Archives For common grace

sunset-wheat-fields-near-arles

Two years ago (almost to the day, as it happens), I shared some thoughts about The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber. Though the book was written primarily for college students, my post-college, post-grad-school self found it quite beneficial anyway. In my review I reminisced aloud about my college years, when I picked the major I did because—no joke—it was the one with the fewest math requirements. I went on to say:

Somehow it hasn’t all turned out terribly, which I attribute solely to God’s grace, but I do wonder how my college years would have been different had I made life-altering decisions based on even better questions than how to avoid math requirements—for instance, questions about the nature of the world, and God’s relationship to it and to me and to everyone else, and how a college education may actually be a gift to be stewarded for God’s glory and to be used for loving our neighbors.

Garber’s new book, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, is a natural follow-up to his earlier one. Writing with the same graceful, wise voice that so many of us found so winsome in The Fabric of Faithfulness, Garber expands his explorations of vocation beyond the university classroom to the classroom and laboratory that is the world itself. Quoting poets and singers and theologians, telling stories about his friends and acquaintances, Garber invites us to ask deep questions about the world around us, and to find our vocation more or less, it seems to me, where the novelist Frederick Buechner famously did—that place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

18499998Garber wants us to see the world with new eyes. Indeed, he wants us to behold it gratefully, truthfully, and hopefully. He wants us to recognize and appreciate its created splendor. He wants us to be honest about its brokenness and limitations. And he wants us to orient our lives around the hope—in answer to the question Sam Gamgee asked Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, which each of us in one way or another continues to ask—that yes, one day every sad thing will come untrue.

In broad strokes, I think that’s the story the scriptures are telling as well, the story in which we are invited to find ourselves—or, better, the story in which we are invited to lose ourselves.

But knowing is not the same thing as living, and weaving belief and behavior together, as Garber has previously written, doesn’t happen automatically (more on that, by the way, from N.T. Wright in After You Believe). In fact, it’s possible that the more we know—about God, about ourselves, about our neighbors and our world—the more paralyzed we can become. At root may be self-righteousness or fear, narcissism or prejudice, or even mere fatigue, but the resulting paralysis looks very much the same.

Garber acknowledges these dangers, but he urges us to press further on, further in:

Can we know the world and still love the world? Can we know the messes of the world and still work on them because we want to, because we see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake? Sometimes some people make that choice… and always it is a vocation of imitation of a vocation. At our best and truest, we stand in the long line of those who remember the profound insight of Thomas à Kempis in calling us to “the imitation of Christ.” To choose to know, and still to love, is costly; it was for God, and it is for us. In fact it is the most difficult task imaginable.

Just as he finds clues in the fifteenth century writing of Thomas à Kempis, he finds encouragement in J.I. Packer’s modern classic Knowing God, in which the Anglican author and theologian urges us not to be content with merely knowing about God, but actually knowing him and being known intimately—as we are invited to do. Packer writes:

God knew the worst about us before he chose to love us, and therefore no discovery now can disillusion him about us in the way that we are so often disillusioned about ourselves, and quench his determination to bless us. He took knowledge of us in love.

Garber and his colleagues at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture like to say that vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei. Flipped on its head, we might say that the work God has given us to do—whether we’re paid to do it or not—is corrupted when it stops with us.

As Garber puts it:

To see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake, is both hard work and good work—and it cannot be done alone.

[Header Image: Sunset, Wheat Fields near Arles (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh]

honor-everyone

Every so often I stumble upon a book that merits repeated readings. One of those books is He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Rich Mouw, the philosopher and now-retired president of Fuller Seminary. I first raved about it two years ago, paying particular attention to Mouw’s conviction that there are “multiple divine purposes in the world”—a conviction that has significant ramifications for our public life, to say the least.

Having just read it for the second time through, I want to highlight another couple of insights. In a chapter on seeking the common good, Mouw adapts some of the things he has to say in Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (another of Mouw’s books that warrants multiple, careful readings—see a pattern here?).

9780802821119Mouw argues that “the case for Christian civility”—which is closely related to Christian efforts to seek the common good—rests on two key principles. First, he writes, “Christians must actively work for the well-being of the larger societies in which we have been providentially placed.” This is spelled out perhaps most evocatively put in Jeremiah 29:7, in which the people of God are commanded, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The second principle is that “sanctified living should manifest those subjective attitudes and dispositions—those virtues, if you wish—that will motivate us in our efforts to promote societal health.” Mouw notes that in the second chapter of I Peter, the apostle urges his readers, “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles” (v. 12) and to accept “for the Lord’s sake… the authority of every human institution” (v. 13). We’re warned that even while seeking to do good we may very well be maligned, but we’re also reminded that our being liked isn’t what ultimately matters. More important is that “they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (v. 12).

Perhaps most instructive for us, however, are the four obligations Mouw notes in I Peter 2:17 that have direct bearing on us as we participate in public life as “exiles” of one kind or another:

1. We are to fear God.

2. We are to love the family of believers.

3. We are to honor our fellow citizens.

4. We are to honor our governing authorities.

For most Christians, the first two are recognizable, and presumably reasonable, commands (despite our difficulties in observing them). But I wonder about the second two. These days, I hear a lot of Christians who believe that we are under attack for our beliefs, and in some ways I agree (more of my thoughts on that here). But while many of the most vocal defenders of religious freedom communicate certainty about their Christian convictions, I’m afraid this certainty isn’t always clothed in the conviction that we are obligated—for Christ’s sake—to honor everyone, to have regard for their well-being.

We may not have the luxury of convenient cultural conditions. Neither did the people to whom Peter and Jeremiah first issued their instruction in two very different times and places. Even so, as “exiles” of a somewhat different kind today, we have the obligation to do good and to honor our fellow citizens and our authorities—even when we are ignored, disrespected, or maligned with outright hostility for doing so.

springsteen-gospel

NPR recently had a long, rambling interview with Bruce Springsteen. At a certain point the interviewer asks about gospel music and the “religious impulse” in some of The Boss’s music:

Without overusing the word, you know, there’s a Christian element that runs through it because I grew up Catholic and so I was indoctrinated in religious language between eight o’clock and nine o’clock every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling. Five days a week, every single morning, the first thing you did was religion. And so you grew up with that language and it was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life and it served me. I suppose looking back on it, I would like to change some things but I wouldn’t have had that any other way in that it’s served me very, very well and continues to do so. I have a very deep connection to gospel music. I understand the language — I feel I understand the essence of the music itself.

Notably here, Springsteen says he draws from the deep well of Christian language because it makes for “good writing” and serves as “a wonderful source of metaphor.” And he feels “a very deep connection” to the music of the church. This despite the fact that his Catholic education—or “indoctrination,” as he describes it—”screwed me up terribly.”

This reminds me a bit of the time the “militant atheist” Richard Dawkins told a reporter for the Spectator that he has a certain love for the Anglican tradition in his native land, and specifically its aesthetics, even if he doesn’t for one moment believe any of its theology. Would he feel deprived if church buildings were to disappear from the English landscape? “Yes, I would feel a loss there,” Dawkins said. “I would feel an aesthetic loss. I would miss church bells, that kind of thing.”

These comments from Springsteen and Dawkins beg the question: What should Christians make of such (unexpected?) appreciation for the aesthetics, sensibilities, and cultural contributions of our faith, while the substance behind those contributions is largely or wholly dismissed? Is this good, to an extent? Or is it entirely bad, with the dismissal of the substance canceling out any possible value in the appreciation for the aesthetic?

I have two hands, so I’ll make a point for each and leave it at that.

On the one hand, appreciating the aesthetic beauty of Christianity—awe-inspiring architecture or gospel music or liturgy or what have you—is certainly not the same thing as embracing Christianity itself. (Many of us, from various Christian traditions, would do well to be reminded of that from time to time.)

On the other hand, could it be that for some, the Spirit uses aesthetics to woo even those who for various reasons have found certain claims and/or norms of the faith to be stumbling blocks?

[Image via motherjones.com]

peaceable-kingdom

1. Far as the curse is found
Steven Garber, author of Fabric of Faithfulness, writes this reflection about the Christmas carol “Joy to the World” with a little help from Sally Lloyd-Jones:

A cosmos was created, a cosmos is broken, and a cosmos needs redemption. Even the animals know that, groaning as they do in eager hope for everything to be made new. If that is not the hope of Christmas, then, quite candidly, I am not very interested. Everything is too broken, badly horribly broken, if the Babe of Bethlehem is not born to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found. If that is the song of the stars, then I am listening.

2. Map of global Christianity
Though it’s now two years old, I just discovered a great map created to accompany a landmark report on global Christianity from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2011. For anyone wanting to learn more about our brothers and sisters around the world, this is a wonderful resource.

3. Common grace liturgies
Pastor/urbanist Eric Jacobsen writes in Comment:

Communities of faith need to develop and sustain liturgies to that will shape our desires in ways that align with the values of God’s kingdom. But that doesn’t mean all “secular” liturgies are opposed to kingdom values. Some liturgies are clearly antithetical to the intention of God for His world, but others may be God-honouring even though the participants are unaware of it. They may be dancing to the rhythm of the kingdom without knowing it.

4. The Dawn of all Hope
Will Vucurevich, whose spoken word performance at Common Good PHX was one of the true highlights of the event for me, has written a series of poems for Advent over at Redemption Tempe. Here’s the one from last Sunday.

[Image: "The Peaceable Kingdom" (detail) by Edward Hicks via biola.edu]

libreria8

1. On reading and living
Australian theologian Ben Myers (@FaithTheology) dispels the problematic notion that reading books and living life are separate undertakings:

I have often heard of a distinction – though I have never understood it – between reading books and something called real life experience. We are, apparently, supposed to believe that reading and living are two quite different things, as opposed to one another as girls and boys or night and day. There is, we are told, a moral dualism between reading and living. One of these activities is abstract, the other is concrete and practical. One is artificial, the other is true and real. One involves only the mind, the other involves the body. Personally I have never accepted that dualism. Not only because it is a heresy; and not only because it is opposed to the Old Testament, which views reading as the source of living (Psalm 1); but also because my experience has disproved it a thousand times. Ever since I was a boy I have experienced reading books not as the opposite of living but as a particularly grand and intensified form of it.

2. Holy Luck
What’s happening in October? Eugene Peterson has a book of poetry coming out, that’s what. John Wilson (@jwilson1812) discusses it on the most recent Books & Culture podcast, and he reads an excerpt from the introduction as well as two of the poems.

3. Inspiring bookstores
My mom, knowing how much I love books and bookstores, sent me this link to ten great bookstores from around the world – many of them jaw-dropping.

4. Work in the time of God’s patience
Gideon Strauss (@gideonstrauss) with some thoughts on a spirituality of work and the “problem” of good:

God’s grace sustains creation; God’s grace constrains evil; God’s grace enables redemption. It is because we live in the time of God’s patience (a phrase that Richard Mouw ascribes to his Mennonite friends) that rain nourishes the crops of both those who follow Jesus and those who don’t, artists can find and make beauty in God’s creation whether they follow Jesus or no, governments can act as God’s ministers by constraining evil whether they acknowledge the rule of God or not, and therapists can bring healing to broken relationships or nurses and doctors to broken bodies whether they acknowledge the healing power of God or not. God’s common grace (as Richard Mouw and others call it) – a grace that makes all human life, all creaturely existence possible – is as effective as God’s special grace, by which God brings people into a recognized and grateful relationship with himself.

5. The Vow
Another acoustic music video from Derek Webb (@derekwebb). If you haven’t pre-ordered his new album yet, which officially releases next Tuesday, you can do so here.

[Image: Alta Acqua bookstore in Venice, Italy via studentessamatta.com]