Early in my youth I had an existential crises which led me to explore the purpose of my life. Perhaps this exploration is normal as children grow into adults, but it led me through a dark place. With an encouraging intent, a leader shared with me Jeremiah 29:11 “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”  It was a verse that I was able to cling to as I wrestled with where in the cosmos my life fit—God had a good plan for me! It was my job to figure out what that personal plan was. This plan could be understood as my calling and is a “(r)eligious conception, that of a task set by God.”  The idea that God has a ‘call’ on each person’s life is encouraging and personal and at it’s best, highlights the intended intimacy of the Creator with His Creation. However, the popularity of this verse (and it’s frequent isolation in youth ministry as I participated in and led) seems to have been interpreted through a hyper-individualised cultural lens. It also ran the risk of imparting a higher opinion of oneself than was perhaps warranted or edifying for those around the ‘called’ one. The prophetic letter that this passage comes from was to a group, who had been taken captive, were living in exile and were encouraged in fact to lean into their new context building up the city they now lived in. It was to a group. How did Western Christians become so individualistic and divided?
The church has always engaged the task of answering existential questions. Jesus himself offered insight into the purpose of this life and gave direction and provision for eternal life. “The management of meaning is … held to be a crucial activity for leaders”  and so church leaders, often theologians have worked to weave together Biblical understanding, existential answers and current context in order to direct church followers on an appropriate rhythm of life. Calvinism distinguished itself through the doctrine of predestination, which when oversimplified, maintains that people can do nothing to gain or lose their salvation as it is fully the work of God. The purpose of earthly life is thus solely to bring glory to God. However, Calvin’s doctrine of predestination led to an “inner isolation of the individual”  because there was no way of influencing whether family or friends would be among the elect, nor was there any way someone else could affirm your election. It was a completely private matter between you and God. As nothing in the world could contribute to salvation, all things of the ‘flesh’ were considered corrupt, including “sensuous and emotional elements in culture”  or those that might be found in relationships. This contributed to forming “one of the roots of that disillusioned and pessimistically inclined individualism.”  Even the call to love one another was rationalised as “(b)rotherly love, since it may only be practiced for the glory of God and not in the service of the flesh is expressed in the first place in the fulfilment of the daily tasks…(and) assumes a peculiarly objective and impersonal character.”  Thus working proficiently within one’s calling was the primary answer to the call to love one’s neighbour.
Such thinking was also shaped by the shifting view of commerce. “Nineteenth-century civilization alone was economic in a different and distinctive sense, for it chose to base itself on a motive only rarely acknowledged as valid in the history of human societies, and certainly never before raised to the level of justification of action and behaviour in everyday life, namely, gain. The self-regulating market system was uniquely derived from this principle.” While this notion of ‘gain’ would have been frowned upon in earlier expressions of the church, Calvinism identified “(t)he earning of money within the modern economic order (), so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.”  Productivity was also embraced by the more evangelical streams as “(a)voidance of drunkenness, gambling, debt and sabbath-breaking were the hallmarks of a disciplined life. Careful observance of such prohibitions inevitably permitted higher standards of clothing, better quality furniture and, for some, more commodious homes. Upward social mobility was the reward of prudence.”  Thus Christians were given spiritual motivation to work fervently in the free market with the belief that success in their calling would bring glory to God. Unfortunately, the free market also resulted in competition that would lead to further isolation and division.
While in their incarnation, these lines of thinking were still motivated by faith, over time the appeal of eternal life and the accountability to God seems to have fairly dimmed. Money and power have proven reward in and of themselves. Polanyi identifies an early secular prophetic word that in order to motivate people to work for more than they need to survive, “Labour must, on the contrary, be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling.”  Thus work became salvific in and of itself. People were promoted as competition and we grew to seek rewards that we have no time to enjoy. If we are to heal from the devastation to our planet and our souls that has emerged as a result of these misapplications of faith, we must reclaim communal identities and return to an ethic of sufficiency as a mark of faith rather than excess.
- Jeremiah 29:11 NIV.
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (United States: Start Publishing, 2012), Google Play, 61.
- Dennis Tourish, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective (Hove: Routledge, 2013), Bluefire Reader, 22.
- Weber 77.
- Weber 77.
- Weber 77.
- Weber 79.
- Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), Google Play, 94.
- Weber, 45.
- David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2015), Google Play.
- Weber 50.