“Love, and Do What You Will”
On Will Willimon’s “The Unchosen Calling,” Autumn 2019: As a Catholic priest, I’m grateful for this article’s attempt to address modernity’s approach to faith as a means of personal fulfillment. Willimon argues, “Christians assert the un-American conviction that our lives are less interesting than the God who assigns us.” Our attention to God should inform every choice, not just the choices we call “ethical.” God entered our human life fully and calls us to enter his life fully. This runs up against the modern dictate that we own ourselves, that we have made ourselves.
It’s true that vocation is God’s calling, and not “your bundle of need and desire.” I hesitate, though, to entirely reject desires and talents in the vocational decision. They are themselves part of God’s gifts to us; they are themselves responsive to what God does in us.
As Augustine tells us, everyone is drawn by his own delight, and part of what Augustine realizes in the Confessions is that these delights are themselves changed and shaped by God. The modern problem with the idea of vocation is not just its subjectivity, its quest to find what might fulfill us by introspection into “what I truly desire,” but also an unwillingness to consider how changeable we and our desires really are. The problem then lies in sorting out which of our desires are good, and which are an invitation to chase after the wind.
This same dynamic applies in all questions of ethics. Modernity sees the fulfillment of desire as the final aim of the human life. Humans should be free to fulfill those desires, so long as they don’t prevent anyone else from doing so, or cause harm. We’re individual units, occasionally in proximity to each other; we’re free to the extent that we’re able to move about without colliding in an objectionable way against other similar units.
But this isn’t reality. We don’t believe this vision of humanity, because we recognize the sovereignty of God over even our desires, and we recognize those desires as only part of a relationship with God and with each other. We are members of the natural societies of family and polity, with their corresponding loves and obligations, and it’s as such members that God deals with us. He deals with us, too, as those called to play a role in the building up of another society, the church, the body of Christ – and that church is charged, finally, with this task of discerning where each of us fit in this great work.
Augustine pointed out that what made actions good or bad was whether they were done in love or hatred. And so he says “love and do what you will.” But we human beings are extremely good at self-deception and can convince ourselves falsely that this or that action is genuinely loving. The love Augustine had in mind was not our achievement, but our full participation in a love which is prior and superior to us: the love of God for us, shown in sending his Son into the world that we may have life, and loving us in all our unlovability in order to make us able to love.