In the same podcast on the end of Christian retail Phil, Skye and Christian discuss vocation. After listening to the podcast I read Eugene Peterson’s memoir chapter on Willi Ossa.
Willi was the church janitor where Peterson was working as a pastor just getting started and Willi was an artist. Peterson learned a lot about vocation from the artists. They made a living, but their living wasn’t their vocation. Their vocation was art. Willi also hated the church. He had grown up in Germany and he saw the part the church played (or rather didn’t play) in the Nazi regime. He liked Peterson and in the strongest way he could he tried to warn Peterson from becoming a pastor.
Vocation, Jobs, and God’s World
In the podcast Jethani nicely articulates the Reformational perspective on vocation, a much needed critique of where much of American evangelicalism stands on the subject. You can’t understand the Reformational affirmation of art, agriculture, business, industry, technology, medicine, science, politics, etc. without understanding the Reformational affirmation of the goodness of God’s created world. In our day jobs, no matter how secular, if we are contributing to the flourishing of God’s creation, the reconciliation, restoration and renewal of God’s goodness with his creation, we are doing God’s work. This is something too often lost on evangelicals with too much of a gnostic perspective on this world.
The Devout and the Irreligious
In Peterson’s chapter he notes that the community of artists he befriended in NYC were not devout, Willi in fact was absolutely hostile towards the church. Given his experience with it this is something we can of course understand. What struck me was the question of alignment between Jethani’s definition of a Christian and the irreligious contributors to God’s cultural enterprise.
Jethani in the podcast is pretty clear about the stream of Christianity he swims in. He’s very strongly within the Communion with Christ tradition. A Christian is someone who seeks personal, intimate communion with God. Towards the end of the podcast when asked for a simple recommendation Skye recommend’s “silence”.
I want to be careful here not to critique Skye’s approach. I think he would say, and I agree, that the streams of God’s communion eventually join and that the fracturing of the stream is part of our brokenness. So I’m not critiquing his stream. (For the streams discussion you can read Richard Foster’s book.) At the same time I wonder how the streams relate to the secular vocation observation.
Skye’s recommendation of silence is not a specifically sectarian prescription. Lots of religious and quasi-religious prescriptions will advise silence. Silence is a general revelation path to a general revelation communion with God. A practitioner of silence that is hostile to the church, hostile like Willi, is not much different from a lover of art and culture like Willi. Willi’s artist vocation isn’t a lot different from a silence vocation.
Modes of Relationship
“Personal Relationship with God” language has its benefits and its pitfalls. In evangelical churches a “personal relationship” can have a pretty specific content. It is devout, religious and sectarian.
The more I ponder a “personal relationship” concept the more I nuance it. Jesus’ “depart from me I never knew you” is strongly relational. The line of divorce between life with God in the age to come and what we call hell, life divorced from God, is all about that relationship. Seeing it through that lens Jethani’s “communion with Christ” stream makes a lot of sense. Relational Christ seekers today are in the foothills of the age to come. Their mode of relationship is very much face to face.
One thing I note to people, especially in noting the difference between men and women are modes of relating. Girls often relate face to face. Their mode of relating is direct. Boys often relate indirectly. Boys may have a relationship via sport, hobbies, mutual interests, etc. Boys often relate side to side. Most of us obviously do both, and clearly so does God. God both relates face to face within the Trinity and outwards from it, and also side by side within and outside. God relates both face to face with us, and side by side with us via his creation.
If you read Augustine’s Confessions you strongly see how creation mediates God’s presence with us and that mediation is at times face to face (we see God’s glory through creation) but also side by side.
Religious devotion is often face to face. The irreligious may in fact be seeking God through their vocations but in a side by side mode.
I know to go down this line makes evangelicals nervous in terms of Christian exclusivity. Am I saying that there are many paths to God?
The many paths to God line is a peculiar and tricky sort of religious defect in my opinion. It mirrors the question of whether God “hears” the prayers of the unrighteous. What do you mean by “hears”?
If you are a Christian you profess a number of specific things about who and what God is. If Christianity’s ideas are correct, then Christians should be quite relaxed about some of this. “Paths to God” is an idea about how we make our way to God, how the distance we feel between us and God is bridged. Christians simply assert that one bridge has been created, and that bridge is God in Christ. There are no other bridges. There are no other pathways.
My domain host offers a “catch-all” option on my domain pointing. Any email that comes to “leadingchurch.com” goes to me. “firstname.lastname@example.org” heads to my email address. Why? Because I’m the owner.
Prayers in a sense, no matter how incorrectly addressed are “heard” or perhaps better “known” by God, omniscience is an extreme catch-all.
In the same way all of creation, because it is God’s has God as it’s “catch-all” and again, if Christianity is right, then it’s our God who is the catch-all. Every “path” leads to God because God owns it all.
This is where we begin to tease out the specific meaning of “all paths lead to God”. What we are asking is if all “paths”, or religious practices, or well intentioned human activity or behavior, somehow afford a salvific relationship with God. This is where being an Augustinian or a Calvinist is helpful, because we assert that the movement that all such relational pathways began with God and moves through Christ. We have never been able to construct a bridge to God that could heal our communion with him. Fortunately God has constructed the bridge, but construction began on his side of the gulf.
What about Willi?
Where do we find that bridge? God seeks us out not only in our places but via our modes.
My guess is that only a small percentage of human population is devoutly religious in terms how we would describe their life. Some of us, and many in other religions, like religion and religious observance. Religiosity is a mode. There are other modes, like irreligious artists.
Vocation is part of God’s side by side relational mode in seeking his children.
I remember a story of my grandfather. He served mostly rural churches and one of the dairymen asked him about cows in “heaven”. Even the CRC could be pretty gnostic and in many people’s imagination since cows didn’t have “souls” they couldn’t get into that etherial heaven. Imagine a floating cow!
Anyway, this dairyman was disturbed because he noted that he didn’t know anything more beautiful in this world than the eyes of a newborn calf. He was disturbed by the thought that he might have to spend eternity never seeing that sight again.
My grandfather was wise and told him “if you need that God will provide it.”
There is a deeper point her though, one made by Augustine who in his lengthy prayer we call “The Confessions” attributed his mother’s and nurse’s milk to God. God is the giver of mother’s milk and the beauty of the eyes of a newborn calf. These beauties speak to a distracted world of the majesty and generosity of its creator. When the church stumbles and maims its witness, the creation is still there, and vocation is still there.
Evangelicals at his point usually still get nervous and want the bottom line. Who’s in, who’s out?
The Biblical answer is seldom satisfying because the question is a bit evil. We want the answer because we don’t trust God will get it right with us or our loved ones. It’s our inability to trust God that created the divorce in the first place and that inability to trust God fuels the final divorce.
Jesus in the Gospels consistently surprises those creating point spreads on post-apocalypse assignations. He marvels at the faith of a centurion while rebuffing the determined mobs flocking to him in the Galilee. His most common answer to insider information questions is “what is that to you, you follow me.”
It’s easy to say that in the final divorce there will be irreligious who find what they’ve always been seeking but had trouble recognizing Christ in this age. There will also be the religious who when they finally see Christ more clearly will judge him.
The final judgment really goes both ways. God judges us, and we judge God, and I suspect that in most cases the judgment will be the same. That’s the way it even works to day often.
In the book of Revelation many cry out of the mountains to fall on them so they don’t have to face the one on the throne or the wrath of the lamb.
In the final analysis it is God’s business and his judgments I think will be seen to be right, even if hated.