Tag Archives: vocation

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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For the professors: are we at the “faith (spirituality) and work moment” in academe?


UC Berkeley April 2018 – Creative Commons

Recently I read several dozen articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education from the past few years, diagnosing “the moment” at which faculty find ourselves.

At the same time, I was re-reading my notes from a recent gathering of theological educators (people forming the next generation of pastors) I hosted–also to “diagnose this moment” at institutions with such programs. I asked about theological educators’ current sense of their vocations and their careers. Where are faculty in this specialized area finding themselves these days? Early on the first day of conversations, these factors emerged:

  • 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 I’d add: student needs and preferences in education] lead to questions of identity
  • The need for rest, with some burnout: schools have tighter budgets, are asking people to do more
  • New opportunities, flexibility to relocate, work from home, be near family, flourish in new ways, get in front of new audiences and address issues, needs, concerns beyond the traditional seminary (etc.)

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 of the 1980s-90s in America, 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 related to their work (both new age and traditionally religious), in search of a revived and restructured identity and a recovered satisfaction in work [in his book Got at Work]. 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 experience.

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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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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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C S Lewis and chronological snobbery: “Why–damn it–it’s medieval!”


Old-books-on-shelves-001Lewis was born to save the modern world from trashing its traditions – both Christian and classical. Once he had converted from his own “chronological snobbery,” he quickly found a vocation in recovering tradition for others. This is the second post from the “Tradition chapter” of Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis. The first is here.

For an idea of how Lewis viewed the power of tradition, we turn to his answer to the Christian Century magazine when they asked him, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The wording of that question is crucial. They asked not “what books did most to influence your style?” or “fire your imagination?” or “give you templates for your own writing?” etc., but rather “what books shaped your vocational attitude and philosophy of life.” As we see in the preface to Sister Penelope’s translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione, retitled “On reading old books” in later anthologies, and even more in his De Descriptione Temporum address at Cambridge in the Fall of 1954, nothing more triggered for Lewis “the place where his deep gladness met the world’s deep need”[1] than the modern abandonment of tradition. I mean his sense that in abandoning tradition, the modern world had dealt itself a grievous wound, which only his Christian faith kept him from seeing as inevitably fatal.

Lewis was perhaps the best prepared person of his generation for the task of appreciating and passing on the wisdom of past generations to those yet to come. Continue reading

Check out this cool conference on faith and work


faith-work-cultureJust wanted to show y’all this conference we’ve been working on here at Bethel Seminary, for Thur-Fri Oct 10-11, 2013. Come one, come all!

Think a personality test like the Myers-Briggs can guide you to your perfect career? Think again, says Fortune


phreneologyhead-graphicsfairy010bFortune magazine has recently reaffirmed what a lot of people have been saying for a long time about personality tests like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). When I hear someone talking about “the beguiling nature of the horoscope-like summaries of personality,” it warms my heart. Yes, I am a PTC (personality test curmudgeon). Says Fortune:

One other thing, and this matters especially for anybody who thinks personality tests can guide them to a perfect career. According to official Myers-Briggs documents published by its exclusive European distributor, the test can “give you an insight into what kinds of work you might enjoy and be successful doing.” So if you are, like me, classified as INTJ (your dominant traits are being introverted, intuitive, and having a preference for thinking and judging), the best-fit occupations include management consultant, IT professional, and engineer.

Would a change to one of these careers make me more fulfilled? Unlikely, according to psychologist David Pittenger, because there is “no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation … nor is there any data to suggest that specific types are more satisfied within specific occupations than are other types.” Pittenger advises “extreme caution in [the MBTI test’s] application as a counselling tool.” Then why is the MBTI so popular? Its success, he argues, is primarily due to “the beguiling nature of the horoscope-like summaries of personality and steady marketing.”

When I cite the avalanche of critical studies to career counsellors, coaches, and trainers who administer Myers-Briggs tests, they often point out that the test is not designed to match people to ideal careers. Yet many of them ignore the evidence and keep on handing them out, typically because they are still believers in it as a guide to personality types, but sometimes — I suspect — because it gives their advice a veneer of legitimacy.

I am especially concerned that people take these tests and then make major life decisions based on the simplistic self-portraits that result from them. Why? Because they are not only “beguiling” but, demonstrably, unreliable:

The interesting — and somewhat alarming — fact about the MBTI is that, despite its popularity, it has been subject to sustained criticism by professional psychologists for over three decades. One problem is that it displays what statisticians call low “test-retest reliability.” So if you retake the test after only a five-week gap, there’s around a 50% chance that you will fall into a different personality category compared to the first time you took the test.

That’s not the kind of track record I’m interested in building my life on. I prefer the older, slower method of listening carefully to the people who know me well. It’s not sexy, you can’t buy it, and its answers aren’t always clear, but its relational nature matches it more closely to what we’re trying to figure out: the incredibly complex, layered mass of predilections, gifts, and experiences that make up our shifting-but-centered personalities.

You can read the whole Fortune article here.