In his quite popular book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes about what he sees as a corruption of the notion of vocation:
Vocation, the way I was seeking it, becomes an act of will, a grim determination that one’s life will do this way or that whether it wants to or not. If the self is sin-ridden and will bow to truth and goodness only under duress, that approach to vocation makes sense. But if the self seeks not pathology but wholeness, as I believe it does, then the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves –violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding or lives in check until we honor its truth.
I read this and found myself thinking how utterly opposed Palmer’s view is to the classical Protestant view. I also found myself wondering how Palmer reads the New Testament. You must be born again. Take up your cross and deny yourself. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. He emptied himself. Suffering produces endurance. And so on.
Jesus and the apostles seemed to suggest quite a bit that salvation is not found in cultivating what is in us but in conformity to something outside ourselves. (Isn’t this the old Pelagian debate in new garb?) The disciples often seemed resistant to what Jesus had to say, and he did not sympathize with them on those counts. The Old Testament prophets give us even stronger examples of God not seeming to care a whole lot what people claim grows out of their true selves.
As I read Palmer, I wonder how much his words reflect the antinomian Christians who John Wesley spent so much energy opposing. Wesley’s foes taught that people should not do any works if their heart was not in it. Wesley countered that people should do those works especially when their heart was not in it, as God grace would use those works to cleanse and transform their heart. Wesley had no doubt the will would resist such works, but he did not see that as a sign of a “violated” self being the victim of oppression. He would say it was the breaking of a proud and rebellious self that would keep the sinner from receiving the great gift of salvation.
And, of course, part of the dialogue Wesley would have with Palmer would be over Palmer’s description of the Christian response to a sin-ridden soul. The answer is not to exert the will and bend the recalcitrant will to some arbitrary outside standard. That will eventually fail, Wesley would point out. Our strength is limited, and the chains we bear are heavy. No, the answer is not effort but humility and repentance. It is to turn to the one who is stronger than we are, who can break those chains.
I’m not sure Wesley’s old debates map directly on to the spiritual teaching of Palmer, but reading Palmer’s book today, after becoming somewhat familiar with Wesley, is much different than when I first picked up that book eight years ago.