Dr. Keith Whitfield, Assistant Professor of Theology and Vice President for Academic Administration at Southeastern, recently discussed faith and work with Dr. Benjamin Quinn. Quinn co-teaches Intersect’s free class, Work and Worship: Connecting Sunday to Monday.
Keith Whitfield: Benjamin, people in our community, around our country and all over the world spend hours and hours a week working — thirty, forty, some people as many as sixty hours — doing things they enjoy, like being a plumber, an electrician, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher. Is there any spiritual value to what they spend so much of their time doing?
Benjamin Quinn: Good question. I think the answer is yes. But what we have to do is to make sure that we’re connecting the dots — between our faith and our vocation, our faith and our calling, our faith and our work. And even the way you asked the question, a couple of things came to mind right away.
One is I’m not sure too many people actually do enjoy their work. In fact, I forget exactly what the statistics are, but it seems as though the majority of people, especially people in our churches, are very dissatisfied with their work. Their purpose for going to work is to put food on the table so they then can do whatever they enjoy — that they can get to the stuff the really want to. So I might even challenge that just a little bit.
At the same time, though, is there spiritual value in our work? I think that there is. But we have to recognize first of all that in many ways we tend to look at the world as if one side were sacred, and the other side were secular. And somehow our Sundays are more important than Mondays and the rest of the week.
We have to tear down that wall. Lots of people — I’m really encouraged by this at the moment — lots of people are talking about [faith and work] right now. And I hope that it will sink deeper and deeper into the pew. Because I don’t think we recognize how deeply [the division between the secular and sacred] has permeated our own thinking — such that someone might even ask a question like, “Does a plumber’s work have spiritual value to it? Does an educator’s work, or a stay-at-home mom’s, or a truck driver’s or anyone else’s have spiritual value?”
Absolutely it has spiritual value. We can cut to the chase on how it has spiritual value by [evaluating] the degree to which we’re able to love God and love others — the Greatest Commandment. The Architect of the world says there’s nothing more important than that [commandment]. Then that’s the target for all our vocations. And the degree to which we’re able to hit that target, of being meaningful in our life and in our work, that’s ministry. That’s spiritual value, that’s physical value, that’s value in every way according to God’s own criteria.
Whitfield: You’ve said some really interesting things. You’ve raised the issue of the fact that a lot of people don’t enjoy what they do. You’ve also used the term vocation. Do you think there’s a relationship between the fact that a lot of people don’t enjoy what they spend so much of their time doing and this theological concept of vocation?
Quinn: I think there is a relationship there. When we talk about calling and vocation, if we’re looking at Scripture and the language of calling in Scripture, most of the time we see that… the language of calling is a general call into the body of Christ — being part of the body of Christ itself. So we think of that as a general call.
But at the same time when we think about vocation and the way it’s embedded in our culture, vocation oftentimes equals our place of employment. But vocation is actually a bigger term than that.
I think we can define things this way. Think about work as what creatures do with creation. Now the artist is doing some really cool stuff with creation and may not be making a dime for it, but nevertheless he or she is doing work in that process. How does that link with vocation? It seems to me that vocation is the way in which we make ourselves useful to other people. So… work is the hand that animates the glove of our vocations. And I said vocations intentionally, because there seems to be multiple vocations for us.
This is where I think the Lutheran tradition helps us. Because the Lutheran tradition identifies at least four callings of vocations we have — places where we’re useful to other people. One is at home, family life in particular. Another is church life. Another is community or neighborhood, where you live. There are people around you that you have the opportunity to serve and be useful towards and to work for and help them. And finally your place of employment.
And the way then we’re able to connect these dots is recognizing first and foremost that our work is valuable insofar as we’re doing it in a way that loves God and loves others, and seeks to heal broken relationships in God’s world. And when we’re doing that, we’re able to put those vocations — even the ones we’re not necessarily paid for, but certainly the ones we are paid for — to work in a meaningful way that actually matters for the kingdom.