Winter Books
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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

By A.J. Conyers
Spence Publishing Company, 234 pages, $27.95
When a calling became a choice

How the loss of a sense of vocation affects society


History, sociology, literature, theology and even etymology converge in A.J. Conyers’ persuasive The Listening Heart, published posthumously in 2006. Dr. Conyers was a theology professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author of several other books, including The Eclipse of Heaven, How To Read the Bible and The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit.

As in The Long Truce, the key here to an understanding of Dr. Conyers’ intent lies in the subtitle, Vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture. By “vocation,” he means neither a call to religious service nor to a particular career, though these certainly are not mutually exclusive to his major meaning, but a more fundamental responsibility to family, community and society at large. This understanding of vocation will probably be familiar to many in the Catholic church.

-- Sipa Press/Pauze Marc-Andre

A 10-year-old boy in Illakaka, Madagascar digs in the river for sapphire. He and his brothers work full time as miners. "It was only the modern mass enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of America's mineral resources which providec the labor and capital for the development and advancement of the West," Dr. Conyers writes in his book.

In place of this sense of vocation, Dr. Conyers argues, modern society has substituted the idea of choice. As a result, we have increasing violence, the breakdown of the family, the decline of community, and neglect/abuse of the environment. Indeed, “What do you want?” has become the mantra of modern therapy and self-help gurus from Tony Robbins to Oprah Winfrey. And on one level, it can seem to be a benign life principle and even intersect with the bottom-line goal of preserving and serving community. But still, Dr. Conyers argues, when the frame for the organization of society is not vocation but choice, rebellion from community is, ultimately, inevitable.

He traces this shift back to the Enlightenment, when “the aspirations of the human spirit and the longing for distinction play the major role.” Then and afterward, the life-forming question became and remains “What do I want out of life?” or “What shall I make of myself?” By contrast, the vocation-driven individual asks, “How shall I enter wisely and profitably into the life in which I find myself?”

In the area of the environment, for example, a choice-driven raison d’etre has led to a different relationship to nature, with the human being seen as the master of the environment, with nature the servant, rather than its caretaker or collaborator.

The Listening Heart is dense with ideas but not, thanks to the clarity and economy of Dr. Conyers’ prose, daunting to the reader. It’s the kind of book one won’t slog through but might often double back over, rereading sections that are particularly trenchant. And while Dr. Conyers methodically lays out his case -- finding roots in scripture, examples in history and literature, and integrating the related concepts of “place” or “rest” into his prescription for a modern life dedicated to vocation -- The Listening Heart can also profitably be read as a series of stand-alone essays.

Some highlights include an analysis of the relevant theories of Francis Bacon (“knowledge is power”), of the lesser-known 16th-century thinker Jean Bodin (“a modern theory of toleration”), and the historical connection between science and vocation.

By far, the most provocative of these small essays asserts a strong connection between the rise of the preeminence of the individual and the existence and flourishing of slavery. Dr. Conyers notes that during and after the Enlightenment, slavery actually increased when logically it should have been otherwise. He goes on to identify the slave as the ultimate autonomous individual. “Stripped of every human tie, he belongs to no community but to a stranger.” Citing the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann, Dr. Conyers extends the analogy to the present day, where people from the Third World exist in virtual slavery, a state the theologian calls “submodernity”: “History’s fine messianic top coat has its ugly apocalyptic underside.”

The spectacular gains of the First World, Dr. Conyers goes on, reflect the sufferings of the developing world. “It was only the modern mass enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of America’s mineral resources which provided the labor and capital for the development and advancement of the West.”

An afterword reprints the eulogy delivered at Dr. Conyers’ 2004 funeral by his brother, the Rev. James Conyers. It serves both to crystallize the book’s central thesis and present it with an appropriate infusion of warmth.

If there is a fault with Dr. Conyers’ prose, it’s that the measured precision of his writing tends to leach out the passion that undoubtedly underlies his motivation. Copious chapter notes provide avenues for further reading.

The Listening Heart provides a fascinating diagnosis as well as a compelling prescription.

Dave DeChristopher is a novelist and playwright.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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