A framework for vocation adapted from Ignatius Loyola

by Paul Burmeister

What follows is a Christian framework for decision-making, specifically applied to vocation, which is a liberal adaptation from Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, “Two Methods of Making (a Choice) during the Third Occasion.”) My adaptation is Lutheran, and so I avoid connecting choices to merit or salvation; however, I agree with an emphasis on prayer in the process.

When selecting or discerning your vocation, in the narrow sense—work or career—here is a good process or sequence.
1. Place the options or choices in front of yourself.
2. Remember the end of your choice (to use your God-given gifts to serve others) and maintain a perspective not owing to internal and / or external pressures.
3. Pray to God for help and guidance, remembering the Third Petition (that God’s will be done in your life.)
4. Apply reason to your choice, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a narrowed set of options.
5. Make a choice. Remember that your choice can be dynamic or mutable, over time and experience.
6. Ask God, in prayer, for his blessing on your choice.

This is not the only process, and it should be considered as part of a larger, inclusive experience of a person’s calling.

Uneasy with ideals

by Paul Burmeister

Here, well into the 21st century, what are we to make of the “eye of the beholder” and ideal aesthetic observer theory? What little I know of Hume’s philosophy, and aesthetics in general, wants me to assign value to the idea that some observers are more prepared and more reliable than others. As I get older I lean toward criteria and away from craziness. Okay, so an ideal aesthetic observer does not exist and, instead, a process—impartial, knowledgeable, and affectively balanced—for making sound judgments about beautiful things should be promoted. Becoming a better prepared observer can be among the important goals of an education in the arts. Getting past “I don’t know what it is, but I know what I like” ought to be an aspect of one’s growth in appreciation.
But still, I can’t lean all the way toward criteria that are reason-ably ideal. In the same way, I prefer symmetry but not perfectly bilateral symmetry. Here’s where I’m at: two centuries removed from the ascent of modernism, one century after Duchamp and the Cubist revolution, more than six decades after Pop’s rejection of Romantic genius, and in my third decade of teaching in higher ed . . . I ask students to consider a balanced approach, between universal and personal, between rational and intuitive processes, and between excellence and faithfulness.

Choice and balance

by Paul Burmeister

Citing the work of Professor Barry Schwartz specifically and the psychology of choice and choosing generally, William T. Cavanaugh applies research findings to a student’s process for choosing a major and a career pathway. The resulting affects and effects caused by proliferating options are known (especially where differences among them are not clear or substantive)—paralysis, anxiety, fatigue, and regret abound. One hundred different options for yogurt do not make shoppers happier in the supermarket; one hundred different options for majors do not make students happier in the academy. What is helpful is Cavanaugh’s promotion of resources: positive limitations, good habits, and formation in community. These can effectively counterbalance the coercive ideology of individual choice.

Choice and enclosure

by Paul Burmeister

In his 2016 essay on vocation and higher education, professor William T. Cavanaugh begins by tracing or outlining the historic concept of vocation in Western, capitalist culture and society. Choice is examined against the background of religious and economic developments, since the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation. Cavanaugh asks, what are the positive and negative aspects of choice, and is choice accompanied by inevitable enclosures? For example, does choice deliver on its promised freedom or on its effective coersion? Does choice create winners and losers? Does the actor experience access or restriction? Will the actor become an author / owner or a steward in the economy?

Joy, in and out of time

by Paul Burmeister

The poet and editor, Christian Wiman, wrote a polyvalent essay on the subject of joy, and it was published in The American Scholar (Autumn 2018.) Titled “Still Wilderness,” the essay references poems and poetry to explore our experiences of joy. Joy is experienced in and out of time, and it is not bound by time. Joy is related to matter and things, and it transcends matter and resists the particular. Joy is ultimately subjective: “the place that is most us, yet remains beyond us.”
Wiman argues for the essential or ontological quality of joy as part of our being. He is honest (albeit briefly) about joy’s relationship to suffering. He speaks for the importance of joy to the artist / poet. And, he finds a utility for joy in its accompanying motivation for compassion. A shorthand version of his essay might be contained in his closing sentences. He writes that we ought to “be fit” to feel the moments of joy when they come and to “let joy carry us where it will.”

Trado and our historical location

by Paul Burmeister

In his book on tradition and theology, the lecturer Stephen R. Holmes effectively argues that every ology needs its history. He reminds us that all studies are located in history; no study can escape or avoid its historical location. The values of understanding historical traditions are several: understanding tradition helps us see new things in our own time, it helps us relate to the past, and it allows us to pass things on to those who follow.
Trado = passed on, or handed down. Using Holmes’ application to theology, we can assert that faithfully teaching in a study is possible only if we make an effort to understand how the study has been passed on to us. Tradition binds together those in a study, across time and place; indeed, Holmes argues, this is how the study stays alive.
Another important point he makes is: disagreement and dispute are to be expected because they are internal to tradition. Disagreement and dispute may involve error or even heresy, but tradition sorts those things out and recognizes their place.

Dessin vs. coloris

by Paul Burmeister

It's hard to imagine today's equivalent to the 17th-century French academy's battle between the poussinistes and rubenistes, between design / line and color, between Andre Felibien and Roger de Piles. At the heart of this battle were theories about the "unity of action in painting." Also important was the fundamental problem of painting's depiction of subject matter and the visual effectiveness of depictions—a rational or literary priority versus a priority on strictly visual effects.
Today we'd have trouble defining what "painting" or its sui generis is. The Cubists and Dadaists eroded the stability of such definitions more than one hundred years ago. Today's painter finds her way, with or without an attendant theory, and hopes enough people see it her way to make her efforts plausible.

Accentuate the positive?

by Paul Burmeister

I am preparing a devotion on 1Samuel 3, in which I use Johnny Mercer's lyrics ("accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative") to set up the terrible message young Samuel must deliver to Eli the priest. I am reminded of Oliver Burkeman's book, The Antidote, 2012, which provided me a balanced viewpoint for advising young people. Burkeman is a British journalist and commentator on topics of social psychology.
Burkeman challenges assumptions about happiness—the state of being happy—prescribed as an antidote for life's ills. Who says happiness is a valid goal in the first place? What does it mean to be happy? How come the effort to feel happy is precisely the thing that makes us miserable? (see Wegner's ironic process theory) Is it possible to be happy enough? Have you noticed that thinking positively works well for people who already have high esteem? etc.

In view of Aristotle, who by the way would agree that happiness is a gift and not a goal, the Christian wrestles with happiness as a virtue: happiness is so subjective and appears to be exclusive of the Christian virtue of suffering. For the Christian, happiness and positive thinking begin with, or flow from, what faith sees in the promises of God.

What makes for meaningful work

by Paul Burmeister

Alain de Botton's book on work (Pantheon, 2009) is full of insights applicable to vocation. His practical framework means his thoughts often align nicely with applications of the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.

"The real issue is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful, but the extent to which the activity can be seem to be so after it has been continuously stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives and half a dozen different manufacturing sites." (80) The doctrine of vocation teaches that good work is an activity conducted on a horizontal plane, out of love for our neighbors.

"History may dwell on stories of heroism and drama, but there are ultimately few of us out on the high seas, and many of us in the harbour, counting the ropes and untangling the anchor chains." (241) Our vocations happen in the present, no matter the type of work that is in front of us.

"Accountants have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future. They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit." (242) Our vocations happen in the shadow of the Cross. Christians bear all things in their vocations with grace and peace, knowing that earthly recognition and fame are not the final goals of their work.

Choices and real dilemmas

by Paul Burmeister

Here are two writers whose thoughts on choice and choosing converge: Isaiah Berlin, as quoted in Tony Judt's Thinking the Twentieth Century, and Charles Sherover, from his essays on time and temporality.

Berlin: Choices entail real and unavoidable costs. "In short, there are choices which we are right to make but which implicitly involve rejecting other choices whose virtues it would be a mistake to deny."

Sherover: The pressure of time can force a choice between equally defensible right actions; most real moral dilemmas aren't simple. "We can't do all the things we want to do; we can't in most human situations, do all the things we think we ought to do; we can't meet all the demands the most righteous conscience might demand."

Barthes' elaborations can be exhausting

by Paul Burmeister

A careful reader may notice Camera Lucida (Roland Barthes, 1979) rests many of its claims on the author's unique, intellectual constructs. Barthes can't avoid his self-absorbed way of exhausting an elaboration; his understanding of the truth in photography is a strange brew of phenomenology and ontology and self-indulgence.

Photographers and artists will find this short and often-brilliant volume maddening; Barthes can be pretty naive about crucial aspects of making photographs and images. I prefer Susan Sontag's two volumes, On Photography (1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003.)