Category Archives: Work with purpose

Millions of Western Christians experience a painful bifurcation between their faith and their work. How can Christians see the divine purpose in their “secular” labors? And where can God’s purposes be found in the economic sphere?

Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part I


Illustration from C Armstrong, “The Pursuit of Science for God and Neighbor,” Common Good magazine issue #3, pp. 48-53

For many years I’ve attended – and sometimes spoken at – the Acton Institute’s annual four-day June meeting, “Acton University.” The 2022 meeting will happen June 20-23 both in-person in Grand Rapids and online. I’ll be giving a talk there titled “Christian foundations of science & technology innovation: A story in ten facts.” Here it is:

I’d like to start our reflection together with a question about finding Christian vocation in this tremendously important sector of modern work: science and technology.

Christians today are often told that we must bridge the so-called “sacred-secular divide” by finding divine purpose and mission in our daily work. And that sounds good in theory. It certainly has good support in both Scripture and tradition—from the Apostle Paul to Gregory the Great to Martin Luther and beyond. But where it often runs aground is in our actual experience.

Because, truthfully, our modern work contexts, and even the nature of the work we do in those contexts, seems to many of us—for many reasons—about as secular as can be.

So here’s the vocation question: How can we discover Christian vocation in fields of work that Luther could not have even imagined—let alone the Apostle Paul? In particular, how can modern people of faith experience work in the scientific laboratory or the high-tech firm as Christian mission?

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Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. III


Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

. . . continued from part II

The theological term for this vibrant medieval understanding of the material world, as Lewis well knew, is sacramentalism. This is a linked set of beliefs, first, that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual; second, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator; and third, that God is present in and through every square inch of his world. While these beliefs are linked with the more limited, liturgical sense of the word “sacrament,” they amount to an understanding of the whole material world.

The world-sacramentalism of medieval Christians was rooted in a lively engagement with the doctrine of Creation — through an even livelier engagement with the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation was the central preoccupation of medieval Christians. Art, theology, church life, and private devotion all focused on the incarnation. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ bodily life and death became the medieval “canon within the canon”; the puzzle of why he had to come and die was the great theological obsession.

And in the midst of it all came the insight that, as Christ raised humanity by taking on humanity, he also in some mysterious sense, by taking on created form in his own creation, also raised up the whole world toward its new-creation destiny — such that even the rocks cry out and creation groans as it awaits that fulfilment.

In light of that cosmic redemption, and quite contrary to modern stereotypes of barbarism and otherworldliness, medieval Christians affirmed the material and social dimensions of our created human lives (our eating, drinking, working, marrying, getting sick, being healed, and eventually dying) as transcendentally important.

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Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. II


Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

. . . continued from part I

Ironically, this detachment sometimes looks like worldliness or materialism: the typical modern Western mode of effectively living for material pleasures and material accumulation. Though Christians are unlikely to profess that wry modern creed, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” we are quite capable of sacrificing a great deal to the idols of career success, in order to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, all the latest iDevices, regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. And these habits, too, separate the material world of jobs and careers from the spiritual world of the church. Because, as Saint Augustine taught, when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we decouple or disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.

A generation after Augustine, believers of the Middle Ages, unlike our contemporary Western moment, did indeed find ways to keep the spiritual and the material together. And at least one very prominent modern Christian thinker followed that age’s integrative lead. So let’s enter that age through that modern figure.

Born in 1898 in Belfast, the son of a lawyer and a cultured, linguistically gifted mother who died when he was nine, this man read voraciously and omnivorously from his earliest years. By the age of eight, he was writing stories about “dressed animals” with his brother. In his teen years, learning classics under an Irish schoolmaster, he learned to appreciate the quest for truth not as an idle intellectual exercise, but rather as a search for the truth about what is real and true in the world — and for the wisdom necessary to live the good life. And that quest led him first to a lifelong concern for moral philosophy, and then, eventually, to a vocation as a professor of medieval literature.

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Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. I


John Everett Millais – “Christ in the House of His Parents (`The Carpenter’s Shop’)”; Wikimedia Commons

I commend to you Common Good magazine. There is nothing else like it out there. And yes, though there is an online version, it contains only a modest part of what appears in the (beautiful and award-winning) print version. Seriously, you should subscribe.

In the current issue, #08, I have an article titled “The Work of Genesis: How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations.” Since my pieces tend not to make it into the online version (not sexy enough, I guess??), I’ll share this as a prod to subscribe:

The Work of Genesis
How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations

Though many of us seem to have forgotten it in our post-Christian age, “vocation” is a Christian word. And by “vocation,” the historic church — especially the Protestant tradition — has meant something like this: Meaningful work that fulfils both the Genesis mandate to cultivate and keep the earth and the great commandment to love God and love and serve our neighbors. Taking this definition, vocation finds its roots in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.

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On how, and why, whole sectors of modern work were birthed from the heart and mind of the Christian church


Been very busy over the past few years, and a bad blogger – not posting much at all.

Among other pieces I’ve posted elsewhere but forgotten to link here at the Grateful To the Dead blog is this one, featured at The Public Discourse blog – run by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton. The piece is a fairly brief meditation on what the Incarnation has meant in Western culture. It contains some ideas that I first published in the Medieval Wisdom book, and that I’m looking forward to extending in my next book. That book will most likely explore how entire sectors of human work that foster and support the material and social dimensions of human flourishing emerged ex corde ecclesia – from the heart of the church (and informed by the mind of the church!):

Christianity is so much more solid, and real, and human, than the “spiritual, but not religious” imitations of today. Christian faith touches every aspect of our lives—material, social, cultural. It does so because our God was born as a human baby in a stable and nurtured by a teenaged girl named Mary.

. . .

Out of a desire to imitate Christ’s compassion for those suffering from bodily illness, they poured the work of their hearts into a new institution called the hospital, succored (especially) the poor sick, and so birthed not only modern medicine but also our whole non-profit sector.

Out of fidelity to Christ’s command to “love God with their minds,” they poured the work of their minds into a new institution called the university, and so laid the foundation for the scientific revolution.

And out of aching devotion to the beauty of God’s holiness, imaged forth in Christ, they poured their imaginations and craft and labor into the glorious, soaring beauty of the Gothic cathedrals, and so nurtured and fostered artists in all media from then to now.

Healthcare. Education. Culture. To us, who labor in every kind and corner of modern human work, medieval incarnational faith speaks a “word in season.” It tells us:

Our bodies matter.

Our minds matter.

Our relationships matter.

Our work matters.

Jesus is coming. Look busy?


New EWP Talk: A Sacred Church

The “faith and work movement” in America is in danger of deepening the sacred-secular divide . . . by approaching and understanding church in some secularizing ways. If we want to find the sacred in the world – including in our workplaces – we must first find it in our churches. And when we do, our work can be revolutionized.

That is the burden of this short TED-style talk I recently presented at a meeting of faculty members teaching in the Oikonomia Network of seminaries. The talk draws from a still-popular book called For the Life of the World, based on a series of talks on the mission of the church by the late Alexander Schmemann of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (Eastern Orthodox) in New York.

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Book Review: The Artist and the Trinity


An outstanding short review of a book about Dorothy L. Sayers’s theology of work. Book by Christine Fletcher. Review by my friend, faith & work journalist Dr. Jennifer Woodruff Tait. Platform: a faith & work blog geared for movement leaders, and well worth reading: http://www.greenroomblog.org. Book Review: The Artist and the Trinity.

Enjoy!

Christian vocation in a “secular” world – pt 3 – John Wesley


On Luther, more later. But now another challenging question arises in our complex, post-Christian workplaces full of real, fallen people:

  1. Does practicing the virtues demanded by the working life (such as industriousness, self-control, service to others, obedience to rules and leaders) reduce us to drones or pawns in exploitive structures of modern work? Or, Does becoming a good Christian worker mean sacrificing social conscience for placid obedience—prophetic witness for financial security?

To help us answer this, we turn to our second past leader, England’s 18th-century evangelical pioneer, John Wesley.

Anyone remember the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics? As the spectacle started, before millions of worldwide viewers, England’s pastoral island paradise rose slowly into view from below ground, to the wafting strains of British composer Edward Elgar.

But then – suddenly – the paradise was shattered.

Like missiles from silos, belching smokestacks shot up to dominate the landscape, accompanied by violent drumming and harsh music. The Industrial Revolution had arrived. Legions of laborers overran the green land, marching and working rhythmically under the watchful eyes of black-coated capitalists. TV commentators gleefully quoted the Victorain poet William Blake, describing how the Industrial Revolution’s “Satanic mills” had brutalized the landscape and crushed workers. The ceremony’s creator, they told viewers, had titled this section “Pandemonium,” after the capital city of hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

This dramatic vignette sets the stage for our second question about whether Christians are capitulating to immorality if they lend their labor to the industries of a secular world. Certain historians have leveled exactly this charge against one of the most active British Christian movements during the time of the industrial revolution: the Methodists. These historians have argued that the early Methodists simply capitulated, like sheep and slaves, to the worst of the Industrial Revolution, perpetuating its abuses when they should have stood against them.

Methodism was born in the late 1730s—when the steady industrious virtue of the old Puritans and the new capitalist habits of long-term investment were beginning to build the commercial machine that would drive Western economic growth in the centuries to come.

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Christian vocation in a “secular” world – part 2 – Gregory the Great


[This is the second in a series; the first part is here.]

Here’s the first question that may be nagging us as we seek a sense of vocation in our work:

  1. Does time dedicated to working in the secular world endanger our souls? Is there an inherent tension or contradiction between the “worldliness” of work and the “spirituality” of faith?

A century or two before the opening of the Middle Ages, the theologian whose influence would become definitive for the next thousand years, Augustine of Hippo, distinguished two spheres of human endeavor: the “active life”—our work in the world—and the “contemplative life”—our private worship and prayer. The active life could be good, but the contemplative life, such as that enjoyed by monks and nuns, was much better—and indeed safer for our souls.

Augustine’s view has persisted in some circles right up to this day – but it was quickly challenged by the man some consider the spiritual father of the medieval church, as Augustine was its theological father.

Born into a wealthy family and educated in grammar, rhetoric, law, and letters, young Gregory—who would become Pope Gregory the Great (540-604)—rose by age 33 to the exalted position of Roman prefect, in charge of the city’s police force, food supply, and finances.

Gregory found in Augustine’s distinction between the active and contemplative life a frightening challenge to his spiritual life. He worried that all the ordinary, daily, and challenging work of the prefecture might be endangering his very soul. Where in all the busyness could he find God?

Agonized, Gregory left his wealth and power, taking on the monastic vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy, and the monastic life of daily disciplines, prayer, and Bible reading. He expected to live out his years safely ensconced in the contemplative routines of the cloister.

But his holy seclusion was not to last. Just three years later, in 578, Pope Benedict I called Gregory out of his monastery to become one of the seven deacons of Rome, an office carrying heavy administrative duties. And when Pope Pelagius II died of plague twelve years later, Gregory was unanimously chosen succeed him as pope. Continue reading

Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?


industryfactory

After a hiatus, I’m back. Sorry friends – it’s been a crazy life this past year or more. If anyone ever asks you to start an entrepreneurial initiative at a conservative religious college, maybe think a couple times before saying “yes” . . .

So, on the question above: “Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?”

First I should say (but you know this already): It ain’t easy. It ain’t obvious. And for a lot of us, we’re just not sure it can ever really happen.

The other day I was at Upper House – a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison – and I talked about this with a group of marketplace folks & pastors. Thought you might be interested to see the four stories I told to answer the question. [If these help you, or confuse you, or you think they’re bunk – unleash a comment or two. I’m always happy to engage.]

For those in a hurry, here’s the nutshell:

(1) This question is important to me personally

(2) There are (it seems to me) at least four questions lurking behind this question for many Christian folks

(3) Being a historian, I rooted around in the cellar of history and found four folks who I think can help us out with those questions

(4) Spoiler alert: Their names are Gregory, John, Charles, and . . . well . . . Clive.

OK, here goes, in five linked posts (my intro + the four guys & their answers):

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