Why Are You Here? On Vocation and the Liberal Arts

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On Saturday I gave a lecture to the incoming Freshman class at Furman University, titled "Why Are You Here? Life, Learning, and the Liberal Arts." The purpose of the annual series is to provide an introduction to the Cultural Life Program and to help students reflect on why they are in college and how they should approach the next 4 years.

I decided to discuss Furman as a Liberal Arts university and the moments of serendipity it will offer, and the necessary but difficult task of discerning and living out one's vocational calling.

I was very pleased and honored to be asked to speak. The committee who invited me expressed interest in having something along the lines of the Phi Beta Kappa lecture I gave last year that also had "Why Are You Here" in the title. [You can read that older piece here.] The purpose of the Phi Beta Kappa lecture was to defend the role of biblical studies and theology within a Liberal Arts curriculum. This new lecture has a different focus, and I think can be understood as an illustration of the basic argument I made last year. Anyway, this is just to explain why I have two different presentations with similar titles.

Below is most of the introduction, to give you a sense of whether you'd like to read it. I plan to post some further reflections on the topic of vocation as we go through this first week of class.

Why Are You Here? Life, Learning the Liberal Arts

Good morning, and let me be the first to say, Welcome to Furman! What, have you heard that before now? OK, let me be the first to say how smart, and talented, and good looking you all are! Hm, you've heard that too? OK, how about this: let me be the first to tell you that this isn't high school anymore, and that Furman will awesome but academically very challenging!

Now that I think about it, you have heard it all before. All the platitudes and generalizations and pats on the back and empty advice. Give 110%! Live, love, laugh! You can change the world! You can do it! The world is your oyster! Each of you is a precious snowflake!

I read somewhere that two snowflakes actually can be alike, so I Googled it and found a scientist at Cal Tech who says that the answer "depends on just what you mean by 'alike,' and on just what you mean by 'snowflake.'" Turns out that "nano-snowflakes" can be similar, but it's unlikely that two complex snowflakes would be identical. Well, that's an example of an academic ruining a perfectly good saying. You will see this demonstrated again and again over the next 4 years.

OK, let's try this again. Welcome to Furman! Each of you is a precious, complex snowflake, statistically unlikely to be identical to any other precious, complex snowflake, certainly not one of those dime-a-dozen nanosnowflakes.

I have been given the task this morning to address the question "Why Are You Here?" My talk will have two sections. First, I want to answer the question, "why are you here at Furman" by talking about Furman and its place in the Liberal Arts tradition, and what it means that we have all gathered here. Second, I want to answer the question, "why are you here, alive in this world." I argue that each of you has a calling, a vocation, which may come to you in surprising ways. I want to explore that argument through some observations about prophetic Call Narratives in the Hebrew Bible. And at the end I want to tell you a story about rafting.

My central argument this morning is based on the observation that life is complex, and unpredictable, and sometimes confusing and frustrating. It takes carefully integrated study and analysis to understand the world in which we live, and that is the sort of education that you have before you. Understanding your place in this world is not as simple as believing yourself to be a precious snowflake and that the world is your oyster. Rather, we must dig deeper and listen carefully to discern and live out our vocation in the world.

Read or download it at Academia.edu.