Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good won an award of merit in Christianity Today's 2015 Book Awards.

Living in Washington, D.C., for many years now, I have come to the conclusion that while the world at large may criticize the city for its hubris, “the Beltway mentality” and all, the reality is that the city is cynical. It is a surprise to the innocent, but twisted virtues that vices are, hubris and cynicism nourish each other, the one the breeding ground for the other. Vices are always like that, skewing what it means to be human, becoming vicious in the end and destroying what might have been.

People come from all over America and the world wanting to put their shoulders to history. For six months or six years they may try, and then inevitably conclude that Washington is too much of a mess—and anyone who knows, knows that it is a mess. But the question which was first asked in the Garden, primordial and perennial as it was, is asked again of everyone who comes to town:

Knowing what you know, what are you going to do?

Many decide to leave, and they return to Des Moines or Austin, sure that they have tried Washington and found it wanting. In the globalizing political economy of the twenty-first century, others come from Egypt or India, and often they too return home, now knowing Washington and its ways, determined to make their future in their own society, drawing on the best and worst of what they learned. Others stay and commit themselves to the hard task of “doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God,” even as they know that Machiavelli got to Washington before Micah.

And still others cynically work the city that is now theirs, making sure that they get what they want, sure that everyone else is doing the same thing.

The Long History of Cynicism

For many years I taught on Capitol Hill, drawing students into visions of public responsibility. We read together, as they went off into the city week after week for internships in all kinds of settings, for-profit and non-profit, governmental and non-governmental, and we talked about this challenge. Often I would put on the whiteboard this syllogism:

Justice is an ideal.

Ideals are utopian and unrealistic.

Justice is utopian and unrealistic.

Hoping an honest conversation might act as an antidote, my burden was knowing that the city would do its best to eat them, with subtlety perhaps, but in the end there would be a devouring of their earnest motivations for vocations in the public square. Our teaching was hard work, and I always felt as if we were engaged in a struggle for the hearts and minds of our students, fighting for the way the world would turn out.

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In the strange calculus of history and the human heart, the subtle temptation of cynicism confounds our best efforts at working toward a common good. Sometimes all we can do is name the problem, cancerous as it is to a good life and a good society. Some, of course, do not see it as a problem, instead embracing it as the reality of realities.

That is part of the long history of cynicism, of course. From the earliest Cynics like Antisthenes and Diogenes in the time of Socrates, it was an honest effort to see through theories and metaphysical abstractions in favor of on-the-ground life, the practice of living.

Rather than being taught by the gods, mediated through social conventions as that must be, cynics saw life itself as the teacher, believing we learn from nature the way we are to live. Look around you! See for yourself. Stop imagining a world that does not exist. Be real.

Of course it is a perennial problem to theorize without a true concern for the everyday realities of human life. People in every age resist those who imagine a better world than the one in which we have to live, full of strain and struggle as it is. We cry out, “But you don’t know!” rejecting the counsel as irrelevant because it is not grounded in the way things are.

But that is the point of tension too. How are things? What is the truth about life? What ought we to expect of others, and of life? We debate those questions all day long, in education and politics, in families and neighborhoods, in the marketplaces of life large and small. And whether we are Greek Cynics from long ago or very modern men and women who make our way into the realpolitick of the cities of this world, there is enough disappointment, malice and corruption to cause us to wonder whether justice is more than an ideal. A nice idea, but please—we have to live in the world that is really there.

And it was “the world” that intrigued the Cynics. Dissatisfied with being a polites, a citizen of a particular place, a polis, Diogenes preferred to be known as “a citizen of the world,” a kosmopolites, or cosmopolitan. In the nuances of moral and political philosophy, grounded in the human heart as those visions always are, the Cynics did not disdain “places,” but rather saw their place as cosmic, belonging to the universe.

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Like most of life, there is a yes and a no to that sense of self, so very cosmopolitan as it is. To see oneself as engaged by the world, as responsible for the world, is right; to see oneself as unbound by ordinary relationships and responsibilities for a people and a place is a problem. In that view, one never has to commit to the common good, full of complexity as it is, as one can always stand outside, because it is possible to stand apart from the underbelly of history and not be implicated in its mess.

No One Is Clean

But it is a pregnant image, “a citizen of the world”—and it invites a question: What is the world, and what is it really like? One of the best chroniclers of contemporary geo-politics is the British novelist John Le Carré. From The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, to Smiley’s People, to The Honourable Schoolboy ,to The Constant Gardner, to The Most Wanted Man, to The Mission Song, he draws on his own years of spying for England in the MI5 and MI6 to tell his tales of the intelligence service through the Cold War and its end; in the years since then he has taken up global corporate machinations as the subject of his work.

Every story is remarkably engaging and sobering. A very gifted writer, Le Cairé is brilliant, novel by novel taking up the most complex dynamics of the political economies of the modern world.

If one story is Russia, post-USSR, with politicians full of malice doing business with kindred spirits in the West, another is Africa in all its hope and despair, with warring tribes set against global economic interests that profit when Africa suffers. Le Carré is a master story-teller, seeing the evil of the human heart played out in public and political arenas—and he expects his readers to come to the same conclusion that he has.

In a word, he is a cynic—about individuals and institutions, about persons and polities, about anyone and anything that has to do with power and money. And why not? There many good reasons to be cynical. Governments do betray their citizens, sometimes with tragic consequences. Nations do sacrifice long-term good for short-term gain, sometimes with intentional injustice written into the equation. People who really know what goes on in government and corporate bureaucracies have a very hard time not believing that everyone and everything is corrupt. They have seen too much.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s inimitable image, they are men and women who know too much. Le Carré captures this insightfully and eloquently. There have been many nights over many years when I have set his novels down, sure that the world is a better place because Le Carré has written another story. His sensibility about the nuances of the human heart rings true to my own heart and to people that I know. His instincts about motives, true and false, seem plausible, given what I have experienced. But there is also a sense of shame too, as I read him.

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It is almost as if I have been a voyeur, looking in on life in a way that is illegitimate, a way that is intentionally perverse. Yes, I know that Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian politician, was painfully right about political life, about the human heart getting close to political realities, when he said that “if we want to respect sausage or law then we must not watch either being made.” But as I read Bismarck, there is a hard-won realism that is different than Le Carré’s cynicism.

Take The Constant Gardner, one of his novels, which also has become a film. It is about the world where global economic interests butt up against global health interests which butt up against global political interests. A complex and complicated world it is, and sausage-making is the reality that runs through the story. The British government has a part in the story, but a health crisis in Kenya does too, as does a British pharmaceutical company—and no one is clean, in fact, no one has integrity. The sausage has been made, and it stinks; it has made some people very wealthy, others have died from it. Only the naive refuse the logic of cynicism.

To keep going in the world, we cannot afford to be romantics. Even if we acknowledge that Pollyanna is fictional, we know the temptation and allure to imitate her. We do want all to be well, for all to be happy. “Life is good,” the T-shirts promise, and we buy them by the truckload. Well, sometimes in some places, but not very often in the massive ghettoes of Nairobi, which is where Le Carré takes us in The Constant Gardner. And when money and power are to be had, there are few who say no. Almost no one.

More the Way It Ought to Be

But there are exceptions. And it is here that Le Carré’s cynicism is more a protection of his heart than a truthful account of the heart.

Whether conscious or not, intentional or not, the temptation to cynicism is always a way of keeping one’s heart from being wounded, again.

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Given my work and my city, I have watched scores of hundreds of twenty-somethings come to Washington, bright-eyed and bushytailed, ready for life, wanting to affect the way the world turns out.

For most it does not take very long smelling the sausage being made. Before long, cynicism begins to grow as they see and hear more than they ever imagined.

But I have also watched many who are now older, seasoned as they are, who can remember a day when they too believed that justice was worth working for but who now know that it isn’t, because it only exists in university bull-sessions. After all, they are not twenty-one-year-olds anymore! They know how the world really works. And of course they are very willing to tell twenty-one-year-olds that they’d better get on with the real business of politics, which is using it for one’s own end. As one senior aide in the Senate told one of my students who had asked about the meaning of justice for a particular national debate in which his senator was a key participant, “Justice is crap! Grow up!” And for a half-hour he harangued her for even imagining that justice, inscribed though it might be on the buildings of Capitol Hill, had anything to do with Realpolitick, with the real business of politics. (Answering the question What is real? turns out to be more than an academic question, because how we define it has far-reaching consequences.)

There is much to be cynical about—and it is a good answer if there has not been an incarnation. But if that has happened, if the Word did become flesh, and if there are men and women who in and through their own vocations imitate the vocation of God, then sometimes and in some places the world becomes something more like the way it ought to be.

Taken from Visions of Vocation by Steven Garber. Copyright (c) 2014 by Steven Garber. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good
Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good
256 pp., 12.29
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