Thursday, May 19, 2011

Calling Out the Church

Here is an excerpt from a paper exploring how we can reform our society to better facilitate the discovery and pursuit of a fulfilling calling. The first portion speaks to the vision of calling articulated by Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their classic commentary on American society, Habits of the Heart. The second portion explores how our religious institutions, and more specifically our mainline Chrsitian churches, might instill callings in their congregants. Enjoy.

In Habits of the Heart we see how our expanding public sphere increasingly marginalizes moral, social and spiritual goods to a contracting private sphere.

However, the book's authors are sanguine about the possibility of reforming our society and its institutions in order to more perfectly align our competing individual aspirations and relational responsibilities to address the challenging technical and moral problems facing our increasingly complex society. Central to this ambitious micro/macro integrative project is the reclamation of the concept of calling.

In a calling, the individual must take personal responsibility for “contributing to the common good and responding to the needs of others as those needs become understood.” Rather than simply accept one’s providentially ordained fate, the individual discovers his/her social identity as the primary drives for self actualization and genuine human community mutually reinforce one another.

“In a gives oneself to learning and practicing activities that in turn define the self and enter into the shape of its character...It connects the self to those who teach, exemplify, and judge these skills. It ties us to still others whom they serve.” Through such a calling we achieve tripartite progress: personal growth, the fostering of true constructive community, and the contribution to the “greater good” of the society.

How can our religious institutions better instill such a comprehensive calling in their members?

Over the last several decades, many of our religious institutions have dutifully retreated into the private sphere. Those who have resisted have often taken divisive stances on a narrow selection of polarizing social issues, rather than seeking a more comprehensive approach to how we bear witness to our faith in all areas of our society.

Methodist theologian Rebecca Chopp challenges us to cast aside the overly otherworldly orientations of a rationalized positivist orthodoxy and an emotionalized, experiential psychologism in favor of an everyday praxis understood as a “common vocation or work,” a praxis she calls "bearing witness." This comprehensive approach is ritually reified through testimony, the sharing of narratives of “how we enact and perform following God in the world” through our respective callings.

Testimony grounds one’s personal relationship with the divine in work, human relationships, and social engagement, integrating self actualization and service. The practice of testimony challenges the congregation to consider and pursue their own calling.

Furthermore, each calling is shaped through other shared practices which embed and embody the faith of the community. Thus, while every calling is unique, all share a common habitus which defines a collective understanding of the greater good: the mission to love all of our neighbors. Through the concept of bearing witness, divine revelation of "who we are, where we are going and how we will get there" is manifested on earth through our individual and collective callings.

Within the theological framework of “bearing witness,” congregational leaders are empowered to confront economic and political realities which constrain the pursuit of calling and seek to transform them. The concept of financial “stewardship” has primarily been utilized to exhort giving and help sustain church coffers, while sacrelizing capitalistic financial prudence.

True stewardship demands a more thoroughgoing accounting of how one’s time, talents and treasure are leveraged to serve divine purposes. We need to take a more active role in reframing one’s career choices in the context of his/her relationship with God and ethical commitment to serve him through others, particularly "the least of these."

This will involve challenging participation in unethical economic practices in unique ways befitting a particular church’s constituency and variety of religious presence. For example, a disadvantaged activist congregation may lobby for economic policy which promotes greater equality of opportunity, a middle income civic congregation may exhort and support individual giving and volunteer work, and a wealthy evangelistic congregation may challenge business leaders to demonstrate the love of Christ by paying unskilled laborers a living wage above the market price.

More practically and positively, we must create space for young people to share their hopes, dreams and concerns through small group gatherings and topical programs. We can then leverage the community’s knowledge concerning the individual’s particular gifts and available opportunities to advise them regarding general education and career paths as well as particular employment opportunities.

Finally, the church can use its resources to facilitate the callings of its congregants, particularly disadvantaged members and/or those striving to serve “the least of these.” In this way, the resources of the church “family” can function to create opportunities for those who lack family resources to realize their full potential through scholarships and interest-free loans.

By reclaiming its mission to “bear witness” to the gospel, the American church can positively shape member identity, orient individuals toward ethical economic and social engagement, and provide practical support in hearing and responding to God’s call to service.

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