When I was in college, I went through an Elton Trueblood phase, reading many of his books. I have saved some of these and acquired others over the years, so I decided to bring a few of them along in the RV and read them in between the novels and travel books. The Common Ventures of Life is the first of the Elton Trueblood books that I have read since I retired.
Elton Trueblood was born in 1900 in Iowa and rose to prominence as a theologian and scholar at Harvard and Stanford Universities. He left these more prestigious schools in order to teach and mentor at smaller Earlham College in Richmond Indiana. He was a founder of the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary. He also helped to found the World Council of Churches and was an advisor to President Eisenhower. He was a lifelong friend to President Hoover, who was also a Quaker.
Elton Trueblood published 33 books, seeking to encourage a depth of theological thought in the ordinary reader. I think this is why I like his books so much. He writes with theological depth, but uses language that appeals to any person, not just seminary or religion students. The Common Ventures of Life, first published in 1949 but remarkably relevant today, addresses the sacramental in four events that are common to most people’s lives: marriage, birth, work, and death. Trueblood writes that “the sacramental is always a recognition of divine revelation by virtue of some utterly common substance.” For instance, baptism uses water and communion uses bread and juice. Thus these common events in life can also be sacramental if we live aware of the divine in ordinary moments. Trueblood lifts up the difficulty, and thus the sacredness, of living for God amid the insistent demands of everyday life.
Marriage, the first chapter of the book, is lifted up as a commitment, not a contract. A contract can be broken if one or both parties fail to live up to their agreements. Marriage is unconditional, and the traditional vows recognize that we are to stay committed unconditionally – through better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health. The deepest love is a result of this commitment through the years and God is present and glorified through this lifelong commitment.
Birth, the second chapter, is sacred when both parents recognize the holiness of all life. The parents are committed to each other and to God, and consequently are able to bring a new dimension of reverence to the sacrament of baptism. With each birth of every child we should be able to say, with Trueblood, “O God, help me to change the evil which can be changed; help me to bear the evil which cannot be changed; and help me to know the one from the other.” Trueblood lifts up the family dinner table as a family altar, where each person is valued and heard and experiences love through shared conversation and shared food.
The third chapter, work, emphasizes the importance of seeing every job as a holy calling, not just “noble” professions such as ministry or medicine. The baggage claim handler, the preschool worker, the street sweeper can do their work well for God. Trueblood suggests that it is better to do small things effectively than to aspire to lofty dreams that will result only in frustration. He quotes Reinhold Nieburhr in this chapter, “There was a time when I had all the answers. My real growth began when I discovered that the questions to which I had the answers were not the important questions.”
The final chapter in the book is death. We are not supposed to worry about what will happen after death, but instead trust ourselves to the care of God who has cared for us every day of our lives. One thing that really spoke to me in this chapter is when Trueblood writes that it is important to have a pastor who is a trusted friend to walk with us through death. “We may be glad to play golf with a stranger, but . . . the person who walks with us to the open grave should be a friend.” Trueblood decries the practice of having funerals in funeral homes instead of the church. The church is the proper place for a funeral or memorial service because it is the place where the other sacred events of our life have taken place. The same place that celebrated our baptism, our confirmation, our marriage, and prayed for us during the good times and hard times of our lives, is the place we should be taken on our death.
“The church is the scene of life’s highest and deepest and most searching experiences, whatever they may be. It is our task to challenge the secularization and fragmentation of society by reaffirming a Christian faith which is large enough to include all aspects of human experience.”
Trueblood retired from Earlham College in 1966 but continued to mentor students until his death in 1994. He lived the sacred into the common events of life, and lifted them up so that we could aspire to do the same.