Q&A with Steven Garber, Director, The Washington Institute
Q&A with Steven Garber, Director, The Washington Institute

Q&A with Steven Garber, Director, The Washington Institute

If faith does shape vocation which does shape culture, then it is crucial to take the time to ask and answer the perennial questions that everyone asks and everyone answers, such as what do I believe about faith, vocation and culture? Those three words take us into realms that are difficult to fully fathom—and yet to understand them is central to human flourishing.

January 30 th 2009

Comment: You have been involved for much of your life talking with and about young adults, and thinking about young adulthood. What would you say are the most significant challenges and opportunities common to the lives of people of that age?

Steven Garber: We are mostly perennial people. The hopes and dreams, yearnings and worries that belonged so fully to people in the 4th century BC, are ours. We don't really change that much. If the prophets and apostles of the Old and New Testaments could hear their poets concluding "Why not eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die . . ." we should not be surprised to hear one of our best-known contemporary poets, Dave Matthews, make the same argument in his song "Tripping Billies." He is listening to the same world that poets of centuries ago were. In fact, I think that if God is not really there, if there is no true word from God, if we are left alone in the cosmos, then Dave Matthews is right—just as the poets of long ago were. Why not? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry? It is really a pretty good answer to a very important question.

While I think that it is important to understand cultural shifts—for example, what we call modernity and postmodernity, an Enlightenment-shaped consciousness and a post-Enlightenment one—more deeply we are all still sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. We want the same things; we have the same dreams; we have the same needs.

Yes, the enveloping, womb-like character of the technological world of the early 21st-century—what Kenneth Gergen called "the saturated self"—makes our experience of life different than that of previous generations. Cell phones, the Internet, Facebook, on and on and on—yes, yes, and yes. Add to that the social fragmentation brought on by the design of urban and suburban environments, by our transitory lives where we wonder about the meaning of home and community, by the increasing instability of marriage and family, by the increasingly "flat world" that is globalization—all of these and more are "fingers to the wind" for us, and we would be fools to ignore them.

But in and through all of this, we still want to belong. We yearn for relationship with people and ideas that are enduring; our deepest yearning is for transcendence, for God himself. When push comes to shove, we know that the "friends" and "friending" of Facebook is finally more fantasy than reality. Is all that an evil? No. Is there a gift in the technology? Yes, to know something about someone's life can be a grace; but it is not very close to the longing we have to honestly know, or to honestly be known. That is deep in us; its reality reaches back to the first three chapters of Genesis, and to the covenantal cosmos in which we live and move and have our being.

One last word. In The Washington Institute we live this thesis: faith shapes vocation shapes culture. That is true of Hindus, of Maoists, of evolutionary materialists, of Jews, of Muslims, and of Christians. The choices we make about the deepest things—beliefs about God, the human condition, and the meaning of history—profoundly affect our understanding of vocation; in fact, our choices affect whether there is to be a vocation, a calling, a calling to care about life, about history, about the world. If there is no God, if there is no caller, then there is no calling—and why not then just eat, drink, and be merry . . . for tomorrow we die? Much of our work is with young adults who hunger and thirst after all of this, wanting honest answers to their honest questions.

Steven Garber

Comment: What are the big questions that you hear raised most frequently in your conversations with people who are in their twenties?

SG: One of the most perennial of all our hopes is to understand the whys and whats of our lives. Most ten-year-olds are not asking those questions; most 20-year-olds are. In Sharon Parks's wise words, these are "the critical years," where what we believe about the most important things are decided. For most of us, the years between adolescence and adulthood—an increasing span of time with ever more vague age limits, by the way—are years where we make key choices about what we believe and how we will live: choices that will shape us for the rest of life. There are exceptions, people who do not make these choices at this age, but they are exceptions.

If faith does shape vocation which does shape culture, then it is crucial to take the time to ask and answer the perennial questions that everyone asks and everyone answers, such as what do I believe about faith, vocation and culture? Those three words take us into realms that are difficult to fully fathom—and yet to understand them is central to human flourishing.

Not everyone asks the questions explicitly, openly, or with intentionality. My assumption is that most people in conditions and circumstances where daily existence is itself a question—will I make it tomorrow?—don't have much time or room for pondering the existential basis of life. Life itself is a huge question for the millions and millions of people who live on life's edge. But that is not normative, even though it is far-reaching, and it is not what we hope for anyone. It is an impoverishment, not only materially but spiritually; and at a deeper level, those are one and the same.

Within those large questions, others come too. The ones I have spent the most time with over the years have always had something to do with relationships, with the yearning for love, for marriage, and of course with the meaning of sexuality. (See my "Sex is easier than love: why sexuality is at the very heart of life and learning" in Comment, September 2008.) I have long believed that unless a person has confidence that the Christian vision has honest answers for these questions, these hopes, then it is awfully hard to believe that it is worth working out the meaning of my faith for politics, for economics, for the arts, for globalization (and an honest faith somehow, someday must address them at some point). Our connectedness to others, full of blessings and curses as those relationships are, is the tenderest part of life; in a sense, it matters the most to us. Because that is true it has always made sense to me that we ought to be begin there—and so I often have.

Comment: How would you advise young adults to arrange their lives if they want to really get to grips with such big questions?

SG: I must smile, and say, "I did write a book about this." While true, I don't mean it as a cheap answer. Perhaps the more important question is, "Why did all of this matter to you so much that you wrote a book about it?"

Most of my life I have been a teacher; in recent years that work as a professor has become the vocation of a public teacher, someone who has a classroom in many places among many people. Through those years I have always cared about connecting people with ideas. So the pairing of worldview to way of life, of belief to behaviour, has been central to my teaching. Wherever I have been I have been most of all concerned to see that words become flesh. When words stay words, all of us lose.

But before I was a professor, I was a student—and dropped out of college after my sophomore year, realizing that words had become words, and I wanted more than that. So I lived in a commune for a year, I worked on a magazine, I hitchhiked across the U.S. and Europe—and I began to learn to learn about things that matter. Finally I returned to school with a better reason to be in school. That experience has made me sensitive to those years when we are not quite children, and yet not quite adults. For many, they are hard ones, perhaps mostly because we are beginning to realize that there is a lot at stake.

I finished college, and quickly started into school again, and then began to teach. Over those next years I noticed that among the young adults I knew and loved, some kept at their faith, and some didn't. As their twenties became their thirties, some found that their early-adulthood convictions seemed quaint, or naïve, or simply, sadly, no longer compelling. And I wondered, why? I still remember where I was when I determined that if I could ever do more study beyond my MA, then I wanted to study this issue, as it mattered so much to me—because the young men, the young women, mattered so much to me.

Eventually I found my way into a PhD program and spent the next ten years thinking, reading, and writing about what I came to call "the formation of moral meaning" in the years of young adulthood. (All of this is a lot scarier now that I have five children between 20 and 30; it is honestly humbling, seriously sobering, and I keep making a lot of mistakes.) Along the way I had a great grace. When I finished the written oral exams, my dissertation committee made a surprising decision: they gave me permission to "write a book" rather than the typical dissertation that would find its way onto a library shelf not likely to be seen again. They offered me a vision for doing work that would have consequence for the wider world. Well, the next years of writing had their own hardships and suffering, but most of the time I felt that there was a light at the end of the tunnel that made the heartache of dissertation and committee endurable.

That work became The Fabric of Faithfulness, and in many ways its vision has been big enough, deep enough, that I have lived in it and out of it for years now. (A year ago it came out in a newly-edited, better-written 2nd edition.) The heart of its analysis and argument is that there are habits of heart that sustain people over time, so that the question of "forming moral meaning" is not rocket-science. People who keep on keeping on are men and women who (1) develop a worldview that can make sense of life, giving us the possibility of living with "the grain of the universe," the truth about God, the human condition, and history—against the challenge of a pluralizing, secularizing world; (2) find a mentor, a teacher, who embodies the worldview we are beginning to call our own, with grace and hospitality allowing the truest learning to take place, the over-the-shoulder, through-the-heart kind; and (3) commit to a community of like-minded, like-hearted people who together, over the course of years, are an incarnation of that worldview—even as we stumble along, clay-footed as we necessarily will be. The question for all of us is finally: can we sustain our beliefs—or will time and circumstance wear them out, causing us to become worn out?

I have always longed for that which is sustainable—in life and faith, in politics and marriage, in all that I am and do, really. Less than that is unsatisfying—profoundly, even painfully so.

Comment: You have lived much of your life at the intersection of the worlds of business, politics, higher education, and popular culture. What do you think you have noticed, discovered, learned at the intersections that may have been missed by people who live their lives more exclusively immersed in just one of these worlds?

SG: "Coherence" is a very big idea for me, a very big word for me. Most deeply of all, I think that human beings long for coherence, we yearn after that—because we are image-bearers of God living in God's world, and so we are made to live that way. That we don't wears at us in ways that dehumanizes us. As Jon Foreman says, truly, "We were made for so much more."

Instead, we settle for compartmentalization. While that is a theological problem, it is also a sociological problem. We were made to connect, to see the relationships between things, between ideas and people, between different arenas of human activity, between personal and public responsibility. E.M. Forster puts it this way in the epigraph to Howard's End, his novel exploring the meaning of vocation in the modern world: "Only connect." The Hebrews had a word for this vision of human life under the sun, tam or tamim, which refers to a person who is "complete, whole, who has integrity." To be less than that is to be less than holy, and therefore to be less than human—and there are implications that run across our experience, from politics to economics to sexuality to the arts.

In all we do at The Washington Institute we teach this vision of a coherent life, of seamlessness between belief and behaviour, between faith, vocation, and culture. So whether one's vocation is in politics, business, international relations, the arts, the law, or education, it is always coherence that is the question, and the quest, that is, can we find our way to a coherent life where what we believe is seen in how we live?

That we are located in Washington, DC means that politics matters to us; in a sense the cares of the world are our local news—and that is blessing and curse. Washington is a strange city in that way. But I have been graced to be part of a community over time of people who pray and think and live with common loves at our heart, and together we have cared about our city and what its calling is in the world. Over the years the thesis that the culture is "upstream" from politics has become increasingly important to us. We are a city that puts its finger-to-the-wind, and responds with public policy that reflects the attitudes and convictions of our society—for blessing and for curse. Most of the time we are not leading the way; in that sense Washington is "downstream" from the culture at-large. Politics is a crucial vocation, and the law has its own paedagogical weight; we learn about ourselves as we make laws, teaching ourselves and others what it is that matters and doesn't matter. But the point of life is not politics; it is important, even critical, but it is not the only thing that matters.

For years I have been fascinated by the intersection of popular culture with political culture, i.e. why is it that Bono has to come to Washington to plead for Africa? Why is this very public, very visible pop icon taken seriously at the World Bank and the White House? Why do we need a pop icon to persuade us that something matters, that AIDS in Africa is important? And why Washington? Why not Dublin, London, New York, LA? What happened to make this be?

I have ideas about all that, but for here, this is what matters: we are connected, whether we want to be or not. When we deny that covenantal reality, which is another way of saying "when we deny our responsibility," we enter into a kind of fragmentation and compartmentalization that serves no one. Anomie is a good word for it. Among my friends, in my community, we are committed to caring about history, about the way the world turns out. That commitment takes us into the worlds of business, of politics, of higher education, of popular culture, and more—because it all matters.

Life is a lot more interdisciplinary than the compartmentalized curricula of the academy accounts for; learning ought to reflect that. That is our task in The Washington Institute.

Comment: If a friend of yours embarked on a long journey—say, to walk along a traditional pilgrimage route, or to spend a year of service in a far-off country, or to go and study across some ocean—what would you send along for their reading?

SG: For someone like me who loves books, that is a hard one.

I would begin with the Bible, believing as I deeply do that it is a lamp to our feet, shaping hopes and dreams, visions and virtues that give life. From there I would draw on Augustine's Confessions, his remarkably honest, autobiographical account of life. Then Bernard of Clairvaux's On Loving God; most don't know that next to Augustine, John Calvin quoted Bernard most often—Bernard's questions are hard to answer, because they are the most important questions. Calvin's own Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, a very small but very rich work drawn from the Institutes, is next, as in it Calvin calls for a rare spiritual honesty. Then Abraham Kuyper's To Be Near Unto God, a remarkable collection of 110 meditations on one phrase in Psalm 73; it is the very best of heart-probing reading. All these, of course, call us to the contemplative life, even as they call us to life.

I would add to the mix Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, George Eliot's Middlemarch, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Walker Percy's The Second Coming, and Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow—all are stories of pilgrimage, all are stories with the ability to grow one's heart. And then to place them within a larger context, I would add Robert Coles' The Call of Stories, a wonderfully-wise account of the ways that stories form the moral imagination—and therefore form lives of vision and sacrifice and hope.

A final gift would be Berry's A Timbered Choir, his "Sabbath Poems," 20 years of poetry that reflect the rhythm of worship and work, calling us to understand that while those trees along the path of our pilgrimage might be oaks or pines, they are also "a timbered choir"—that is, if we have eyes to see.

[Comment recommends that you use an independent local bookstore to buy these books; if no such bookstore is available, we recommend Byron Borger's Hearts & Minds, with enthusiasm.

Topics: Culture Vocation
Steven Garber
Steven Garber

Steven Garber has a classroom among many people in many places. As the director of The Washington Institute, the heart of his own calling is the longing that people understand the integral character of faith, vocation, and culture. Author of The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (Second Ed., 2007), he writes frequently for various journals, and in addition was a contributor to the volumes Faith Goes to Work: Reflections From the Marketplace and Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue, as well as to the Mars Hill Audio journal, Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Life and Work of Michael Polanyi.


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