Review: Leading Lives That Matter, Second Edition

Leading Lives That Matter (Second Edition), Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: An anthology on what the well-lived life looks like exploring four important vocabularies and six vital questions through a range of religious and secular readings.

How might we live lives that matter? To whom or what will I listen as I discern my vocation. With and for whom will I live? What obligation do I have to human or other life? How shall I tell the story of my life. All of these are important questions for anyone who wants their lives to matter. This collection of nearly ninety readings, forty-seven new to this edition help to explore through a variety of genres these questions. Both religious and secular resources are included. The book is organized around four “vocabularies” used about the well-led life, and six important questions. Here are the vocabularies and questions along with a reading that particularly stood out (although the overall selection is outstanding).


Authenticity: Charles Taylor’s “The Ethics of Authenticity”. Taylor argues that authenticity is not just a matter of doing one’s thing, but an identity formed by wrestling with deep questions of truth.

Virtue: “On Love” by Josef Pieper is one of the best and most concise essays on the different types of love, what we mean by the love of God and love for God.

Exemplarism: To understand the importance of exemplars, what they are and how we might observe them, I could not do better than Linda Zagzebski’s reading “Why Exemplarism.”

Vocation: The readings here were some of the strongest with contributions from Lee Hardy, C.S. Lewis, Denise Levertov, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I choose the one by Charles D. Badcock on “Choosing” who argues that vocation is not finding the one “right” job, but living for the will of God and doing what we please.


Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity? The essay by Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” is marked by her clear thinking and the idea of serving the work, serving God in our work.

To Whom and to What Should I Listen as I Decide What to Do for a Living? The selection from Lois Lowry’s The Giver in which each young member of the community is assigned their work by the elders explores the role of others in our choices of work and captures why this book is so well-loved. Among other good selections are those by Albert Schweitzer and James Baldwin.

With Whom and For Whom Shall I Live? Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” explores the encounter of two orphans, one black and one white, later in life and the choice of whether childhood friendship or race would determine their relations. The essay by Martin Luther King, Jr., “The World House” is also powerful.

Is a Balanced Life Possible and Preferable to a Life Focused Primarily on Work? Perhaps the most thought-provoking is the article by Karen S. Sibert that answers that for some professional jobs, the answer is “no.” The reading is titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job.” Perhaps offsetting this is the concluding reading of the section, a selection from The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

What Are My Obligations to Future Human and Other Life? Larry Rasmussen writes a fictional letter to his grandson, “A Love Letter from the Holocene to the Anthropocene” on the failure of his generation to conserve the environment for that grandchild in terms of options, quality, and access. He raises profound questions about our failures to future generations. The section also features portions of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

How Shall I Tell The Story of My Life? The section begins with the marvelous poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and ends with Michael T. Kaufman’s “Robert McG Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives.” This last is the obituary of the New York Times noted obituary writer whose obituaries were stories that captured and honored the essence of generally unknown people. It makes you think about what stories will people tell of our lives.

I suspect the primary audience of a work like this is a capstone-type class still offered by many undergraduate colleges, reflecting on vocation and life’s big questions. But it is worthwhile for anyone examining their lives and sense of calling, not only for the vocabulary and the questions but for the excellence of the readings that hold up a mirror to our lives.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Exiles From Eden

ExilesExiles From Eden by Mark R. Schwehn. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Summary: Schwehn chronicles a shift in the academic vocation from one of formation of the mind and character of students to one of making knowledge, reflecting a change from religiously shaped values to a valuing of formal and procedural rationality, and from an integral sense of self to a multiplicity of “selves.”

This book begins with a group of faculty discussing what occupation they entered on their income tax forms, with responses like sociologist, anthropologist, psychologist and so forth. The author describes the looks of condescension he experienced when he answered “college teacher.”  He uses this as an illustration of the shift he believes has taken place in the academic vocation, which he believes is consequential for academics and students alike.

Schwehn argues that Max Weber was both a chronicler and leading exponent of this shift. He recounts his 1918 Munich University address “Wissenschaft als Beruf” as a key turning point in the definition of the academic vocation. Instead of the role of the academic being that of forming the character and intellect of students in a scholarly community, the academic’s vocation became one of “knowledge-making” and an increasingly individual quest to “do one’s own work” interrupted by the instruction of students and the necessities of academic administration. In the process, the religiously shaped virtues of that informed classical university education have been replaced by a kind of “procedural rationality.”

Schwehn observes that voices as diverse as Richard Rorty, Parker Palmer, and Jeffrey Stout have argued for the re-introduction of communities of spirited inquiry in higher education. Schwehn develops this proposal and argues for the importance of religious virtues such as humility, faith, self-denial, and charity. He also contends that all of this be centered by a renewed sense of the academic vocation as that of teaching rather than research, reconceiving research as part of the educative process and honoring excellence in teaching. In a question and answer section he defends and elaborates these proposals against such criticisms as this upholding mediocrity.

The latter part of the book takes a look at the Education of Henry Adams as an example of the life produced by the education system for which Weber advocates. He summarizes this as follows:

The creature Adams registers the disappearance of his Creator by becoming the author of himself—both creator and authority. His wandering spirit seeks, not reunion or reconciliation with the divine, but further estrangement from both divine and the human. In one sad, brave, wonderful book, Adams thereby charts the course of modern alienation by presenting one persona’s repeatedly futile efforts to discover meaning in the world around him. Yet the Education represents that very “formula of his own” by which the author made sense of his life to himself….At least, Adams confessed, the Education had succeeded in educating him. (p.109)

Schwehn concludes the book by returning to his title. We are all exiles from Eden. We can either resort to knowledge as power, or, realizing the impossibility of returning to Eden, we can with humility form communities of inquiry to address our finiteness and fallenness. Thus Schwehn argues for the essential difference religious values and virtues can made in the academic vocation.

In the twenty or so years since Schwehn wrote this book it seems that most of the academy has gone further down the Weberian road. By and large it is only religious institutions who have maintained something of the sense of calling Schwehn describes, and even here there are pressures. But the issues he raises have relevance for those who work in non-religious settings, both public and private, who are people of faith. The question he raises for them is whether they will live as people of faith or as people shaped by the “knowledge-making, knowledge as power” paradigm of the post-Weberian age.