Our Callings Are Precious – Michael Eric Dyson

What is your calling? Many of us actually have several in this complex society. I’ve been enjoying the first 50 or so pages of The Michael Eric Dyson Reader*, in which he talks several times about his calling to be “an intellectual.” Dyson is controversial – a word which sometimes just means the target is talking seriously about important things – but I don’t think he will cause you any heart attacks. (As usual, I added some underlines and boldings.)

I can’t remember when I became an intellectual – a person with a great passion to think and study and to distribute the fruits of his labor in useful form … There is no great advantage in admitting that one is, or wants to be, an intellecutal. (For confirmation, one need only look at politics …) (p xix)

He is (or was two years ago) “Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities” at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also a preacher, and has been a pastor.

It’s nearly as tough these days being a preacher as it is being an intellectual, particularly with the ignorance that parades under the banner of religious belief.

He’s willing to take positions that don’t fit today’s version of political correctness.

… errant believers like me who feel that God doesn’t need the protection of the state. (p xx)

So does he think of intellectual work as a calling?

My religious background has a lot to do with how I see the life of the mind: not as career but vocation, and not as a pursuit isolated from the joy and grief of ordinary folk, but as a calling to help hurting humanity … to talk back to suffering – and if possible to relieve it. I wanted to be as smart as I could be about the pain and heartache of people I knew were unjustly oppressed …

The intellectuals I admire most are just as eager to preach resistance to ignorance, pain, and yes, evil, as evangelists are to promulgate spiritual salvation. I haven’t the slightest interest in using my academic perch to proselytize students or colleagues to my way of thinking about God. (Get me in a pulpit, and it’s a different matter altogether.) (p xx)

He deals radically with the old problem of which is more crucial in your presence in the world – the formal shape of your theology, or the practical shape of your moral life?

If I had to choose I’d rather sink with the atheists who say they don’t believe in God, yet love God’s children, and show it with the work they do and in their compassion for the vulnerable, than rise with believers whose view of God is shriveled and vicious, and who punish others, and themselves, ultimately, with hard-hearted moralizing, and a cruel indifference to the suffering of the unwashed that grows from the despostic ill-temperedness of the self-righteous. (p xx1)


Then a few sentences on the responsibilites of an intellectual vocation.

It was Jesse Jackson who once remarked to me, “If you say something I can’t understand, that’s a failure of your education, not mine,” and he was right. (p xxvii)

I work hard to stimulate the gift God gave me. I’m constantly striving to get better, to get clearer, sharper, and more eloquent. I think one of the ways that occurs is through testing ourselves in situations where people are unpersuaded by our beliefs and we have to make a case for them with as much passion and precision as possible …

I want young people to say the same thing about intellectual engagement [as about sports] … I want young people to say, as the folk in the ’60s and ’70s used to say, “Got to be mo’ careful,” in admiration of such linguistic and intellectual skill. Not for show, but for war, against ingnorance, misery, and oppression. I want young folk to say, “I wish I could do that. I wish I could be like Mike!” I have no qualms in hoping for that, because I want to seduce young people unto excellence, since they’ve often been sabotaged by mediocrity. (p 16)

… structural humility is surely in order. The best we can do is to represent the truth as honestly and clearly as we understand it, with all the skills at our disposal … if we truly believe that our vocations are manifestations of ultimate purpose we’ll want to do our level best to stay at the top of our games as an acknowledgment of the gifts God has given us.

And that last sentence applies no matter what the vocation(s) may be – certainly not only to intellecutual work!

*The book is The Michael Eric Dyson Reader, 2004, Basic Civitas Books.

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  • It was Jesse Jackson who once remarked to me, “If you say something I can’t understand, that’s a failure of your education, not mine,â€? and he was right. (p xxvii)

    Hmm, a good point, – that lodges with me. I’ll have to ponder over what this admonition means for myself, in practical terms. For I’m quite aware, I could often do with more clarity and ease in expression.

    On the other hand, – just a little niggling afterthought, some challenging idea (meant neither rhetorically nor offensive at all):

    Where is the exact difference between ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’ understand (the last being very near to meaning ‘are not ready to take to pains trying … [to understand]’

    That’s no way to excuse myself; a lot of what I write is indeed so convolute as to be un-understandable for quite a lot of people; I (hope I) will learn to do better. But one reason why I still fail, is that I am haunted by another question:

    Is there really a possibility to draw a clear border-line between intellectual and moral intricacies; and if – as I suppose – there is not, where do I reach the point of certainty, where I know simplicity is also ease and fairness, i.e. a virtue, no blunder, be it rude or permissive? Where do I reach the point, where I know those kind of self-assured simplifications that are core and secret of intelligible thinking are morally justified too (not only rhetorically or emotionally)?

    To give some clear example (indeed it’s no example in the strict sense, it’s the theme of this article, put in my own words): It is quite intelligible to say (I) nobody will enter heaven who doesn’t believe in Jesus (and then to affix all kind of dogmatical “post-conditions� to effectively obliterate that apparently too simple criterion on the second blush). It is likewise rather intelligible to state (II) all creeds have a shred of truth (or: mean essentially the same) and therefore only “goodness� or “trueness� or whatever (essentially inner, not really ascertainable or definable) criterion counts in the final resort. But it is also beyond any doubt that none of those extreme positions has succeeded (or is likely to ever succeed) to convince a majority of Americans (or any people raised in the Christian tradition) that by its assumptions the Biblical message is (a) truly heeded and (b) unambiguously made relevant for our moral lives.

    But once you set out trying to not only define, but to implement (within the structure of your thinking) a third alternative (assuming that “belief in Jesusâ€? is something deeper than ‘believing to believe in Jesus’ / ‘consciously believe’ in Jesus – thereby paying attention to the differences that different people have in their knowledge of Christ, without introducing a spurious “right to ignoranceâ€? against the Gospel), once you only set out to thus dismiss untenable positions (see above, (I) and (II), untenable as I take them to be) – you immediately arrive at some degree of intellectual intricacy which those who do not appreciate the moral intricacy of said quandary will judge an unncessarily complication and therefore complain against as rendering your thinking un-understandable … or at least not credible for lack of clarity (!?)

    Okay, here I am again, being convolute as ever… I’m sorry, but be encouraged to ask for clarifications whenever you like! I love anyone who will not blame my style, but rather suspects some meaning in it and, perhaps, even manages to reproduce it by simpler mental operations.

  • Thanks. i needed that.

    too bad i didn’t read it thoroughly until now… i should have printed it out and handed a copy to the two who were talking down to me in their ignorance last night.

    “I’d rather sink with the atheists who love God’s children.” Amen.

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