Theology 101

Three Cultural Movements that Changed the Meaning of Vocation

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While the Reformers and the Puritans helped to recover the Biblical understanding of “calling” and how it applies to the everyday work of all Christians, their efforts were soon challenged by emerging cultural movements.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, a wide-ranging intellectual movement called the Enlightenment emerged. The goal of the Enlightenment was to understand the natural world and humankind’s place in it solely on the basis of reason, without turning to religious belief.

Immanuel Kant was the last influential Enlightenment philosopher of modern Europe, and his thinking continues to influence Western thought into the 21st century. Kant’s ideas opened the way for a radical change in society’s prevailing view of work.

Kant divided reality into two parts, the phenomenal and the noumenal. The phenomenal is the public world of empirical fact, that which can be proven with reason alone. Once something is proven, you can know it for certain, and you can publicly encourage others to believe it. By contrast, the noumenal world deals with morality and spirituality, things which cannot be rationally or empirically proven. All beliefs in this realm must be accepted by faith; therefore we cannot know these things for certain. Noumenal beliefs should be kept private and outside the public domain.

Such a dichotomy between fact and spirit produced a pronounced compartmentalization in Western thinking. Sacred and secular are seen as divided, which leads to an incorrect understanding of vocation as being strictly secular. As an accommodation to Kantian philosophy, theological liberals such as German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher reduced the Christian faith to a system of ethics, downgrading the idea that Christians are to live the totality of our lives to God.

Also during the first half of the 19th century, there was also a fundamental shift in the theology and practice of American evangelicalism. Preachers such as Charles Finney led a revival movement which has come to be known as the Second Great Awakening. Although it was part of a larger movement which opposed Enlightenment ideas, the movement was focused on obtaining professions of faith. The revivalists’ techniques were pragmatic, and in the process they affirmed the “spiritual” over and against the “secular.” For American Christians, one of the legacies of this movement has been an increased dichotomy between work and faith.

During this same time period, an additional force emerged which would have lasting influence on the theology of work in the Western world: the industrial revolution. Some historians even argue that the Protestant work ethic ushered in the “spirit of capitalism,” which led to the industrial revolution.

The concept of vocation became so closely associated with a person’s career that the words became synonymous, and all connection with the calling of God disappeared. The views of vocation held by the Reformers and Puritans failed to address the rapid changes brought on by industrialization.

That is why so few people, including Christians, find genuine satisfaction in their jobs.

Question: How have you seen the sacred/secular divide impact your view of work and calling? Leave a comment here.

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