How Christians become “atheists unawares”…

The Call-Guinness

Why are Christians no longer a force in shaping culture?  Like all big questions, this one doesn’t admit simple answers.  One response—one part of a more complete answer—is that most Christians do not have a theology of everyday life.


Without a robust theology of everyday life, we are pulled along and shaped by the secularizing forces of the culture in which we live.  These forces restrict our consciousness to “the world of our senses—what you can see, touch, taste, weigh, measure, calculate, and so on. … We have words like prayer, supernatural, revival, but we don’t actually operate in the world named by those words.”


Os Guinness makes these observations in arguing for a recovery of the doctrine of calling.  And he drives his point home by quoting a Japanese CEO who spoke to him at a conference in Australia.


When I meet a Buddhist monk, I meet a holy man in touch with another world. When I meet a Western missionary, I meet a manager who is only in touch with the world I know.


Guinness continues,


You could say today that many, many Christians are atheists unawares; they are implicit, practicing atheists because they are so secular in their consciousness.


The “constrictions of modernity” can be countered by two critical elements of the gospel, according to Guinness—the cross of Christ and the doctrine of calling.


Calling was there at Sinai at the birth of the Jewish movement; calling was there at Galilee at the birth of the Christian movement; calling was there critically in the Reformation and its contribution to the rise of the modern world.


In an interview with Books & Culture, Guinness addressed several other aspects of calling in a conversation about his book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. 


When you write about calling, what exactly do you mean?


It is often distorted on one side by being spiritually narrowed into simply meaning guidance. On the secular side, it has been distorted into becoming just your job. By calling I mean that God calls us so decisively in Christ that everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do is invested with a direction and a dynamism because it is done in response to his summons and his call. …


You distinguish in the book between “primary” calling and “secondary” calling. What is the significance of that distinction?


I’ve reintroduced some of the terms that the Reformers used. The primary call is the call by the Lord, to the Lord, for the Lord. That is first and foremost calling as summarized in Jesus’ words “Follow me.” The secondary calling is what we do when we rise to follow him. Some people are taken into homemaking, some into teaching, some into law, some into politics. Our secondary calling is all that we do in response to the primary call. Now the great thing is, the primary must always remain primary, and it must never be cut off from the secondary.


You suggest that when that happens, work becomes idolatry.


Yes. Historically there are two great distortions of calling. One is the Catholic distortion, which is a form of spiritual dualism. It makes the spiritual higher than the secular, so you have a distinction between higher and lower, sacred and secular. As Eusebius called it, a perfect life for the monks, nuns, and priests. Now that is the Catholic distortion, although many Protestants have fallen for it. In evangelical circles we hear of “fulltime Christian service,” a term suggesting that a call to the ministry, or the mission field, or evangelism is higher than a call to being a businessperson. This is an utterly disastrous distortion of the scriptural understanding of calling.


The other distortion is the Protestant distortion. Calvin and Martin Luther rightly said that ordinary work, too, is of our calling. But within a hundred-odd years, work and employment began to be used interchangeably with calling and vocation, so that calling became merely your job. Of course, calling is far, far more than that. Above all, it means we are called to Christ in whatever we do.


You quote William Perkins as saying “the action of a shepherd in keeping sheep, performed as I have said in his kind, is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or of a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” Why was this explosive in its cultural implications?


Perkins was the great “door-opener” of the truth of calling to the English-speaking world, picked up later by John Cotton in New England. And Perkins in turn was following Luther and the great pages in The Babylonian Captivity, written in 1520, where Luther says that the farmer in the fields, or the farmer’s wife in the farmhouse, if they are doing their work by faith for the glory of God, are fulfilling as high and holy a calling as the pastor in the pulpit. Immediately, such an outlook gives to the whole of life a dignity.


Back to what you call the “Protestant distortion.” Can you clarify the Protestant overreaction?


After 150 years of Protestantism, what happened was that work was made sacred and calling was made secular. The Bible never makes work sacred. Work has an inherent dignity because we are made in the image of God as subcreators. But in a fallen world, work is partly creative, partly cursed. The Protestant ethic made work itself sacred over time.


By the same token, calling was secularized. The irony of today is that you have many wonderful Catholic brothers and sisters who are closer to Martin Luther on this subject than we are. You have many Protestants, by contrast, who are closer to those Martin Luther attacked. Spiritual dualism regarding work and calling is rearing its ugly head again and is alive and well in Protestant circles.





The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life is available here.


“No Calling Without a Caller,” an interview by Michael Cromartie for Books & Culture can be found here.



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