Shayne Looper: Well-planned, summoned and transformed
A friend sent me a recent New York Times op-ed column by David Brooks titled, “The Summoned Self.” In it Brooks compares two ways to approach life. He refers to them as the Well-Planned Life and the Summoned Life.
In the Well-Planned Life one comes up with an overall purpose and, in the light of that purpose, makes tough decisions about allocating time, energy and talent. The Well-Planned Life is about “finding the right metrics, efficiently allocating resources and thinking about marginal costs.” The Well-Planned Life plans, well – life, in all its dimensions: personal, spiritual, educational, vocational and recreational.
The other approach, which Brooks calls the Summoned Life, sees life not as a “project to be completed,” but “an unknowable landscape to be explored.” The person leading this life does not begin with a purpose but a curiosity. She does not ask, “What should I do?” but “What are my circumstances asking me to do?”
As Brooks points out, both approaches have value. His characterization of them parallels the British scholar N. T. Wright’s summary of the two most common ways people approach moral decisions. One asks, “What are the rules?” The other asks, “What will best express the real me?”
According to Wright, these two approaches represent the two frameworks of moral thought within which most people operate today. We might call the one “Be True to the Rules” and the other, “Be True to Yourself.”
Both approaches have something to commend them. Keeping rules pays tribute to the wisdom of great men and women of the past, and recognizes the legitimacy of divine revelation. Being true to yourself acknowledges that there is more to life that keeping rules, that God is more concerned about who we are than about what we do.
But each approach has its Achilles’ heel. One can “keep the rules” and yet be a fearful, angry person. Instead of keeping rules as a way of showing love to God and one’s fellow-man, keeping the rules can be a way of excelling one’s fellow-man and keeping God at a distance.
And the value of “being true to oneself” depends on what sort of self one happens to be. When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire on their fellow students at Columbine High School, they no doubt felt they were being true to their real selves. The same could be said of Osama bin Laden and the men who flew commercial planes into the World Trade Center.
According to the Christian view, we are not our true selves — not yet, anyway. The true self lies in the future, and today’s choices move us toward it. Hence we often find that we cannot be true to the self we are now without being shamefully untrue to the self we desire to become.
Rather than being “true to the rules” or “true to yourself,” the Christian way calls us to be “true to the truth” — the larger truth of who God is and what he intends for us. The way to this life is not through exploring my feelings about who I really am or by checking off all the rules I succeeded in keeping today, but by cooperating with grace in taking steps that will gradually conform the “current me” to the one God intends me to be.
Aristotle spoke of this process in terms of the development of virtue (a concept that has been almost entirely overlooked in today’s world). The great Christian thinker, Paul the apostle, spoke of it as a renewal of the mind, leading to a transformation of character.
Every great religion (and many a secular philosophy) has offered means to achieving this kind of character development. The Christian way, though not well-understood, is, I believe, the most realistic. It begins with following not a rule or a feeling, but a person: Jesus.
Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.