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The Three Conversions Embedded in Personal Calling
The more I looked at this idea of call, of being called, of having a call, the more obscurities began to develop in my mind. I decided to look at it under a different lens than has been previously used to understand it. That lens is the notion of conversion. Not conversion from no faith to faith or from one faith to another. The conversion I have in mind is threefold. It is a conversion, first, from the biases one brings to interpreting reality to accurately hearing the ever-unfolding call that reality itself emits. Following Bernard Lonergan, I will call this an intellectual conversion. The second conversion is to hearing the call to live meaningfully, as this is construed through the meaning-making communities of which one is a part. In a derived way, Bernard Lonergan would refer to this as moral conversion. The third conversion is from living a good life to living a life that abides in love. With some further specification of my own, I will refer to this as affective conversion—again inspired by Lonergan. Some of the obscurity about personal calling, I believe, can be overcome by these three compenetrating conversions.
All three conversions produce a condition of ongoing self-transcendence: the first to reality, the second to a tradition of meaning, the third to love and to the unique way one is to express it, which I will term charism. As I hope to explain in more detail, the first, ongoing call to which all human beings are invited is extended to them from no less a caller than reality itself. To hear it is to undergo a continual conversion out of a self-enclosed immanence. Intellectual conversion invites one to deepen one's grasp of the way things are, while refraining from imposing on reality what we would like it to be. Moral conversion, the focus of the second section of this essay, is a call to move away from self-satisfying, ignorant choices and self-interested perception of the good to authentic values and meaningful choices. Affective conversion, the focus of the third section, calls one to live a life of love for God and neighbor in the particular way in which the individual is called to love. These three conversions fold into one another, each pushing the others for completion.
I. Conversion to Reality
Of the three, intellectual conversion is the most universal way of awakening to call. But it is also the most crucial. Lonergan's profound analysis of how our minds work might be clarified somewhat if we were to unpack four of his preferred terms: intentionality, objectivity, meaning, and rational self-consciousness. About intentionality: he saw the human being as driven to self-transcendence by the desire to know everything. This insatiable eros to know manifests itself in a voracious seeking of answers to questions. In the process of arriving at answers, one transcends one's subjectivity and attains to the real to the extent that the process isn't diverted by prejudgments or self-interested feelings. About objectivity: he didn't see it as something that was over against the subject's subjectivity, but as attained by subjects being attentive to objects and allowing them to speak for themselves, so to speak. The dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity is easily misconstrued. Lonergan makes a good case for seeing authentic subjectivity as able to attain to objectivity. About meaning: it is arrived at by judgments about the truth or the lack of truth in one's intuitions, insights, and understandings, as these are derived from experience, and from our prima facie look at the data of sense and consciousness. And, finally, about rational self-consciousness: this refers to when we leap from what we have judged to be what is, what the reality is, what is true, to the decision to act on it as good. When the true is judged to be good, good for me/us, and therefore the right thing to do, we are in a volitional level of consciousness, which enables us to deliberate and choose who it is we will become.
Lonergan's ideas drive us all the way back to the primordial Aristotelian questions that humans have always asked and answered for themselves about concrete reality as it impinges on them. Their questions are: What is it? Is it so? Is it of value? Is it of value to me or us? Do I choose to act on this or that judgment of value? These seem to be the ever-present questions that face us as we continue on in the process of making ourselves into who we are in answer to the call being extended to us from reality in all its concreteness. Lonergan would describe this whole process, if done reflectively, as a conversion to authenticity. We are inauthentic insofar as we are inattentive to the data our senses can supply and the data of our conscious processes. We are also inauthentic if the process of apprehending the intelligible is sloppy, rushed, or lazy. Likewise, we can be inauthentic at the point of judgment about the apprehensions our reason proposes to us. And finally, we can be inauthentic if we choose other than what we know to be true and, therefore, good for us to be or do. In brief, we are obeying reality if we are attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. We are not if we come down on the opposite side of these "precepts."
Lonergan's analysis of intellectual conversion is a very useful foundation for discerning call. The unceasing and most universal level of call is to be authentic by living in reality, by judging what is and being responsive to it, by judging what is not real and naming it as such. This call comes into our consciousness through our senses and understandings. It is a call to live in reality and to make our choices accordingly. The student who cannot pass college biology courses has to deal with the reality that he is not called to be a doctor. Intellectual conversion is not a matter of IQ but of refusing to act from fantasies or fears, biases or ideologies, or any other merely subjective state. Intellectual conversion is a conversion to knowledge. As Lonergan pithily puts it: "Knowledge, in the proper sense, is knowledge of reality; knowledge is intrinsically objective; knowledge is the intrinsic relation of knowing to being; being and reality are identical."
Since Lonergan's spirituality was Ignatian, he sought to find God in all things. But he wanted to make sure that the things were really there in the first place. Lonergan's epistemology, therefore, is technically that of a critical realist. The critical part comes from the intending subject, and the realism part comes from the inbreaking object. Critical realism is the mean between two extremes. Naive realism, the one extreme, is too obeisant to and uncritical about the object. And the other extreme consists of all the forms of idealism, in the philosophical sense of that term, that settled on knowing reality through alleged categories immanent in the subject. These fail to do justice to the object as it is in itself and wherein God can be found to be actively present.
II. Conversion to Meaning
So far, I have said that people are being true to their calls by seeking to know the truth in the myriad daily little and big ways it continually addresses them. The second way to understand call is as a conversion to the ever-unfolding good, to the ways of being and doing that are seen as the right and valuable way of choosing to be. Moral conversion is the movement of the subject from impulsive, self-regarding acts to the choice of values that are self-transcending. Like intellectual conversion, moral conversion is moving toward authenticity—but now the emphasis is on the good and a life constituted by meaning.
But where does this knowledge of meaning and the good come from? We don't make knowledge of what is good out of whole cloth. It would seem that it comes from the experiences of the self in the several communities within which we operate. Accounts of the good and of meaning are socially received. We are not open to all possibilities but only to those valorized by our norming communities. We learn from others whom we take to be trustworthy about what counts as good and what to value in our life and career choices. These norming communities, in turn, convey their particular versions of the good by what their members value or by the narratives they tell and seek to embody. These models and their choices shape the horizon of meaning in those who identify with them. Trusted figures who embody traditions convey a sense of the meaningful, of what is a meaningful way to live and what would be a meaningful purpose for which to give one's life. The possibilities to be sorted out about personal call come from such figures and, in turn, from the meaning-making communities of which they are members.
A call would have to include a conversion of one's moral conduct from living to meet one's own wants to living with a larger agenda. Of course, it would be superficial and hardly merit the description of a conversion if it simply left the judgment about right acts to an inherited moral code or a career choice to a tradition, neither of which one has made one's own. This misunderstanding of a conversion would invite one into a psychological condition of heteronomy.
The genesis of a personal call frequently comes from a religious faith's account of what would constitute a purposeful life, as that faith tradition understands it. These understandings are conveyed horizontally before they are explained vertically. So, whether we are talking about the good as moral conduct or as a valuable life commitment, one must make one's own what has been socially mediated. One's choices must be one's own to be moral. Being influenced by a respected tradition is not the same as being determined by it, as if from without. That would be tantamount to a conversion to a fundamentalism whereby one hands over the role of judgment to an authority extrinsic to oneself. We make ourselves who we are by internalized judgments of fact and judgments of value for which we are beholden to others. What we inherit as social beings must be appropriated by our own interiority.
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A moral or religious tradition is always incomplete. It is a never-finished argument between the members of the community who have been shaped by its past renderings about meaning and values and the shape of the good. Members' life choices are made in the light of these and, at the same time, these choices take sides about the ongoing arguments that these accounts of meaning, value, and the good foment.
III. Affective Conversion
An affective conversion is a conversion to love. It affects and heightens the energy that goes into all of one's choices. Before elaborating further on this kind of conversion I want to mention friendship, since that phenomenon has its foot in both the already described moral conversion and in the affective one I will develop in this section. Friendships are the smallest norming communities we freely enter into. A freely chosen friendship is entered into because the friend is valued, at least initially. To enter into a friendship is to enter a world of values, which may or may not confirm and reinforce my own. Friendships, therefore, confirm, enlarge, or challenge one's version of the good. They can also entail diversion from my deepest values and moral norms. Friendship is the stuff of both moral and affective conversion.
Most comments on friendship are mere footnotes on the ideas Plato and Aristotle had about the subject twenty-five centuries ago. Plato's experience was that he heard a call to wisdom and beauty coming through the relationships he had with his friends. His friends sound at times like they were being made means to the end of his contemplating the archetypal ideas of the eternal realm. For Aristotle, true friendship was a way of coming to know the good in greater depth and committing to it. Through good friends one is called to a deeper grasp of the good, which is always moving us into a greater degree of self-transcendence. That happens because we learn to desire their good for their sakes rather than our own. In other words, a true friendship is a call to authenticity that assists one in the self-transcending that a conversion requires. An inauthentic "friendship," by contrast, will be an occasion for deepening one's confusion about the good, the valuable, and the meaningful.
An affective conversion is multilayered. It is always catalyzed by love, but at its zenith point it becomes a love that is initiated by God for God. This experience of God loving one admits of many degrees. It is seldom a sudden experience and it is one that usually ebbs and flows. The measure of the depth of this level of conversion is whether one abides in love and whether one's choices express that love. St. Paul names the Spirit as the source of this conversion. "The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 5:5). This Spirit gift, for Catholic Christians, is experienced as the completion or flowering of what began in them at their sacramental baptism with the conferral on them of the theological virtue of caritas. The experience of abiding in God's love completes all that goes on in intellectual and moral conversion, and in fact may come before either of them.
Lonergan includes a whole range of loves under this rubric of affective/religious, self-transcending conversion. There is the self-transcendence of true friendship, the love of one's spouse, one's child, one's family, church, community, nation, God. Love is indivisible! "Where love is, God is, for God is love" (1 John 4:8). Therefore, there are many levels to abiding in love that, if it is love, all have their source in God, without those experiencing their love as necessarily coming from God or as love of God. Abiding in God's love is the fullness of affective conversion. With human loves there is almost always an unevenness, with enough self-regard admixed with other-regarding until the relationship matures into real love or backslides into all the other forms of relating that fall short of love.
There is more mystery than clarity about this outpouring of the spirit of love in the heart of a person that ultimately is the best explanation of an affective conversion. Some of the questions that beg for light are: Why has caritas flowered into an abiding love in this one rather than that one? When does this occur? Under what conditions does this happen? If it happens, how is it experienced? What are the effects? Are there degrees of it? What does it have to do with call, with being called? What does personal vocation have to do with this outpoured love that is religious conversion? I know that most of us do not know very much about these questions, so I will expound on the little I know.
I believe that considerable insight into these questions can be gained by having recourse to a singular event in the New Testament. That event is Pentecost, the descent of the Spirit of Christ on Jesus' followers fifty days after his resurrection from the dead. This event is the opening curtain on the character and consequence of the Holy Spirit's outpouring of love into humans' hearts.
The Pentecost event, as it is described in Acts 2:1–12, is a Spirit theophany that can reveal many of the dimensions of the affective conversion, which is always a call to love. When the spirit of love was outpoured into hearts, what did the recipients do? They ceased being over against one another and became one body, one in the Spirit of Christ. "Tongues as of fire" first came to rest on each of them, but then apparently disappeared into their hearts, which burned with love. Immediately this love translated into deeds—the deeds of words. They were no sooner loved than they were missioned, on mission. Their mission was to make God s love, which had made them one, known to others who were puzzled about what their experience meant. The call of each of these followers of Jesus was simply to love. The energy of the Spirit they received enabled them to love. The commandment Jesus left them with (i.e., to love one another) is now their collective and individual vocation. Their vocation is to walk in the way of the Lord, in the light of the Spirit, with a love for one another. They understood this vocation as coming from Christ who had loved them to his death and would now love them to the end with the gift of his Spirit.
The text is vividly eloquent about how immediately missionary this energy of love is. The disciples are on mission from the start. This mission takes the form of each "making bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them" (Acts 2:6). What is unique to this essay is the contention that it was with the charisms that their mission of love was to be enacted. Here, the Spirit conferred on the disciples charisms of speech that enabled each language group in Jerusalem at the time to hear and understand as its own language. The charisms of tongues and bold speech bore such eloquent witness to God in their midst that, as the story goes, "some 3,000 were added their number that day" (Acts 2:41). Luke's account testifies both to the outpouring of the Spirit and to its distinctiveness in each of those receiving it.
The purpose of the charisms (to make manifest the love of God to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see) has not differed from that day to this, although the Church's understanding of its mission has become more universal and worldly than it was on the initial evangelization of Pentecost. By worldly, I mean the Church now understands her mission as assisting all "to uncover, cherish and ennoble all that is true, good, and beautiful in the human community" (#76 Gaudium et Spes).
Excerpted from Revisiting the Idea of Vocation Copyright © 2004 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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