Working on Eternity
The best lesson I ever learned about work as vocation came from an Amish man who, upon learning that I teach for a living, said, "That's a worthy vocation." For a vocation to be worthy, it has to be fitting for the Christian life. That is why I'm happy to recommend Ben Witherington III's new book, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor (Eerdmans), which reflects on the theological significance of our earthly labors.
I am a college professor who looks at the career paths of hundreds of students every year, so this topic carries more than a little interest. What would this book teach them?
"First and foremost," Witherington writes, "it is the task of all human beings to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbor as ourself. These tasks are 'job one' for all those created in the image of God. Second … it is our honor to be tasked with making disciples of all nations." This might strike the reader as yawningly obvious, but a truly Christian theology of vocation depends on getting that larger perspective right. Therefore, "Any other tasks, jobs, or work we undertake must be seen as subheadings under these primary, lifelong tasks." Witherington refuses to advise anyone at the level of professional priorities. Nor does he insist on the superiority of full-time Christian ministry.
Instead, Witherington situates both our primary and secondary vocations within an eschatological context, making a significant contribution. Christian work, he argues, is "any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be undertaken to the glory of God and for the edification and aid of human beings, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new creation." In these pages, Witherington wrestles with several attempts at a theology of work, including reflections by Miroslav Volf, David Jensen, Barbara Brown Taylor, Gene Edward Veith, Andy Crouch, Terence Fretheim, and JÜrgen Moltmann.
Yet the most potent piece I've read on this subject does not appear in the book. Long ago, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a short story called "Leaf by Niggle," about a man whose "vocation" was to paint leaves. Various chores and inconveniences kept Niggle from finishing the painting to his satisfaction. But when he was called out of life, he discovered that the leaves he was painting were embedded in the forests, mountains, and streams of heaven. Tolkien's theory of vocation perfectly expresses Witherington's position: a worthy vocation contributes not only to our own financial well-being but to new creation.
The theme of the book, work as vocation, obliges Witherington to discuss a variety of related topics. He holds forth on the vices of laziness and "workaholicism," the challenge of mid-life career changes, and the circumstances of ordinary working lives (he might have considered Kathleen Norris's The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work"). He questions the curiously unbiblical notion of "retirement," instead commending careful Sabbath observation and habits of periodic rest and play. He probes into the nature of Christian ministry, showing how it encompasses both work and vocation. Also, interacting almost entirely with Crouch's fine book, he explores the practice of "culture-making."