A week ago I began a week of lecturing on “the vocation of scholar.” An unusual place, far from the universities and colleges represented at the conference which were from throughout the middle part of the U.S.— from Michigan and Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, Tennessee and Missouri, Wisconsin and North Dakota —professors and their families came to Cedar Campus, appropriately named so as a center for serious reflection on the work of the academy, but in a wonderfully grand setting on the Prentiss Bay of Lake Huron in Michigan’s upper peninsula.
The first address I called, “Seeing Seamlessly,” setting forth the theme for the week. I began with a reflection on my father, a good man who did good work as a plant pathologist working on the agricultural economy of California and the wider world— the former Soviet Union, China, Israel, Australia, and other places where his work took him over the years. Employed in an unusual role with both the University of California and the USDA, he gave the years of his life to his research, looking through microscopes and into the fields, trying to understand ways to make the growing of cotton more healthy and productive. Wearing our shirts and jeans, even our underwear, we are all living lives in the light of his work— and that of thousands of others too.
When I was an adolescent, about 14 years old, one evening we talked about why he wasn’t going to the laboratory that night. Without a hint of criticism of others, he simply said that his understanding of life called him to more than “getting ahead” by doing more research and writing. He wanted to be on the school board, an elder in his church, at work in the local prison, and a father to his sons— so he wouldn’t be back in the lab that night, or most other nights. But he told me that he prayed to see into the meaning of the questions that were at the core of his calling, and he would work hard all day long trying to make sense of what he saw.
He wanted to see seamlessly. Rather than assuming that his work had its own rules, that his research required assumptions that his faith would never understand, he explained to me that it was in and through his beliefs about God and the world that he entered into his work. His very viewing through the microscope was formed by his faith, seeing connections between what he believed about reality and the work of his life that made it “seamless.” He was clear that he wasn’t a better scientist because of his beliefs, or that he was smarter because of his faith, but instead that his deepest commitments shaped the way he understood the meaning of his science.
My father was not unique, in that sense. We are all that way, and in the lecture I went on to quote Gregory Jones from the Duke Divinity School, “When we describe, we do so as active agents whose intentions and moral character pervade our descriptions,” from his book, “Transformed Judgment: Towards a Trinitarian Account of the Moral Life,” and then Mark Schwehn, “Epistemologies have ethical implications. Way of knowing are not morally neutral, but morally directive,” in his “Exiles From Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.”
That was as true of my father, as it is of all of us, of course. We see out of our hearts, out of our deepest commitments, out of our loves and longings. In the most simple way, the viewer is always viewing.
Before the morning was over, I had stepped into the lives and work of Michael Polanyi, Lesslie Newbigin Mako Fujimura, N.T. Wright, Hans Hess, Alexander Schemann, and Simone Weil. Each in their different ways are people whose lives and learning and labor I honored, as each has helped me to see what “seeing seamlessly” means.
And without a blush, I offered the Hebrew prophet Zechariah too. In his looking into the meaning of his own day, speaking about the world that is and is to come, he wrote that someday “even the cooking pots will be called holy to the Lord.” This most ordinary of all household items, one that is integral to every home on the face of the earth— from the most high-end kitchen to the most humble fire —can be seen as sacramental, connecting heaven to earth, if we have eyes that see.
That was my father’s gift to me, looking over his shoulder and through his heart as I did. Every vocation at its truest is a call to see things as they really are, to understand the reality of the world that is really there. In science, in art, in economics, in education, in politics, in law, at home and at play, in our work and in our worship, from the most public of our responsibilities to the most personal of our relationships, we are called to the vocation of seeing seamlessly.