Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Callings, part 3

As we move into the “third historical period” of the Reformation and beyond (1500-1800), Placher documents that we see a dramatic shift in thinking on vocation. To this point in history, the idea was that only clergy had a vocation or “call” from God and that ordinary people who worked ordinary jobs did not so much. The idea was that since to some degree we “work for our salvation”; therefore, only religious jobs truly contribute to this end; that being the case, only religious jobs “counted” as a genuine call from God. However, Martin Luther concluded after reading the Apostle Paul’s writings that salvation did not depend on what we do. Because we are saved purely by the grace of God who loves "sinners, evil persons, fools and weaklings"; therefore, we serve out of gratitude and thanksgiving. We can serve our neighbors simply to serve them, rather than worry so much about how we are helping towards our own salvation (p. 205). Luther argued vigorously that there was no need to enter a monastery or a convent to be an "uber Christian," rather we should remain in whatever station God has placed us and serve God right where we are. Placher writes that when Luther began the Reformation around 1520, between 6-10% of the general population of Germany were priests, monks and nuns; however, only a generation later, that number had dropped by 2/3rds. Monasteries and convents were almost entirely closed and the majority of clergy had married (p. 206). Luther wrote that every Christian has at least two vocations: 1) a spiritual calling (to become Christ’s) and 2) an external calling to a particular line of work. 

There were movements away from Luther’s position, for example the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany in 1525 and the stance of the Levellers in the 1640s who fought to abandon their ordinary occupations. While Luther’s work gave dignity to the ordinary citizen and his job, it also reinforced the existing social order. It became thought of as “sin” to leave the station in life or vocation God had given to a person. In some ways Luther’s teaching, while giving dignity to an ordinary person’s work, also resigned that person to accept their work as God’s call to obedience. To reject or leave the work, was therefore thought to be disobedience to God. This thinking was not accepted by all. While John Calvin agreed with Luther for the most part and warned against the human tendency to restlessness and discontentment with their vocations, nonetheless, Calvin advocated for some freedom of social motion from one job to another (p. 207). Other groups pursued more of a “radical Reformation” (p. 208). Groups like the Mennonites in Holland and North Germany and the Hutterites in Switzerland and Moravia pursued a communal life of simplicity. They viewed the government and the existing social order with suspicion, especially rejecting warfare in particular. Also, they only baptized adults, those who could make a clear commitment to Christ and rebaptized those who had been baptized as infants. These folks became known as “Anabaptists.” Meanwhile, most Catholics continued to think of vocation in terms of priesthood or monastic life and people like Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, Teresa of Ávila of Spain and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz of Mexico capably defended the values of monastic life. 

As the Reformation continued to spread over Europe, in the 1640s, some members of parliament the Puritans sought to simplify worship and raise moral standards in England. They joined parliament in deposing King Charles I (and eventually beheading him) and placed one of their generals Oliver Cromwell as “Lord Protector” over England. Parliament recruited men of lower and middle classes to form an army while the Puritans sought to reform the Church of England by replacing bishops with elected regional assemblies called “presbyteries.” Independents and Congregationalists wanted local autonomy for their congregations. Baptists wanted to purify the church further by baptizing only those who had made an adult commitment of faith and Quakers found guidance from the “inner light” of the Holy Spirit (p. 209). Religious diversity was significant at this time in England's history. After Cromwell died in 1658, Charles II, the son of Charles I, returned from exile in France in 1660 and reclaimed the throne; the Church of England was reestablished as well. Those who continued to seek to “purify the Church” went underground, suffered persecution or moved to the American colonies. 

Overall, the Puritans spent time encouraging others to look inward. While most Puritans thought themselves to stand in the Reformed tradition as founded by Calvin, they also tended to emphasize individual salvation more so than Calvin. Borrowing from the empiricist philosophy common in the 17th century, direct experience became the best way to “prove” the truth of something. So the Puritans as well as other groups like the Pietists of Germany spent a lot of time analyzing their “religious experience.” Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley spoke at length on the experience of their calling. However a different kind of challenge arose for those who had believed in the radical and free grace of God in Christ; Christians now began to utilize a particular kind of experience as the evidence that someone had been truly "called" by God (in the more general sense, i.e. converted). Some even began to view “success” in certain jobs as evidence of salvation and the idea of “vocation” shifted more and more to mean exclusively “job” (p. 210). The Reformers had sought to build the case that any job could be properly called a “vocation,” but in more recent times, Christians have grappled with the question of, to what extent their jobs should define their lives.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Callings, part 2

As Placher moves into the “second historical period” describing the shape of vocations in the Middle Ages (500-1500), we find that monastic life remains as the “ideal,” nonetheless there is a tremendous degree of nuance that develops in medieval thought, regarding the nature of "calling" on the lives of those who seek after “religious perfection.” For example, Benedict of Nursia lived in southern Italy around 500 and originally had withdrawn into a cave to live as a hermit. However, followers would soon gather around him and Benedict ends up becoming the founder of several monasteries drafting a “rule” to guide those living in his monasteries (not a small development as Benedict now discovers the "pleasure and joy" of fellowship). Placher writes, “By most modern standards, Benedict’s rule demands a very tough life, but what struck many of his contemporaries was its moderation and common sense” (p. 108). Nonetheless, the Benedictine pattern emphasized withdrawal to a communal life of prayer and liturgy.

By the 1200s, a different kind of order appears- the Dominicans and Franciscans. Francis of Assisi who was the son of an Italian merchant felt called to a life of radical poverty. At first, he and his followers resisted owning property and worked for the care of lepers and the marginalized in society. To this point, Benedictine monks prayed for “the world” but their primary focus was to work on their own salvation, i.e. to pursue the “contemplative life.” On the other hand, following Francis, the Franciscans actively cared for others; they pursued the “active life” caring for the poor. At about the same time, Dominic, a Spaniard, likewise sold all his possessions to help the poor; however, Dominic feared those turning away from faith in the church, so sought to develop in the church more effective and better-educated preachers. Before long, the Dominicans became among the educational leaders in the church. So, like the Benedictine monks, the Franciscans and Dominicans also formed groups with special rules and lives dedicated to God; however, their vocations tended to be more directed towards others, in the case of the Franciscans, to caring for the poor and the Dominicans towards preaching and teaching ministries. There was a clear tension between the pursuit of the “contemplative life” as modeled by the Benedictines as well as that of the “active life” as modeled by that of the Franciscans and Dominicans. One example is discovered in the story of Thomas Aquinas and his sense of call. Thomas’ family had him earmarked to join the local Benedictine monastery; instead, Thomas ran away and joined the Dominicans. Thomas’ family was so terrified they had him kidnapped and imprisoned for almost a year before letting him pursue his own sense of vocation (p. 110). Aquinas, who would become the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, would struggle to sort out the relationship between the active and contemplative life as well as the importance of religious vows with their promises of poverty, chastity and strict obedience (p. 110).   

Developing in the 1100s were a few Christians in the Netherlands who began exploring a sort of “compromise” between “lay” and “religious” life. Beguines (women) and Beghards (men) lived in communities and devoted themselves to prayer and “charity”; however, they also held regular jobs, some even kept private property; they took no permanent vows and could leave the community and marry if they wish. Because of the concern among church authorities for this “alternative approach to religion and life,” the Beguines and Beghards often experienced persecution. By the 14th century in the Netherlands, the Dutch merchant Geert Grote, after an unsuccessful attempt at monastic life, became highly critical of local priests and won many supporters; in so doing, Grote met with his supporters in private homes “after the model of the first apostles” (p. 111). Members of Grote’s “New Devout” would support themselves by engaging in various “secular” vocations (though in those days only “religious” pursuits technically qualified as a vocatio). These “New Devout” took no vows, emphasized simple piety, held in suspicion complex theology and were described in language of the time as being “devout” but not “religious” (p. 111). One of the more remarkable devotional works in the history of Christianity arose from this movement, The Imitation of Christ, now strongly believed to be the work of Thomas à Kempis, a remarkable work to get “ordinary Christians” to think about what it means to lead a “religious” life (p. 111). 

Callings, by William Placher, part 1

Placher compiles an anthology on “twenty centuries of Christian wisdom on vocation” and he organizes his book based on four historical periods: 1) Calling to Christian Life in the Early Church; 2) Religious Vocations in the Middle Ages; 3) The Reformation and Seeing Every Job as Vocation and 4) Vocations in a Post-Christian Age. Placher writes, “Any broad categories oversimplify, but there are roughly four broad periods in Christian history when ‘calling’ has had different meanings” (p. 6).

Beginning with the “first period,” the first several centuries of the church’s existence were not easy ones. Christianity began as an “obscure cult” out of the eastern edge of the Roman Empire and most living in the empire heard of it first in “wild rumors” (p. 23). Christians were said to engage in orgies, wanted the world to end, ate flesh, drank blood and were thought to be unfriendly to neighbors since they would not participate in meals involving the sacrificing to one god or another. Plus, they would not sacrifice to the divine emperor, so were thought to be traitors. Even the “Jesus” they worshipped had been executed by a Roman governor (p. 23). Becoming a Christian often meant isolation from family and friends and, while persecution was only occasional, it did carry the threat of torture and death. Still, the church kept growing. By the early 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, and some Christians began to feel that living as a Christian had become too easy, safe, socially respectable and comfortable. So they sought out monastic lives of great self-deprivation and lived as ascetics. This kind of radical self-denial “proved” that they were truly following Christ. In the early church, the idea of “call” (klesis) was first and foremost about the call to become a Christian (Rom. 1:6,7) and implied was the “forsaking of all worldly riches and pursuits.” Even those from wealthy backgrounds would sometimes choose the same lifestyles as their servants, in order to “follow the call.” “Spiritual athletes” who trained as Christians just as others might train to accomplish great feats of athletic strength and endurance, became the heroes and heroines of Christians everywhere: in a word, self-denial gave moral authority and lives of exemplary cause to follow. Therefore, even after Christianity became more “acceptable” and to live as a Christian, more comfortable, the thought prevailed that the “spirit of the martyrs” was preserved among those who took up the “call” to lives of monasticism and severe asceticism.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work, by Cosden

This was a laborious and difficult read for me but for different reasons than my previous read. After tackling Volf's technical read, "Work in the Spirit," I looked at the writing style and the number of pages of Cosden's book (148 pgs.), and I thought, "I'll get through this one fairly quickly." Not so. Cosden spends a lot of time "exegeting" finer points of Scripture so I found myself mulling over much of his interpretive work, thinking about it, at points coming to a new understanding of "old texts"; at other times thinking, "I respect what Cosden is saying but don't agree with him fully." However, despite the "labor" required (pardon the play on words), my experience was that the book only got better and better as I went along and "my socks were blown off" by the time I reached Cosden's final chapters, especially chapter 6, "Shaping Things to Come: Mission for the Masses.”

Cosden makes the point in chapter 6 (his final chapter) that there is much agreement among various evangelical leaders today that the "modern missions movement" is in crisis, “Most evangelical leaders acknowledge that the western mission enterprise is in trouble and that something is fundamentally wrong with the ‘faith missions movement'” (p. 130).

Cosden gives the example of missions work he did in Russia twenty years ago, right after communism had fallen. This illustration hit me pretty hard as in 1992 I was in Hungary (a former Soviet bloc country that was "liberated" in 1989 with the fall of communism) doing evangelistic missionary work for a couple months. But Cosden writes that right after communism had fallen, "lives and livelihoods were crumbling around us as government-based employment welfare systems, ... fell apart" (p. 128). The most pressing question at that time was, "How does the gospel relate to life?" Cosden writes that "Our model as missionaries guaranteed that we produce 'rice Christians'": in other words, "dependent" Christians who could only hope to be "delivered" from the futility of their situations rather than find hope within them. In a word, this theology of missions that said to people in places like Russia, "trust Jesus and he will save you but has nothing really to say about your 'ordinary lives / work,' but that maybe He just might liberate you to becoming a 'missionary' some day" ... was deeply flawed (and continues to be today). Wow. I finish this post with some Cosden quotes to get us to think more deeply about this "crisis" and the need to re-think how we view work and missions.

“... when done in a way that images God and thus co-operates with him, human work in itself is Christian missionary activity. Why? Because it is largely (though not exclusively) through our work that we reflect God’s image and co-operate with him in bringing people and the whole creation to humanity’s and nature’s ultimate maturity and future…. We are saved to become together the image of Christ, and thus the image of God- and we express and develop this most directly in our work” (pp. 129-130).

“…this means that any understanding of mission that fails to grasp that in itself human work is fundamental to God’s purpose (the mission of God or kingdom of God) for us and creation will be theologically flawed. Likewise, missions thinking that fails to incorporate this theology ultimately undermines the missionary calling of the people of God. For the majority of Christians simply cannot now, nor could they ever, measure up to the modern faith missionary ideal of leaving home and work ‘to work’ for God. For what that understanding of mission unintentionally does is marginalize and thus alienate the vast majority of Christians in the world who will spend most of their lives and life’s energy in ordinary work” (p. 130).

“Thus work is not a platform for mission or evangelism, as if it were somehow subordinate to salvation and eternity. Rather, godly work itself actually spreads by embodying God’s good news, a present experience and foretaste of salvation. For work in itself is a genuine form of life imaging God. It is an ever-open invitation to all to co-operate with God in his purposes” (p. 135).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Work in the Spirit, part 2

This was my most “technical read” so far, yet Volf’s thoughts are not only clear but provocative, challenging and insightful. One part that stuck out to me was when Volf spoke of the concept of “expanding needs.” The thought was basically this: as the wealth of a society grows, its “felt product-needs” grow as well. We begin to think we need more things as “wealth, technology and opportunity” grow in our midst. For example, just a few years ago, I was satisfied with my AOL “dial-up” internet connection. Today, not only do I “need” high-speed access, but I can hardly “go without” my blackberry phone with internet access “all the time.” And don’t we see this in many areas of life as we experience expanding "needs" for “conveniences, according to the nicety and delicacy of taste” (p. 149)? Isn't it much more difficult to be satisfied with “bread and water,” once you’ve tasted delicate pastries and wine?

Nonetheless, what fascinates me the most about Volf’s assessment isn’t so much his assessment; most reading this would agree with this idea of our “expanding felt product needs,” rather what fascinates me the most is Volf’s answer to the “challenge.” He begins by critiquing the more typical Christian response, asceticism, i.e. denial of “good things.” As Volf says, asceticism denies the “dynamic nature” of human needs and misinterprets the “Biblical tradition that affirms the goodness of creation and the enjoyment of it” (Matt. 11:19, 1Tim. 6:17). Still, the “endless spiral in which today’s desires become tomorrow’s needs” must be limited as well, lest great damage result. For one, creation becomes destroyed and ravaged if limits aren’t imposed (see Haiti’s ecological crisis, for example). Also, good things become ultimate things. The consumption of a created thing for enjoyment for the glory of God (a good thing) becomes the sole object of our pursuit and desire, i.e. idolatrous (an ultimate thing) and lives become harmed as a result.

So, if the “answer” is not asceticism, how do we deal with these problems? and affirm the goodness of pursuing material “needs,” at the same time? Volf’s answer is we must see that we have other fundamental needs as well. These are what Volf calls “fundamental non-product needs”: 1) Communion with God; 2) Need for Solidarity with Nature; 3) for Tending to the Well-Being of Others; 4) Human Development of Moral Capacities (nurturing “fruit of the Spirit”) and Practical and Intellectual Skills (developing “gifts of the Spirit”). And ultimately, these “fundamental non-product needs" point us to our single, universal underlying need, ... the Kingdom, i.e. the New Creation (Matt. 6:33).  

In fact, the pursuit of these “non-product” needs are not only a way to keep us from unlimited and unhealthy consumption, but a way for us to realize the fullness of our humanity. So we might see some ways in which these four areas are inter-connected. Working for structures that promote human creativity and flexibility in work, matching human “giftings” (by the Spirit) with work roles and giving workers a clear sense of how their contribution fits into the larger narrative of the purpose behind their work (i.e. the organization’s “larger purpose”), also how their work benefits the “common good” (#4 connects with #3), ... all this fulfills fundamental needs we have. The well-being of society becomes our need and therefore our aim. Also, while work has instrumental value to sustain us and meet our needs, it also becomes an end in itself. You see, our work is meant to glorify God (#1). We see ourselves as working for Him ultimately. As the Reformers insisted, we were meant to work “in play and with the greatest delight” (p. 198). As much as producing efficiently, we were meant to delight in our work as well. Self-forgetfulness is our aim as working for Christ becomes our fundamental pursuit; “everything is added to us as well” as we seek His Kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Finally, we steward "non-human creation," because it is a co-heir with us in future glory (Rom. 8:20,21). Not only does this care and preservation of nature (#2) honor a “co-recipient of divine blessing” but benefits others globally and future generations as well. Care of creation becomes a way for producing and extending limited resources to a broader reach (connecting #3 with #2), instead of consuming with only the needs of the individual self in mind.

Where there is creative freedom, understanding of the larger purpose behind the work and how it benefits the common good; where work glorifies God and becomes an end in itself, an object of delight and worship; and where our solidarity with creation and with one another is strengthened, ... the Kingdom comes. Still, it is naïve to ignore the larger structural and economic forces that keep us in roles of “alienating” work. We can pursue these opportunities and seek to place ourselves in the best possible situations; however, part of working for the "common good" means that we examine the systemic and structural evils that keep others from engaging in meaningful / nonalienating / humanizing work. Volf argues that a market economy provides the best possibility for this kind of work; however, that the common good must be a high valuation in this kind of society. What is our responsibility to one another and to the world in which we live? As Calvin once wrote, “It is not enough when a man can say, ‘Oh, I labor, I have my craft,’ or ‘I have such a trade.’ That is not enough. But we must see whether it is good and profitable for the common good, and whether his neighbors may fare better for it” (p. 189). Ultimately, as we work in the Spirit, what we seek is a vision of the New Creation. In the present, we are realistic in that we understand there will always be “toil” this side of “glory,” ... still we work with hopefulness because in our possession is the Resurrection of Christ and the resultant pouring forth of the Spirit's gifts onto His people.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Work in the Spirit, by Miroslav Volf

I can already tell that this book by Volf will be my most "technical read" so far; however, the intro. has already intrigued me greatly. Let me share a section with you, and I will plan to comment again on this work, once I am a little further along:

"I believe that economic systems should be judged primarily by three normative principles: freedom of individuals, satisfaction of the basic needs of all people, and protection of nature from irreparable damage. All three of these principles can be derived from the notion of ‘new creation,’ which in the present book functions as the main ethical norm. First, the concept of new creation implies guarding the individual’s dignity. Each person is created in the image of God and is called to a personal relation with Christ as His brother or sister. In economic life the individual is thus not to be treated as a thing but as a free and responsible agent. Second, the concept of new creation has implications for community. It implies practicing solidarity. Every person is called to be an heir with Christ in the community of God’s people. In economic life this should mobilize us to work for the fulfillment of everyone’s basic needs. In particular, it implies a preferential option for the poor. Third, the concept of new creation has implications for the natural environment. It implies the responsibility of preserving the integrity of nature. Nature is not a mere thing. Rather, the Bible teaches us that it suffers under corruptibility and will participate in the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:78ff.). In economic life this implies that protection of nature from irreparable damage must accompany any work on or in nature" (pp. 16,17).