"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt X): Vanier, “Becoming Human”

Last June I spent a few days recapping what books had been shaping my thinking in those first six months of 2011. Then I read a bunch more as the year progressed but failed to keep up with my goal to share them all here. It’s a good discipline for me to revisit them, and because some of you visitors to this site like reading about it, I thought I’d resume the survey.

And I’ll confess, some of these books might seem dull. I love learning, love absorbing and digesting and collecting as much material as I can in those areas which most interest me and which I will likely explore should I take a more formal step on the path toward a PhD. Interests which, as evidenced by the books I’ll share in the coming days, are generally related to spiritual/character formation, how the Church interacts with other faiths, and how the church involves itself in the concerns of the world, locally and globally.

Looking at my wife’s pictures on her facebook page might be a more entertaining way to spend the next few minutes of your life than proceeding here. J


Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Ltd, 1998)

Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities in which people with various kinds of intellectual disabilities live together with those without (also a former home of Henri Nouwen). I discovered him a couple years ago, when his insights into the personhood of all people were especially relevant while working part-time with developmentally disabled men.

Here he speaks very simply about what he believes entails true humanness, especially what it means to be part of the human community, not just an individual person.

This is a book to be read and re-read (it’s certainly more accessible than a thick, systematic theology textbook). Its insights on belonging, inclusion, difference and forgiveness ring true for me, not just on the level of comparative theology or social justice but as it pertains to how we live and move and “be” with those we love most.

On control: “To be human means to accept history as it is and to work, without fear, toward greater openness, greater understanding, and a greater love of others. To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals, and as a species, to an evolution that will be for the good of all.” (15)

Such a great exhortation that balances both a sense of realism and optimism while challenging us to realize that our projects, whether large or small, will often fail, because we are not always really in control of the outcome, as much as we'd like to be. What a liberating feeling that can be—releasing control.

On our common humanity: “We may be rooted in a specific family and culture but we come to this earth to open up to others, to serve them and receive the gifts they bring to us, as well as to all humanity.” (36)

This captures what may be one of the most rewarding parts of being a teacher at an international language school. My students aren't all saints and don't necessarily embody this spirit at all times (nor do I), but when I see it happening it's really special.

On what is involved in conflict between groups: “One: the certitude that our group is morally superior, possibly even chosen by God….Two: a refusal or incapacity to see or admit to any possible errors or faults in our group….Three: a refusal to believe that any other group possesses truth or can contribute anything of value.” (47)

I'm challenged especially by #2 in both my beliefs and my day-to-day life. I do think I’m at times unwilling to see my faults, maybe out of fear or pride, and maybe because at times this fear or pride is so dominating that I simply can’t admit fault or believe others can teach me. Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t been trained well enough, having been encouraged more in Sunday school to defend my faith than to adapt it in light of new discovery. But maybe that’s just what I needed as a Christian teenager.

On bad religion versus good religion: “When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth, above love and vulnerability toward others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart. When this happens, religion becomes an ideology, that is to say, a series of ideas that we impose on ourselves, as well as others; it closes us up behind walls. When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life.” (63)

While I know it won't sit well with some, maybe for different reasons, I absolutely love this quote and find in it both great, incisive conviction as well as great hope for what my own religion and the religions of others can be for each other and for the world.

On Jesus: “Throughout his life, Jesus taught and led people into a vision of our common humanity, where mercy and kindness are more important than ideology.” (66)

Is this just a liberal view of Jesus where belief is mostly irrelevant? I don’t think that’s it; I think the point is not that ideology has no place, but that, perhaps in contrast to what you see among some Christians, kindness should trump ideology. I don’t mean to say individual Christians aren’t kind; most are. But I do think corporate kindness toward certain groups (homosexuals?) is an example of a place where we Christians struggle to let mercy trump ideology.

On fear: “Fear is at the root of all forms of exclusion, just as trust is at the root of all forms of inclusion.” (71)

Disagree? Seem like an overstatement or oversimplification? Consider, all ye fellow victims of hubris, how we often instinctively exclude those trying to help us, maybe for fear we’ll be exposed as frail, ignorant, weak, whatever…and how when we are more inclusive, we invite people into a space to guide us, correct us, teach us, trusting they accept us without judgment.

On feeling threatened: “We are all frightened of those who are different, those who challenge our authority, our certitudes, and our value system. We are all so frightened of losing what is important for us, the things that give us life, security, and status in society. We are frightened of change and, I suspect, we are even more frightened of our own hearts.” (73)

When someone asks me, “are you sure?” I often say something like “no, I don’t feel the need to be sure. Certainty is overrated.” Sometimes people just are annoyed or confused by that response, I find.

On being agents of new life with modest goals: “Let us not set our sights too high. We do not have to be saviors of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.” (163)

Theologically, I feel pushback on the dual feelings of urgency and grandeur that can be tempting—the feeling that this dark, lost, hopeless, unjust world can be solved if I/we would act quickly, and the feeling that “changing the world” is my destiny. Personally, I feel pushback on the notion that my ambitions to impact the lives of many through my vocation are all-important, ambitions which can overshadow the need to live well in very simple ways, treating individuals with respect and being grateful for the basic necessities of life which I possess.

To becoming human! (Raises coffee cup in air)

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