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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Is that why Christians are in the world?

“God gave me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can!’ ” So declared the great Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody a century ago.

Is that why Christians are in the world? To rescue people out of it? Lots of Christians think so.

Others, however, claim that the task of Christians is to conquer the world—as gently as possible—in order to bring it under the beneficial sway of Christian principles and, ideally, to bring everyone to the worship of Jesus as Lord.

Is that why Christians are in the world? To take it over for Jesus?

Still other Christians, of course, find the first group annoying and the second group alarming. They simply want to do a good day’s work, raise a family, volunteer in worthy causes, go to church, enjoy good friends, and, if someone really wants to know, say a little bit about their faith.

Is that why Christians are in the world? To be decent citizens?

To many of us, one of these options seems right, not least because important Christian teachers and even whole movements commend one or another of these visions of Christian presence in the world.

For others of us, however, these options leave us cold— or at least wanting more. Saving people sounds admirable, of course, but abandoning the planet and all the good that we experience here seems awfully radical. Offering the benefits of Christian culture to a confused and complicated world sounds generous, but trying to convert or coerce everyone else seems awfully imperialistic. As for quietly going about one’s affairs and contributing to the world just as one can sounds both sensible and humble, but going through life much like every- one else seems perhaps unworthy of the name “Christian”— or any name at all. Did Jesus really die on a cross merely to inspire honorable, but otherwise unremarkable, lives?

Why You're Here: Ethics for the Real World is about how to live as God intended us to live. It actually, and without irony, offers an answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? We all want to know how a person should live well. What does genuine success look like, measured according to what standard? Can my life, and our lives together, have lasting significance?

As such, this is a book of ethics. But it is not merely about “right and wrong.”

The Greek word ethos means the character or nature of something or someone. Ethics does include questions of morality, but it derives from a more fundamen- tal concept, the concept of essence, of what it is to be this or that.

Thus medical ethics, at least traditionally, goes beyond bioethics to questions even of dress (whether to wear a lab coat), etiquette (whether to introduce oneself as “Dr. Smith” or “Margaret”), and advertising services (whether to do so and, if so, how to do so properly). The issue in these cases, and many more, is not just “right or wrong” but what is proper or seemly or appropriate to the profession of medicine in its several modes, given what it is. Christian ethics, likewise, is not only about what is right or wrong but fundamentally also about what it is to be Christian in the world, what is proper to the profession and practice of Christian faith.

In sum, this book explores these questions:

Why are we here? Who are we, what are we, and what are we supposed to do?

What, in short, is our vocation?

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare and basically means “calling.” When we hear the word “voca- tion” or “calling,” we tend to think of religious work—like becoming a priest or a nun. But a Christian view of vocation is much, much bigger than that. How big? This big: everyone, everything, everywhere, in every moment.

True, some Christians have indeed equated vocation with work, particularly what they understand to be religious work. Especially in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, for someone to have a “vocation” means for him or her to have a sense of divine calling to a religious career and, indeed, to a whole life pattern of religious service. This use of “vocation” has been Protestantized (so to speak) so that pastors and missionaries in those traditions often speak this way about what they do and who they are. Seminary and missionary training often begins with the sharing of testimo- nies about “receiving the call” to the pastorate or the mis- sion field. This use of “vocation” also has been secularized to apply to other traditional professions—to what some would call “secular priesthoods” or “helping professions.” Thus one still hears people say that they “have a calling” to a career in medicine, the law, or education.

Other Christians, however, have understood vocation to be the call of Christ to every Christian, not just the full-time clergy or a particular range of professionals. The divine call, they say, is for everyone to participate in specific, definably Christian activities. Thus one’s actual job is not one’s vocation or even an important part of it. Jobs provide for our physical needs and are thus a necessity in the world as it is, but they are not actually part of one’s divine calling. Instead, the call of Christ is to undertake evangelism, or charity, or some other work that goes beyond and is quite clearly different from the regular work—indeed, beyond the ordinary life—of any nor- mal human being. This is the view in which I was raised.

The only guidance my church tradition offered me about how to live as a Christian was to tell me to do two things: (1) avoid sin (such as lying or gossiping, stealing office supplies, cheating on taxes, having sex outside of marriage, and so on); and (2) evangelize my co-workers and customers as often as possible. In other church traditions, I would have been told that my Christian vocation was to care for the poor, so I ought to volunteer in the church food bank or in the severe weather shelter. In still others, I would have been told that my Christian vocation was to seek justice, so I ought to write letters for Amnesty International or protest discrimination against whatever local group was currently being oppressed.

In each of these varieties, however, I would have been given no serious Biblical and theological framework in which to understand and undertake most of what I did most of the time. School, work, sports, art, romance, financial planning, childrearing—none of these would ever be addressed from the pulpit or Sunday school lectern. Some Christians, therefore, have seen vocation as a particular job. Others have seen vocation as not a job, but specifically religious service.

A third view is the one I recommend and will trace here, namely, that our job is a part of our vocation, and so are what- ever specifically Christian activities in which we engage, but our vocation stretches out to encompass everything we are and do.

Vocation is about everyone, everything, everywhere, in every moment.

In most religions, there is an inclination to distinguish between what we might call “heroes” on the one hand and “ordinaries” on the other, between what are sometimes termed “religious” and “secular” individuals. Buddhist monks, for example, hope to achieve nirvana through their rigorous ascetic practices, while the vast majority of Buddhists live much less demanding lives. Buddhist laypeople provide practical support to the monks in their spiritually superior labors and otherwise try to live properly according to their station in life, hoping to acquire enough positive karma to be reincarnated as a superior sort of person who might, in fact, take up monasticism and thus achieve nirvana and liberation from the cycle of rebirth. One sees similar patterns through- out Indian religions and, indeed, around the globe.

Christianity also has manifested this two-tiered system through the ages, although different traditions and times have lionized different elites. We might (somewhat irrever- ently) summarize the upper Christian tier as, progressively, martyrs, monks, mystics, magisteria, missionaries—and megachurch leaders.

One of the key revisions of Christian life that emerged from the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation was centered in this zone. The Reformers declared that the Bible knows nothing of “super-Christians” versus “regular Christians.” There are just Christians. There are not some believers who are saints and others who are non-saints. The New Testament says that all Christians are saints, because the root of that word is simply “to be set apart for special use,” and each Christian is truly set apart by God for divine service.

With this Reformation eradication of what we might call a two-tiered system of seriousness came two positive teachings:

(1) all (legitimate) work is blessed by God, not just religious work; and

(2) vocation is more than work and encompasses one’s entire life.

The Old Testament law seems to cover all sorts of topics we modern Westerners don’t typically think of as being of divine interest (from diet to hygiene, and from how to farm to how to dress), demonstrating that God really does care about everything in human life. Vocation, therefore, is the divine calling to every person to do God’s will in every mode and form of human life: public as well as private, secular as well as religious, juvenile as well as adult, corporate as well as individual, female as well as male.

P.S. This is an excerpt from my book, Why You're Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2017), which you can learn more about here or grab a copy for yourself here.

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