We are told, of course, that ours is a highly mobile society, but those statistical averages reflect quite different experiences. Some people, perhaps because of the demands of work, may move every five years. (In academia we call them "assistant professors.") That is, I suspect, a different experience from moving after eighteen years in a place. I am sure it has quite a different feel, and knowing that one will probably move again in five years must have an incalculable effect on the experience. And, of course, some people never move. So what I have to say may reflect not only the peculiarities of my temperament but also a particular kind of experience. Moreover, because our experiences are different, one has to be cautious when reflecting theologically, as I do here, upon an experience. One's tone must be less prescriptive than exploratory.
One other caveat is worth mentioning at the outset. There is an important sense in which it makes no difference at all whether one moves every few years or never moves at all. What does matter-and it is, I suppose, the modest lesson toward which I am heading-is that we all learn to understand ourselves as being "on the way." That understanding we may achieve without ever moving from one town to another, although my experience suggests that the actual moving is a powerful reminder of more ultimate truths. Still, I am prepared to grant that the experience upon which I reflect is a penultimate one, that it makes no ultimate difference whether one shares it or not. But this does not mean, to paraphrase Helmut Thielicke, that in the dark night of sin all cats are gray. Our task is to hold-in life more than in theory-the sense that everything penultimate matters morally while at the same time recognizing that what finally matters is the ultimate judgment of God upon our person. At any rate, such a simultaneous affirmation remains my aim here.
When contemplating the possibility of this move, I thought about many concerns that are rather obvious. What effect would it have on my children? Was it really all right with my wife, or was she only saying what she thought I might want to hear? Could I afford it financially? Could I, after so many years at Oberlin, really function successfully at a quite different sort of institution? Did I have the energy and the desire to accustom myself to new colleagues, a different set of problems, and new ways of doing things? Could I bring myself to move away from the Cleveland airport, so wonderfully accessible to me, and from the Cleveland Indians, at last a good ball club? Did I want to leave the several Lutheran congregations in the area to which I had become quite close over the years? Did I know people who had moved after so long in one place and for whom the move seemed to be a happy one? Might it be better just to buy my burial plot in Oberlin and leave well enough alone?
What I did not think about, however, and what I now think myself naive to have passed over so quickly, was simply whether I was up to it physically and emotionally-whether, that is, I could uproot and re-embed myself. I recall that when my father-in-law asked me whether I didn't think I was going to miss living in Oberlin, I quickly said that I didn't think that would be a problem.
I now realize that I had forgotten one little matter-what we call the doctrine of creation. Wholly apart even from any work-related questions, over eighteen years one carves out a life in a place. Except in the most extreme of circumstances, I suspect that it doesn't even particularly matter whether that place is generally perceived as desirable. It becomes home, the place where one is located. One walks certain routes, enjoys certain trees, recognizes certain people. We have doctors and dentists, grocery stores and shopping malls, baseball fields and banks, churches and schools. All become deeply embedded in a pattern of life. As Dr. Johnson is supposed to have claimed to refute Berkeley's idealism by kicking a stone which turned out to have its matter quite securely in place, so moving after eighteen years is a refutation of any supposition that our self is not in good part a body located in space and time.
Who, for example, would be constantly struck by how big a town Valparaiso is except someone who had spent the last eighteen years in a town of eight thousand, walking from his office to bank or post office whenever he felt like it? Why are there so few mailboxes to drop mail into on corners in this town? Why so few streetlights in our neighborhood? What shall we make of all those train whistles at night? What kind of university-however proud it may be of its recent appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament-would have no squash courts? I guess after all these years I could try to learn racquetball, but how shall I sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
This relates to what some theologians have been getting at in recent years when they have emphasized the categories of story and narrative. The self is always on the way and is not available to us abstracted from the story of one's life-which story is not yet complete. Only God, as St. Augustine said, can catch the heart and hold it still. Only God can see us whole and entire, as we truly are. Hence, we cannot in any complete sense account for ourselves or our decisions, even as I noted that I am often baffled when I try to account for my decision to move. To take the embedded nature of our life seriously is to realize that the story of that life must be precisely what St. Augustine wrote-a confession that God knows us better than we know ourselves. We are characters in a story of which we are not the author, caught up in a present moment that is always, in Stephen Crites' felicitous phrase, a "tensed present." Caught between memory of the past and expectation of the future, embedded in a present moment, unable to say in any complete sense who we are, we exist within the tensions of this pilgrim existence.
By disturbing the ground of our life, moving seems to rake up all those tensions. It discloses human life as it has been created by God. It is a finite and bodily life, tied to particular times and places. To give ourselves to no one and no place in particular is not to be more like God; it is just to fail as a human being. We are in large measure the conversations we have had, the games we have played, the books we have read, the work we have done. But we are not only that, for we are also on the way. As spirits made to rest in God, made to live in expectation, we transcend every particular location, and we must learn to live within that tension.
Theologically, I know what I think about all this. I think that even had I stayed in Oberlin until they lowered me into that burial plot, I would have needed to learn to think of myself as "on the way." God ties our hearts to particular times, places, and people-and then the same God tears us away from them so that we may learn to love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. And God does it so that we may learn to see this world-with all its beauty-in the way C. S. Lewis once described: It is an inn, a resting place, but we should not mistake it for home. God does it to help us learn that an "otherworldly" Christianity is the only kind that gives deep meaning to this life, that we dare not rest the whole weight of the heart's longing in any finite good.
That is, I say, my theological position on the matter. But one's gut doesn't always follow one's theo logy immediately or straightforwardly. Thus, before we moved, I went to a piano recital for the seventeenth consecutive year in Oberlin, listened to some pieces I have heard many times over the years, and found it terribly sad that the routine should be coming to an end. I went to my daughter's graduation from Oberlin High School-a ceremony not unlike the graduations of her older brother and sister. I have never liked those ceremonies. They are rather raucous affairs with little of the dignity that a ritualized occasion needs. And yet, I was saddened to be leaving at the end, saddened in part to think that the graduation of our one remaining child would be in a different place. There is, I know, something here of the "my country right or wrong" attitude, and I am prepared to defend it. An embedded life is simply that-not the most desirable life, but one's own. One's own, however, we must hasten to add, because we have been given it and placed there by the Creator toward whom we must make our way. If something within us rebels against being on the way, that is not all bad. For we are both on the way and located. Placed here by God and made one day to rest in God. Neither truth about our nature should be denied.
Perhaps for all of us there are some possessions that we can hardly do without. Moving made clear to me that our family simply has too many books. We weeded out hundreds. A few we sold. Some I gave to colleagues. Hundreds we donated to the Oberlin Public Library. They can practically hold a book sale with just what we gave them. No doubt, of course, there are many more we could have disposed of, but how wrenching must the experience of moving be?
The most striking thing to me, however, is not the number of books. I recall the last couple weeks before we moved. By then the books were packed, and we wandered around the house like lost sheep with no books to read. We were busy, of course, but, even so, one looks for time to read. I just can't seem to get along without a few books around. Neither, I noted, could my daughters. They wanted to go one last time to the "Bookseller" and look at used paperbacks. It struck me as a crazy idea, given the moaning I'd been doing about all the boxes of books. But we went-and, of course, each of them bought a few cheap paperbacks to read during the move.
I have found myself wondering, in fact, what I will do if the day comes when I can't read. How will I fill the hours? Surely, among those many mansions in our Father's house there must be some lined with bookshelves and appointed with old, comfortable chairs where I can read my favorite authors for whom life now so seldom leaves time-John Tunis, Felix Salten, C. S. Lewis, L. M. Montgomery. It's hard to imagine a heaven without their books.
Presumably an embedded life need not be a possessive life. The two, although closely related, are slightly different. I have defended embeddedness. Shall I also defend a certain possessiveness? Is there something wrong, or, at least, questionable, about all these possessions? I do not, of course, feel about all my possessions as I do about my books. In the course of moving-of buying a new home and trying to sell an old one-I found myself wondering why owning a home has never meant much to me. Perhaps it has something to do with having grown up in a parsonage. Perhaps it is because I am not (to put it mildly) very handy and cannot take joy in fixing things around the house. But more generally, I simply find property to be a burden-a black hole into which one pours time, energy, and money. I feel the same way about automobiles: necessary, to be sure, but always causing trouble. Not so, however, with things like books and baseball cards. There the possessive tie goes a little deeper.
When we think about possessions, we can hardly help recalling that the Bible, depicting God's people as on the way, often raises questions about our desire to locate ourselves, our desire to possess. Augustine says, in a famous passage, that Cain built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. Abraham leaves home because God calls him, and, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, he sojourns as a foreigner in the land of promise. The Israelites march for forty years in the desert without reaching the promised land. There is a strand of opinion in the Bible that prefers the tabernacle to the temple. It could, after all, be picked up and moved from place to place. And Jesus himself is worse off than the foxes and the birds, having nowhere to lay his head.
But we are not Jesus. We are not even called to be like Jesus, but only to follow him at a distance, and human beings need to "nest," to personalize space and make it home. In Shantung Compound, his memoir of life in a Japanese internment camp in Northern China in 1943, Langdon Gilkey reflects upon precisely this need. Within the compound the refugees found themselves in something like a state of nature, needing to organize their common life. In such conditions one notices what we usually take for granted. "The importance of space to the well- being, nay the existence, of a person came as a surprise to me," Gilkey writes. "Somehow each self needs a 'place' in order to be a self, in order to feel on a deep level that it really exists. We are, apparently, rootless beings at bottom. Unless we can establish roots somewhere in a place where we are at home, which we possess to ourselves and where our things are, we feel that we float, that we are barely there at all." Possessions are not simply contrary to our created nature.
At the same time, of course, we should not deny the rootlessness "at bottom" that Gilkey detects in our nature. As free spirits made for God, we are always strangers and pilgrims. If Jesus has nowhere to lay his head, and if he is, as Ephesians puts it, the image of mature humanity, can a truly human life need such personalized space? I think so, as long as we understand this need rightly. If we are on the way, we are on the way to somewhere-to a place we can call home. For now we may-either from necessity or duty-have to make do without the "home" our heart desires. But even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself; hence, the psalmist concludes, our soul should long to be home in the courts of the Lord. Every home we take possession of along the way is at least an intimation of that greater home we cannot make-cannot make because the new Jerusalem comes down from above and is not of our making. We may sometimes love these intimations too much, but we cannot be entirely wrong in want ing them. As Dr. Johnson said in what I cannot help reading as a double entendre capturing the duality of our nature, "To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor."
It is quite true that there is always danger in possessions-that where our treasure is, our heart will be also. Of course, many of our possessions are things that no one else would want, so it's hardly a matter of piling up things that would be treasures for anyone else. They are just our treasures. But no doubt we often love them too much, and no doubt they sometimes enslave us. In becoming part of the story of our life, part of us, our possessions may take possession of us. And so, it cannot be altogether bad to divest ourselves of some, even if it hurts. That hurt is a reminder that we are still on the way.
I spent a good bit of the Fourth of July last summer up in the attic packing boxes and reflecting upon our relation to possessions. One can, of course, have the moving company pack everything, but how would they do it? Some of these things need to be sifted and sorted. Much of what we keep is, as I noted, only our treasure. Boxes of old school papers, programs, and awards for each of the children. Cards the children have made for us at Christmas or Easter. Autographed baseball scorecards. Old newspapers. Favorite toys of each child. Stuffed animals they took to bed when they were little. What is to be done with it all on the Fourth of July?
When in doubt I usually said "pitch it," and Judy, my wife-wiser as usual-said "keep it." In the long run she is right. All these papers, ribbons, and records are the things that tie us to our past. They remind us that we are not the independent, autonomous beings our world celebrates. We have been formed and shaped by others, to whom we owe a great deal, and gratitude is the appropriate response.
In many of the subjects central to my own professional work the concept of autonomy has been very important. Patients want control over their dying. Women want control of their bodies, even when those bodies carry a newly conceived child. Indeed, men and women generally want control of their reproductive powers. We want to control our environment, to have a sense of mastery. Who can entirely argue with such desires? Human beings are not just puppets, and they should have at least some control over the course of their lives. But a few hours spent packing in my attic suggests the need for caution here. Where we will put all this stuff in our new home that lacks an attic is anyone's guess, but Judy is right: We need to carry a good bit of it with us.
Still, up there in the attic I would often try one more tactic. We are taking this box of stuff, I would say, only so that ten or twenty years from now the children will have to go through it and themselves pitch it after we're dead. And no doubt they will pitch a good bit of it, either because they want to or because they must. But they will have to go through it first. They will have to be reminded that they are not like Hobbes' picture of men as mushrooms, springing out of the earth without any engagements or attachments. And in being thus reminded, they will perhaps see that their independence is, at best, relative. A good lesson for parents to teach their children.
The ultimate truth of life might, of course, be that we are nothing but "rootless beings at bottom." One can build a philosophy upon such a vision. Thus, for example, Thomas Hobbes, living in chaotic and dangerous times, pictured human beings as "on the way," but hardly in the Augustinian sense that I used above. For Augustine the goal of this sojourn is to rest in God, and that is true felicity. For Hobbes the goal is simply to outdistance others along the way. In the race course of life
To consider them behind, is gloryHere is a sobering vision of life, although, of course, a possibly true one. Moving makes one take Hobbes seriously and invites us to consider what life must be like if there is-as Hobbes thought-no "summum bonum, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers." Then, indeed, happiness must be what Hobbes says it is: "Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter." This "restless desire," Hobbes says, "ceaseth only in death."
To consider them before, is humility
To be in breath, hope
To be weary, despair
To endeavor to overtake the next, emulation
To lose ground by little hindrances, pusillanimity
To fall on the sudden, is disposition to weep
To see another fall, is disposition to laugh
Continually to be outgone, is misery
Continually to outgo the next before, is felicity
And to forsake the course, is to die.
If this is a true vision of life, the only reason to move is to get ahead, to pass a competitor on the race course of life. And I would not deny that there is something to this. If we run well, we may manage for long stretches of time to forget the vulnerability that "grounds"-if that can possibly be the right word here-our mad dash to the end of the course. But I think that, for those of us who believe Augustine closer than Hobbes to the truth, the point is not to forget our vulnerability but to be reminded of it. Moving has a way of accomplishing that.
I have always been a good sleeper, but I have found something that can keep me awake at night: two mortgage payments. As I write these lines- though, I devoutly hope, not for much longer-we have not sold our home in Oberlin. Two mortgages plus a bridge loan can evoke a sense of vulnerability in one and make Hobbes' picture of the race course, in which to be weary is to despair, seem all too accurate. It is hard for the ordinary person not to lose a little sleep or to avoid feeling vulnerable when he-in company with the banks, of course-owns two homes. I dislike this in myself. Indeed, I have read and pondered several times Jesus' words about trust and anxiety in Luke 12. If by being anxious I cannot add a cubit to my stature, why should I worry more than the lilies of the field? But the theologian's occupational hazard is that he must think about such advice. No doubt, to the degree that I am simply worrying about the uncertainties of my own future, I am failing to trust God as I should. No doubt I need to learn day after day to say with the psalmist, "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety."
All this I grant and, at least in my better moments, am prepared to admit my failings here. But, of course, a decision to move affects others as well. It is one thing for me-if I could-to take no thought for my own morrow. It is quite another for me to take no thought for the morrow of my children. I am not persuaded that anything in Luke 12 suggests that a little anxiety about their future is not proper for me, even granting that one must always give one's children over, finally, to God's keeping. God, after all, wills to care for them in considerable part through me, and to make myself vulnerable is to make them vulnerable as well.
Here again, however, it seems impossible to know oneself fully. I find that I cannot sort out the good from the bad here. Perhaps I fail my children to some extent by making a financial sacrifice to move. Perhaps, on the other hand, if my vocational reasons are sound, I help them to learn that there are also other things that count in life. What cannot be denied, however-or, at any rate, what I cannot deny-is that moving brings one up short and evokes a sense of the vulnerability of human life. It reminds us that although the "abundant life"-modern evangelical jargon for that summum bonum in which Hobbes did not believe-may lie at the end of our way, God makes no promise that it always feels good to be on the way.
If moving is this hard, I find myself thinking, what would it be like if Judy were to die? I have been with a number of people in such circumstances. They generally seem able to carry on, even with difficulty, but one never quite knows how they manage. Clearly, staying put without her would be infinitely harder than moving with her-and that has seemed hard enough. Yet, of course, if we are both truly on the way, such a day must come for one of us. Not to live toward such pain would mean that our lives now were impoverished. Human beings cannot have the richness of love without setting themselves up for the most enormous rupture we can imagine some time in the future. As Joy Davidman says in Shadowlands: "The pain then is part of the pleasure now. That's the deal."
C. S. Lewis, in one of his early attempts at poetry, spoke of the "tether and pang of the particular" that is the source of our vulnerability.
Passing to-day by a cottage, I shed tears
When I remembered how once I had dwelled there
With my mortal friends who are dead. Years
Little had healed the wound that was laid bare.
Out, little spear that stabs, I, fool, believed
I had outgrown the local, unique sting,
I had transmuted away (I was deceived)
Into love universal the lov'd thing.
But Thou, Lord, surely knewest Thine own plan
When the angelic indifferences with no bar
Universally loved but Thou gav'st man
The tether and pang of the particular;
Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,It turns out, then, the deepest vulnerability lies not in holding two mortgages but simply in our shared human condition. We are not angels who, because their life is not an embedded one, do not experience "the local, unique sting" and can easily love universally. The God who, while loving universally, loves each person individually has something more than that in mind for us-that, having experienced vulnerability, we may one day "quiver with fire's same substantial form" as God himself. That, Josef Pieper once noted, is what we really ask when we pray, "Kindle in us the fire of thy love." Moving reminds one just what it is that we ask in such a prayer, and we ought not do it casually.
Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,
Embodies and embitters and turns all
Spirit's sweet water to astringent soul.
That we, though small, may quiver with fire's same
Substantial form as Thou-nor reflect merely,
As lunar angel, back to thee, cold flame.
Gods we are, Thou has said: and we pay dearly.
The task thy wisdom has assignedWe in the West owe this sense of a calling in large part to the Protestant Reformers, even though we have distorted their ideas a good bit by now. The powerful sense that there exists work that we are called to do in the world, work that is ours and no one else's, work that will serve the needs of others whether it pleases and fulfills us or not-all this is built into the idea of vocation. It brings joy in the midst of our labor, but we should not suppose that such joy is simply a smiley face that suppresses the uncertainty and vulnerability of being "on the way." Calvin, I think, had it about right in the Institutes when he wrote: "Each man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God."
Oh, let me cheerfully fulfill,
In all my works thy presence find,
And prove thy acceptable will.
The large and largely unanswerable question, of course, especially when one is contemplating moving, is how we may discern what task God's wisdom has assigned us. At least for those whose lives are as routinized as my own, the force of inertia must be very strong indeed. Why move? Why assume God wants me somewhere other than where I happen to be? Indeed, the one passage in the New Testament from which Luther drew his understanding of the calling, a few verses in 1 Corinthians 7, is notably ambiguous on just this question. Translators must decide whether verse 21 is to be rendered: "Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity." Or whether it is better rendered: "Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition instead." Two translations that lead in quite different directions when one asks what God desires of us in the calling.
The idea that we will feel the leading of God if only we seek it seriously is one I admit to doubting. I am more drawn, in fact, to the language Paul Ramsey once used in telling me that only twice in his life had he faced vocational decisions that he had "to put his will to." We must consider our talents and aptitudes, our likes and dislikes, the needs we are suited to serve-and then "put our will to" vocational decision.
When one moves there are, of course, always reasons for leaving as well as reasons for coming. For the most part I am here largely uninterested in the reasons for leaving. Indeed, I have to say that Oberlin College generously supported my work over the years, and I suspect that I might not have been as productive elsewhere. Moreover, it gave me for many years the privilege of membership in a department of religion that was always intellectually aggressive and never facile. Yet, I have found it increasingly difficult simply to believe in liberal education, despite the little talks about it that I have given to my advisees over the past couple decades. So often it does not seem to open the mind and heart to what counts most in life. This lack has, in my view, almost nothing to do with the idea of core curricula and almost everything to do with the fragmentation of our culture and the identity politics that dominates so much of academic life. Moreover, the one identity that seems to lack a place in the academy is religious identity. It becomes hard to recommend such a setting to young people and disconcerting to think of having given one's most productive years to an undertaking one is reluctant to recommend.
St. Augustine makes the point perhaps a little too strongly but still effectively in his Confessions:
And what good did it do me that I, at a time when I was the vile slave of evil desires, read and understood for myself every book that I could lay my hands on which dealt with what are called the liberal arts? I enjoyed these books and did not know the source of whatever in them was true and certain. For I had my back to the light and my face to the things on which the light shone; so the eyes in my face saw things in the light, but on my face itself no light fell.That light, in truth, is what gives center and cohesion to our study, what makes the liberal arts what they once meant: study that set one free from what is merely necessary or obligatory, free, ultimately, to rest in God-to worship.
Although he might not wish to take credit for its results in my life, Richard John Neuhaus indirectly persuaded me of this in a conversation we had about his decision to become a Roman Catholic. He saw little future for Lutheranism in this country, and I feared-and often fear-he may be right. I noted to him, however, that this makes relatively little difference in my life. I am, for better or worse, pretty much formed by now. If the church dissatisfies me, as it often does, I can muddle along, serving it where I can, ignoring it when I must. His response was to the point: That may be fine for me, but will it work for my children? And, of course, he was on target. He meant that without institutions committed to a way of life-and without people interested in sustaining those institutions-we cannot transmit a valued way of life. We could, of course, follow Father Neuhaus to Rome, where they are still willing to run the risks involved in institutional commitment, and that would not be the worst of the choices open to us. A few decades from now it may be the best. But, although it may again be nothing more than that force of inertia in my life, I am not quite ready to give up on Lutheranism. Hence, Valparaiso University, with its historic Lutheran ties. I am, of course, acutely aware that it may disappoint me. That too is part of the vulnerability we incur in making important decisions, and it is part of life in one's calling, which is always personal, always one's own and no one else's.
"We can never foresee the results of our acts," Einar Billing wrote in his classic work Our Calling, "least of all when the goal is the kingdom of God. To maintain that our feeble deeds do serve this infinite goal is and remains a matter of faith." If we understand Billing rightly, we must, of course, appreciate the irony here, and it returns me to where I began. For had I remained at Oberlin I could have said exactly the same: that we can never foresee the results of our acts, and that we can only trust that our feeble deeds serve the goal of God's kingdom. Move or stay-there is a crucial sense in which it makes no difference, for in either case one is "on the way."
The great temptation, of course, is then to suppose that what is not of ultimate significance makes no penultimate difference. I have tried to avoid that temptation, tried to reflect upon what it means to be on the move, tried to let the experience remind me of truths too easily forgotten in the rush of life. I have, borrowing and modifying a Wordsworthian description of poetry, tried to recollect emotion in (theological) tranquillity. It should be evident, however, that neither the calling nor theological reflection upon it provides much tranquillity, for they situate us "on the way." There is, however, another, more important kind of tranquillity to be found even along the way, and for that I must give the last word to Billing when he writes: "According to Lutheran teaching [of the calling], the joy over the forgiveness of sins is the only joy we should seek."