I study theology as a PhD student at a Protestant seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. Basically, I study what God’s people have said about Him over the long history of the church. While pursuing my theological studies, I’ve spent time ministering as a chaplain at a local hospital and pastoring local churches. What I learned during my time in ministry is that most people think that pastors and divinity students live in a graced existence, one where questions of how to work in a Christian way never arise. I mean, pastoring and studying theology are distinctly Christian vocations, right? But the truth is that pastoral work and theological study are jobs done by regular people with all of the regular tendency to stop short of doing our work in a Christian way. So, the question of how to do work Christianly, in a way that listens for and answers God’s call, is one that I share with everyone else.
As I look around at the scholars at my school and at others like it, I see that there are many different ways of being a professor. It’s easy to try to emulate the person you admire or whose work you endorse without taking the time to think about what makes academic work—even academic theology—Christian work. As a result, there are many types of students. At its worst, academic study becomes self-absorbed, a sort of self-indulgent puzzle game. The road to a funded PhD position at a good school can encourage many bad habits. It sometimes favors those who are willing to talk over or forcefully defeat the thoughts of fellow students in order to win the favor of faculty members. It sometimes favors those capable of diving deepest into the minutiae of obscure thinkers. These examples come from academic life, but they should resonate with some of the same destructive dynamics that mark any workplace. What makes these things un-Christian?
Is refraining from destructive habits enough to make the work truly Christian?
We can learn two valuable lessons from the bad examples I just mentioned. The first important lesson is that our work, no matter what the type, goes wrong when it is done principally for ourselves and not for our neighbors. Christian work is done in the service of our neighbors. There’s a lot to unpack here. What would it mean to elevate the needs of others above our own vocational self-interest? What does work look like that is done because others have needs? I won’t be able to answer these questions fully here, but I encourage you to linger over them.
One immediate problem is that our work cannot be done for others without a deep knowledge of the needs of others. Often, our attempts to add meaning to our own work peter out, for example, because we support local charity work in the abstract but have no knowledge of the lives of the people the charities serve. What’s more, many of us know few people outside of our zip code or social class. I am far from perfect, but as a student in Princeton, I am painfully aware of the overwhelmingly white and wealthy inhabitants of my zip code. But New Brunswick and Newark, located just north of Princeton, are cities far more diverse and far less wealthy. Getting to know these cities and some of their residents by teaching at an inner-city middle school in Newark and volunteering at a major hospital in New Brunswick was my first step toward doing my own academic work for the sake of others.
The personal and particular relationships I formed broadened my world, and the result is that I am able to carry the real, pressing needs of those people with me as I return to my own work.
The other lesson we can learn is that Christian work labors in service of the world. Academic work sometimes has a tendency to dive deeply into irrelevant minutiae. The scholar in me doesn’t necessarily despise minutiae or deep dives, because I think there are many instances where these things become immensely important. But not all minutiae nor all deep dives are worth pursuing. Not all interesting subjects are important subjects. Some are irrelevant because they find no purchase on the wider problems facing the world we share. Like the first lesson, there’s too much here to unpack, but just enough to leave us with the right sort of questions, ones that I have wrestled with in my own work. How could I do my work in a way that would make a difference regarding the problems rampant in the world? What sorts of work would be worth doing? Like before, such questions often reveal our limitations and pool our ignorance. How could we possibly know what problems are important not only to me and my immediate neighbors, but also to people in far flung parts of the world?
Again, the first step is making those problems less distant by making those people less foreign. In my own work, I have been helped along by the gracious companionship of friends from India, Japan, Germany, and Hong Kong. These friends have helped me identify my own blind spots in ways that help me know what sorts of work would be important and interesting not only to me or my own small clan, but to the wider world.
The thing about God’s call is that it is extended to all of us. Therefore, the task of doing our work Christianly is one which is just as relevant for biology students, real estate agents, bloggers, and baristas. This call is exacting and demands constant and tiring work. It often only comes through great sacrifice. It will always be threatened by our ordinariness, our tendency to lose focus and narrow our perspective. Thankfully, Jesus promises us a resource that is keeping our vision large and our hearts attuned to the needs of others. He promises us a community whose weekly gathering will refocus our lives, reaffirm God’s call for us, encourage us in our work, feed us, and send us back out. He promises us the church, and it is often as I sing hymns and take communion in my local church that I am renewed to do my own work Christianly.