First, I received a brochure in the mail this week from the college as part of their regular campaigning to solicit alumni giving. The brochure highlighted one alumni who had started a bread-baking company after graduation. Here is a quote of his from the brochure:
'We love to knead. We knead to love. This has been our organization's motto from the beginning,' says [the alumni]. 'I am called to be a baker, and that means bread is God's chosen vehicle for loving through me. With that in mind, [the bakery] is the medium through which I engage, and love, the world: God, neighbors, family, customers, coworkers, vendors. We strive for excellence in our business. This begins and ends with bread.'
But [the alumni's] passion for breadmaking isn’t just about bread. It’s about redemption.
'One of the reasons that baking has continued to captivate me over the years is that breadmaking is very similar to our human process,' says [the alumni]. 'Dough being created though the mixing of ingredients; individual loaves being weighed out, hand shaped and shaped again; these loaves being let to develop and rise in the proper environment; the surface of each loaf being cut with the blade in perfect patterns just before baking, that they may properly blossom in the oven; and the transformation by fire that happens on the surface of the hearth: loaves dying as dough and being reborn as bread, fulfilling the Baker's vision for what they ought to become. It's a beautiful process: living and life-giving.'
As I opened the mail and glanced at this, without reading the entire article, I muttered under my breath, "You've got to be kidding me!" But I knew they weren't kidding. After spending four years at the school, I knew well that ability to serve God in all callings of life is something they strongly preach as evidenced by their motto. To them, everything is a calling. If someone digs ditches for a living, and feels called to do that, it is their calling. If someone sits in a cubicle to get a paycheck, as I do, they are fulfilling their calling from God. And here we have an example of someone who says he is called to be a baker and that bread, yes, bread is God's vehicle for loving through him.
After I tossed the brochure in the trash right there at the apartment mailbox having no real deep thoughts about the content other than the exclamation above, I went on with my work week. I read on the train on the way to work and this week I am reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. This reading was the second thing that made me rethink the concept of the college's application of Colossians 1:18.
On page 46, Bonhoeffer tells us the story of what he thinks happened to the original meaning of the original Christian call to discipleship. He says that as Christianity spread, the Church became more secularized, reaching its legitimization with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. At this point, Bonhoeffer says, grace came to be had at a low cost. It became a common property of the citizens of the empire and the members of the church. He calls this cheap grace.
But he points out that the Church astutely allowed monasticism, where individuals sacrificed greatly to follow the call of Christ, to flourish. But "monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate" and thus the church succeeded in justifying "the secularization of its own life". Thus we have at least one theory for how the secularization of Christianity, defined as a capitulation to culture, came about.
On page 81, Bonhoeffer tells us how this capitulation occurs in our minds even to this day when he says, "... if [Jesus] were to say to us: 'Be not anxious,' we should take him to mean: 'Of course it is not wrong for us to be anxious: we must work and provide for ourselves and our dependents. If we did not we should be shirking our responsibilities. But all the time we ought to be inwardly free from all anxiety...' All along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded obedience."
The Roman Church wasn't the only group to fall prey to this secularization of calling. The mindset of relativizing the commands of Jesus is epitomized in the idea of the Protestant work ethic over a thousand years after Constantine. Hear what Bonhoeffer thinks of this idea. Discussing the call of Jesus to love our enemies on page 152, he says,
"When we love those who love us, our brethren, our nation, our friends, yes, and even our own congregation, we are no better than the heathen and the publicans. Such love is ordinary and natural, and not distinctively Christian. We can love our kith and kin, our fellow countrymen and our friends, whether we are Christians or not, and there is no need for Jesus to teach us that. But he takes that kind of love for granted, and in contrast asserts that we must love our enemies. Thus he shows us what he means by love, and the attitude we must display towards it. How then do disciples differ from the heathen? What does it really mean to be a Christian? Here we meet the word which controls the whole chapter, and sums up all we have heard so far. What makes the Christian different from other men is the 'peculiar,' the 'extraordinary,' the 'unusual,' that which is not 'a matter of course.' This is the quality whereby the better righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees... the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the 'peculiar.' It is this quality which first enables us to see the natural in its true light. Where it is lacking, the peculiar graces of Christianity are absent. It cannot occur within the sphere of natural possibilities, but only when they are transcended... That was the fatal mistake of the Protestant work ethic which diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends and industriousness, which in short, perverted the better righteousness in justitia civilis."To me, this assessment sounds eerily familiar to the theology of vocation I find in the college that the baker and I attended. So here are my questions: Have we cheapened the Biblical meaning of call and obedience? Is our theology of vocation just a secularization of our calling? Is our category of general revelation a baptizing of the world which actually has the effect of watering down Word? Or are all these concepts just a claiming of rightful territory by the agents of a sovereign God?
John Howard Yoder gives you a hint of how I would answer these questions when he says on page 99 of The Politics of Jesus that "incarnation does not originally mean... that God took all of human nature as it was, put his stamp of approval on it, and thereby ratified nature as revelation."
But let me be clear about what I am not saying. I'm not suggesting the ditch digger, me, or the baker quit our jobs but I am saying that to call that work your calling in an overtly biblical sense as the brochure mentioned above undeniably does is to trivialize the idea of calling. As Bonhoeffer says on page 260, "It would be... wrong to suppose that St. Paul imagines that the fulfillment of our secular calling is itself the living of the Christian life." The concept of calling in the Bible is specifically reserved for the call of God to obedience in faith. The disciples were fishermen by trade but were called by Jesus to follow him. Paul was a tentmaker but was called to be an apostle.
There's probably a lot more that could be said about this in and to a tradition where calling has lost its Biblical meaning. But for now, allow Bonhoeffer to sum up with a warning.
"If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life... But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ."So is it possible to take the phrase "In all things, Christ preeminent to far?" Not necessarily. It's just that I think it's possible to greatly misunderstand its meaning. See what Paul had to say about our stations at the time of our calling. The quote is from I Corinthians 7:18-24.
Was anyone called after he had been circumcised? He should not try to undo his circumcision. Was anyone called who is uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Instead, keeping God’s commandments is what counts. Let each one remain in that situation in life in which he was called. Were you called as a slave? Do not worry about it. But if indeed you are able to be free, make the most of the opportunity. For the one who was called in the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. In the same way, the one who was called as a free person is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men. In whatever situation someone was called, brothers and sisters, let him remain in it with God.There is nothing wrong with our secular careers. In fact, Paul says, stay as you are. But do not confuse this with calling. In fact, now that I look back, the baker seems to have the right idea based on his nuanced statement. But I know from experience, that the college tends to take it a bit too far. They use it to recruit applicants, they teach it as a theme in their core curriculum to students, and now they are using it to solicit donations from alumni. That's why I laughed and threw the brochure in the trash.