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?
Continuing this emerging series of posts on the vocation of the (Christian) faculty member–and this will surprise none of my regular readers–I want to take a moment to brag on a recent issue of Christian History magazine, which delves into the Christian (and, here’s a surprise, medieval) history of the university.
And when Marsden was responding to a symposium convened to discuss the new edition of his Soul of the American University, and reflecting in that response on the original, Christian humanist purposes of the university, which motivated its medieval founders, he was moved to refer to the author of the lead article, Regent College scholar of Christian humanism Jens Zimmermann, and to recommend the issue as a whole:
Further to my piece yesterday – “Readings on the vocations, and challenges, of professors today” – and building on recent experiences of reading several dozen Chronicle of Higher Education articles and convening several groups of professors, here’s a reflection on the “moment” academe seems to be experiencing right now.
Back in March, I had the honor of convening several groups of theological educators (seminary and college faculty) to explore their vocational development needs. One question I asked was about the current vocational challenges faculty are facing. After breaking into small groups, we heard reports from each. One group identified these challenges (rendered here in note format):
Anxiety with changes, transition to virtual work – is this real education? Am I doing it well? Not as satisfying. Missing potential for formation?
Sense of living and working in a time of transition – everyone knows education is ripe for disruptive innovation
Identity: am I simply a professor or also a mentor, coach, something else? – transitions in teaching (and student needs and preferences) lead to questions of identity
The need for rest, with some burnout: schools have tighter budgets, are asking people to do more
As I read these notes, I was getting a strong feeling of déjà vu – where had we seen a combination of factors similar to this before? And it dawned on me: this was reminding me of David Miller’s characterization, in his book God at Work, of the 1980s-90s in the American business world, the rise of the “third wave” of the faith and work movement, and his description of the factors and pressures that led boomers to turn to questions of spirituality (both new age and traditionally religious) related to their work, in search of a revived and restructured identity and a recovered vocational satisfaction.
I went back and re-read the main section of Miller that dealt with this and that made the link between vast changes in the business sector (in particular) and an increased focus on “spiritual” issues related to work. I’m pasting it below, then I want to draw out the parallel with today’s higher ed situation and faculty’s current vocational experience.
For the past few years I’ve been part of an eclectic group of folks who have met every quarter to read through small, curated sets of readings on a common topic. Our topics have included current research on (and definitions of) human flourishing, systems thinking, network thinking, secularization and religion, institutions and professions, the rising generation, and many others. I’ve been honored to partner with a brilliant friend to curate the readings and guide the discussions for each of these seminars.
Our topic for our next discussion is “the vocation and flourishing of college and university faculty,” highlighting both the ideals and realities of the role of faculty in higher education and the current opportunities and challenges of being a faculty member.
I haveargued that the faith & work conversation needs a stronger theological foundation, and that the long tradition of Christian humanism can and should provide that foundation. I recognize in making that argument that many questions now arise. So I am beginning to line up those questions. The following is a preliminary list, not yet carefully ordered nor comprehensive; I also recognize that any number of these overlap significantly with each other:
In light of theologically, biblically, and historically weak popular presentations of faith & work arguments, we must speak primarily in theological terms
We must not speak in narrowly theological terms
In other words, we must draw on a theological discourse that embraces and can be embraced by all current Christian traditions (e.g. not a discourse that is exclusively neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian, or Wesleyan/Pentecostal, or grounded in Catholic social thought, etc., but informs and converses with all of those traditions and more)
We must draw on a theological discourse that stretches back to the earliest church
We must draw on a theological discourse that is clear about what human beings are, how we (are to) flourish, and how we are (to be) redeemed
We must draw on a theological discourse that is not narrowly “spiritual,” but instead addresses the broadest possible range of human activities (including all major sectors of work) and that affirms material and social as well as spiritual flourishing
We must draw on a theological discourse that therefore includes a well-articulated approach to human cultural (including economic) activity
We must draw on a theological discourse grounded in undeniable major orthodox doctrines such as creation, the incarnation, and the atonement, and with clear scriptural foundations such as Genesis and the Gospels
Christian humanism is the only theological tradition I know of that fulfils all of the above criteria
Some key points, drafted by C Armstrong, 2-25-21 in engagement with Jens Zimmermann
The following are some key points I drafted early (Feb 2021) in my exploration of the link between Christian humanism and the “faith, work, and economics” conversation, interacting with the work of Jens Zimmermann, JI Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. These themes are informing my work in that conversation at the Kern Family Foundation (Wisconsin), engaging a national network of seminaries and Christian colleges preparing future pastors (note that the book cited parenthetically as “Re-Envisioning” at a number of points below is the Zimmermann-edited volume Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism: Education and the Restoration of Humanity):
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:
The Methodist story gives us a vision for responsible work and broad social action, but we may still wonder today—and this is our third question—(3) how we can work faithfully while also while activelypushing back against those parts of our organizations and sectors that are unjust, or immoral—that is, that harm rather than hurt people? Where are the Christian resources that can help us act redemptively within unredeemed systems?
One Christian leader who armed others for such redemptive action was the late-Victorian American Congregational pastor Charles Sheldon.
It’s a Sunday morning near the end of the 1800s, in the comfortable upper-middle-class “First Church” in the town of Raymond, somewhere in the Midwest. Halfway through the service, a tired, sick homeless man walks into the church, up the aisle to the front, and begins to speak. He wonders aloud why there is so much trouble and misery in the cities when their well-off Christians sing so much about consecrating themselves entirely to God. “It seems to me,” he says, “there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand.” Then he asks, in that now-familiar phrase: “But what would Jesus do?’”
So our first question—does time dedicated to working in the secular world endanger our souls?—is answered by Gregory like this: the active life of service may serve as handmaiden to the contemplative life – and the contemplative to the active, in return.
Sadly, medievals did not always remember this insight, tending to return to the old elevation of the monastic life above the ordinary life. This was one reason Martin Luther found himself, in the 16th century, needing to recover the God-givenness of bakers baking and tailors sewing and fathers changing their infants’ diapers.
On Luther, more later. But now another challenging question arises in our complex, post-Christian workplaces full of real, fallen people:
2. 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.
Let’s jump right in. I’m going to frame each of these four issues in the form of a question that may stand between us and a sense of Christian vocation in our work.
Here’s the first question that may be nagging us as we seek a sense of vocation in our work:
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 bifurcated view of work 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.
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