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Colombian travels: finding vocations

June 27th, 2005 by isaac · 4 Comments

“What are you studying?” That was the re-occuring question from my cousins, aunts and uncles. In Colombia, apparently, achieving degrees in theology and bible doesn’t make much sense (maybe it doesn’t to most people here in the US either).

I went with my dad and Katie down South for a couple of weeks to visit family I hadn’t seen for over a decade. Whenever the folks down there would find out what I have been doing with the past six years of my life, they ask, “Are you going to be a priest?” “What sort of job will you do?” Yeah, I just didn’t make sense to them. The only people they know who studied what I’m interested in were men going into the priesthood, the “curia.” And if that were even true, it wouldn’t make much sense to their post-christian sensibilities. (It seems the West is not alone!).

For them (and maybe you) education serves the purpose of employment, the attempt to reach for the beyond of everyday poverty, an escape route from the realities of a suffering economy. In Colombia engineering is a popular educational track. Medicine too. All things practical. Not much room for a Socrates, or a wandering rabbi. In the conversations with my Colombian relatives the good life seemed so clear, ends come to appear a bit more definite than I can usually see. And I struggle to explain why I have chosen to spend so much of my time and money in what many consider frivolous.

Maybe, at this point, I can try to come to terms with my post-modern, Gen X sentiments. I have always resisted such categories because it feels like they hide more then they reveal about the unique histories of another human being. And the terms are so malleable that they can come to mean whatever somebody wants at the time (and most often I find that “post-modern” turns out to be something more akin to what Fredric Jameson calls the cultural logic of late capitalism). But if reviewers think Dave Eggers’ new book of short stories How We Are Hungry expresses the post-modern, Gen X ethos, and if I find something of myself in those pages, then maybe I shouldn’t be so resistant to those categories. Maybe I shouldn’t waste my energy building up walls to secure my unique individuality and learn how I am in the same boat as alot of other Americans my age. Maybe I can find something to talk about, something in us that is hard to name or describe concretely, something like a deep hunger, a unique hunger—the hunger Eggers’ characters feel. And maybe I can find some help for making sense of my difference from my cousins.

I read Eggers’ stories some of those early Colombian mornings on my aunt’s back porch while watching the clouds flow up the coffee-covered hills. In those pages, among those corrupted yet desirous characters, I found some of the same hungers my friends and I talk about—a hunger for more of life, the more that makes life meaningful. In a review of Eggers’ book, Jeff Turrentine of the Washington Post compared the humans in the book to the mythical creature pictured on the cover: “Like the gryphon, she’s a beautiful mutant: half of her fearful and heavy, the other half aching to fly heavenward.” Eggers’ characters find themselves struggling to follow their heavenward desires in hopeful directions. Each story displays longings that dare to reach beyond the established way, beyond the paved way. Those hungry characters may find the wrong food, make wrong turns, but the pages speak clearly of that aching hunger hidden deep in the human soul. I guess you can blame it on our cultural moment, but that doesn’t change the way my friends and I hunger… how we are hungry.

Now, I know my Colombian cousins have hungers. And maybe they share some of mine, some of ours. But all those longings are hidden from my eye. Nonetheless, I am left trying to make sense of the way my path seems absurd to them. The only answer I can give myself is that I have become an accultured gringo, bearing more resemblance to the culture of my birth than the people whose blood flows through my veins. And these hungers woven deep into my being now grasp at the God of my parents and those wonderful Sunday school teachers because the mysterious Spirit blew on my sail. Maybe it was an odd mixture of this Western post-modern suspicion of authority, a Gen X discontentment, and the providence of God that directed my hunger pains toward an undergraduate degree in the original languages of the bible (ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek), then onto graduate studies in theology and the bible. Now I feel like a Jacob who is never satisfied with what others (and the Other) offered—always seeking more (Gen. 27ff). Or like those disciples who for some reason said yes to Jesus even though they had no idea what they were getting into, but found meaning in the journey, even if it led to the confusion of Good Friday. Or Mary whose longing to hold onto Jesus was frustrated by the resurrection One (Jn. 20), yet found reason to join the band of followers dedicated to figuring out how a new world is awaiting discovery.

Maybe I am alot more like that nameless character in Eggers’ first story, whose hunger for more of life lead him on a wandering journey through the Egyptian desert, a desperate trip to “Another” (that’s the title of the story). And the “another” turns out to be an-other, a stranger, whose foriegn hunger (he is Egyptian) binds him to the nameless American. They An-other: maybe you…if you want, if you hunger like I do.

  • ——————————————————————————————————————————-
    An afterthought:
    Some say Augustine became a Christian becuase he could never exhaust his discoveries of the Christian God. There was always more to learn, always “another” connection with the divine to explore, always an-other with whom to wander through deserts, like Eggers’ nameless anybody. For St. Augustine, Christianity was the “perpetual satisfaction” of eating from a table of Life that always satisfies but is never enough: “God both satisfies you and fails to satisfy…. If I say that he satisfies you, I fear lest you wish to depart as if you were satisfied: as if from lunch, as if from dinner. Therefore what do I say? That he does not satisfy you? I fear again lest I would say: he does not satisfy you, you seem to be in need, as if you appear more empty and there was something less in you which ought to be filled. What, then, say I say, except what cannot be said, what can hardly be thought? He both satisfied you and does not satisfy you.”

  • Tags: life

    4 responses so far ↓

    • 1 Drew // Jun 27, 2005 at 6:54 pm

      Amen brother! I’ve always found my own desire to learn more in this “dubious” field hard to explain to others, and to myself at times, as well. You’ve certainly hit on something! Have you read much of that book by Jameson? I’ve had it on my shelf of to-be-read books for a while now.

    • 2 Jason // Jun 30, 2005 at 9:08 am

      Great post! I think you nailed exactly where I am at these days, feeling continually discontent, but not empty by any means. I thought maybe it was my imbibing of a post-modern ethos that is suspicious of any fixed structure and so tries to deconstruct it (and maybe it is some of that), but the Scripture stories you remind us of at the end make me think it is something at the heart of Christian spirituality to continually enter “the cloud of unknowing” (to use that great term of the mystics).

      However, I do wonder if my opportunity to study theology, and my tendency to see it as impractical (because I don’t know what I want to do with it!) is only possible because of the privelege of not living in grinding poverty. I think part of the reason that studying theology seems so strange is because in most other countries it means you enter a life of voluntary poverty or it is a luxury you have because you are rich. Neither of which are particularly desirable if you’re just worried about getting food on the table.

    • 3 isaac // Jul 1, 2005 at 1:50 pm

      Drew and Jason, thanks for the comments. Honestly, i put my random thoughts on this random website because i need connections. I need somebody, anybody, just “an-other” to let me know that i am not alone. That something of my musings finds a point of contact with another human being. And I think that need for connection with others is part of the point of Dave Eggers short stories: Gen X-ers stumbling around looking for a connection, someone who “hungers” like me.

      I should stop there, but i know there might be somebody out there that is thinking, “Well, all this ‘hunger’ for connection is because people don’t have Jesus.” I am sure there is a lot to that. But Augustine doesn’t think it is that easy. He talks about the Christian life as a return journey to the essential union of all humanity in Adam, a new Adam that is Christ, that is the church as the body of Christ, a new humanity. The original unity of all humanity in the first Adam is again made possible through the work of the Second Adam, i.e. Christ. So, it is that eschatological longing agitating all our desires (Pascal’s God shaped void at the center of our being) that makes us search for points of connection with other human beings. These moments of “hungry” connection invite the eschatological inbreaking of God’s reconciling work of re-union of Adam, of humanity. These connections might give us a glimpse of what our wholeness in the body of Adam feels like, a glimpse that gives us reason to hope for the promised work of Christ when all longings will be fulfilled.

      Augustine: “Adam himself is therefore now spread out over the whole face of the earth. Originally one, he has fallen, and, breaking up as it were, he has filled the whole earth with the pieces.”

    • 4 Drew // Jul 2, 2005 at 10:32 pm

      It’s funny, Isaac, your comment reminds me of an anime t.v. series that, by the last episode, totally breaks down into this deconstruction (yes, in the technical sense!) of the human being and his or her need for others, pretty much the deconstruction of our own self-image (presumably composed mostly of the multiple “selves” given us by those around us). Being Japanese (as well as thoroughly informed by what seems to me a very theologically “sterile” Sausseurian kind of philosophy), there was no mention of what God may have to do with any of it.

      After seeing it, I really got interested in the whole Structuralism/Post-Structuralism thing, and I also started to wonder where God would fit into a framework like this (if God were allowed by the philosophers to do such a thing). I never investigated these musings in earnest, but some interesting ideas came up. That’s partly why I’ve been so interested in your thoughts on Derrida.

      I agree with you and with Augustine on that idea of our longing to return to what we once were. I think, though, that we were made to long for each other, as well as God, and I wonder if that yearning for what we call “fellowship” is part of what makes us imago dei. I also wonder if that should not be part of the gospel message, that what God longs for is not just that we have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but that all relationships be restored to what was originally intended. It seems that the two ideas of the triune God and of being made in the likeness of that God can really inform the way we view our own social contexts in a much more radical way than is normally preached (well, in my church, at least).