Saturday, June 10, 2006

Peculiar Identity vs. Lutheran vocation

When it comes to the "shape" of the Christian life and the visible nature of the church, I tend to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I was shaped and influenced in seminary by the deep Lutheran concept of vocation, that the Christian life is lived out in our daily work and various vocations.

At the same time, I have been persuaded by a variety of theologians that this Lutheran understanding of vocation may itself be the product of Christendom. In post-Christendom, are we in a new position vis-a-vis our culture so that the church, and our own participation in it, should be markedly peculiar?

So, I came across these two quotes today that I'm going to pair up for the sake of reflection.

First, from a review of Robert Benne's book A Christian Approach to Social, Economic and Political Concerns in Lutheran Forum:

While [Benne] is drawn to it-- radical orthodoxy is 'attractive and compelling' with a 'confidence in and clarity about orthodox Christianity' that is 'highly persuasive' (p. 114), Benne cannot in the end embrace it. What causes the drawing back? Put briefly, it is his belief that, since God, in his two-fold rule of the world through providence and grace, Law and Gospel, has not abandoned this fallen world, neither should the Christian. It is not for us to construct a redemptive 'parallel culture' but to struggle in the ongoing culture war for civility, decency, justice, and peace under God's providential 'Left Hand' rule. Rather than turning our back on post-modern culture, we are called to witness to its under-God accountability, what an earlier generations of Lutherans called its 'sacred secularity.'.. So we must continue in 'critical solidarity' with the fallen world and its structure of responsibility (58).

The second quote is from Walter Bruegemann's engaging collection of essays, The Word that Redescribes the World:

Jacob Neusner, in his study of Jewish ritual practice, judges that the stylized gestures and words of ritual are aids in the daily work of being 'Jews through the power of our imagination.' Indeed, Neusner opines that Jewishness is hazardous and venturesome enough that it requires a daily[!!!] act of imagination, without which there would not be Jews.

[W.B.] propose[s] that in Christendom Christians needed no such effort, for identity simply came with the territory, as it always does for dominant faith. The depositioning of Christian faith in the west, however, makes the community of the baptized a community more fully dependent upon daily acts of imagination for the maintenance of identity. The daily acts evoking Christian identity are likely to be ethical as well as liturgical. The beginning point is the recognition that clear identity is not a cultural given, as it might have been in former times of domination, but is now an oddness that requires courageous intentionality (152-153).

These two conceptions stand in tension with each other, at least in my mind, and I have been continuing to work out how they might be reconciled.


  1. I wonder if the two are not in tension, but rather two sides of the same coin. It seems to me that, in order to live fully into my vocation - particularly a vocation that is not explicitly religious - I must have some hightened level of intentionality about my faith and faith commitment. That is, for someone to see their work as a plummer as faith-filled and God-blessed (the Benne quote), they must have a particularly intentional approach to life and work that is distinct than the run-of-the-mill secular approach to work. It is with a distinct and intentional faith that we are able to engage the world in its forms and ways, so that we can serve in the world rather than withdraw from the world.

  2. I would contend there is still more tension between the two views. Traditionally, the Lutheran vocational understanding has seen vocation under the left hand of God. So, there is certainly and ethical and good way to be a plumber, but not a uniquely Christian way to be one in the way you mention, somehow distinct from the run of the mill approach. In fact, I myself would want to debate this with you. How can you be a distinctly Christian plumber? What would that look like?

    On the other hand, the communal dimensions of Christians together might be a visible and radical alternative to run of the mill life together. So, for example, a plumber who works and acts like any other good plumber might give away everything they own or make to a community that then distributes according to need. Although this itself could be a practice of a non-Christian community as well.

    This is the tension...

  3. Of course a Christian plumber looks no different than a Jewish plumber or a Muslim plumber or a Zoroastrian plumber. However, if you take any number of plumbers who are Christian and enjoy their work, I would guess that many of them do not see a connection between their faith and their work. How many times have I heard regular church-goers say, with a tone of regret or lament, "I work in (fill in occupation name here), but that is not religious. It has nothing to do with my faith." For many, only religious work or overtly social work (clergy, nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers, etc.) are seen as religious. In a spiritual sense, they look at their own work as lesser than these other vocations.

    To me, it takes an intentionality, a peculiar understanding of faith and work to live in and engage the world through any vocation - particularly vocations that are not overtly religious. This peculiarity or intentionality doesn't draw someone out of the world - rather, it empowers them to engage the world in deeper ways with the comforting knowledge that their work is God-blessed and part of God's Kingdom.

    Of course, there is a peculiarity and intentionality that can draw someone apart from the world, and there's a way to live your life Monday-Saturday without any faithful reflection or peculiar Christian identity - but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking of a week-long faith that informs, comforts and empowers the way I live - both in church and in the workplace - and that doesn't call me out of the world but rather that calls me into the world.

  4. Thank you for sharing this spiritually enriching reflection. I think what you've written summarizes some of what is best in the Lutheran tradition of vocation. And you're right, unfortunately a lot of lay folks don't see God as being at work in their daily work and vocations.

    What you've helped me clarify is what I mean by comparing the two quotes I provided. On an individual level, and each of our individual vocations, I think you are right on. But the quote from Brueggemann is focused not on our individual callings, but our communal calling as the people of God.

    The best example today would be groups like the Amish. In their daily work, they build furniture, or work, not unlike anybody else who works a similar trade. But their radical peculiarity is how they live together as a people, with collective decision-making and reflection as a community, so that faith shapes their communal life.

    This, in my experience, happens very rarely if at all in the "mainline" Protestant churches. We live so individually that we are not subject to communal norms. As a result, our church community is not discernibly a community. Our communal actions don't function as common witness to the world of our oddness in Christ.

  5. You're hitting on the Hauerwasian, it seems to me. Before we can speak of Christian vocation, we must speak of "Christian." And for many/most of us, that speaks of the individual, not of the community, the congregation, the ecclesia. Until we invest our people with a sense that their primary identity is with the Church (not self, but also not "family" or nation or lodge), we will make few strides in resolving the dilemma you see, Clint.

    Zizioulas says that there's no such thing as an "unordained Christian." By that, he focusses attention on Baptism as ordination into the order of the laity, as distinct from and laudable as the orders of deacon, presbyter, and bishop. But to penetrate that thinking (or to integrate it) requires giving up the notion that "religious" work is somehow distinct from "secular" work -- let alone that it is superior, in some way.

    Luther was right that a Christian vocation to plumbing means that the Christian who is a plumber will be the best plumber she can be. But he, too, must be read in context. There are times that plumbers are tempted to cut corners, to cheat and steal. Perhaps one aspect to Christian plumbing is that the Ten Commandments inform the rules of professional responsibility for plumbers.


  6. Right, well, I did begin this reflection by quoting Brueggemann, who is Hauerwasian (or Brueggemannian?) to the core. Church as counter-culture, etc.