Reflections from Seminary Students

Book Review: Work in the Spirit

May 2nd, 2011 § 0 Comments

Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work by Miroslav Volf (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001. 268 pp)

Born in Osijek, Croatia, Miroslav Volf performed his undergraduate studies at Evangelical-Theological Faculty, Zagreb. For his master’s work, he studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and he earned his doctorate at the University of Tübingen, where he studied under Jürgen Moltmann. Volf teaches at Yale Divinity School as the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and is the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. His books include Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, which won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award; and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, which won the Christianity Today book award. Volf is a member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia.

Why Do We Hate Work?

Do you like your job? For most, the answer to that question is an unequivocal, “no.” What does it mean to work? Is it merely a means to an end — the exchange of labor for money? In Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf seeks to answer these questions.

In quest of a theological case for work, Volf splits his tome into two sections. In the first section, Volf discusses current conceptions of work — mainly highlighting the difficulties of the modern employee — and continues by exploring the philosophical undertones of contemporary work through the thought of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

In the second section, Volf posits a theological significance for work. Theologians throughout history have considered work instrumentally important, since it not only provides resources that allow humans to pursue leisurely goods but also offers support for those pursuing vocational work, such as pastoral ministry and care for the poor.

Pneumatology: The Study of the Spirit

Volf, however, argues that work possesses more than an instrumental purpose; it carries a pneumatological function. As such, work offers a vocational and intrinsic purpose as an end in itself. Under this rubric, the Spirit of God gifts humans in different ways, and, through these means, humans find specific callings in the workforce.

Sadly, work for the majority of the human population is classified as toilsome. Structurally, work tends to alienate and exploit. Under these premises, it is easy to see why so many view work as a means rather than an end — who wants to endure toil for its own sake?

The Classic Christian View of Work

Thinkers throughout Christian tradition, however, agree that work possesses useful qualities.

Volf writes,

The early church fathers affirmed not only the nobility of work but also the obligation to work diligently and not be idle (72).

Under these conditions, work maintained only instrumental value; it provided opportunities to increase ascetic discipline, and it presented Christians with money to sustain the household and assist those in need.

Work Through the Lens of the New Creation

Suppose, however, that the eschatological future is not a world annihilated and rebuilt, but a restoration of existing creation.

Volf posits,

If [creation’s] destiny is eschatological transformation, then, in spite of the lack of explicit exegetical support, we must ascribe to human work inherent value, independent of its relation to the proclamation of the gospel (93).

If consummation arrives not in destruction but in restoration, the value of human work becomes critical for Christians. The faithful ought not to remain in expectant leisure awaiting God’s return; they are entrusted with the care of creation.

Work, then, is a gift of God that is inherently good; it existed before the Fall when God entrusted the garden to Adam and Eve, work was maintained after the Fall, and will be glorified in the transformation of new creation.

Work in the Spirit

For Volf, a pneumatological view of work is the way in which humans find purposeful work in the transformative new creation. Concerning vocation and the work of the Spirit, he writes:

We can determine the relationship between calling and charisma in the following way: the general calling to enter the kingdom of God and to live in accordance with this kingdom that comes to a person through the preaching of the gospel becomes for the believer a call to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which should characterize all Christians, and, as they are placed in various situations, the calling to live in accordance with the kingdom branches out in the multiple gifts of the Spirit to each individual (113).

In other words, the gifts granted by the Spirit orient Christians toward specific vocational work. Under this conception, work, while remaining under the Fall, encounters meaning through the Spirit as human beings labor in cooperation with God. By reflecting on the gifts God has given, Christians find more meaning in work and in the community.

The Body Does Not Consist Entirely of Hands

On the whole, I find Volf’s theological reframing of work’s purpose to be convincing. As Paul discusses in Corinthians, the Spirit gifts Christians in specific ways, allowing the communal body of Christ to function well. As such, not every Christian is a hand. If each person tried to fulfill the work of the hand, the community would suffer. Therefore, it is ideal to place people in work scenarios that suite their specific vocational gifts.

Are We Capable of Working in the Spirit?

Photo by Bill Hinsee

Nevertheless, trouble arises with Volf’s theological framing of work. Jobs, as they currently stand, are a scarce resource. Afraid of not working, many people accept a job poorly suited for them because it is better than unemployment.

Additionally, job scarcity denies many people the opportunity to work in the fields that best apply to an individual’s specific Spirit-given gifts. For example, a talented musician, more than likely, will never become a professional musician. The demand for the position far exceeds the supply of jobs.

As such, the awarding of these jobs often result in factors outside of giving the job to the most gifted applicant — for example, politics, nepotism, and the almighty dollar are highly influential externalities in the job market.

Additionally, many people are denied jobs through lack of experience or education. Oftentimes, employers look, first and foremost, at job experience. If an applicant who possesses perfectly suited talent for the position but has little-to-no experience, he or she will likely not get the job.

Or a brilliant person who lacked the economic resources to obtain an education will lose to a less-gifted-but-educated person.

While a pneumatological theology of work clearly is the ideal understanding of work, in current practice, work suffers from an imperfect application in a broken world. Ideally, people ought to search for the perfect job that fits with the Spirit-given gifts they possess. In reality, people must often settle for a less-than-ideal job because they have the relevant experience and it is better than no job at all.

Despite this problematic question, Work in the Spirit critically discusses the value of work. While many think of it as a means to a leisurely end, Volf argues that a pneumatological understanding of work allows humanity to be liberated to choose jobs that fit specific gifts. I recommend this book.

 

“Empire, Church, and Missio Dei: On Praying for Our Kings (1 Timothy 2:1-2)”: The 2011 Paul T. Walls Annual Lecture

April 27th, 2011 § 0 Comments

Listen to the lecture

On Thursday, April 7, Rob Wall — SPU’s Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies — addressed a crowd of students, faculty, staff, and community members at the annual Walls Lecture. Speaking from a Wesleyan perspective on 1 Timothy 2 — possibly the most controversial chapter of Paul’s letters — Walls focused especially on Paul’s command in verses 1–2 to pray  “for everyone — even for kings.”

Here is Wall’s own translation of those verses:

First, I request that supplications, prayers, petitions, thanksgivings be therefore offered for everyone — even for kings and everyone in a position of authority — so that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in full godliness and rectitude.

Wall began the lecture by expressing his concern that inevitable political differences not fracture the Body of Christ. “My exhortation this morning,” he said, “is that we consider Scripture’s instruction as a way forward in understanding a common grammar for our political discourse and practices.”

He considered objections to the letter’s canonicity, and of the letter’s disputed authorship — all of those claims ultimately irrelevant, said Wall. For “We read 1 Timothy as Scripture, not because Paul wrote it but because God’s Spirit sanctified it for holy ends!” The letter, he told his audience, was written to Timothy in Paul’s absence, and so “is of indispensable value in guiding faithful readers of Paul’s standard letters, who also in absence of Paul must rightly apply his apostolic ‘word of truth’ to the church’s ever-changing social locations.”

Wall went on to give a fascinating literary analysis of the passage — the letter is an example of paraenetic literature (literature that exhorts) — referring to its employment of repeated catchwords and literary inclusio, and the importance of its use of basileo (king) rather than “more modest expressions of political authority (exousia, diakonos).”

Wall then considered the objection among many that the purpose clause verse 2b (“so that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in full godliness and rectitude”) signifies that prayers for our political leaders “are really a political strategy of accommodation, if not compromise, to keep the peace.”

After looking at sermons of Wesley’s that offer insight into the passage, Wall ended his lecture asking, “For what should a Wesleyan congregation pray when petitioning God for our kings? How do we pray for President Obama?”

The answer may surprise you, and there is much more to this insightful and intriguing lecture, but only hearing it in its entirety can do it justice. We invite you to do that.

Character and Competence

April 25th, 2011 § 0 Comments

In the first week of September, I engaged in a weeklong intensive course titled “Church Planting in a Multi-Cultural Context” with Bishop Matthew Thomas from the Free Methodist Church. During this week, one theme that stuck with me was the importance of finding church-planting co-leaders with spotless character.

Pauline Qualifications for Bishops

It is a fact that out of the 14 qualifications for bishops in 1 Timothy 3, 13 of them have to do with character, while only one (be “an apt teacher”) deals with competence.[1] Culturally, the west tends to favor competencies that are flashy and measurable by the number of bodies their talent puts in the pews (or fold-up chairs) on Sunday morning.

Photo by Tim Samoff

Yet, if Paul in 1 Timothy 3 heavily favors character over competence, then we must go about the task of reassessing what lenses we put on when choosing core leadership. I think we do this by assessing the strengths of the leaders in four categories, in order of importance, and character comes first.

The Case for Character

Character is the most important test of a leader’s overall ability to lead, not only because Paul leans that way, but because character shapes the quality and genuineness of one’s work in ministry.

Without true depth of character, without genuineness of one’s work with parishioners and those who are potential disciples of Christ a leader will likely turn to treating people as commodities; those inside being positioned to meet the personal goals of that leader and those outside simply becoming a number as they come into the ministry.

Genuineness can be faked, fooling many. Sooner or later, though, conflicting attitudes and interests will bring that person (and possibly the ministry) down in flames. As for the quality of work, people of shallow character will cut as many corners as they can to get a job done so as to look close to the desired results. But they are really just getting it out of the way in order to get to things they want to do. A person of shallow character will always miss the spirit in the work, which allows for opportunities of mercy and grace to the ends of releasing the power of God on and in others.

A person with great character will go heavy on acts of mercy and grace, and still have the wherewithal to complete the task they have been assigned. Competence can be taught; character cannot. When hiring co-leaders, therefore, be sure they are of great character, to ensure (as much as it is up to you) that your ministry prospers.

– Raoul Perez


[1] Class notes from Bishop Matthew Thomas’ class, “Church-Planting in a Multi-Cultural Context,” Sept. 7-9, 2010.

Grace and Money

April 18th, 2011 § 0 Comments

Kathryn Tanner splits Economy of Grace into three sections. In the first, she questions whether Christianity provides specific influence on economic discussions. Answering in the affirmative, Tanner continues in the second section to outline a theological foundation for economics. Finally, she concludes with a section promoting potential applications of a theological economy in a practical manner.

At first glance, theological and economic discussions contain little similarity. On one side resides the language of justice, faith, and health; on the other resides the language of capital, profit, and competition. In the first chapter of her tome, Tanner explores the relationship between Christianity and economics. While most typically view theology in the realm of the individual and economy in the realm of community, Tanner suggests that the link between the two in the simplest form is grace and money.

Without further explanation, of course, such an assertion raises the eyebrows of many theologians as the threat of prosperity theology presents itself. Tanner battles these assumptions by suggesting the link between grace and money lies in the conception of distribution.

Just as theology is concerned with the distribution of grace in our society, so too is economics concerned with the distribution of money. Yet the two starkly contrast, since the distribution of grace operates under noncompetitive assumptions.

Tanner writes,

By setting Christian ideas of the production and circulation of goods into a comparative economy, by making that comparative framing an economic one, my intent is just to suggest that a Christian economy has everything to do with the material dimensions of life – with the economic more narrowly construed. It is clear that, set within a comparative economy, grace has everything to do with money (29).

Unconditional Giving

Having presented the connection between theology and economics, Tanner utilizes the space in chapter two to discuss alternative forms of the economic system based on a theological lens. While efforts have been made to promote a theological economy through the concepts of inalienable property rights and gift exchange, both systems fall short of truly uniting with the notion of noncompetitive grace.

A theologically based economy must act similarly to the way God acts in relation to humanity.

Tanner adds,

The whole point of God’s dealings with us as creator, covenant partner, and redeemer in Christ is to bring the good of God’s very life into our own. Our lives participate in that divine mission and thereby realize the shape of God’s own economy by giving that follows the same principle: self-sharing for the good of others (85).

Scripture presents God as an unconditional giver. Everything we have is a result of God’s generosity, and humanity is incapable of repaying such a gift to God. Therefore, our best approximation is to unconditionally give to others as God gives to us.

Constructing an Economy of Grace

But does this theological view of economy contain practical application, or does it merely reflect a utopian state? In the third chapter, Tanner attempts to apply her framework on a practical level.

Tanner admits that her economy of grace carries utopian themes. Given the current state of the global economy, it is probably impossible for noncompetitive grace to achieve an economic stronghold.

Nevertheless, noncompetitive grace possesses applicable principles.

Photo by Annette Young

For example, capitalists typically seek the highest  profits by pursuing the most efficient production. The cheaper the cost of manufacturing with a maintained quality, the higher the profits. Yet such practices usually result in capitalists paying employees less and less. Taking this thought process to the extreme, if a company pays employees so little that they are unable to purchase the products, profits will plummet as consumption dies.

An economy of grace, however, suggests that a principle of noncompetitiveness solves this inherent flaw in capitalism.

Tanner notes,

One should, whenever possible, promote growth strategies in which the economy grows and poverty is reduced at the same time (96).

While capitalists can earn significant profits in the short term through diminishing wages, such practices are detrimental in the long term. An economy of grace, on the other hand, suggests that gradually raising wages and lifting the poor out of poverty benefits all of society.

A Slight Critique

While Tanner presents an intriguing vision for a theologically based economy, I find her conclusions to be inconsistent. Although she readily admits that a pure economy of grace is utopian, considering the current state of global affairs, her application of theological tenets to the current form of capitalism changes underlying assumptions minutely.

More specifically, if an economy of grace is based on noncompetitive giving, a gift given in order to expect a return on investment violates the economy of grace. Tanner’s third chapter provides many examples where supposedly altruist behavior helps all stakeholders. But in my mind such assertions betray the root purpose of noncompetitive giving: the notion of self-sacrifice for the good of another.

In this way, Tanner’s attempt to reconcile a theologically based economy with the current capitalist system equates to an argument of good ethics equals good business. What if good ethics equal bad business? Surely at some point a manager must face a decision between ethical behavior and bottom-line profits. Does Tanner’s economy of grace answer this manager’s dilemma? I am doubtful that it can escape its utopian nature.

Charity vs. Microfinance

April 11th, 2011 § 1 Comment

This weekend I attended the Bottom Billions | Bottom Line Conference hosted by SPU’s Center for Integrity in Business. The event served as a convergence zone between business, nonprofit organizations, and the academy seeking to better understand ways that business can help alleviate world poverty.

Of the many interesting subjects discussed at the conference, the topic of microfinance seemed to continuously echo through my head. For those unfamiliar with the term, microfinance occurs when banks or nonprofit organizations loan small amounts to the poor, helping them to use these miniscule amounts of capital to begin income-generating endeavors.

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, observed that the only thing the poor lacked was opportunity. Without capital, the poor would take a loan from a moneylender at exorbitant rates in order to partake in the economy. At the end of the day, these people took home pennies to support a family. Yunus figured that if he could loan these slight sums at low interest rates, the poor could enjoy selling the products of their labor on the open market, thus creating economic capital and a trail out of poverty.

Photo by lecercle

Charity, on the other hand, gives freely without expectation of return. Many, though, have suggested that pure charity does not eradicate poverty, because the poor become dependent on receiving aid. Blogger Filip Spagnoli aggregates international development aid on his website. The evidence he has compiled suggests that the amount of aid contributed to these developing nations is staggering, and yet economic growth is not a result.

Would development function differently if aid came in the form of a loan instead of charity? Yunus believes that loans to the poor provide the best investment.  Many stuck in the cycle of poverty are smart and hard working; they just need the money to start. While big banks typically consider micro-loans to be both risky and inconsequential, Yunus’ experience argues that the poor possess the highest incentive to repay their loans.

Of course, when unforeseen problems such as natural disasters and economic meltdowns place the poor in positions where they are unable to repay the loan, Yunus extends grace and loans more money to help the poor back on their feet. In this way, microlending encourages entrepreneurial spirit. Where charity gives the widow a fish, microfinance engages in teaching the widow to fish.

Although charitable giving in and of itself is never a bad thing, I do wonder if it is the best thing. Of course, a free gift without expectation of repayment carries the highest blessing for the receiver, yet long term, I wonder if microloans create a better society.

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