I often find it helpful to think of the Christian life in terms of journey and Good work. And I also find that we best think of this journey or work as ongoing. In this way the destination of the Christian’s journey is journeying in friendship with God. God does not call us to something that is other to Godself, and God does not give us hard work prior to a reward in abstraction from this work. Certainly God promises rewards to the faithful, but these rewards are in fulfillment of the good towards which our faithful actions gesture. Martyrdom, for example, is a confessional embodiment of the Kingdom reality of “living together in love,” which is promised the reward of the loving communion of the resurrection.
This approach has the advantage of not separating God’s gifts to us from our reception of (and participation in) these gifts. Grace and discipleship are brought together rather than severed. Such an approach also holds the potential of dispossessing us of any pretentious to absolute truth. We may be called by God, but this calling does not mean that we know in advance where and how God’s truth may be found. In fact, it actively calls us to a certain openness towards unexpected discoveries of God’s grace. For if our goal is ongoing work, then perfection involves continued growth and learning, not “having it all together.” And finally, seeing the Christian journey as ongoing removes any separation between God’s being and God’s act. God both is love and gives love; resting in God’s love is not different than living a life of love.
Many others have made this argument much better than I. Here are four quotations from authors that help us to see why we should think of the Christian’s destination as ongoing work that is good and help us to see what it might mean.
Romand Coles is an author that I have engaged heavily with for years, and few have pushed my thinking more. In a wonderful essay on Rowan Williams he writes the following.
“Church would thus be the practice of becoming a people equipped for a generous involvement not only by becoming vulnerable but moreover hospitable to conflict. It would be a more genuinely ‘public’ space, in which differences would be neither obliterated nor avoided but rather engaged as a tensional and generative source for learning how to live better together. This image suggests a divine ‘yes’ to the world that involves not simply harmonies beyond the world’s rivalries but also dissonances and tensions beyond such rivalries.
“Of course, one way of conceptualizing the dissonances and tensions beyond the wold’s rivalries is to think of these tensions as a prelude to a more thoroughgoing peace-beyond-conflict, where there would be pure harmony, pure resolution of all dissonant differences. Only harmonious differences would thus remain. Yet why should Christians assume that?… Perhaps the will to imagine a final peace entirely beyond dissonance is largely a projection by competitors for space in this world who yearn for a freedom from tension?… What if…a more thoroughly Godlike peace might involve generative conflict and tension – but conflict and tension forged in generous receptivity among difference whose difficult divergences are part of their ongoing and evolving yet never-resolving gift to one another and to the world? What if this is a part of the gloriousness of God’s creation?… [P]erhaps the practices of engaging tensional difference within the gates – that is, engaging the ‘borders at the core’ – are not simply ‘transitional goods,’ if you will, but an aspect of Christ’s eternal ‘yes,’ his ultimate reorganization of the world, his gift, his ‘conflict beyond competition’?”
I have only poked around in Jonathan Tran’s book on Foucault, but in doing I came across this very well-articulated understanding of the Christian life as necessarily incomplete.
“To be sure, Christianity’s account of moral goodness has ends in sight as well as an ontological presumption along the lines of participation. However, Christian conceptions of participation presume God’s eternality as the lifehood of the Trinity which knows no end. Sure, the ethical life of Christianity aims toward its return to God as the origin and goal of its existence – “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” Augustine prays to God – but return does not equal completion. Only God is complete. The Christian sojourns to God without completion because “home” names for Christian theology the moreness of God’s inexhaustible goodness. The difference between Christian theology and the likes of Foucault and Cavell is ontological. This difference, however, does not result in an account of selfhood any less boundless or processional; indeed, to the extent that it locates procession eternally within the divine life itself, its pilgrimage witnesses to a broader horizon, making known to the Christian not simply the distance between her and perfection, but more importantly, between her and God. Like Foucault’s and Cavel’s respective ethical games, such processing can be spoken of as love.”
I never know whether to be frustrated or enthralled with Wendell Berry. But no matter my mood, when it comes to thinking about Good Work, I owe a lot to him. For example.
“It is natural to wonder if there may not be such phenomena as net pleasures, pleasures that are free or without a permanent cost. And we know that there are. These are the pleasures that we take in our own lives, our own wakefulness in this world, and in the company of other people and other creatures – pleasures innate in the Creation and in our own good work. It is in these pleasures that we possess the likeness to God that is spoken of in Genesis.
“‘This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.’… [T]his idea is not something that Thoreau made up out of thin air. When he uttered it, he may very well have been remembering Revelation 4:11: ‘Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’ That God created ‘all things’ is in itself an uncomfortable thought, for in our workaday world we can hardly avoid preferring some things above others, and this makes it hard to imagine not doing so. That God created all things for His pleasure, and that they continue to exist because they please Him, is formidable doctrine indeed, as far as possible both from the ‘anthropocentric’ utilitarianism that some environmentalist critics claim to find in the Bible and from the grouchy spirituality of many Christians.
“It would be foolish, probably, to suggest that God’s pleasure in all things can be fully understood or appreciated by mere humans. The passage suggests, however, that our truest and profoundest religious experience may be the simple, unasking pleasure in the existence of other creatures that is possible to humans…. This bountiful and lovely thought that all creatures are pleasing to God – and potentially pleasing, therefore, to us – is unthinkable from the point of view of an economy divorced from pleasure, such as the one we have now, which completely discounts the capacity of people to be affectionate toward what they do and what they use and where they live and the other people and creatures with whom they live.
“More and more, we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement.… We recognize defeated landscapes by the absence of pleasure from them. We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure. We are defeated at home because we have no pleasant work there. We turn to the pleasure industries for relief from our defeat, and are again defeated, for the pleasure industries can thrive and grow only upon our dissatisfaction with them…. Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world? And in the right sort of economy, our pleasure would not be merely an addition or by-product or reward; it would be both an empowerment of our work and its indispensable measure. Pleasure, Amanda Coomaraswamy said, perfects work.”
And in a post about Christian journey, it seems appropriate to leave the last word to Dante. “But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving / with an even motion, were turning with / the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”