4. Grace and virtues (the Christian moral life and Christian social ethics)
Other than dissenters such as Tertullian, the early church was happy to absorb and adapt much of the non-Christian knowledge of the time (classical philosophy). This included knowledge in the realm of ethics and politics (e.g. Aristotle’s Ethics – see e.g. Robert Louis Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Thus the substance of Aristotelian virtue ethics was absorbed into Christian ethics, culminating in Aquinas’s Summa.
More recently, Protestant as well as Catholic readers of Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and other modern Christian virtue ethicists have also been willing to consider the older Christianized classical virtue ethics tradition as important and helpful for today. However, there is still a tension between that tradition and the Augustinian understanding of the primacy of grace (given the extreme effects of the Fall) in human moral life. Again Christian humanism has worked to sustain a synthesis in this tension of virtue and grace, to various degrees in various phases of the tradition.
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?’”
A couple of years back, in the depths of the COVID pandemic, I was invited by Sioux Falls Seminary to address an international group of their students via Zoom on a topic related to faith and work. Reflecting on the assignment, and aware that I would be addressing workplace Christians studying for ministry in one of the most innovative seminaries in the world (which has now spread globally and renamed itself Kairos University), I decided to address the “sacred-secular divide” that many experience acutely in their working lives. The resulting talk draws on four historical figures who addressed this divide in various ways. Here it is, in five parts:
This past January, I was co-teaching a group of graduate students at Regent College, in Vancouver, BC, with that wise and humane thinker on faith and vocation, my friend Steve Garber. Steve had asked me to join with him in creating and teaching a course for Regent called “Models of Public Engagement.” My contribution was to provide readings, mini-lectures, and discussion prompts from a wide variety of historical people of Christian faith. By the class’s second day together, in our Vancouver intensive week during which it would snow, rain, and blow gusts of freezing wind every day, it had already become a class joke that all of Dr. Armstrong’s best friends are dead.
This is actually not far off the mark. You can find my blog-site, for example, at “gratefultothedead.com.” (This, by the way, has confused more than a few Grateful Dead fans, who have wandered onto the blog expecting to find me writing about Jerry Garcia.)
But I can’t help myself. I love introducing people to my friends. As a wise priest once said to me, the teaching gifts of our past leaders have a very long shelf life. Yes, and I’d add, their lives as well as their teachings can also still speak to us today. So this afternoon as we dive into a few questions about how to find Christian vocation in a working world where Christ is so rarely named, I’ll be sharing with you from the thought and lives of four of my best dead friends. These are Gregory the Great, John Wesley, Charles Sheldon, and C. S. Lewis.
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):
A book that is sorely needed in today’s Christian world is John Knapp’s How the Church Fails Businesspeople (Knapp is a professor and head of an ethics center at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama). He’s blogging on the concept, briefly, on his publisher’s website, and lo and behold, up pops one of my favorite classical, Christocentric liberals of the 19th century, Charles M. Sheldon. Yup. I dedicated a chapter to Mr. “What Would Jesus Do?” in my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns(yes, there’s a Kindle version, in case you get one of those hugely popular commerce devices this Christmas). Here’s Dr. Knapp’s take on Sheldon. Amen, John. May your book gain a wide audience:
Pastors who wish to better understand the weekday lives of their parishioners could learn a thing or two from the real-life example of a nineteenth-century minister named Charles Sheldon, best known for his classic novel titled In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Continue reading →
That’s a Greek/Latin hybrid, meaning, “the Gospel proclamation for me.” So much of what Margery did was in response to her deeply personal sense of what the Gospel proclamation meant–for her and for all people.
In researching the man who originated the phrase “What would Jesus do” for Patron Saints for Postmoderns, I discovered something exciting. This novelist, whose In His Steps immortalized the idea of asking oneself “What would Jesus do?” before making any major decision, was no starry-eyed dreamer who lived only in his writing. Rather, he was one of the most active men of his day in the cause of social justice. Here’s what minister-novelist Charles Sheldon did when, as the brand new pastor of a Topeka, Kansas church, he was suddenly confronted with the problems of urban poverty and racism. [The following is an excerpt from the chapter on Sheldon in Patron Saints.]
Crossing Class Lines
From the first, Sheldon did well for his new church. The upper room over the butcher was often full, and soon the group was building a big stone edifice. When the new building opened, on June 23, 1889, Sheldon preached a defining sermon to what would be his lifelong flock. We can imagine their mix of pride and discomfort—“what had they gotten themselves into?”—as the young pastor announced that he would always preach “a Christ for the common people. A Christ who belongs to the rich and to the poor, the ignorant and the learned, the old and the young, the good and the bad. A Christ who knows no sect or age, whose religion does not consist alone in cushioned seats, and comfortable surroundings, or culture, or fine singing, or respectable orders of Sunday services, but a Christ who bids us all recognize the Brotherhood of the race, who bids throw open this room to all.” Little did those unsuspecting congregants know what concrete shapes their activist pastor’s dreams would assume in the years to come. Continue reading →
I thought a comment posted on my “Evangelicals and psychiatric services” article was worth re-posting here, along with my response. I’d be interested to hear others weigh in on this “Bible only” issue:
Karen said 4 days ago:
I haven’t read the previous articles on evangelicals, as of yet anyway. I appreciate what you’ve written in this one. I have a question. Have you written any articles on how to respond to other Christians who criticize you for seeking answers to questions in other places besides the Bible? It doesn’t really matter what issue the questions concern. I have a really hard time dealing with Christian family members & friends who believe that all answers are found only in the Bible, & for those who go to others resources are sinning. Thanks.
You said 14 hours ago:
Well, two responses.
First, I do point out to students who are inclined to this sort of “bibliolatry” that while the Bible has always been a primary source for Christian churches, it has not been the only source. Most Christians have always, until the past century or so, turned also to the wise writings of a wide array of writers and thinkers who have thought carefully about the gospel, and have used these “traditions” as a hermeneutic lens through which to understand the primary revelation of Scripture. Continue reading →
When I started digging into the life of Charles M. Sheldon–the man behind “What would Jesus do?”–I was expecting to find the caricature of a novelist: an introverted, naive, impractical dreamer who didn’t emerge much from his house, . . . Well, I discovered a very different sort of man. And Marshall Shelley was gracious enough to let me share my findings with the readers of Leadership Journal:
How Would Jesus Pastor? The unpredictable Charles Sheldon gave it a try. Chris Armstrong
The words rang out one Sunday morning in the fictional First Church in the fictional, comfortable town of Raymond. The speaker was a tramp who had walked, mid-service, up the center aisle. “I get puzzled when I see so many Christians living in luxury and singing ‘Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow Thee,’ and remember how my wife died in a tenement in New York City, gasping for air.
“It seems to me,” he continued, “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. But what would Jesus do?”
The following week, First Church’s pastor, Henry Maxwell, challenged his congregation to live up to their faith by asking themselves that same question, “What would Jesus do?” and act accordingly regardless of personal cost. Continue reading →
Here’s another “People Worth Knowing” column from the pages of Christian History & Biography. Again we have brief, linked profiles of two people with a thematic connection. This time: holiness.
Holiness of heart, life, and pen Charles Wesley and Charles H. Sheldon
Charles Wesley (1707-88). Charles M. Sheldon (1857-1946). Separated by 150 years and a continent, these two men shared traits deeper than a common first name. Both believed Christians must respond to their Savior’s amazing love by loving others in practical ways. And both, desiring that others be captivated by a higher vision of life in Christ, expressed that vision in words that galvanized millions. Continue reading →
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