Vices and Vocation
by Susan Sytsma Bratt
Picture a late night with a residence hall basement full of students, all gathered to hear a presentation on the seven deadly sins. One table is full of cream pies, ready for a stereotypically gluttonous pie-eating contest. All of a sudden the student presenter slides across the table, covering himself with pie, amid the gasps and laughter of the audience. What does a pie eating contest in the basement of a residence hall have to do with philosophy and vocation? That’s the question senior philosophy students wrestled with in their Aquinas seminar in the fall of 2002. How could they bring the philosophical wisdom of the past to life for the peers, and use the seven deadly sins to help them think about their vocation as disciples of Christ?
The connection between vice and vocation is not often explored in contemporary scholarship. Philosophy professor, Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung has explored that connection as a Lilly Faculty Scholar. Dr. DeYoung researches and writes on virtues and virtue theory. When she applied to be a Lilly Faculty Scholar, her proposal was simple, “how can virtue theory be helpful to us in thinking about how to live better lives? How can virtue theory have a pedagogical payoff?” Other faculty in that first cohort of Lilly Faculty Scholars worked on articles and books; but Dr. DeYoung decided to use the grant money to research and write about teaching virtues concretely in the classroom. As an afterthought, she redesigned a course, to test her research. That last minute decision would have consequences.
As a Christian philosopher DeYoung takes seriously her mission to equip students for discipleship and service. Reflecting on the experience of her students, DeYoung found that many Calvin students emphasized their salvation and eternal life, but often missed the daily aspects of discipleship, or sanctification. “Vices and virtue theory help us make the life of discipleship concrete. Sanctification gives us a sense of what Christianity is for, we’re not just transforming the world, but we are transforming internally, from the old self to the new self.”
Understanding discipleship is central to DeYoung’s philosophy of vocation. DeYoung defines vocation as “more than a job. Our vocation is to be a certain kind of person, a disciple of Christ.” As a Lilly Faculty Scholar, Dr. DeYoung sought to build a philosophy course that moved from intellectual reflection to application to life. The course, a seminar on Thomas Aquinas, was offered during the fall of 2002. As she was planning the course, she realized the course needed to shift from exploring solely virtues to both virtue and vice. The first portion of the course covered virtues as a set-up for the second portion of the course. Dr. DeYoung realized “students would need a paradigm of good order to understand disorder.” Students first delved deeply into the writings of Aquinas. Each week one student led discussion about a reading, and two others responded. The course took a twist halfway through the semester as the material turned toward the vices.
Exploring the seven deadly sins was new territory for both Dr. DeYoung and her students. She recounts that when they got to sloth “we realized we didn’t know what sloth was.” There was a sharp learning curve to understand the vices in their historical and present day context. The final examination for the seminar required the class to break up into groups and translate the medieval content into peer presentations to Calvin students in the residence halls. This was the ultimate test: to take challenging academic material and translate it into the undergraduate vernacular, as engaging teachers of eighteen-year-olds. Dr. DeYoung met with each group in advance, offering conceptual corrections, double checking methods, and in some cases encouraging students to think about how to make the presentation more engaging. She was there when they presented and witnessed first-hand a student sliding across a table full of cream pies to question stereotypes about the vice of gluttony.
The course affected her students. Students came to her office door the following year wanting to talk about spiritual disciplines during Lent. A few went on to teach a version of the course to youth groups, others brought insights to their seminary courses. The course also shaped Dr. DeYoung. Over the next few years her research into the vice of sloth yielded several academic presentations and the publication of several articles on the subject. She also teaches a version of the course to the high school Sunday school class at her church, Ridgewood Christian Reformed Church of Jenison, Michigan.
Encouraged by the response, DeYoung taught the course a second time in the fall of 2004. This time she had the class write lesson plans and present the material to her church’s youth group. One student, Nate Brink, was inspired by the seminar. He wrote a curriculum based on the vices for his honors thesis in philosophy. Testing it in the dorms during interim of 2005, Nate explored the vices and spiritual disciplines with his peers. In the spring of 2005 Dr. DeYoung decided to overhaul the curriculum, including aspects of her Lilly course into a Sunday school curriculum for high school and college students. Faith Alive Publishing picked up the project in 2006 and the curriculum was released in the fall of 2007.
Exploring the seven deadly sins did not end with the Aquinas course and young adult curriculum project. This project also spurred on her scholarship. Dr. DeYoung was also awarded the prestigious summer grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She spent the summer of 2006 participating in a seminar called “The Seven Deadly Sins as Cultural Construction in the Middle Ages” at Darwin College at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. She is also writing a book for a general Christian audience that explores the seven deadly sins. It is forthcoming from Brazos Press sometime in 2009.
Reflecting on her vocation, it is clear Dr. De Young finds her work as scholar, teacher, mother, wife, invigorated and integrally related to her call to be a disciple of Christ. This project provided her a unique and fruitful opportunity to connect the idea of vocation to her teaching and scholarship in both the academic and the wider Christian community. That partnership is worth celebrating. How about a piece of cream pie?