too often "vocation" functions as a synonym for "career," so that its meaning is restricted only to one's work life – how one earns a living – rather than to the whole of life. When used in this way, it all but entirely loses its deepest meaning as calling (Latin, vocatus, a calling, summoning, or invitation). Second, in some Catholic contexts, the term "vocation" refers usually to those who become ordained or members of a religious order. Thus a shortage of priests and nuns is called a shortage of vocations. As if lay persons are not called! Similarly, in some Protestant contexts the term "full-time Christian service" suggests that God calls some people to be ministers and missionaries and, as we might infer, leaves all the others uncalled.
But if, as I have suggested, vocation is about the whole life of all people, two important consequences follow. First, since all are called, each needs to ask: What is the nature of my own distinctive call to become more nearly human, apart from which I cannot be myself? What are the means by which I can responsibly fulfill this vocation? What changes do I need to make to be more faithful to my calling? Second, if it is my whole life that is at issue, my vocation will be a complex totality. My career will be only part of my vocation, and not necessarily the most important part. Moreover, I will have to think of my career in terms of my calling, which means that the crucial question will not be how I can be most successful as contemporary American culture counts success (in terms of wealth, power, and prestige), but how I can be most successful in becoming more truly human. I will learn that my vocation, so far as my career is concerned, is to be found where my gifts and the world's needs intersect, whether that be in business, in farming, in education, in the arts, in the church, or wherever. It won't be a question of how much I can get but how much I can give.
It would be possible, of course, to talk this way on the basis of any humanism, that is, any conception of human nature as a moral ideal to be realized. But I am invoking here a specifically Christian humanism, some of whose key elements are the following:
- It is God who calls, who summons and invites me to become the self God has given me to be.
- I am created in the image of God, an image sometimes described as rationality (good), as creativity (better), or as love (best).
- My life is thus already a gift before it is a task.
- The task of becoming more nearly human is the task of realizing this image, of becoming more rational and more creative, but only insofar as these are each in the service of love.
- The love that above all defines my vocation is best understood through Jesus' twofold summary of the law: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27, immediately followed by the story of the Good Samaritan).
- Such a task, taken seriously, would drive us to despair were it not for two further gifts beyond our creation in God's image: a) the forgiveness and reconciliation offered us through the death of Jesus the Christ and b) the indwelling, illuminating, sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit.
As I understand it, something very much like this mini-credo is the institutional assumption of Hastings College and the basis for its educational mission. You may share something like this faith very deeply, or quite superficially, or not at all. In any case, it seems to me, there is a reciprocal responsibility between the college and yourself. Since the college, in its Mission Statement, says it wants its students to develop "a sense of values reflected in a responsible commitment to God and society," it is bound to make its educational philosophy based in such a Christian humanism both actual in the whole life of the college (as distinct from pious propaganda), and as transparent as possible to its students and their parents. It must be, and it must be seen to be, the heart and soul of the entire enterprise. Correspondingly, each student has the responsibility of giving open and critical attention to the educational and existential claims presented by the college.
These claims can be understood as a vocatus, a calling, summoning, invocation, or invitation to a journey, like the quest for the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend. To find it, in this context, would be to find and fulfill your own inner-most calling. I am reminded of a poem by James Russell Lowell, The Vision of Sir Launfal, in which a knight returns in tatters from a futile quest for the Holy Grail. He finds his castle usurped by another and beside it a "grewsome" leper begging for alms. Instead of responding to this situation in anger, however, Sir Launfal's own sufferings give rise to a deep compassion for the afflicted man, and he says to the leper:
"I behold in thee
An image of Him who died on the tree;
Thou also has had thy crown of thorns,
Thou also has had the world's buffets and scorns,
And to thy life were not denied
The wounds in the hands and feet and side:
Mild Mary's Son, acknowledge me;
Behold, through him, I give to thee!"
The knight then gives to the man all that he has, a "mouldy crust of coarse brown bread" and some water from the frozen stream nearby. But in their giving the bread and water are transformed into a Eucharistic feast and the leper is glorified and turns out to be Christ himself, who says to Sir Launfal:
"Not what we give, but what we share,
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me."
Here the love of God and neighbor – worship and service – are perfectly united, and Sir Launfal realizes that to be more nearly human one must give himself with his gifts to God and to his neighbor.
At this point it might it might be objected that all of this is really supposed to be the business of the Chaplain's Office. Aren't we supposed to be talking about the academic programs – about learning as faith seeking understanding? Doubtless the Chaplain's Office and the various opportunities for service learning offered by the college are an integral part of what I'm talking about here. But no more so than courses and majors and degrees. I most definitely want to talk about "The Liberal Arts and the Life of the Spirit."
By spirit, as you will have surmised, I mean that unique and deepest dimension of us Homo sapiens by virtue of which it is possible, if not inevitable, for us to be more or less human, especially by virtue of our capacity to be in loving fellowship with other human spirits and with the Divine Spirit. You may suspect (I assume you are reading actively, thinking along with the flow of ideas you find in the text) that by the liberal arts I mean the humanities, and that I am about to make a pitch for the importance of courses in religion, philosophy, and literature. After all, aren't these the fields in which the questions of what it means to be truly human are most explicitly asked? Indeed they are, and that is the reason why they are so terribly important, even to students preparing to be research chemists or systems analysts.
But what I mean by the liberal arts includes the entire curriculum, for it is more about the how and why of learning than the what. The contrast between a liberal arts education and some other kind of college experience is not between, say, a philosophy or literature major and a math or physics major. It is between vocational education in the sense of finding and fulfilling one's calling, and vocational education in the more familiar sense of gaining marketable skills for a successful career. Two thoughts about marketable skills. First, if it is true that my career is part of my vocation, gaining marketable skills will be an important and legitimate educational goal. But if it is only part, and not necessarily the most important part, it cannot be allowed to be the tail that wags the dog. It must be seen as part of a larger whole. Second, marketable skills are not always career specific. Basic skills of reading, writing, and speaking are highly marketable. I could tell you stories about young people who, contrary to their expectations, got a job or promotion because in college they had learned to write well.
I see more of the larger whole just mentioned when I realize that I am not only called to be a worker, but also a citizen and a family member. In the former case it is quite likely that I am already a voting member of a society that purports to be a democracy with liberty and justice for all. In the latter case, I am already the member of a family, and it is quite likely that I will become a spouse and perhaps a parent in a new family. It would be foolish to think that I need a college education to become the best worker I can be but that I need not concern myself in college with becoming a better citizen, and, possibly, a spouse and parent. Regardless of my major and career, courses in history, political science, sociology, and psychology are among those that can deepen my understanding of what it means to be truly human as citizen, adult child, and perhaps adult sibling, spouse, and parent.
My larger whole gets larger still if I understand vocation in Christian terms. For the God who calls me to be more truly myself by becoming more nearly human calls me to worship and service in the church. The deeper my biblical and theological understanding of my faith is, the better I will be able to fulfill my calling in the church, whether as lay person or clergy; and some of the same understanding and skills that will help me to be a better family member are also badly needed in the church.
I have mentioned various disciplines in the humanities and the social or human sciences. What about the natural sciences and the fine arts? What if they are not my major in preparation for my career? Well, if actualizing the image of God that I already am and am to become involves cultivating both rationality and creativity, then the natural sciences can play a key role. For I enrich my rationality both as I come to understand the natural world better and as I come to understand the scientific mode of exploring that world. The same can be said of the fine arts, except that a) they enhance my understanding of both the natural and the human worlds and b) they introduce me to a very different kind of rationality. Moreover, math and the natural sciences are sites of great intellectual creativity, and I can come both to appreciate human creativity through studying them and to participate in that creativity even if only in a small way, such as designing an experiment or discovering a proof. The same can be said of the fine arts, except that participating in artistic creativity takes the form of singing or playing an instrument or dancing or painting or sculpting or photographing.
In the disciplines that make up the college curriculum, I develop my rationality by coming to a deeper understanding of the worlds in which I find myself: the natural world, a variety of social worlds, and my own inner world. All these worlds have been marred by human sinfulness, and yet they remain gifts of God's creation. My vocation is not only to come to a fuller understanding of what they are and what they can be, but to develop both the creativity and the love that will enable me to become more nearly human by contributing to making them more nearly what they can be.
Here I come back to Lowell's poem: "the gift without the giver is bare." It is not just about giving ourselves with our gifts but also about finding the giver in the gifts given to us. The faith that seeks understanding in a Christian liberal arts education takes the natural, social, and inner worlds to be gifts from God; it also understands that it is blind ingratitude to want to enjoy the gifts apart from the giver, as if somehow they were ours by right. We make the gifts bare, devoid of meaning and the ability to give joy, whenever and to the degree that we do not let them lead us back to their Source. The circle is completed when faith gives rise to understanding our worlds not only in their complex structures but also as gifts from God; for such an understanding gives rise to grateful faith in the One who is the giver of "every perfect gift" (James 1:17).
A final thought. College, we are told, is preparation for life. Fair enough. But for four years, more or less, it is your life. And your vocation. For the immediate future you are called to be a college student. You become more nearly human by becoming the best college student you can be, with all this entails intellectually, socially, and spiritually. That is why at the conclusion of my syllabi I include the words of a Christmas carol you may have heard.
Come, they told me, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
Our newborn king to see, " " "
Our finest gifts we bring " " "
To lay before the king " " "
So to honor him pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
When we come.
Jesu, Jesu, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
I am a poor boy too " " "
I have no gift to bring " " "
That's fit to give our king " " "
Shall I play for you " " "
On my drum?
Mary nodded, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
The ox and lamb kept time " " "
I played my drum for him " " "
I played my best for him " " "
Then he smiled at me " " "
Me and my drum.
While discussing this part of the syllabus, I remind my students that I am not the world's greatest teacher, nor is any of them the world's greatest student. Then I challenge and invite them to join me in becoming the best little drummer boys and girls we can be in this course and in all we do. That is our calling, for we are not merely clever animals who produce, market, and consume items that deserve the name "goods and services" only in a limited sense. We are spirit like the Divine Spirit who made us and called us to become more fully human by becoming more like the Divine.