Measure of Success

by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy Bass

Mark R. Schwehn is dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. Dorothy C. Bass is directof of the university’s Project on Education and Formation of People in Faith.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 27, 2006. pp. 23-26. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Just because a person becomes famous, like a rock star or a movie actor, does not mean they are wise in politics or religion. The authors address the vocabulary of vocation.

Be like Mike!" A famous and successful television commercial used that slogan to invite viewers to emulate Michael Jordan -- simply by purchasing the same brand of sneakers he wore. This is rather like suggesting that one could be like Jesus of Nazareth simply by wearing sandals like his.

But perhaps one can derive a more encouraging lesson from the success of the slogan "Be Like Mike": many people wish to be as gifted and as disciplined as Jordan is as an athlete, and their hopes and dreams are informed by an image of what they would like to become. The success of the ad further suggests that people still believe that it is possible to recognize excellence, They can say with great confidence, "Michael Jordan is a great basketball player." Basketball fans believe that they can be as certain about judgments of better and worse as chemists are in deciding whether a given compound is sugar or salt.

But are people as ready and able to judge the relative excellence of whole lives as they are to judge the exercise of particular skills? When it comes to assessing the relative worth or significance of lives, our culture seems both hesitant and confused.

Some people believe that excelling in any skill leads directly to an excellent life overall. Others act as though popularity and virtue are one and the same thing. They consult rock stars and movie actors for advice about politics and religion, apparently believing that mere fame evinces wisdom about everything that matters in human life.

Many social observers think that the growth of such confusions in our culture has created a cult of celebrity, the worshipful adulation of men and women whose only claim to honor and respect is popularity. These confusions have created a desperate situation. We want to make good judgments about how we should live, and we want to learn how to lead lives that really matter, but we don’t know how to talk very well or think very well about these things. Our inability to articulate the point and importance of our own lives may go far to explain why many feel that their lives do not really have a point or that they do not finally matter at all.

Some of our best philosophers and social critics have thought that our troubles do indeed stem from our loss of any consistent and coherent way of talking about the things that matter deeply. We have several vocabularies that have developed over the years. and we cobble together words and ideas from these different vocabularies to try to make sense of our lives, even though the terms sometimes conflict. Confusion is built into this effort to think in several languages at the same time.

Perhaps more than any other contemporary philosopher, Charles Taylor has helped us understand the way people think about how to live. One prominent ethical model of our time is what Taylor calls the ethics of authenticity. Authenticity means being true to ourselves. We must, according to this way of thinking, look within ourselves to find what authorizes our choices and thereby determine what we should do and what we should wish to become.

Taylor claims that people in Western democracies value free choice above almost anything else. We are prone to talk as though a way of living is good or significant simply because it is one we have freely chosen. We worry over whether any choice that we have made is "really our choice" more than we worry over whether what we have chosen is really choice-worthy. So we try to help each other to "get in touch with ourselves." We want to be as sure as we can be that our life choices are not made for us by someone else -- parents, friends, peers or teachers. And we are very uneasy about the idea that someone who has made a free choice might also have made a bad choice.

Do we feel awkward about criticizing someone else’s life choices? Do we doubt whether some free choices are better or worse than other ones? If so, we are manifesting what Taylor calls soft relativism, which is a degraded form of the ethics of authenticity.

Taylor wants not simply to show us how we think and talk about what matters, but to help us see what assumptions are behind that particular way of talking. Do we really believe that all ways of living are equally choice-worthy, equally significant? And when we look into ourselves, what do we find? Do we find just one authentic voice -- our own -- or do we find many that together make up the selves that we are?

The ideal of authenticity has been liberating for many and various oppressed groups. As Taylor has shown, the vocabulary of choice and the solitary self has been linked to ideas of individualism. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, speaking before a congressional committee at the end of the 19th century, invoked ideals of the self, free choice and individualism to defend and advance the cause of women’s liberation. She argued then, following the logic that Taylor would describe a century later, that we are all sovereign, independent selves and that our relationships to others are secondary, often instrumental, to our personal choices and purposes.

Stanton used another vocabulary, however, when she began to sketch the kind of character that human beings need to have in order to live well and responsibly. This vocabulary suggests that some selves might be more admirable than others and that some ways of living might be more choice-worthy than others.

When we begin to talk and think like people who believe that some choices really are better or worse than others and that some lives really are better or worse than others, we use another vocabulary, words like virtue and excellence. This vocabulary goes back at least as far as 400 BC. Aristotle, for example, believed that there is only one way of living that is best for all human beings, and he provided a sketch of such a life to show us why, if we are thinking honestly and carefully, we should all choose that way of life over others. He argued that such a life would have happiness as its end, but he meant something very different from what we mean by happiness. For him, happiness was not a feeling; it was activity in accordance with virtue. Leading a life that mattered meant leading a life that exhibited a firm, admirable character. Like most of us, Aristotle admired people who lived honestly, courageously, justly, wisely, moderately and generously. He also admired people who enjoyed very good and enduring friendships.

We are not, in other words, as far from Aristotle as we might think, even though we do sometimes use slogans that he would have disdained, such as "Do your own thing." As much as we may pretend that it is bad to "be judgmental," we are always making judgments about other people. Are they trustworthy? Should we befriend them? Can we rely upon them to help us in dangerous situations? Should we lend them money? Would we rather be like Jill or like Sarah? Our lives sometimes literally depend upon how well we make these judgments about others.

These judgments always consist of two parts. First, what is this person really like? Second, is this person admirable? Is this a person of good character?

We might wonder why so many of us make judgments all of the time even as we insist that it is not good to be judgmental. Or why do so many of us say that one way of living is as good as any other even as we privately believe no such thing? It may be that we lack confidence in the judgments we make, so we refuse to make any. Or perhaps we don’t want to offend people, and we think that most of our contemporaries would be offended by the idea that some people really do lead more admirable lives than others. Whatever the case, we cannot think very long or very well about how to lead lives that matter without using some of Aristotle’s vocabulary of virtue.

Nor can we think very well about the idea of success without some of Aristotle’s vocabulary of virtue and character. Theodore Roosevelt, in his autobiography, wrote about two kinds of success, a kind that a few people achieve effortlessly through the exercise of extraordinary gifts, and another kind that all people can achieve through the diligent and arduous development of those gifts that they do possess. Roosevelt counted himself as part of the latter group, and he, like Aristotle, spoke of the cultivation of aptitudes in terms of virtue and character. We should ask ourselves whether we think of success as something absolute and objective, involving the satisfaction of a common standard, or whether we think of it as something relative and partly subjective, involving a level of achievement different for each person depending upon his or her natural talents and aptitudes.

Though many of us will agree with Aristotle when he argues that some lives are more virtuous or more excellent than others, and agree with Roosevelt when he argues that some lives are more successful than others, we may well doubt whether some genuinely virtuous or successful lives are more significant than others.

Whom would we admire more: a generous person who gives 10 percent of her $20,000 yearly income anonymously to a campus beautification project or a person who gives 10 percent of his $500 million fortune to fund on the same campus a concert hall named after him? When students in a college seminar discussed this question, almost all admired the first person more than the second, First, they argued, she had less to give, so her 10 percent was marginally more generous than the 10 percent given by the multimillionaire. Second, she was not at all moved by a desire for recognition or gratitude. The multimillionaire may have been moved by such considerations, since the concert hall was named after him.

But were these students right? Aristotle would argue that the woman is generous, whereas the man might well be both generous and magnificent. Should his gift, because of its magnitude and because it was given to what many would deem a worthier cause, be more admired than the woman’s gift? If both the man and the woman were habitually and happily charitable, they would be equal in generosity. But only one of them could be, in addition, magnificent.

Before we reject Aristotle’s view, we should ask ourselves what we would do if we were choosing a basketball team. If we wanted to win games, would we choose people who tried hard but were relatively short, slow and weak or people who tried hard and were relatively tall, fast and strong? Which type of player would be more worthy of regard, more significant to the success of the team?

Now suppose that our decision about whom to admire more, the generous man or the generous woman in the example above, depended upon which one of them was more important to the functioning of a good college. Would that decision depend upon the size of the benefaction, upon its objective, upon its motive or upon some combination of these considerations? And when we are thinking about lives that matter, can we escape altogether the idea that one measure of a human life’s significance is the number of people whose lives have been improved for the better by that life’s actions and benefactions? Can we assess the relative significance of a life by inquiring into its relative importance to a well-functioning society or political community?

Suppose now that our frame of reference for making such judgments expands from our society or state to a larger horizon of meaning and significance -- to the "kingdom of heaven," for example. The vocabulary of Christian vocation assumes exactly this frame of reference, and it stands in sharp contrast to Aristotle’s notions of magnificence or greatness.

Christian writers have not been in agreement about the concept of vocation, however. Martin Luther, the first of the Reformers to formulate a radically new understanding of the Christian idea of vocation, argued that any kind of regular and legitimate work in the world -- manual labor, parenting, civic activity -- could be a vocation or a calling so long as the Christian did that workout of love for Cod in service to humankind. Most Protestant writers have agreed with Luther on this point.

Seventeenth-century Anglican divine William Perkins argued that all Christians have two callings: a general calling to the Christian life and a particular calling to some kind of productive work. Others have insisted that we have only one Christian calling. So, for example, Gary Badcock has argued that all Christians are called to share in Christ’s mission of love and service to the world, but he does not believe that we should think of all particular jobs as callings. The contemporary philosopher Lee Hardy agrees with Luther in thinking that we have multiple callings as workers, children, neighbors and citizens, but he also believes, like Perkins, that our primary, particular calling is our paid employment and that our problem is to discern and to help one another discern what kind of work we are really called by God to do.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that the idea of vocation had been deeply misunderstood, especially by those among his fellow Lutherans who had used the concept as a way of vindicating the status quo and validating such institutions as marriage and wage labor as preferable to all other social or economic arrangements. Like Badcock, he stressed the "cost of discipleship" wherever we might find ourselves "stationed" in the world. Beyond this, Bonhoeffer also argued that God’s call summons us into responsibility to and for our fellow human beings and for all of creation.

Thus Christians are constantly summoned to break through the sometimes rigid circumscriptions of their roles as parents, citizens or professionals. The responsibilities of a doctor, for example, might at some point include defending medical science itself, not simply caring for the patients.

Authenticity, virtue, vocation: all are widely used vocabularies by which people speak and think about who we are and what we should do. For Christians and for some non-Christians, the vocabulary of vocation holds out the greatest promise for naming and exploring our deepest aspirations and longings. Unlike the vocabulary of virtue, the vocabulary of vocation links questions about paid employment to questions about overall identity. And unlike the vocabulary of authenticity, the vocabulary of vocation suggests that the horizons of meaning that frame our choices lie outside of ourselves.

Moreover, for the Christian, vocation incorporates words and ideas from the other two vocabularies. Following the call of Christ includes the constant exercise of the Christian virtues, along with the classical ones. Like the ethics of authenticity, the vocabulary of vocation also foregrounds the question of our deepest identities, forged finally in communion with others. Nevertheless, Christians insist that we become what we in some sense already are, living out an identity bestowed upon us in baptism, ever mindful of the fact that our own exertions are not by themselves the motive power of sanctification. Our lives are not primarily about us, nor are our lives finally our own. Contrary to the other vocabularies of our culture, the vocabulary of vocation informs us that we are not self-made men and self-made women after all.