The late A.J. Conyers, a theologian and professor at Baylor University in Texas, offers a critique of culture and its apparent abandonment of vocation and community in The Listening Heart. Published two years after his death, The Listening Heart is, to put it frankly, a tough read. Conyers combs the depths of philosophy to pull together his argument, and he attempts to make it accessible with examples from history and literature. While a book that is intended for the well-read audience, The Listening Heart in the end begs for a forgotten truth to be restored in society; namely, the truth that people have a higher calling, a calling to each other.
The crux of Conyers’s argument is that the word vocation has lost its meaning. In contemporary usage, a vocation is a career. In its etymology, a vocation is a calling. Although the implications of being “called” could be considered as it applies to jobs, relationships, or places to live, Conyers chooses to focus on a more obscure calling: a calling to community. “Vocation,” writes Conyers, “implies that a larger obligation presses itself upon persons and draws them into a community of mutual sacrifice and affection” (p. 11). This sentence is the push that starts the rest of Conyers’s argument rolling.
Love leads to obligation
Power structures are repeatedly examined in this 217-page book, and Conyers often concludes that power, at its core, is intended to maim relationships. Be it capitalism, government, intolerance, or simply distraction—basically, anyone or anything that takes captive a person—power causes people to act in ways toward one another that are unnatural and harmful to the life of the group. Power, Conyers writes, “short-circuits the cultivation of the human spirit, and compels instead the cooperation of people through the agency (at one level or another) of fear” (p. 71).
What is the antithesis of power? Love. But not the kind of touchy-feely, Beatles’ all-you-need-is-love kind of love. No, Conyers puts forth that a healthy community of people “truly and strongly forms only under the influence of something understood to be greater than the individual . . . but, more than that, it forms by virtue of something even greater than the community” (p. 101). A community, then, grows because of a greater, common influence—calling—and love springs up as a result. What’s more, argues Conyers, is that when a community loves each other, they begin to feel an obligation to one another and therefore to the rules of that community.
And then there’s everything else…
The last half of The Listening Heart is a survey of the other elements of community. Conyers argues that attention to something or someone other than ourselves is key to a healthy sense of community. Equally important, he maintains that a healthy community is tolerant and able to engage differing beliefs. The former idea is easy to accept; however, readers will likely be hung up on the latter point, as I was. General tolerance of differing views is a good and acceptable thing, but Conyers fails to explain how far this tolerance should extend. If a community of people is formed around shared purposes or a shared idea, at some point, some views will not be tolerated because they conflict with the community’s initial reasons for coming together. Perhaps this is not a problem for Conyers, but he sheds little light on the issue.
Conyers closes with contemplation on the role of place and rest in a person’s life, and how that affects his or her view of community. These final chapters are thoughtfully written, and sum up Conyers’ argument well. He writes, “The life of a community, if it is to afford those forms of experience for which the human being is made, must with some degree of success discover and cultivate permanence in the midst of the inevitable flux, restlessness, and change of human existence” (p. 164). A community, in the end, requires some sense of fixedness from its members, a sense of rest and an attachment to place.
A Final Note:
The Listening Heart seems to have suffered from a lack of close editing. Conyers died shortly after finishing the manuscript, and the book was published two years after his death. Many chapters are confusing at moments, and the examples do not always live up to their intended purpose. That being said, however, The Listening Heart is well worth the time to read; this review hardly does the book justice. Conyers forces readers to ponder just what they are doing to foster community with the people around them and how they might better pursue that calling.
THE LISTENING HEART
Vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture
By A.J. Conyers.
Waco: Baylor U. P., 2009.