A Changing Future for Cascade Fellows

Through a process of discernment, Fuller Seminary has recently made the decision to place the Cascade Fellows program on a one-year hiatus. While inconvenient, this year-long hiatus for the fellows is going to be critically important for both the church in Seattle and Fuller.

The hiatus will allow Fuller a year of discernment to explore two critical questions with Seattle-area churches. The first question is this: what are the church’s needs for programming around faith, work, and whole-life discipleship that Fuller can uniquely help meet? Second, what sort of new director will we need to execute this programming?

Rather than forge ahead with hiring a director for the Cascade Fellows status quo, Fuller has wisely decided to take the year to listen to leaders and churches in order to discern what the church truly needs and what sort of programming it is willing to invest its time and resources in.

Dr. Matthew Kaemingk, Dr. Mark Roberts, Dr. Uli Chi and Dr. Tod Bolsinger will comprise the  Seattle assessment team in the coming year and are going to be hosting regular gatherings of Seattle leaders to discern Fuller’s next steps together.

Through this year of hiatus, we may decide to simply develop a new and improved version of Cascade Fellows. We may decide to develop something new that we haven’t even dreamed of.  The important and unchanging thing is this: Fuller is committed to empowering local congregations to do faith, work, and whole-life discipleship well. In all future discussions it will be this vision that continues to lead us.

The official beginning of this new conversation will be on April 29th in Bellevue at our “Church and Marketplace Conference.” This event will be designed to equip whole congregations to engage the marketplace in new and innovative ways. I hope you and your churches can join us! The Director of Gotham Fellows in NYC, Dr. David Kim will be one of our featured speakers.  http://bit.ly/2mKKMC4

No matter what direction faith and work at Fuller takes, know that our mission will always be to empower the church of Jesus Christ for mission in the marketplace and culture of the Pacific Northwest.

In Christ,
Dr. Matthew Kaemingk

The “Christian” Artist: 10 Reflections from Abraham Kuyper

Maggie Hubbard Pile of Stuff I, 2016

Maggie Hubbard, Pile of Stuff I, 2016

 

The “Christian” Artist: 10 Reflections from Abraham Kuyper

The artistic legacy of American Christianity is mixed, (at best). Christians have scorned the arts as useless, wasteful, sinful, elitist, idolatrous, and self-centered. When these same Christians decide to “take back the arts” and make their own forms of “Christian” music, movies, novels, and paintings, the artistic results, once again, are mixed, at best.

What should be our response to this “mixed” legacy of the arts in American Christianity?

Abraham Kuyper’s 1898 reflections on faith and the arts in his Lectures On Calvinism are impressive in their depth, breadth, and insight on the subject. While I do not find myself agreeing with every aspect of his aesthetics, I find his speech (composed in 1898) to be extremely prescient, prophetic, and relevant for today’s discussions of faith and the arts.

It is no surprise that Christians called to the arts are ambivalent about the American church. Some feel mistrusted and marginalized. Others feel isolated and lonely, and still others feel misunderstood, frustrated, and even angry.

This week, for my reflection on Abraham Kuyper, I offer 10 pieces of advice for the Christian artist inspired by Kuyper’s chapter on “Calvinism and the Arts.” I hope that these are helpful in your reading of his lecture.

 

  1. Your Art is Not a Luxury, It is a Necessity

While some Christians have argued that the arts are a wasteful luxury – that money should only be spent on evangelism or helping the poor – Kuyper disagrees. Art, he argues “is no fringe that is attached to the garment, and no amusement that is added to life, but a most serious power.” The arts are a central part of God’s intention for humanity. Take beauty and creativity away from a person’s life and you have removed a core part of their created humanity.

Kuyper argues that art is not a superfluous “decoration” for life. To the contrary – it can help us understand what life is all about. Art, he insists, teaches us lessons “which neither science, nor politics, nor religious life, nor even revelation can bring to light.”(163) For him, a bare utilitarian vision of life which has no space for creativity, imagination, or beauty is not a life worthy of a creative and imaginative God. The arts remind us, in a world of bare rationalism and materialism, that life is about more than simply the true and the good, it is also about the beautiful. For, in “this cold, irreligious, and practical age the warmth of this devotion to art has kept alive many higher aspirations of our soul.”(143)

Standing firmly in the creativity and imagination of the Creator God himself, Christian artists should never apologize for their calling to the arts. They have a high and holy calling.

The artist creates, not because she feels like it, not because she has some extra time and money, not because a space is lacking decoration. The artist creates because her God has called her to create. This is the only justification she needs.

 

  1. Push Boundaries

Christians have historically feared artists because they push boundaries, challenge assumptions, and question the status quo. Christians in America have wrongly married their faith to a stagnant cultural conservatism that fears cultural exploration, innovation, and change.

In opposition to this, Kuyper argues that God called Adam and Eve to explore, cultivate, and develop the Garden of Eden—not freeze it in place. Therefore, he argues, Christians are not in the business of fearful cultural conservation – they are in the business of hopeful cultural exploration, cultivation, and development.

If our God is a God who loves fearless exploration and development, the arts “cannot afford to tarry at her origin, but must ever develop herself more richly… Only, the law of her growth and life… must remain the fundamental law of art for ever.” (163)

 

  1. Don’t Make “Christian Art”

Abraham Kuyper argues that the church should not have its own distinct style of “Christian art.” The church should not be in the business of controlling its artists or they art they produce. The church does not call artists – God does. The artist is responsible directly to God, and not the church. He is radically free to glorify God through his art-making. Because the artist is freed by God’s call, we should not expect one singular “Christian style” of art, but instead, a broad, messy, and beautiful variety of explorations in a multiplicity of media, addressing ever widening themes.

 

  1. Don’t Make “Secular Art”

Embarrassed by the horrible state of “Christian Art,” some Christians in the arts (in particular those called to make art out in the “secular art world”) attempt to hide their faith or ignore it. Fearful of being found out, they try to make art that is disconnected from their deepest convictions and beliefs.

While Kuyper is against “Christian Art,” he is also against “Secular Art.” He believes that “the call for a secular, all-embracing art-style, independent of any religious principle, is simply absurd.” (151) Why is it absurd? Because every song, painting, and sculpture emerges from some conviction about the meaning and purpose of life. It comes from a belief in something. Every artist must have a worldview—a core identity. The only question is, what will that core identity be?

Kuyper insists that the arts “demand a central motive in the mental and emotional life of a people.” (150) In short, if you believe nothing, you have nothing to create. Even the so-called atheist artist believes in something, if she didn’t, she would have no reason to make anything at all. Every artist has a throne that cannot remain empty. The Christian artist has a choice to make, even as she creates for spaces outside of the church.

 

  1. Don’t Be a Snob

Abraham Kuyper was squarely against the modern practice of isolating “the arts” to metropolitan museums, wealthy homes, posh galleries, graduate schools, and the realm of elite professional artists. If it is true that God is an artist, and if it is true God created all of us to long for beauty, creativity, and imagination, then it follows that the arts should be for everyone. Christians called to the arts must be aware of the cultural temptation to isolate, elevate, and patronize—and they must find ways to subvert and challenge this practice. The arts are for all of God’s people.

 

  1. Appreciate Art By Non-Christians

Because of common grace, Abraham Kuyper argues that the “arts are gifts which God imparts promiscuously to believers and to unbelievers, yea, that, as history shows, these gifts have flourished even in a larger measure outside the holy circle.” (160) Kuyper points to the fact that the ancient Greeks far surpassed the ancient Israelites in their artistic abilities. In God’s sovereign freedom he decided to bless the Greeks more than the Israelites.

If this is true, then Christians should never dismiss art made by non-Christians. If they do, they may very well be dismissing the very gifts of God.

 

  1. Don’t Copy Nature, Wrestle With It

The artist does not merely copy the garden God made. The artist explores the garden, unfolds it, dissects it, develops it, tests it, and reveals new insights about life within it. The “vocation of art,” according to Kuyper, is “not merely to observe everything visible and audible, to apprehend it, and reproduce it artistically.” (154) No, artists are called to “the noble vocation of disclosing to man a higher reality.” (153) The artist does not copy life, she wrestles with life and comes out on the other side with new insights to share, new things to reveal.

As we mentioned before, art teaches us lessons about life “which neither science, nor politics, nor religious life, nor even revelation can bring to light.”(163) Furthermore, the artist does not simply tell us what is (in the present). The artist also reminds us what we have we lost (from the past) and what could be (in the future). The artist embraces both memory and imagination.

The true artist does not copy life, she wrestles with it, she reveals it. That is her sacred calling.

 

  1. Pay Attention to the Common, the Ordinary

As a Calvinist, Abraham Kuyper believes that God cares about and saves ordinary people. God loves them, not because they have done something extraordinary, but because he intends to do something extraordinary with their ordinary lives. These so-called “ordinary” people have done nothing to earn God’s love. God freely chooses the ordinary to make the extraordinary.

So, if God loves the ordinary, the common, the mundane; Kuyper concludes that the artist should too. They should not be bored with the commoner’s life, because God isn’t. Kuyper writes,

If a common man, to whom the world pays no special attention, is valued and even chosen by God as one of His elect, this must lead the artist also to find a motive for his artistic studies in what is common and of every-day occurrence, to pay attention to the emotions and the issues of the human heart in it…to interpret for the world at large the precious discovery he has made. (166)

There is something beautiful in the so-called boring, there is something sacred in the so-called secular, and there is something extraordinary in the so-called ordinary. It is the vocation of the artist to investigate, explore, and finally reveal that hidden reality.

 

  1. There is No Such Thing As Evil Art

While many Christians have spurned the arts as evil and idolatrous at their core, Kuyper vehemently disagrees. God created the arts. God is the author of our creativity, imagination, skill, and craftsmanship. These are gifts of God. To label them the gifts of the devil is to disgrace the true giver of the gifts. “Satan,” Kuyper argues, “is destitute of every creative power. All he can do is to abuse the good gifts of God.” Any brokenness or sin that we witness in the arts is simply the perversion of something good. Evil cannot make, it can only destroy. Evil cannot craft, it can only twist.

Furthermore, the complaint that “the art world is evil” is actually a case for engaging the arts—not running away from them. Sin has not only infected the arts, it has infected politics, business, education, medicine, the media, the church, and the family. People who are called to be salt, light, and leaven in a world on fire do not run away from the blaze—they run into it.

 

  1. Approach Your Skills As Gifts (Not Possessions)

The final word of advice Kuyper would give to the artist is that they must, above all, receive their artistic gifts as gifts. Our artistic gifts are something we steward. They are not something that we own. They were given, not for our glory, but for God’s. They were bestowed, not for our personal good, but for the common good.

Strictly speaking, they are not our skills, brilliance, creativity, or craftsmanship that are on display, but God’s. Art, Kuyper argues, cannot “originate with man, for, being a creature himself, man cannot but employ the powers and gifts put by God at his disposal.” (155) Quoting Calvin, his favorite theologian, Kuyper argues that “all the arts come from God and are to be respected as Divine inventions.”

If we are stewards and not possessors of artist gifts, there are at least three practical consequences. First, we may never believe that we earned our success on our own. Second, we are in a constant state of self-learning, exploring and sharpening the gifts that God has given. Third, we do our artistic work, not out of duty, obligation, or raw ambition, but instead we create out of gratitude. Our art-making is fundamentally a responsive act of worship to the One who gave us these gifts. As the artist Makoto Fujimura remarks, “my approach to art resembles the paradigm set by a woman in the gospel who broke her jar of nard upon Christ’s feet.” May we all offer our gifts back to the one who gave them to us.

 

 

Four Rules for Faith and Politics: According to Abraham Kuyper

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I studied political science at a Christian college. Predictably, my classes were filled with passionate debates over the relationship between Christianity and politics.

Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? What should Christians think about welfare, abortion, gay marriage, etc? Can Christians fight in war? My liberal and conservative peers spent hours zealously debating these questions. And while we all badly wanted to put our faith first and our politics second, more often than not, the opposite appeared to be true.

I quickly realized that we came to these debates with ready-made political positions and that we wanted the Bible to back us up. We were trying to cram God into our political boxes. Christianity did not come first—it came second. Jesus was not the Lord of our politics—we were. In the end, Christianity was little more than the “spiritual frosting” that we were spreading (rather thinly) over our own political opinions.

This practice became tiring.

Near the end of my college years I came upon the work of Abraham Kuyper. And, while I didn’t always agree with every word, I downed Kuyper like a cup of cool water in a dry desert. Reading Kuyper I could step finally outside the tired right-left binary and look at American politics from a different perspective. In Kuyper I had found a third way out of the noisy and rather boring echo chamber of right versus left.

I can’t hope to fully summarize Kuyper’s political perspective here, but below I have briefly explored four critical “rules” in Kuyper’s thinking about faith and politics that are particularly poignant for our political environment today. I do my best to demonstrate what Kuyper’s critique of both Republicans and Democrats might be if he were alive today.

 

Rule #1 Recognize That All Politics Are Faith-Based

Abraham Kuyper’s first rule for thinking about politics was that there is no such thing as “secular” politics. Every political platform, party, and politician s faith-based. Every political platform rests upon on system of beliefs and convictions about the good life. Whether your politics are defined as Muslim or Christian, Marxist or Capitalist, Conservative or Liberal, Kuyper insisted that all political opinions are founded upon faith-based assumptions that cannot be proven.

The implication of Rule #1 is this: no politician can claim to have absolute access to “the truth.” No worldview, religion, or political philosophy can claim a special authority over another. Politics, therefore, is a debate. It is a contest between a variety of faiths on equal footing.

This is a humbling message for both Republicans and Democrats today, who seem to yell at one another with a God-like authority they have no claim to. Both sides forget the faith-based nature of their politics.

Republicans sometimes speak as if they have direct access to God and God’s opinions—they even dare to speak on God’s behalf sometimes! Democrats, on the other hand, can sometimes claim to be purely enlightened and rational, capable of being uniquely fair and open-minded. From their high-minded secular position they look down on “religious” voters as uneducated, irrational, and biased. Democrats forget that they too speak from a faith-based perspective.

 

Rule #2 Don’t Be Cynical or Romantic About Politics

Today’s politics suffer from two opposite maladies—political cynicism and political romanticism. Cynics argue that government is completely broken, corrupt, and oppressive. Romantics, on the other hand, argue that government is a tool for good—even political salvation. Embodying these dichotomies, Ronald Reagan famously declared, “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem!” While Barak Obama famously announced, “We can change Washington!” and “We are the people we’ve been waiting for!”

In opposition to both political cynics and romantics, Kuyper argues that both sin and grace are always at work in our political life. This did not make Kuyper some sort of middle-of-the-road moderate taking the good with the bad. No, Kuyper was both pessimistic and optimistic about political life.

Kuyper was pessimistic as he argued that sin had infected every aspect of political life. Every politician, platform, and party was influenced by sin. Placing ultimate hope and confidence in a political system was folly. Because of this, Kuyper argued that the government should be carefully limited in its authority, power, and size. He argued that it should never be allowed to become an “octopus” spreading its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. The government is not our salvation it is an unfortunate mechanism built to maintain justice and life in a violent and broken world.

That said, Kuyper did not allow his political pessimism to turn into all out cynicism. Sin, he argued, is not the only thing active in politics—grace is there too. Christians must also recognize that government is a beautiful and undeserved gift from God given to his people to restrain their evil and violence. More than that government is a gracious gift given to promote humanity’s justice and flourishing. Christians, therefore, are not permitted to complain and be cynical about political life. They must be grateful.

If both sin and grace are active in politics, we as Christians are not allowed to give ourselves over to complete cynicism or romanticism. They must approach it with both realistic suspicion and hopeful gratitude.

 

Rule #3 Choose Your Authority Wisely

Who is in charge here? This might be the first and most important political question there is. Kuyper argues that a country’s beliefs about political authority and sovereignty matter a great deal. Getting the question of authority wrong can have dire consequences.

Historically speaking, countries have bestowed divine-like political authority to all sorts of people, systems, and things. Some have given ultimate authority to kings and dictators, others to the interests of money or power. Some have given power to the workers and others to CEOs, some listen to Mohammad others to the Pope. Still other countries have given it final authority to the strongest race or to the largest and most powerful group of voters. One thing is certain, wherever a country bestows ultimate authority, that choice will have far reaching consequences.

What exactly are the consequences of our choices about authority? Abraham Kuyper provides a number of practical examples, here are two. First, Kuyper looked at the concept of “authority” in 19th century Germany and France. In post-revolutionary France ultimate authority was bestowed upon the “will of the French majority” while in Germany ultimate authority was given to the “will of the German state.”

The political consequences of these decisions were clear. In modern Germany it was very difficult for citizens to question, challenge, or limit the holy power of the German state. This ultimately came true when the Nazi state arose, no one could stop it. Newspapers, schools, churches, and whole communities were bulldozed by the German state’s unquestioned authority.

Likewise in modern France it was very difficult to question, challenge, or limit the holy power of “the French majority.” Smaller communities and leaders who stood against the French revolutionary majority were eliminated by the guillotine. In both France and Germany there was no higher authority to appeal to, nowhere else to go.

Secondly, Kuyper also compared Catholic and Calvinist understandings of authority. Catholics, he argued, tended to place greater confidence in centralized authority while Calvinists tended to be more skeptical of centralized authority. Because of this, power tended to be centralized in historically Catholic countries (Italy, Spain, and France) while in historically Calvinist countries, power tended to be decentralized (England, United States, Switzerland, and the Netherlands).

So, who is really in charge? Whether you give ultimate authority to the will of the majority or the will of the state, whether you have a high Catholic trust of authority or a Calvinist skepticism, the implications of Rule #3 are clear; the question of authority matters.

Kuyper insists that God alone deserves the title of ultimate authority. No leader, party, philosophy, race, or group of voters can claim God’s throne. Once again, this cuts against both Republicans and Democrats in different ways. It is often subtle, but both parties bestow unwarranted and unquestioned authority in our political discourse.

Democrats often speak as if progressive values and policies are “on the right side of history.” If you do not get on board you are, by implication, on the wrong side of history. “History” here is the ultimate and unquestioned authority. Republicans, on the other hand, often give unquestioned authority to things like the free market, the military, corporations, and their conception of conservative Christian culture. Both parties are guilty of putting created things on the Creator’s throne.

Once again, who is really in charge?

 

Rule #4 Life is Bigger than Politics and Money 

Kuyper argued that God created human beings to flourish and make culture in a wide variety of ways. God made human life to be rich, complex, and beautiful. Humans are called to work and rest, to make art and make babies, to worship and play, to build communities and cities of beauty and justice, and to explore the world through innovation in science and technology. In all, human beings are called to flourish and engage the world in a wide variety of complex ways. Thus, the world of politics is only one aspect of human life.

Whenever social problems arise in America today, our binary political system normally proposes one of two solutions. Democrats commonly suggest a new government program, law, or tax while Republicans commonly suggest a free market solution. However complex the social issue, both sides suggest a simple solution (either the government or the market will fix it).

Kuyper argues for a more complex understanding of human life and flourishing. In order to flourish, human beings need more than simply a strong state or marketplace. Humans need families, schools, newspapers, art galleries, neighborhoods, laboratories, hospitals, and more. Kuyper argues that this wide variety of “life spheres” are absolutely critical to our flourishing. Without these communities in our lives, something important is lost.

To put it bluntly, Democrats want to promote human flourishing by increasing the power and reach of government. Republicans want to promote human flourishing by increasing the power and reach of the marketplace. Democrats place their hope in government while Republicans place their hope in business.

Kuyper argues that while both government and business are both good and important parts of life, they are not the whole of life. More than that, both government and business become dangerous when they are given too much power.

Both government and business are spheres of life that must be limited so that the rest of life can be allowed to flourish. Families, churches, art galleries, laboratories, universities, and neighborhoods are beautiful and important parts of human life. Both big business and big government can endanger and ultimately crush these smaller spheres of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Religion at Work: Four Warnings from Abraham Kuyper

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It seems that “Faith at Work” is a hot topic these days. It is difficult to miss the widespread proliferation of marketplace chaplains, break-time yoga sessions, multi-faith prayer rooms, self-actualization retreats, life-coaching specialists, mindfulness exercises, and celebrity leadership gurus.

Here in Seattle, forms of New Age spirituality are part of the fabric of the local marketplace.

If this is the culture we live in, what then, is a Christian response to these new forms of spirituality at work?

I suggest that we turn to a rather unlikely source for guidance—a 19th century Dutch theologian named Abraham Kuyper.

In his lecture on “Calvinism and Religion,” Abraham Kuyper was particularly critical when it came to modern ideas about religion and spirituality. He argued that while these new perspectives on promised personal “enlightenment,” “liberation,” and “empowerment,” they actually led to something quite the opposite.

In the end, Kuyper outlined four modern aspects of what we might call “Bad Religion”

  1. Self-Religion
  2. Expert-Religion
  3. Partial-Religion
  4. Normal-Religion

I want to explore Kuyper’s perspective on these matters in light of new forms of spirituality in the Seattle workplace.

 

  1. Self-Religion at Work

Engaging in spiritual practices at work for the sole purpose of improving self-focus, self-empowerment, and self-actualization is a perfect example of what Kuyper might call “self-religion.” According to self-religion, spiritual practices are “useful” for making your work easier, more efficient, healthy, and productive.

Religion, in short, becomes a tool to make your life better.

While these examples might sound foreign and “New Agey” to Christians, we must admit that Christians are often guilty of using their faith and their God as well.

As Christians we often ignore God when things are going well. Then, when something goes wrong, we turn to God to fix it. Or we resolve to do more “Christian stuff” in order to fix the issue. We resolve to pray more and read the Bible more in hopes that we can use our faith to make the problem go away. The idea, basically, is that God, prayer, church, and the Bible are merely useful tools whose only purpose is to serve and help us.

This, Kuyper argues, is the essence of “self-religion.” Treating God like a divine servant whose sole purpose is to serve and glorify us. Treating the church as a group of people who exist purely to serve, empower, and inspire us.

But the gospel is not about us, it’s about God.

The gospel is not about our power, freedom, or glory—it’s about God’s. Our lives and work are a response to His work. We are an echo of His song—a reflection of His glory. The purpose of our story is to tell His.

The counter-cultural and paradoxical truth of the gospel is this. If we want to live, we must die. If we want to be free, we must submit. If we want to be filled, we must become empty.

“Self-Religion” promises liberation through self-focus, the gospel promises liberation through self-forgetfulness. The good news of the gospel is that it is not about us and it is not up to us to make the world work.

Our daily work is a small part of the much larger, much more complex, and much more beautiful work of God. It is not about us.

The gospel offers a different path to self-empowerment at work; service to others, submission to others, and glory to God.

 

  1. Expert-Religion

Seattle is a culture that loves spiritual “experts” like Yoga teachers, psychics, life coaches, celebrity authors, gurus, and holistic wellness speakers. There are many who look to experts for direction, meaning, and purpose. Looking to them for answers and affirmation, asking them how to live, work, eat, and prosper.

Abraham Kuyper argues that while these spiritual experts promise liberation, empowerment, and self-actualization, they ultimately make us dependent on them. They set themselves up as permanent mediators between people and the “truth.”

Once again Christians can fall into this trap as well. Rather than cultivating a direct relationship with the living God, we look to celebrity Christian preachers and speakers to connect us to God in new and inspiring ways. We look to worship leaders to connect us to God through the use of musical skill and emotion. We feel alienated from God and we look to Christian experts to reconnect us.

But depending on experts and mediators does not liberate or empower us—it weakens and constrains us. Rather than being empowered to live out the gospel freely in our daily work we continually run back to experts to tell us what to do, to give us the answers.

Kuyper argues that we live every day coram deo (directly before the face of God). We live and work everyday in the presence of our creator. We don’t need a priest, guru, pastor, or worship leader to connect us to God, we can meet God everyday and everywhere.

The reality is the God of the universe has established a direct and unmediated relationship with us through Jesus Christ. We were not saved by any expert. The experts can’t tell us “God’s plan for our lives.” We don’t need a sacred place, song, or leader to hear from God. We don’t need to wait until Sunday to connect to God. We can meet Him on Monday. He is Emmanuel—God with us. He’s with us in our offices as we go about our work, he’s in the board rooms and conference rooms and cafeterias and coffee shops where we go about our daily lives. God is already there. God is already speaking.

 

  1. Partial-Religion

The culture around us shouts: “Faith is something personal and private.” In this statement is the temptation to believe that religion and spirituality is something that helps us in those quiet, dark, and secluded corners of our lives. Religion is there to help us with our marriage issues or our depression. It is there to fix our alcoholism or our stress. It is there to provide us with some community when we are lonely. While that is true, the gospel does speak into these places. This is only a portion of what the gospel does.

This practice of religion is private, personal, or, what Kuyper calls, “partial religion.” The belief that religion is here to serve or fix some small dysfunctional part of our “personal” life.

Once again Christians do this as well. We speak of Jesus as our “personal” Lord and Savior someone who helps us when parts of our lives don’t work right. Jesus ends up being our personal God of the gaps. Whenever a gap appears in our lives, God is invited to fill or fix that part.

Kuyper’s critique of partial religion is that when we see him as just personal we never give God the whole of our lives, the whole of our careers, we give him the parts that are safe, that are limited, private, or personal.

The problem is this.

Jesus is not simply our “personal” Lord and Savior. He is Lord and Savior—full stop. Jesus did not come to earth to simply live in our hearts and be our personal “pocket-sized” Savior. Jesus is the lord of the cosmos who came to renew and restore all of life and all of creation.

The cosmic work of Christ means that our faith can no longer be limited to the personal, private, or partial. It has to spill out into every aspect, artery, and avenue of our public and working lives. The implications, Kuyper argues, are clear, “every labora (work) shall be permeated by ora (prayer)…Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or in his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of God…” (53).

God’s calling on our lives is not partial, it is holistic; touching, changing, empowering, and using every aspect of our collective beings to bring about his Kingdom in the world.

 

  1. Normal-Religion

It is common today for people to resort to spiritual platitudes like “people are basically good,” “do your best,” or “believe in yourself.”

In such a culture religion and spirituality are not concerned with radical human rebellion, repentance, and transformation. Instead modern spirituality focuses on self-empowerment and the gradual improvement of one’s life and world. When this is the focus of religion, spirituality becomes a tool for elevating one’s personal awareness and mindfulness. Life is basically OK, everything is basically “normal.” The purpose of religion is simply helping normal people become just a little better.

Christians do this as well. We all too often think faith is about “being good.” Being a Christian is about trying and trying hard. Praying harder, working harder, being good even when its hard. Ultimately, we convince ourselves that the gospel is about our effort. That if we work hard we will get a promotion, we will succeed, and God will be on our side.

In the classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a knight has had his legs and arms cut off in battle. Rather than admit defeat, he stubbornly demands that the fight continue insisting that he is “OK.” It is, after all, “just a flesh wound!”

Abraham Kuyper argues that this is the message of “normal religion.” Such spirituality looks at the broken, selfish, and rebellious state of our human hearts and world and says “it’s ok” it’s “just a flesh wound.”

But everything is not ok. Everything is not normal, It is not just a flesh wound.

According to the gospel, we are mortally wounded. We are dead in our sins. We don’t need reassurance—we need a resurrection. We don’t need a band aid—we need a surgeon.

Our culture’s message that you are basically good and just need to believe in yourself and try harder, is actually a terrifically cruel thing to say to a person. First of all, it isolates them and tells them that they can believe in nothing but themselves. Second, it tells a person that their improvement depends entirely upon them. Third, that there is no excuse if they can’t succeed. Fourth, every time they fail the only response is to keep working and self-actualizing.

This is what makes Christianity abnormal in our culture. Its message fundamentally does not make sense to a world that believes everything is “ok.”

For those who finally recognize that they suffer from more than a flesh wound, the message that you need resurrection is good news.

This does not mean that Christians have no confidence or power. It simply means that our confidence rests, not in ourselves, but in our God, who is capable of doing what only He can do: resurrect and redeem.

Conclusion

In opposition to “bad religion” Kuyper upholds that:

  • We exist to serve and glorify God. (We do not “use” God at work.)
  • We work directly with God. (We do not need experts to meet God at work.)
  • We give our whole lives and our whole work to God. (We should not limit God to our private lives.)
  • We are in need of God’s redemption. (We do not need just a little improvement, but a whole overhaul.)

Up in the Air: Five Questions on the Meaning and Purpose of Work

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Up in the Air: Five questions on the meaning and purpose of work

 The 2009 film Up in Air raises plenty of robust questions on the meaning and purpose of work. Below I have listed five that I noticed upon viewing.

 

  • Dehumanization at Work

The dehumanizing effects of work are often discussed in connection with lower class, factory-oriented, and sweatshop-type work. However, Up in the Air appears to record how Ryan Bingham’s humanity is slowly being drained away through a relatively well-paid and white-collar job. One reviewer notes that through his job, Bingham is “a player so expert at the rules of the game… that he doesn’t notice, until too late, that the game has hollowed him out.” Over years of constant travel and meaningless connections Bingham loses his ability to connect, sympathize, commit, or remain placed.

  1. Bingham certainly bared some responsibility for this process, but how did his working environment contribute to his dehumanized state?
  2. Dehumanization is present in every single line of work. What does it look like in your field? How might people become “undone” or be made sub-human through work in your field?

 

  • Technology and Human Connection

The characters Natalie and Ryan engage in a film-long debate on whether or not workers can be fired over a video chat connection. Valuing speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, the young and ambitious Natalie advocates that the company save millions by firing people remotely over the Internet. Ryan counters by arguing that the act of firing is sensitive, complicated, and requires human presence and grace. Their film-long debate captures a question many of us experience in our own workplaces.

  1. How can technology act as both a gift and a curse to the flourishing of your working environment?

 

  • Work and Human Identity

The director of Up in the Air opted to splice into the film an array of short clips of people reflecting on the experience of being fired. Rather than hire actors, the director used real footage from real people in St. Louis and Detroit who had been fired during the most recent recession. Their reflections revealed how intimately the experience had affected their sense of identity and hope.

  1. If you were to lose your job tomorrow, what sort of impact would that have on your identity?
  2. Why does our work touch our sense of identity so deeply?

 

  • The Good Life

The three main characters (Ryan, Alex, and Natalie) all spend some time in the film discussing their vision of “the good life.”

  1. How would each character answer that question?
  2. Work seems to be a place where questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are not always welcome, yet, paradoxically, these questions seem to come up frequently in the workplace. Why is this?

 

  • Speed and Efficiency

Speed and efficiency are critical to Ryan Bingham. He moves smooth and fast throughout the film. When he is forced to wait or is slowed down in any way he is immediately and visibly annoyed. Efficiency and productivity have become cardinal virtues in many working places- trumping all other values.

1. How do the values of speed and efficiency both positively and negatively affect your workplace and your own quality of life?

George Clooney and The Velveteen Rabbit: Reflections on Being Real

 

George-Clooney-in-Up-in-the-Air

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” – Augustine, Confessions, 1.1

The 2009 film, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, is a sleek modern tragedy following the life of Ryan Bingham. Ryan, played by Clooney, lives in a constant state of restless motion. While he longs for it, the movie’s viewers never see him arrive at a state of rest.

I’m a fan of George Clooney. That guy knows how to wear a suit. I’m also a fan of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. That lady knows how to write. So, when the magical prose of Williams made a quick five-second cameo in Clooney’s film, I took notice. While most viewers undoubtedly miss the connection, I am convinced the humble children’s book unlocks the key, not only to the entire film, but also to an important truth about life.

Ryan Bingham’s job consists of flying around the United States firing people on behalf of corporations, which are on the decline. Bingham travels often. Bingham travels light. “To know me,” he explains, “is to fly with me.”

Bingham lives by a streamlined philosophy and holds to it fiercely—constant and uninhibited mobility. Always traveling and never at home, Bingham considers airports and hotels his true “home.” This, of course, makes sense. Airports and hotels are constructed spaces where a sense of permanence, place, and relationship is almost completely absent. Everything is designed for speed, impersonality, and impermanence.

As the film proceeds we discover that constant and uninterrupted mobility is not only enjoyable for Mr. Bingham, it is the most important thing in his life. For, according to Bingham, “the slower we move, the faster we die.” Surplus belongings and complicated relationships only slow Bingham down—no excess baggage allowed. If you cannot easily fit in his overhead bin, you are discarded.

Ryan Bingham has little to no relationship with his family. He fires people every day and never sees them again. His liaisons with women last as long as his single serving liquor bottles. His most meaningful daily encounters are with his flight attendant and his hotel concierge. He appreciates that they thank him and even reward him for his “loyalty.”

Bingham moonlights as a motivational speaker in hotel ballrooms. In his stump speech he asks participants to put all of their belongings and relationships into an imaginary backpack. He then asks his audience to feel the weight of these things and these relationships on their shoulders. He asks them, “How much does your life weigh?” Travel light, Bingham warns. Relationships, connections, and commitment, these are the things that weigh you down and wear you out. “Why don’t you set that bag down?” he challenges. He continues on…

 “Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises… Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”

The New York Times labeled Up in the Air “a laugh-infused stealth tragedy.” This seems an apt description. Witnessing the deep and gnawing emptiness of Ryan Bingham’s life and work, I was often unsure whether or not I was supposed to laugh or cry. Both reactions felt appropriate. Bingham’s ultimate commitment to personal mobility, efficiency, and uninhibited freedom systematically destroyed his potential for real relationship with any one, any thing, or any place.

As the film goes on, viewers follow Bingham as relationships steadily threaten his treasured life of mobility and freedom. His family will not stop hounding him about his sister’s upcoming wedding. He is beginning to desire a lasting relationship with a woman (gasp). He is thrust into a mentoring relationship with a coworker who he abhors. As these relationships come to the forefront, he begins to reflect on the lives of the people he is firing on a daily basis.

This reflection coincides with his boss thinking about ending his travel schedule and ground his work in Omaha. People, place, and permanence are threatening to unravel Ryan Bingham’s life in the skies.

As the film draws to a close the viewer begins to hope that these pressure points will finally come together to force Bingham to realize the error of his ways. The viewer sits in hope that he will ultimately learn to commit and connect.

We find Bingham finally cornered by everything that is antithetical to his philosophy. Returning to his hometown in rural Wisconsin, Bingham is forced to stay in an old hotel – where he holds no membership cards or claims to loyalty programs. He must attend a wedding and is encircled by a family that is blue-collared, provincial, loving, slow, inefficient, and poorly dressed.

Confronted on all sides, Bingham is asked by a minor character what appears to be a throw away question. Holding a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit the character asks, “Have you ever read this?” Bingham blows off the question with a sarcastic comment about “powerful stuff” and moves on. Neither the director nor Bingham linger on the book for more than a couple of seconds, but make no mistake, the moment is critical.

The Velveteen Rabbit, as most of us know, follows the life of a toy rabbit in the process of “becoming real.” How does one become “real?” What is the process like? Margery William’s dialogue between two toys captures the answer.

 

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

 “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

 “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

 “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

 “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

 “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“Free” to Love

I kept my heart from [believing]; frightened of falling headfirst, I was hanging myself instead.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.6

 Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain but was afraid to be free of it.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.21

 

At the end of the film Ryan Bingham is presented with a choice. Will he allow love to make him “real” despite the inconvenience, messiness, wear, and tear? Or, will he redouble his efforts to fortify his jet-setting lifestyle of mobility, efficiency, and disconnected freedom? Being a tragedy Ryan’s restless soul finally chooses the later.

Even so, “choice” does not feel like the right word. While Bingham appears to be a man of limitless freedom, he ultimately appears to be its prisoner. Bingham longs to be loved, most especially by the woman he is currently sleeping with. She, however, assures him in a moment of wrenching honesty that she already has a “real” life and he is not a part of it. He is merely a sexual “escape,” a “parenthesis.”

 

“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

 

The film ends with the empty sound of the cold wind rushing over the wings of Bingham’s plane.

 

What tortuous paths! 

How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’…

 Turned this way and that. On its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable.

 You alone are repose.

 Augustine, The Confessions, 6.26

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Workplace Confessions #6- Damned Delightful Descriptions: Describing Evil Like Augustine

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Damned Delightful Descriptions: Describing Evil Like Augustine

Workplace Confessions #6

 

This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and Augustine’s Confessions.

But my wound… was not healed. After inflammation and sharp pain, it festered. The pain made me, as it were, frigid but desperate.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.25

I kept my heart from giving any assent, and in that state of suspended judgment I suffered a worse death.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.6

 

No one describes evil like Augustine—no one. No one today can capture the deep pain, the stupid irrationality, and the frustrating helplessness of the sin-sick soul quite like The Confessions of St. Augustine.

We, today, are not accustomed to dwelling on, let alone poetically describing, our own wicked ways in such painful detail. We like to quickly move on from our so-called “mistakes.” We shift, we cover up, and we pirouette around our problems with an alarming degree of speed and agility. We are the champions of “getting over it.”

Taking the time to identify and poetically describe one’s own evil and brokenness is an exceedingly rare practice. In fact, if Augustine were alive today, we might sincerely consider committing the man to an intense round of psychological help. Fearful that our poor friend Augustine was stuck in a dysfunctional whirlpool of self-immolation, our culture would likely try to cheer him up with a spa-package, some retail therapy, or perhaps a weekend in Vegas.

 So, the question stands before us, what could we possibly learn from Augustine’s odd practice of describing his own wicked ways in such vivid and vicious detail?

 Could such a counter-cultural practice be something we too desperately need?

In book six of his Confessions Augustine describes evil as his own darkness, sickness, weakness, blindness, enslavement, noose, torture, slipperiness, addiction, death, hanging, a frigid feeling, and an inflamed and festering wound. With this truckload of adjectives and descriptive imagery, a modern reader would be forgiven for surmising that Augustine had written these words as a describing exercise for a cruel creative writing teacher.

 

Consider the rich imagery of the following passages:

 Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain, but was afraid to be free of it.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.21

 I was walking through darkness and ‘a slippery place’… I had come into the depth of the sea. I had no confidence, and had lost hope that truth could be found.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.1

 

Workplace Confessions

What benefit could possibly come from this practice? Why would one engage in this intense and, no doubt, painful process of recounting the “torturous paths” of one’s own heart?

 I can think of at least five reasons why modern Christian professionals should strongly consider Augustine’s odd counter-cultural habit.

  1. Truth-Telling.

Augustine is telling the truth and so should we. Ignoring the reality of evil in our lives, quite simply, does not do us any good. It is certainly easier to cover up our experiences of evil by working harder, making ourselves busier, or filling our leisure time with the distractions of sports, entertainment, and retail therapy. It is easier, that is, in the short run. Sooner or later, as they say, our sins return to haunt us.

  1. Self-Deception

Self-deception is a danger for every sin-sick heart. We convince ourselves that our sinfulness in the workplace is someone else’s fault. We blame a coworker, a boss, or simply “the system.” The root of the problem is never us—always someone else.

The practice of reflecting on and describing our own sin helps us fight our own proclivity towards self-deception. Through this, admittedly painful, practice we can identify destructive patterns and bad habits that have long been painted over.

  1. Empathy

Augustine’s practice of poetic confession can engender within us an abiding humility and powerful empathy for coworkers and clients who, just like us, are fighting difficult battles with the disease that afflicts us all.

  1. Realism

With a deep recognition of how evil breaks, distorts, and twists our own work, Christian professionals can enter their workplaces with a realistic set of expectations for the sorts of transformation they can catalyze.

Those who do not take sin seriously are prone to romantically imagine that they can redeem and perfect their coworkers and their company if they only work hard enough. Such failures to take personal and systemic sin seriously inevitably end up in defeat, bitterness, or self-righteousness.

  1. Rest

A good and painful process of confession can bring us to the only true haven of rest and restoration—the place we have longed for all along.

What tortuous paths! How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’… Turned this way and that, on its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable. You alone are repose. Augustine, The Confessions, 6.26

Workplace Confessions #5- Evangelism and Drinking in Public: St. Augustine on a Curious Combination

 

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This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of St. Augustine.

 

I am beginning to suspect that Christians have things rather backwards when it comes to the topic of “evangelism in the workplace.” The conversion story of St. Augustine has made this point increasingly clear to me. It seems to me that most Christians are under the impression that “successful evangelism” centers on their firm grasp of things like intellectual truth, philosophical rhetoric, and quick-witted debate. Their questions often seem to surround the questions of “What do I say?” or “How do I say it?”

In the ever-sensitive matter of “workplace evangelism” I would like to argue that Augustine’s story appears to indicate that “conversion” is more a matter of food than philosophy, more a matter of wine than wit.

In book five of his autobiographical Confessions, the young Augustine has transferred his way through three different teaching jobs in Carthage, Rome, and finally Milan. These significant career moves were largely inspired by Augustine’s restless search for a more disciplined and respectful brand of student. Tired of the classroom tomfoolery and general ballyhoo of Carthage and Rome, Augustine moved to Milan longing for students who could sit still and listen.

Book five of Augustine’s Confessions finds the young teacher of philosophy and rhetoric deeply torn on personal matters of religion and truth. Augustine has dabbled in astrology, radical skepticism, and the sect of the “Manicheans.” Augustine’s confidence in each of these philosophies is waning at this point. He is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their leaders, their theories, and their ability to make sense of the world. With great effort Augustine makes contact with a famous philosopher by the name of Faustus. He brings Faustus his religious questions and troubles, only to find the philosopher’s answers thin and empty.

At this point Augustine has displayed an ambivalent interest in the faith of his mother—Christianity. Much to his mother’s disappointment, Augustine is still refusing to convert. He simply cannot make logical sense of certain Christian doctrines like the incarnation, sin, and the interpretation of the Old Testament. Augustine cannot fit the ideas of Christianity together into a coherent and logical philosophy.

Then Augustine meets Ambrose.

Introductions matter in any story, and the introduction of Ambrose into the story of Augustine’s life is unlike any other in The Confessions. Other figures in Augustine’s life are rather thinly described in terms of their philosophical ideas and their oratorical skill. Characters who are unable to intellectually impress Augustine (all of them) are quickly left behind as the protagonist moves on in his pursuit of “truth.” Augustine notes that Ambrose is indeed intellectually gifted and persuasive. That said, what ultimately sets Ambrose apart is not his intelligence.

In his introduction of Ambrose, Augustine shifts rather suddenly and surprisingly from the abstract language of philosophy to the flavorful language of food and drink. He describes Ambrose as a speaker who gives his listeners the “finest wheat” and provides “wine that makes men merry and sober.” In another translation Augustine declares to God that his servant Ambrose provides “the abundance of your sustenance, the gladness of your oil, and the sober intoxication of your wine.”

Why the sudden shift from philosophy to food, from wit to wine?

Historians note a number of possible explanations for this reference to wheat and wine. Some rightly point out that Augustine is making an allusion to several “food Psalms” which discuss the wine, wheat, oil, and nourishment that is found in God. Others explain, rather simply, that since Ambrose was a bishop it was his job to give people bread and wine in the Eucharist. Still others point out that these words are a subtle reference to a hymn that Ambrose had written:

And let Christ be to us food

And faith be to us drink

May we drink the sober drunkenness

Of the joyful Spirit.

These scholarly observations seem to me to be entirely correct. That said, I think they each miss a larger and more expansive point about the conversion of Augustine and the conversion of human beings in general.

Augustine’s conversion through Ambrose, I would argue, had more to do with the bishop’s flavor than his philosophy, more to do with his drunkenness than his didactics.

In his encounter with Ambrose we discover that Augustine is not simply searching for bare spiritual truth; he is searching for spiritual food and flavor, sustenance and sweetness. Throughout his Confessions Augustine continually describes himself as a man of desire, hunger, and thirst. God, likewise, is repeatedly referred to as his “Sweetness.”

What sets Ambrose’s witness apart is that he is not simply able to respond to Augustine’s philosophical questions, he is able to display for Augustine a life of flavor and sweetness, richness and nourishment. Jesus is not simply Ambrose’s “answer;” Jesus is his food and drink. Jesus is not simply an intellectual solution; he is the seasoning that gives flavor to the whole of Ambrose’s life.

In the end the invitation Augustine receives from Ambrose is not simply to “know” Jesus; the invitation is to drink and be drunk on Jesus, to experience him as his Savior and his Sweetness.

 

Salt in the Workplace

Regarding the topic of evangelism in the workplace, Christians will speak often of their desire to “be a light” amongst their coworkers. This usually means “to speak up,” “tell the truth,” and “do the right thing.” This all seems right, however, it seems to lack the flavor and richness Augustine found in the witness of Ambrose.

It is true that Jesus commanded his followers to be a light in the world, but didn’t he also (in the same breath) command us to be salt as well? Didn’t Jesus also want his church to add flavor to the world? Moreover, if the church ever lost its flavor, didn’t Jesus claim that it had lost all value? The apostle Paul seems to back this up as he exhorts the Colossians to

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

This language of flavorful and nourishing witness in the words of Augustine, Paul, and Jesus leads me to ask the following questions: Rather than march into the workplace armed with religious words, answers, and truth, what would happen if Christian professionals sought to be people of flavor, richness, and nourishment in the workplace? How might that impact their interactions in meetings with clients, students, and coworkers? What if Christians yearned to be workers who provided sweetness and sustenance to their workplace? Rather than always seek to provide an answer, might we seek to quench a thirst for a wine not yet tasted?

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense, if God did not exist.”     -Cardinal Suhard

 

Workplace Confessions #4- “Where is My Career Going? Augustine’s Rebuttal to Modern ‘Career Planning’”

city traffic

 

This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of Augustine.

 

“What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter…” Augustine, Confessions, 4.18

Where is this job taking you?

How are you going to move up?

What’s next for you?

In today’s dynamic and fast-paced marketplace, professionals seem to constantly be skipping from job to job. Strategic career planning for one’s “next move” has become a critical and almost continuous practice. If you are not moving forward, you know where you are going…

In such an environment it’s easy to become wrapped up in one’s own future and the strategic “moves” one has to make.

It is a “free” country and we work in a “free” job market. We are “free” to move from job to job whenever we like. That said, rising national levels of career stress, anxiety, and worry cause many to suspect that the word “free” is little more than a cruel joke.

In light of this reality it is worth reflecting for a few moments on a critical question: What is the relationship between you, your practice of “career planning,” and God?

In book four of his Confessions, the young Augustine is in the prime of his “roaring twenties.” During this time, Augustine is, without a doubt, the consummate autonomous, sovereign, and “free” individual.

He is the captain of his own ship.

The young Augustine has freely chosen his work, his concubine, his city, his astrology, his friends, his students, and his research projects. Neither family, church, or community hold any sway in his life.

Augustine is his own man.

And yet, readers quickly discover that while the young Augustine may appear to be “free,” he is everywhere in chains. Augustine is a slave to his own ambition and his own lust for professional fame and fortune. Gripped by a deep yearning to be academically notable, Augustine goes so far as to dedicate his book on beauty to a famous scholar in Rome whom he hoped to flatter and impress. Augustine had never even met the man.

Augustine’s life of radical “freedom” seems to paradoxically create bondage wherever he goes. His selfishness afflicts both himself and everyone around him. Looking back he confesses that his life was ultimately “one of being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving.”

Augustine was, in the end, a prisoner of his own freedom and power.

My error was my god. If I attempted to find rest there for my soul, it slipped through a void and again came falling back upon me. I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape myself? Augustine, Confessions, 4.12

Augustine longed for rest. He longed for peace. When the things he held tightly were taken from him, (be it professional fame, love, or a good friend), he collapsed with dramatic grief and disharmony.

Ultimately the fourth book records the young Augustine’s search for ultimate peace in the creation, instead of in the Creator.

 

Stewardship, Divine Participation, and Career Planning

Stewardship is an old word in the Christian lexicon meant to describe an alternative way of thinking about ownership. According to the dictates of stewardship, the world and everything in it belongs, not to us, but to God.

Hence, strictly speaking, a Christian owns nothing.

A Christian steward does not own, but rather takes care of things that do not belong to her. She knows that between her and every object there is critical a third party—God.

Augustine ultimately concludes throughout book four that his relationship to created objects (money, possessions, fame, and friends) had become one of ownership rather than stewardship.

God was not a part of the equation.

The problem, Augustine concludes, was not that he loved his possessions, friends, career, or books. The problem was that he failed to love these things in God. He failed to recognize the object’s place and participation in something larger than the object itself.

Augustine saw these things as “orbiting” his life rather than the life of God.

Which leaves us with these questions about our contemporary practice of strategic career planning:

1. If we believed ourselves to be stewards rather than owners of our career, how might that transform our practice of strategic career planning?

  1. What would happen to our career planning if we saw our work as participating, not so much in our mission, but God’s mission?
  1. What if we refused to love our careers in and of themselves, and instead used Augustine’s language and learned to love our careers in God?
  1. How might these perspectives on our careers affect the common experience of career stress, anxiety, and worry? Might we be able to remove the quotation marks from the word “freedom” in ways which exhibit God enabling us to work differently than the culture around us?

“If physical objects give you pleasure, praise God for them and return love to their Maker lest, in the things that please you, you displease him… For he did not create and then depart; the things derived from him have their being in him… What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter; for all that comes from him is unjustly loved if he has been abandoned.

With what end in view do you again and again walk along difficult and laborious paths? There is no rest where you seek for it. Seek for what you seek, but it is not where you are looking for it. You seek the happy life in the region of death; it is not there. How can there be happy life, where there is not even life?” Augustine, Confessions, 4.18

 

 

 

 

 

Workplace Confessions #3- Workplace Evangelism: An Alternative Perspective from St. Augustine

study

 

This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of Augustine.

 

Interruption. What does it mean for God to interrupt and intercede in our lives at work?

Augustine’s first encounter with God, his “first step” in conversion, did not occur in a church, in scripture, or in a conversation with a Christian. It happened at work.

In book three of his Confessions Augustine is a college student—the consummate college student. He has moved away from home to the cosmopolitan city of Carthage. He is crushing it in his philosophy and rhetoric classes, meeting girls, hanging out with intellectual bullies, and frequenting the city’s theatre for cultural and dramatic titillation. In short, Augustine is “playing” at life and love, philosophy and rhetoric, sex and suffering. A young man easily persuaded by the new and the adventurous, Augustine finally converts to the hip and heretical philosophy of the “Manicheans.”

The picture of a budding cosmopolitan and intellectual snob, Augustine refused to listen to God’s call; neither in the form of his mother or his church. He read some scripture and (in his youthful snobbery) found it too simple and mundane for his taste. “I was not,” he recalls later, “in any state… to bow my head to climb [scripture’s] steps.”

So where would God meet this young philosophy student? How would God make himself known? Ultimately it would be at work. “God meets us where we are,” so they say. It is a tired cliché, for a reason. It keeps happening.

And so we find the young philosopher becoming increasingly frustrated by the vanity, emptiness, and conceit of philosophers around him. In a critical turning point, Augustine picks up Cicero’s Hortensius. While Cicero was by no means a Christian, Augustine notes that God chose to communicate powerfully through his philosophical work.

“The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart… This book kindled my love for it [wisdom]. There are some people who use philosophy to lead people astray… the one thing that delighted me in Cicero’s exhortation was the advice to ‘not study one particular sect but to love and seek and pursue and hold fast and strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found. Augustine, Confessions, 3.7.8

Every vocation has a deeper origin, meaning, and purpose given to it by the Creator. For philosophers it’s wisdom, for medical workers it’s healing and wholeness, for teachers it’s education, for engineers it’s structural beauty and soundness, for attorneys it’s justice. All people, Christian or not, experience a gnawing awareness of this deeper purpose within their work.

But, these deeper workplace purposes often become twisted and distorted. It was in his career as a philosopher that Augustine experienced exactly that. His work had become mired in vain and empty speech, thin talk, and more than a little “intellectual masturbation.” The sophomoric philosophy students Augustine had surrounded himself with had forgotten the true meaning of their work in philosophy—the love of wisdom.

 

Workplace Evangelism

It is a common occurrence for me to be asked about the topic of “workplace evangelism.” The questioning often begins with “How do I invite my coworkers to church?” “How do I defend the Bible to my coworkers?” “How do I tell my employees about God?” I understand these questions, and I think that they, in many ways are legitimate questions to ask. But we learn something profound in the story of Augustine, as he demonstrates an alternative path for these conversations.

Rather than engaging our coworkers in a discussion primarily about God or the church, what if we engage them in a thoughtful discussion about what they love about their work and why they do it?

Why not honestly ask them: What first got you interested in law? Why do you care so much for your patients? Why do you take pride in a job well done? What do you hope for our company? How might our field improve?

The assumption of these questions is simple. If God gives our work meaning, any thoughtful discussion of the deeper patterns and purposes of our work naturally brings all of us a step closer to the One who made us to work.

The first question, therefore, is not “How do I bring God to them?” but “How do I help them recognize that God is already present in and through their love or work?   How do I help them see the good news that God is already active and speaking in their lives through their love of teaching, building, managing, experimenting, writing, and caring? How do help them see that God cares as much, if not more, about their work than they do?

The same goes for “we Christians” as well.

Where is God in our work?

God is active and is present in our love of planning and strategizing, in our love of building and selling, in our love of creating and innovating. He is there. As the wise pagan Cicero wrote for Augustine, our calling is to “strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found.”

What Augustine would discover later on, of course, was that his love and longing of “wisdom” in philosophy was really a hint of his deeper love and longing for the One who IS “Wisdom.”