Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The good is not (always) the enemy of the best

Ought we despise the day of small things? When the promises made to those in Christ are so overwhelmingly gracious, does this make 'the things of this world grow strangely dim'? Does Christianity lead away from the everyday and the issues of the moment, trumping them with what is eternal and bigger and more important? Quietism or quotidian quests?

Paul does consider his present sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed in us (Rom 8.17), but this leads him into consideration of this groaning world, bound to decay as it presently is (Rom 8.18ff). The solution for which he hopes is indeed the resurrection of the dead, the defeat of death and thus the liberation of all creation along with the children of God. But where does this leave us now? Ignoring irrelevant 'worldly' concerns and trying to save as many souls from this sinking ship as possible? No, the Spirit groans for this world - and so those who are Spiritual also groan. This hope leads not away from creation, but into suffering solidarity with it. It's cry becomes ours, because it is also God's longing.

So, is the good the enemy of the best? Should Christians abandon their day jobs to throw themselves fully into gospel ministry as the only task that really matters for eternity? No and no. The continuity (despite discontinuity) between Jesus' corpse and resurrection body is for me a key anticipatory vindication of (and promise for) this world. So I don't think that the work we do in the Lord - which is not futile (1 Cor 15.58) - can be limited to evangelism and helping Christians: that way leads to a new clericalism and a retreat from concern for the very world that Christ died to reconcile (Col 1.18-20).

There's obviously a lot more to say here, and one day I might get round to saying some of it (if others don't get there first in comments). I'll conclude for the moment by noting that perhaps here we have the link between recent discussion of futility and posts mentioning global warming and peak oil.
Ten points for naming the location from which this pic was taken.

18 comments:

Rachel said...

I have been mulling over such topics for a while... At a recent Students of Sustainability conference I went to a discussion on anthropocentrism vs. ecocentrism
and it really challenged me. Should we as Christians see ourselves as separate or as part of the environment? The deep ecology perspective of the discussion suggested that an anthropocentric perspective was in fact grounded in Christianity. This was presented as the root of the current environmental problems - colonialist attitudes of treating resources as a gift from God to be used (without care and thought for the environment). I'm still working out if I can theologically justify an ecocentric perspective - I definitely can ethically!

byron said...

What of theocentrism?
Perhaps there are rings within rings here. And indeed, just like the theo-anthropocentric debate, I wonder if the eco-anthropo debate is likewise a false either-or. Isn't our true humanity to be expressed in thankful worship of God and wise service of the earth? Isn't God's divinity expressed in becoming human to redeem the world? Isn't the world's purpose to be filled with the glory of God through the resurrection of the children of God?

And indeed, even this is insuficiently trinitarian: we also need to be pneumatic, christological and properly theological. Just like humanism is idolatry without being centred in the true Adam, so ecology is idolatry without finding its coherence in the Spirit of Life, the world's Logos, the creative Father.

But I take your point Rachel: it does no good (and considerable harm) to baptise colonial instincts and instrumentalist desires for possession of the soil. Until we learn from the King what it means to rule in service, we are not ready to undertake the task of ruling the world for which God made us in his image.

meredith said...

Hmmm... its interesting to see some of the debates current in the field of environmental history emerging here - including the idea (famously advanced by Prof Lynn White Jr. in the 1960s) that the judeo-christian tradition is to blame for western ideas of the world as a place created solely to benefit and be ruled by humankind, in which humans are separate from nature (not part of it). Christianity, according to this view, is therefore to blame for the environmentally exploitative attitudes and practices of western societies.

There is a massive literature on this subject (which i've only sampled indirectly) and most of the more recent contributions seem to qualify Lynns thesis pretty heavily. Still, from the things I've read about colonial australia its pretty clear that many bible-believers back then used genesis 1:28 ('fill and subdue the earth') to justify activities that were not only ecologically damaging but served to dispossess the first owners of the land. I've posted on this - but i don't know how to give you the link. The post is called 'whose land is it anyway', though.

byron said...

Whose land is it anyway?

meredith said...

Thanks Byron :-)

i guess my need for that is proof that even the technically incompetant can blog!

Mister Tim said...

Since this is so heavily inspired by our earlier discussion...

What I was suggesting in my previous comment and the other ways I suggested of looking at 1 Cor 15:58 was not clericalism or withdrawl from the world - I realised when posting there was a danger I might head that way, and that was not what I meant. What I was trying to get at was along these lines: is all good work for God, or is something more specific meant by that phrase? Can work done by non-Christians be for the Lord? Obviously there are OT examples of God using other nations to fulfill his purposes, but can non-Christians in life now really work for God? Therefore, is their work eternally futile or of value? At some level, only a Christian can really choose to work for God, which is the work Paul describes as being of value.

Work, regardless, has value - we are appointed to tend the earth and this has some meaning (e.g. Gen 2:15, Ecc 2:24). However, I wouldn't draw an automatic association that work is ipso facto work for the Lord. So, no - Christians shouldn't just give up their day jobs, but that's a different argument than whether our good work will eventually be subsumed by the best.

I don't think I'm outlining my position all that well - partly I'm rethinking the whole thing in light of these posts and comments. I think what I'm saying overall is this:

The good is indeed good and is of value (in some sense of the word).

The good (noun) will ultimately pass away with this world (at least that's my reading of Revelation 21)

The good we do (or anyone else does) can only ever really tinker at the margins of the state of this world - we can never ultimately hope to fix things and the world is going to remain a very stuffed up place until it is recreated. It is in this sense that I see good work now as being ultimately futile in light of eternity and the coming of the best.

I think a chief problems with the views I presented is that it is too individualistic - I think I intimated that good works are primarily about personal holiness. That doesn't mesh with my overall understanding of the Bible, so I think I should re-think some more.

Mister Tim said...

Here's a question for you then, Byron:
You know, roughly, what my job is. My work is to serve the public of Australia through the Federal Government. This takes up, normally, somewhere in the order of 40-50 hours per week - making it certainly the work I spend the most time on.

Is this good work? Is it for the Lord? Is it futile?

michael jensen said...

Well: I do think the time is ripe for revisiting the work question.

I used to follow the 'quit your day job' line: then I changed and followed the good Barneys don't quit your day job line.

Now I ain't so sure: I do think the jobs we don't quit tend to be middle class ones. There is a subtext here that all this theology is doing is baptising middle-class values and 'behaving' as society would have us behave.

I realise this is a knd of crass response to a more subtle discussion, but I am sleep-deprived right now...

Drew said...

Can work done by non-Christians be for the Lord?

Yes and No?

I feel your pain, Mr Tim, at edging your way towards ideas, and being frustrated at not expressing them clearly - is this another expression of futility, by the way?.

On the 'for the Lord' part above, there's obviously a couple of different viewpoints to account for: Having been studying Samson recently, it's been rammed home that Samson is fairly obviously NOT working 'for the Lord', and yet, of course, God is intending it for good, similarly, the evil that puts Jesus on the cross (Acts 2:23).

So, I guess my question is, what does it mean to be 'for the Lord'. I think sounding this out might help us figure out what we mean by 'work'...

Rachel said...

well i turned ny next comment into a new entry... bit raw and not entirely comprehensible. speaking of 'work' I better do some!

Drew said...

ps. love the pic Byron, check out these - as my wife calls it, pride and prejudice country!

byron said...

OK, many comments. In reverse order...

Drew - thanks. Do you know the photographer, or you just like the photos?

Rachel - here is your entry. Thanks. I've commented on it over there.

Drew - indeed, what 'for the Lord' and 'work' mean are important questions. Notice though (Mr Tim too, who started this discussion) that 1 Cor 15.58 speaks of 'in the Lord your labour is not in vain'. I don't think this refers to only that labour that is done 'in the Lord' (i.e. your labour-in-the-Lord, as opposed to your regular labour), but Paul is making a comment about all 'your labour', and saying that in the Lord it is not in vain. Another way of putting this is that the phrase 'in the Lord' modifies 'is not in vain' rather than 'your labour'. Thus, I prefer the NRSV translation over NIV.

MPJ - a great point. Though I don't think the solution is simply to revert back to 'so give up your day job' and go into the 'real work' of ministry. It is probably more along the lines of 'sell all you have, give to the poor and follow me'. That is, the solution is repentence from 'middle class idolatry', not the replacement of it with clerico-idolatry.

Mr Tim - your work, like that of all of us, even those in ministry, is futile. Ecclesiastes is not obsolete. Yet it is subject to futility by the will of the creator in hope. This hope is for the resurrection of the dead, in the light of which all our labour is no longer 'in vain'. I don't think it will do to draw a neat line between what lasts and what doesn't last, between 'gospel ministry' and 'secular work' and make an absolute value distinction between them. It is important to maintain a category of 'ministry of the word' and for us to financially and prayerfully support those sent by God into this labour, but I don't think the way of honouring those who do is by demonising (or simply belittling) the work of those who don't. The original divine intention for the man in the garden to 'serve the earth' (Gen 2.15: sometimes translated 'till the soil') still stands. Even the non-eternal remains good. This worth and dignity of created things remains even after the fall: humanity is still in the image of God (Gen 9 - despite also requiring remaking in that image - Col 3.10) and everything God made is still good (1 Tim 4.4). So doing small, provisional, temporary, compromised, service - whether of country, family, neighbour or enemy - is good! Do not despise what is still good, even as we await for the renewal of all things. I keep thinking of a great quote from Moltmann that I've posted earlier. Here's the key bit, but it's worth reading the whole thing in full.

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for ‘the last things’ spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional. We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s ‘final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not psychological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

Mr Tim (again) - yes, I think we're in more agreement than it might have initially seemed. There is indeed no ultimate hope to be found within the logic of history or human progress, though this needn't deny the possibility of small mercies and small acts of grace and service that are genuinely good, and which remain part of our calling as human beings.

Meredith - if you want to learn how to include links, try here.

Sorry for this mega-comment. I've been away and things have been busy here in my absence!

Martin Kemp said...

Rose Bay

byron said...

Marty - close, but no cigar. :-(
I've just realised that I actually tell someone the answer to this elsewhere on the blog...

peter j said...

Through a process of elimination, I've narrowed the search down to the Manly/Northhead area. Do you need it more specific?

byron said...

Pete - close, but sorry, no cigar. Not as close as Marty. Try again. :-)

peter j said...

Watson's bay?

byron said...

Yes! - Ten more points. You've consolidated your lead on 75 now. Well done.