As part of the final readings from Callings, the Honors class read selections from The Catholic Worker a magazine written by Dorothy Day (Callings, pg. 413). Dorothy Day was a Catholic convert who was born in 1897. She, along with a Franciscan monk named Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker Movement (Callings, pg. 413). In the selection read, Day described the “voluntary poverty” she and her companions chose to live in (Callings, pg. 415). Day, who had many radical beliefs, thought “without brotherly love there can be no love of God” (Callings, pg. 415). This “brotherly love” meant “voluntary poverty, stripping one’s self, putting off the old man, denying one’s self, etc.” (Callings, pg. 417). Much of Day’s writing focused on this idea of “voluntary poverty” and how it was to be lived out.
Poverty is a very real thing and something people I know and love have experienced. This semester through the service learning component of Honors I worked with many children living in poverty. I volunteered at a nearby school where many of the students were home-insecure, meaning they lived in a shelter, their family moved around a lot, or they lived with family or friends other than their parents. I cannot imagine experiencing this type of instability at such an early age. As part of the literature review for this semester I did some research on the negative impacts poverty can have on children. Without the routine of meals and a secure home, children are often delayed in behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. Last spring semester, the Honors class also spent some time talking about poverty, specifically relating to former inmates, and the relentless cycle they are often thrown in and cannot escape.
While I disagreed with Day’s overall theme that “brotherly love” of the poor can only be genuine if we embrace poverty, her emphasis on “voluntary poverty” really challenged me to think about my life. God has blessed me with a comfortable lifestyle and the opportunity for a college education. This is much more than I deserve. My family does not have excess amounts of money, but God has always provided for us, and my parents have taught me to be financially smart. Understanding how richly I am blessed and knowing the multiple negative impacts poverty has, Day’s belief in “voluntary poverty” seems illogical. In one sense, it seems a bit pretentious to choose to live in poverty while many are born into it and cannot escape it. On the other hand, God has called us to care for the “widows and orphans” and those in need (James 1:27). I do not want to simply throw away the things and opportunities God has blessed me with, but I also do not want to be selfish and ignore God’s command to care for those in need. What is the balance? This is likely I question I will be wrestling with my entire life, but I can rest in the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection knowing it is thankfully not my actions that control my salvation.
This week the Honors class focused on post-Reformation writings from the 19th century. One of the readings was a selection from Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling was written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, someone who admitted to not being a Christian, but admired the faith Abraham demonstrated in Genesis 22. This chapter is a narrative of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Kierkegaard begins by commenting on the ethical versus religious implications of this story. For Christians, Abraham’s willingness to kill his only son is called a sacrifice, but in any other setting this would be called murder and have serious legal consequences (Callings 339). The other main point Kierkegaard pulls from this narrative is the extreme faith and trust in God Abraham demonstrates. He makes the point that faith is not rational; it requires taking a leap of faith, not knowing where one might land, but trusting that God will remain faithful. “But Abraham had faith and did not doubt; he believed the preposterous” (Callings 337).
Honors this semester has focused on our different vocations. This week of Honors touched on vocation, but focused more on calling. Calling and vocation are closely related because whatever one is called to is an aspect of one’s vocation. It can sometimes be difficult to determine what one’s calling is and if it is from God. This is what Kierkegaard described in his writing on Abraham. Abraham did not doubt that God would remain faithful to His covenant with Abraham even though it may have seemed impossible. When following one’s calling, it is sometimes necessary to take a leap a faith and following God’s calling, even if the outcome is unknown.
Some of the other Honors students expressed dislike or confusion about Kierkegaard’s writing, but I truly enjoyed it. I thought it was very thought-provoking and while I did not fully understand everything Kierkegaard wrote, it challenged me to think of the story of Abraham and Isaac differently. This story has always been through-provoking for me because I cannot imagine how much faith and trust it would take to sacrifice my only child. I hope God never calls me to do something as challenging as what He called Abraham to do, but I know that no matter how or where God calls me, He will remain faithful.
As part of the last session on Reformation-era writers, one of the authors read was Jonathan Edwards. The Honors class read Jonathan Edwards “Personal Narrative” a short auto-biography focusing on Edwards’ faith journey. Edwards was the son of a Congregationalist minister in New England and started a revival that led to the Great Awakening in the American colonies in the 1740s (pg. 310). Edwards described how as a child it “was my delight to abound in religious duties” (pg. 311). As he got older, Edwards strayed from his faith. Eventually, Edwards returned to his faith, but this time his focus was more on inward struggle and self-reflection. Through this more personal approach to faith, Edwards grew closer and closer to God, and began to “have had a more full and constant sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, and a delight in that sovereignty, and have had more of a sense of the glory of Christ, as a Mediator revealed in the gospel” (pg. 315).
Edwards wrote about how he felt and saw God’s presence in nature. The Honors class covers multiple topics, all of which are related back to faith in Jesus. It is often through things like nature, science, art, music, service, etc. that people encounter God in very real, tangible, and more personal ways. This is what makes Honors unique from other general education classes, because all the subjects studied are approached from a Christian perspective and related back to that Christian perspective.
I almost immediately connected with Edwards writing, because he is pastor’s kid, just like me. Although I did not like the language Edwards used of becoming a “better” Christian, I did enjoy the way he wrote about experiencing God through nature. I am fortunate enough to have spent a lot of time travelling in and out of the United States. Visiting the Great Lakes, the ocean, the mountains, or the Grand Canyon, I do not understand how some people can look at creation and not see God. I see God working everyday in my life and the lives of the people around me, but it is in creation that I am reminded of how big and awesome my God is. “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature” (pg. 313).
One of the movements that evolved out of the Reformation is sometimes called the Radical Reformation. This included the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Hutterites. The Hutterites were an offshoot of the Anabaptists and located in Moravia. Their goal was to create a community of pure Christians modeled after the early church described in Acts 4:32. Ulrich Stadler was one of the leaders of the Hutterites and wrote Cherished Instructions around 1537. In this work, he describes how Christians should live in community. “They have one mind, opinion, hard, and soul as having all drunk from the same Fountain, and alike await one and the same struggle, cross, trial, and at length, one and the same hope in glory” (pg. 228).
This semester of Honors has been centered around the idea of vocation. Stadler’s writing focuses on the more general sense of vocation which is simply to be a Christian. However, the Hutterites focused on this too much and forgot some other important parts of Christianity. By secluding themselves into a community with only Christians they were neglecting God’s call to “go and make disciples” much like many of the monastic communities (Matthew 28:19). Luther also stressed living one’s life in service to one’s neighbors and living out the vocation of being a citizen. The Hutterites exemplified living in service to one another, but only inside their own community.
Unlike the monastic writings we read from earlier in the semester which I did not enjoy, I did not mind Stadler’s writing. While I do not agree with the Hutterites practice of secluding themselves from the world, I admire their striving for an ideal Christian community. When I was reading this, it struck me as how powerful it would be to think of the entire church body as united. Although the entire church is united by faith in Christ, it is not this that is generally focused on, but the divisions amongst the church. I recognize that many of the divisions in the church are over important doctrinal matters but imagine how much more the church could do if we were all united instead of segregated. This unity can never be achieved on this earth but it makes me more excited for the unity that we will all have in heaven.
This week in Honors was our second week focusing on writings from the Medieval period. One of the readings was selections from the writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg. Mechthild joined a Beguine community in Germany and is one of the most well-known medieval German mystics (pg. 150). In 1269, Mechthild finished a book of visions she had and her reflections on them (pg. 150). The sections we read from Mechthild’s writing focused on the characteristics Christians should demonstrate, specifically the humility that should be exemplified in leaders (pp. 152-154).
Mechthild stresses the importance of prayer in her writing. She wrote, “Whoever wants to follow God in faithful toil should not stand quietly… He should consider what he was in sin, how he is now in virtue, and what can yet become of him if he falls. He should lament and praise and pray day and night” (pg. 150). This reminds me of the way Luther talks about Baptism. “Baptism signifies two things—death and resurrection, that is, full and complete justification… this death and resurrection we call the new creation, regeneration, and spiritual birth” (Martin Luther and the Called Life, pg. 50). As Mechthild wrote, Christians should be aware of their sin and the consequences sin brings. However, though baptism, we are washed new and united with Christ. Luther believed Christians’ identities should be grounded in baptism (Martin Luther and the Called Life, pg. 58).
Mechthild writes about reflecting humbly on her own sins and confessing them before God. “If we want to overcome our shame with great honors, we must clothe ourselves with ourselves. So adorned, I seek Jesus, my sweet Lord, and I find him so quickly by no other means as by those things that are repugnant and burdensome. One should very eagerly step forward with intense desire ashamed of one’s guilt, and with flowing love and humble fear. The filth of sin disappears from the divine sight of our Lord.” (pg. 154). Mechthild’s language of filth is similar to Luther’s language of dying in baptism and the drowning of the old, sinful self. Although she wrote many years before Luther and does not articulate things exactly the same as Luther, I think Mechthild’s writing was close as it focuses on the old self being made new before God.
This week in Honors we focused on the early church and some of the writings from that period. One author who stood out to me after our class discussion was Justin Martyr. In his writing, Justin describes his journey as he learned about various philosophies until he finally discovered Christianity (Callings pp. 36-38). Justin writes about learning and mastering various forms of philosophy until he is led to Christianity by an old man. Justin describes his conversion this way, “But straightaway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher” (pg. 38). As is noted in the introduction to Justin’s writing, many have speculated the old man is a symbol for God, which can bring a deeper meaning to Justin’s writing.
When we discussed this reading in class, Anna pointed out that the old man comes to Justin not when he is searching for philosophical knowledge, but when he is spending time in reflection. Luther, even after rejecting and criticizing the monastic life, recognized the importance of taking time and listening to God. He especially encouraged Christians to reflect on their baptism. In Martin Luther and the Called Life, Mark Tranvik wrote, “Living a called life demands a baptismal foundation. The very first word of our day should not be something on a long list of tasks, but rather, a thankful remembrance of out baptismal identity as a child of God… Finally, the last word of the day is also baptismal. As you close your eyes, the focus is not on what you accomplished or failed to do, but rather, a sense of gratitude that God’s love for you in Christ is the final word to be heard” (79-80).
If one were to accept the idea that Justin meant the old man to be a symbol of God, it may mean Justin was trying to tell the early church to take quiet time and allow God to speak to them. Although God can speak to anyone at any time, after all He cannot be limited by humanity, taking quiet time for reflection and listening to God is a beneficial practice for Christians. David, in the Psalms, speaks of meditating on God’s work many times. “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:11-12). In the busyness of life, it is easy to forget to spend time listening to God, but this is practice encouraged throughout the Bible and theological writings. “Baptism in Christ… grounds us in the freedom of faith and makes us fully alive in the present. And it propels us out into God’s world in our vocations in service of the neighbor” (Martin Luther and the Called Life pg. 81).
One section of Martin Luther and the Called Life that struck me, both reading it and discussing it in class was the section on Mary and Martha (pp. 31-32). For many years this text (from Luke 10:38-42) had been used to prove the contemplative life of monks and nuns was superior to the lives of everyday people. Jesus praised Mary for sitting and listening to Him, and scolded Martha for being too consumed with the business of life. Luther, on the other hand, looked at this text differently. Luther tied his interpretation of the text into his new theology of vocation. Instead of lifting the contemplative life of monks and nuns above the lives of everyday people, Luther believed God can work through anyone in all their vocations. As Mark Tranvik, the author of Martin Luther and the Called Life says, “The world of creation is actually the world of vocation” (pg. 70). To Luther, the story of Mary and Martha did not prove that the contemplative life was better, but that faith is most important and should precede good works.
Many lessons can be learned from Luther’s interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha. The most important one to Luther was that neither Mary nor Martha’s actions granted them salvation. Mary may have made the wiser choice by sitting and listening to Jesus, but this by no means grants her salvation. Through no action of our own can we earn our salvation. “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:18). In a world that is very focused on one’s actions and how to be successful, we are blessed to have a Savior that does not look at our actions, but loves and forgives us as His beloved children.
The story of Mary and Martha has always been a challenge for me. I see a lot of myself in Martha because I always like to be busy and tend to worry about unimportant things. Luther’s interpretation of the story is a reminder to me that I need to be more intentional about spending time investing in my relationship with God and trusting Him to take care of and provide for me. The “good works” I do should be influenced by my faith, and not take precedence over my faith.