Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 3): The Human Condition and Christian Vocation

Chapter 6: The Human Condition
The second diagnostic exercise for theological reflection involves how humans view our place in relationship with God and the world. In other words, “What are people for?” as Wendell Berry asks. This diagnostic exercise hinges on the Christian theologian’s answer to three two-part questions: “1) What is the basic problem with the human condition? (What is sin?), 2) What is the resolution to that problem in the human condition? (What is salvation?), 3) How is the problem resolved? (What is the means of salvation?)” (p.84). Defining sin, sins, and sinfulness are of the utmost importance for the one who reflects theologically upon the human condition. This definition becomes the baseline by which the next two questions may be answered. How one understands sin/sins/sinfulness, the resolution to sin/sins/sinfulness, and how that resolution comes about will ultimately determine one’s theological anthropology.
            I will admit that I have given very little thought to sin. This is a common trait of theological liberalism—we focus on the soaring theological truths of God’s love for humanity and God’s redemptive work in the world, while ignoring or avoiding words like “sin”. But if we are to acknowledge God’s redemptive work in the world, it must follow that we discuss what God has redeemed the world from. A theology that glorifies the reconciling gospel of God without first addressing the problem of humanity is an incomplete theology.
Chapter 7: Vocation
            This chapter—the final of the three chapters dealing with diagnostic exercises for approaching theological reflection—begins with the classic ethical question: As Christians, what are we to do? To what actions, lifestyles, and perhaps even occupations is the Spirit leading us? Stone and Duke claim that to answer the question of Christian vocation, we must first answer the following three questions: 1) What deeds are Christians called to do? 2) What are the reasons for performing a service or action? 3) Why is one course of action the most fitting in a given situation? (p.100). The authors suggest that one method for theologically framing the question regarding reasons for performing a service or action is to consider the “because-of” and “in-order-to” of any given action. That is, what is the premise for the action, and what does the Christian hope to accomplish with the action? Stone and Duke insist that rather than having roots in a previously prescribed rule or law, the question “What is the Christian to do?” can only be answered by a deliberative theology that is mindful of the context of each action.
            Most books on Christian vocation deal with either A) an individual’s specific calling to ministry, or B) how to determine what God wants the individual to do for an occupation. I was somewhat surprised, then, to find that Stone and Duke spend much of this chapter on Christian vocation reframing the question in terms of how we bring flesh and bone to Christian theology in our own lives. This chapter is, in essence, a discussion of Christian ethics (“what ought we to do?”).
            Through much of my own personal journey, I came to view vocation much in the same way as the second sense mentioned above. A person who by nature struggles to make personal decisions, I have never had a clear sense of what I am to do with my life. I have always been something of a colloquial jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And I have never felt God pulling me strongly one way or the other in terms of a career path. In fact, I have often found myself overwhelmed by choices and interests. Theater, music, anthropology, literature, philosophy, history, theology, biblical studies—these are all disciplines that appeal to me greatly, but that I also do not have the well-honed skills to practice professionally. Over the years, however, I have come to narrow my sense of calling down to three possible career and/or ministry options:
1) Professor of biblical studies. As a teenager, I remember thinking to myself: “If one is to truly live the devoted life of a Christian, why aren’t more people in seminary? Why don’t all followers of Jesus commit themselves to learning as much as they possibly can about the faith they practice?” My deep and abiding passion for learning about biblical history and interpretation can be traced back to a particularly challenging time for my faith when I was in high school. After reading The Da Vinci Code, many of the presuppositions my young mind held to be true were suddenly challenged. Perhaps noticing my concern, my mom purchased for me a copy of Bart Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, and I was introduced to the world of biblical historical criticism. I realized that much of what was taught in church could be traced to specific lines of reason in the historical institution of the church. Real people and real events took place that could be analyzed closely and prodded and tested. When I went to college, I devoured my Bible classes and was left itching for more. That itch has never gone away, and I am currently considering the possibility of proceeding with doctoral work in religious studies.
2) Anabaptist pastor/preacher. I have been recognized for my gifts as a speaker ever since I was a fifteen-year-old licensed layspeaker in the United Methodist Church. Preaching is something that I enjoy immensely, and even more so now that my wife and I have come to find a home in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition. I feel the longing to lead, to proclaim, and to teach. To organize worship as an act of divinely inspired human creativity—it is an art, and I feel drawn to practice it.
3) Intentional Christian community. For years I have deeply empathized with the resurgence in the intentional Christian community movement. Inspired by the writings of Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and others, I became persuaded that the most authentic way to live as a follower of Jesus is to live in close community with other followers, and to exist as the incarnational body of Christ to the marginalized of our society (which, incidentally, is the traditional Anabaptist vision of the function of the Church). I have tried on numerous occasions to live out this vocation, and have seen more failures than successes. When my wife and I were first married, we plotted and schemed and dreamed up what living in community might look like, and eventually arrived at the idea of Anavah House, an intentional community based on the premise that everyone has something to teach and something to learn from everyone else. Despite tedious and excited planning, a lot of networking, and the best of intentions, Anavah House never materialized.[1] But Alyssa and I both still feel that our place is in community, although we have not yet been presented with a clear opportunity to live that calling out.
These three personal vocations frequently feel at odds with one another, and at different times I feel more inclined to one than the other two. But for the most part, these are the three callings that I have felt most consistently drawn toward since I started college more than seven years ago. I have yet to encounter anyone in seminary or in the life of the Church who has helped me to reconcile these personal vocations.

[1] For more information on the conception and eventual failure of Anavah House, see and its follow-up post, A pretty thorough description of Anavah House still exists on the Fellowship of Intentional Communities website at

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