Augustine’s claim for the superiority of the contemplative over the active life, which sets the tone for the church for the next millennium, seems based on two things: (1) the early and medieval Christian understanding of the superiority of the eternal over the temporal life with all its struggles and unmet needs in the fallen world. Note we need not say “eternal/spiritual” and “temporal/material,” for there is a New Creation, with its own kind of materiality – so that is a false separation. I’m not sure whether Augustine makes that separation or not, but he does note that material need will be wiped away in the eternal life. Which brings us to Augustine’s second source on the preferability of the contemplative over the active life: (2) the Gospel story of Mary and Martha.
Here is Augustine on both of these themes:
“Martha chose a good part, but Mary the better. What Martha chose passes away. She ministered to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless: but all these pass away,–there will be [a time – or rather, an eternity] when none will hunger nor thirst. Therefore will her care be taken from her ‘Mary hath chosen the better part . . . which shall not be taken away from her.’ She hath chosen to contemplate, to live by the Word (Sermon clxix.17).” (in Butler, 233)
Note this early identification, in Augustine, of the active life with Matt 25 type works of compassion to those in need. It is clear that he is not here denigrating Martha’s choice or the active life entirely:
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:
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):
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.
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.
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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