Is work irredeemably secular? – part V (final)

Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco on Unsplash

Continued from part IV

Wesley and Sheldon help us answer important questions about working in the modern world, addressing today’s tangle of injustices, our oppressive systems and structures, and the broken people all around us who need healing. But one more question remains:

4. Where is God in the work itself—the everlasting grind of creating goods and services for others?  Can our work—even in workplaces whose missions may seem so far from Godly—actually connect us with God and his mission on earth?

Again, Martin Luther gets us partway to an answer—teaching us that in our work, we become the hands of God for his provision to our neighbor, so that every kind of work we do in the marketplace, the home, and the civic sphere is truly a vocation from God.

However, in reaction to strains of works-righteousness in late medieval thought, Luther felt he had to insist that no kind of earthly work has any direct relation to our spiritual lives—our preparation for eternity, our progress in sanctification and salvation.

Intensified by Luther’s contemporary Ulrich Zwingli, this nervousness about the “outer,” physical life as spiritually irrelevant (at best) or dangerous (at worst) has continued to weave its way through Protestant piety ever since. Protestants have not much expected our “active lives” to connect us to God. We seem to have lost Gregory’s teaching that in our most mundane work, if we have but ears to hear and eyes to see, God does meet us and minister not only through but also to us.

If only we had a modern teacher who had adopted and absorbed the sacramentalism of Gregory and his era! I’ll suggest that in fact, we do have at least one such teacher:

Born in 1898 in Belfast, the son of a lawyer and a cultured, linguistically gifted mother who died when he was 9, the British scholar and popular author C S Lewis read voraciously and omnivorously from childhood. And somewhere along the way – even as a teenager, studying the classical philosophers under an atheistic Irish schoolmaster – Lewis began to yearn for something beyond the bounds of this world.

This longing he called simply “joy.” And it always started with material things and places—distant green hills, a toy garden in a biscuit-tin lid, powerful images of “Northernness” from Norse myths. Eventually, these glimpses led him to Christian faith – and in later years he would call himself an “empirical theist,” and claim that he had “arrived at God by induction.”

Through his training at Oxford, Lewis soon became a medieval scholar. But he also emerged from his deep immersion in that era as something more. His studies also made him medieval in his imagination, in his intuitions about life, and in all the ordinary, daily practices of his life.

In his book The Discarded Image, Lewis shows us how medieval people saw the material world as charged with the spiritual—“tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine,” “a world of built-in significance.”

Importantly, as alien as such a view of the world may seem to us, it follows a coherent Christian logic:

First, the medieval person understood—based on the scriptural account of the Creation—that the material world is not evil—nor is it (as we moderns are more tempted to believe) spiritually irrelevant, for it all was made by God and bears his imprint.

Second, the medieval person also understood that the material world cannot hold the ultimate end and fulfilment of human life. Where do we find that end and fulfillment? Only – as Augustine, Boethius, and all who followed insisted – in God himself.

Putting these two insights together, medievals found a middle way, concluding that because of God’s action in first creating it as the Father, and then indwelling it as the Incarnate Son, and then continuing to love and care for it by his Spirit, the world must be shot through with the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Trinity itself. Though not divine itself, it must be a place of God’s presence and glory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The theological term for this vibrant medieval understanding of the material world is sacramentalism. And that understanding grew and flourished in Lewis more and more with every passing year and decade of his life.

During the “high” and “late” medieval periods, stretching roughly from 1000 to 1500 AD, medieval art, theology, church life and private devotion all focused on the Incarnation. The Gospel accounts became their “canon within the canon.” The puzzle of why he had to come and die became their great theological obsession, from Anselm and Abelard to the many scholastics who followed. His life on earth became the aspirational pattern for their own lives—as they tried to follow the little poor man, Francis of Assisi, live out the Gospel-derived “seven spiritual and seven corporal acts of mercy,” and live out a faith that was dead without works.

Why believe that we may experience God in and through the material and social world around us? Medievals had a simple answer: Because God came to earth in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Christ had been no mystic in a cave or guru on a distant mountain—separated from our ordinary experiences. He had taken on human flesh and human senses, lived among us, experienced our temptations, suffered as we suffer, and then died and rose, conquering even death itself. And by doing so, he had raised the dignity of what it means to be human—spirit, mind, and body.

Quite contrary to modern stereotypes of barbarism and otherworldliness, medieval people followed this incarnational logic in affirming that our human lives are transcendentally important – our eating, drinking, and marrying, our health, illness, and dying. And our daily work, too. Each of these parts of our bodily lives, they understood, is intimately related to our identities as divine image-bearers of God.

Lewis “got” this sacramentalism. Think for instance of these powerful words from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . . It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ . . . is truly hidden.”

How far are we from such insights today? How far? And yet, this powerful, sacramental understanding of the dignity of humanity, grounded in an intensive focus on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, led medieval Christians to invent the hospital, create the breathtaking artistry of the Gothic cathedrals, and pioneer modern Western science through a new institution—the university.

Today each of these is a sprawling, massive sector of human work supporting human flourishing—healthcare, the arts, and higher education. Can we, this side of modernity, rediscover the lively sacramentalism that created these institutions? Can we recover the sense that God is still, today, very much present and working in these arenas—however “secular” they may now seem to us?

Can we recover Gregory’s understanding of the symbiotic relationship between action and contemplation, acknowledging that at times external work is more useful than internal? Can we hear medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt, who said “We are brought forth into time in order that our sensible worldly occupations may lead us nearer and make us like unto God”?

Lewis did, and we would do well to follow him in this. We should see the medieval sacramental message behind the wonderful image of domesticity in the beaver family portrayed in Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe—so like the convivial, rustic life of his friend Tolkien’s hobbits in the Shiretheir love of pipes and parties and meals (and more meals). Or the main characters in Lewis’s own strange science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, who become separated from the ordinary virtues of housework, child-raising, gardening, and being good neighbors, and have to recover them.

What we find in Lewis, in short, is a medieval-inflected, sacramental, incarnational, earthy, and practical theology of life and work. “Every created thing,” he once wrote, “is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him.”

And work is a created thing too. We need not share Luther’s nervousness: of course our work does not, of itself, save us. But it doesn’t inherently separate us from God, either. In even the most toilsome labor, we may find his gracious presence.

It’s worth asking ourselves—and with this I close: What would it mean if we learned from Lewis this sacramentalism of daily work? How would our approach to our daily work change? Maybe, through Lewis’s mediation of an older, more holistic tradition—a tradition reflected too, in their own ways, by Gregory the Great, John Wesley, and Charles Sheldon—we would finally find even in the most supposedly “secular” of work, true Christian vocation.

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