The Substance of Consciousness
May 23, 2023
June 16, 2012
In my interview with Amy Sherman, we explore some of the main themes in her latest book, Kingdom Calling, by also seeking to articulate what ‘vocational stewardship’ might look like for scholars, especially Christian philosophers and theologians.
I’ve been really blessed because from a young age I’ve had a clear sense of vocational calling: that my life was going to be about the church and the poor. I didn’t always know exactly what that would look like. Over the years it has involved both direct ministry, like running an inner-city nonprofit, and indirect ministry, like researching policy questions related to poverty alleviation. My principal vocation now is that of a communicator and educator, I think. Through writing, public speaking, consulting, and training, I’m trying to be a “minister to ministries:” helping congregations and nonprofits serve their communities more effectively. My work also affords me opportunities to discover “what’s working” in communities and to shine the spotlight on those activities. So, to the extent that God has gifted me in communications, I am stewarding that skill to equip His people for effective service among the poor, to inspire believers to action on behalf of community renewal, and to raise awareness of promising practices for addressing social ills.
In the course of writing Kingdom Calling, one of my regular prayers was “Lord, make me the first reader of my book.” What I meant was: this book is exhorting readers to live as the tsaddiqim, stewarding all that God has given them to advance His Kingdom. I wanted Him to show me fresh ways that I could live that out. And He answered the prayer. A light bulb came on for me regarding the devotional booklet I’d self-published back in 2000, Sharing God’s Heart for the Poor. Maybe because it’s short and cheap, it’s been my best seller! Anyway, one day I realized that over 35,000 people had been touched by the booklet, and hopefully more would continue to be as it continued to sell. So I wrote a new edition and added information in the back of it on a ministry in Guatemala that I’ve supported for over 20 years. They work alongside families in desperate poverty who live in the city trash dump. As the new edition sells, readers get exposed to this great ministry and I’m now committing half the proceeds to this ministry.
That’s a big question and a full answer would be far too long! In brief, the four chapter Gospel—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—has many, many implications for our vocational lives. It helps us to better understand (when compared against the truncated gospel of only ‘fall and redemption’) what it means to live missionally through our vocations.
The big Gospel reminds us of God’s big story. He created a paradise and invited us to steward it, legitimating all kinds of work. We blew it, but God did not retract the cultural mandate from us even after the Fall. But the Fall meant that our work would be much more difficult and sometimes feel futile. Jesus’ redemption means that the restoration project is underway. Jesus’ great salvation work pushes back every aspect of the curse: redeeming the broken relationship between humans and God, humans and themselves, humans with one another, and humans with the creation itself. All of that is Jesus’ work, not just “saving souls.” And the doctrine of consummation reminds us that King Jesus will indeed renew all things and that the eternal life we’re going to live will be lived in redeemed bodies on a new Earth. So it’s not going to be about being disembodied souls floating about on clouds playing harps forever and ever!
When we take all that orthodoxy seriously, we see that all of our work—as farmers and teachers and architects and scientists and plumbers and bureaucrats and auto mechanics and secretaries and lawyers and cops and you-name-it, matters to God and participates in His work. We participate in His ongoing, sustaining work of creation. We participate in His work to restrain evil and corruption. We participate in His work of renewal. All our work has dignity; there is no hierarchy of “spiritual” work that is superior. And, according to the doctrine of the consummation, we can find deep meaning and purpose in our work because some of it will actually last into eternity.
By ‘vocational stewardship,’ I mean the strategic and intentional deployment of all the dimensions of our vocational power to advance foretastes of the Kingdom of God. By foretastes, I’m referring to the marks of the future, consummated Kingdom, as we see those described in the scriptural texts that provide glimpses of the new heavens and new earth.
Some examples of Kingdom foretastes are beauty, justice, wholeness, and truth. I believe people in each vocation need to consider which Kingdom foretastes they might especially have opportunities to advance. Medical professionals, for example, obviously bring the foretaste of health and wholeness while architects and artists can bring beauty. Academics also can focus on bringing beauty and on advancing truth. They can also pursue justice—such as when a historian choosing deliberately to focus on subjects that others have ignored.
Well, this is the sort of thing I was getting at in my answer just now about what a historian can do. When I think about academics stewarding their vocation, my mind runs along two kinds of tracks. One has to done with the content of what’s studied – like the historian’s choice to raise awareness of the contributions made by people that perhaps have not had their full due in the literature. Philosophers, I think, can participate in God’s work of restraining corruption when they labor to discern and expose patterns of thought or ideologies that are harmful to genuine human flourishing. They can also participate in God’s work of renewal by encouraging the cultivation of wonder and imagination in an age marked by too much irony and suspicion.
Academics have freedom to decide their research agenda—and they should steward that freedom well. They need to attend very seriously to their intellectual investments—avoiding studying something just because it’s a “hot topic” or the thing likely to get one a spot in an academic journal. Their research agenda should be informed by God’s priorities and the needs of the world.
The second track has to do with intentional choices about sharing knowledge. When we invest tons of time in research, when we tackle intellectual or theological conundrums, when we publish, who benefits? Do we know? Have we thought about how to widen the circle of our beneficiaries?
Here’s a little analogy. I like to challenge lawyers to think about the legally underserved. It’s not like every Christian lawyer has to go work for International Justice Mission or the local legal aid clinic. Some really are called to Wall Street or big corporate firms. But there’s a lot of lawyers out there to meet the needs of well-paying clients, and there’s a lot of underserved folks in need of legal services. So I believe that Christian lawyers ought to be intentional to invest some of their time seeking to serve those folks. Similarly, academics should stretch their thinking a bit regarding the beneficiaries of how they are investing their talents, and mull over whether they are missing out on serving some “underserved” folks.
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