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.
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.
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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