R&L: In your new book, Things That Count, you have an essay subtitled, “The Problem of Possessions.” What is the problem with possessions?
Meilaender: I suppose there are a number of problems with possessions, not just some single problem. But at least one central problem is the way in which possessions tend to capture our trust. Human beings need to seek security, yet the very act of seeking security seems to seduce us into placing our trust somewhere other than in God. We sometimes tend to think that, as long as we get the right inner spirit, the world of possessions ceases to be dangerous to us. There is some truth to this view, but it is not only the case that our inner spirit shapes the way we deal with things. It is also true that the external world, the world of things and possessions, has a way of reaching in, taking hold of, and shaping our inner spirit. It is true that having many possessions is a seductive lure that will distort the inner spirit in various ways. It is also true that having too few things can do the same.
R&L: So there are many issues surrounding the question of how we relate to our possessions.
Meilaender: Just as there is no single problem with possessions, there is no single answer to the problem of possessions; rather, there is always this dialectical relationship between how our spirit shapes the way we deal with things and the way that things shape our inner spirit. So we finally deceive ourselves if we think that the problem of possessions can be solved simply through attainment of the right kind of inner spirit, whereupon the world of possessions, however structured, is perfectly safe. On the contrary, it is always dangerous.
R&L: In the same essay, you characterize the Christian attitude toward things as a double movement of enjoyment and renunciation. Can you unpack that?
Meilaender: This is something I learned from C. S. Lewis, especially from his novel, Perelandra, and his great ethical work, The Four Loves. Simply renouncing possessions recommended as a general principle for everyone, always, rather than as a possible course for some people, at some particular time - is, in a sense, turning away from the good gifts that God offers us. Such gifts are not to be renounced as much as they are to be offered back to the one from whom they came. We are to receive through them what Lewis calls, in Letters to Malcolm, “shafts of the divine glory” and thus to be drawn out of ourselves toward God. So possessions are to be received with thanksgiving and enjoyed as gifts. That is one pole of the dialectic: enjoyment.
R&L: And the other pole?
Meilaender: Renunciation is also necessary. These good things - good as they are - are not the One from whom they come. It is not only easy to forget that these good things are merely shafts of divine glory - stepping stones on the way to God - but also to suppose that, because they are sometimes so good, we can rest the whole weight of our heart's longing upon them, that they will really satisfy that longing. When we do that - or, better, because we are always more or less inclined to do that - renunciation becomes necessary as a continual reminder that the good gifts of God, good as they are, are still not where our heart's longing can finally find its rest.
So both poles of this dialectic - enjoyment and renunciation - are necessary. One enjoys these good things because God gave them, and they point us toward him. One renounces them because, finally, they are not the Giver, the One in whom our hearts are to rest. And some manner of movement back and forth between these two poles is necessary not for the sake of merely enjoying or renouncing but for being drawn out of ourselves toward God, which this double movement makes possible.
R&L: Another issue with which you have dealt recently is work, especially in the book you recently edited, Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits. What is it about us that we strive to give our work meaning?
Meilaender: First, I would say that I do not think that work necessarily has to have meaning. At the least, I want to be careful about making such a claim because I believe there may be work in which it is very difficult to find meaning, and there is nothing wrong when people who cannot find any particular meaning in their work look elsewhere for meaning. In other words, I do not want to say that human beings are fundamentally workers and that work alone gives life significance. In that sense, the language of vocation - which, of course, my Lutheran forbears had a lot to do with making so central - can be overdone.
Having said that, I think it is right to say that there does seem to be a drive in human beings to find meaning and significance in their work. We do not want to think that work is pointless. One reason we think this way is because work, at its best - and it is not always at its best - gives full scope to our possibilities. It engages us intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally. It calls forth important human capacities, and I think that is what everyone wants to experience, but I do not know if all work is capable of evoking that experience. Indeed, classically understood, the Christian notion of vocation does not require work to evoke that experience. Vocation only requires work to serve one's neighbor; that is meaning enough.
R&L: What do you mean when you say that our notion of vocation can be overdone?
Meilaender: Vocation can be overdone in a couple of ways. First, it sometimes places work at the very center of human consciousness in ways that I do not think it has to be. One could find the primary meaning of life in being a father rather than in being a worker. Or one could understand the point of work simply in providing for one's family. The second problem is that the notion of vocation sometimes makes one feel guilty for not finding meaning in tedious and boring work, as if somehow one ought to be more engaged. I do not think that the notion of vocation, which is supposed to energize work, is effective if it simply makes people feel guilty.
R&L: What, then, is a proper understanding of vocation?
Meilaender: In its original sense - the sense that the Protestant reformers really had in mind - vocation had nothing in particular to do with self-fulfillment but had everything to do with serving one's neighbor. Work that serves others is honorable and pleases God, even if it does not seem to be all that honored in the eyes of the world. The question of whether particular work can be fulfilling is not unimportant; people do look for fulfillment in their work, as I mentioned earlier. The point of vocation, however, is not being fulfilled but finding one's place in serving one's neighbor and, thereby, doing God's work - even if that work does not seem particularly fulfilling. Even when work is tedious and boring, there is something about it that pleases God.
R&L: I am reminded of the definition of vocation given by the English Puritan William Perkins: “a vocation or calling is a certain kind of life ordained and imposed on man by God for the public good.”
Meilaender: I think that definition captures the real theme of the Reformation's understanding of vocation - that you serve your neighbors in your vocation, and I serve my neighbors in my vocation, and God put this whole set of vocations together to serve many neighbors. Again, Perkins's language does not emphasize fulfillment but obedience.
R&L: In fact, Perkins says that the idea of vocation provides comfort in the “crosses and calamities” of one's work.
Meilaender: That's right. There is another very powerful passage from John Calvin's Institutes that gets it just about right: “Each man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God.” In other words, you may not find your work particularly fulfilling or satisfying, but you will be content to bear those burdens because that is where you are supposed to be.
R&L: It sounds as if one of the primary considerations in thinking rightly about our vocation is that it be directed toward love of God and love of neighbor. Is that accurate?
Meilaender: I think so. But I want to add that, just as there is nothing wrong with simply enjoying our possessions, there is nothing wrong with simply enjoying our work. It does not have to be solely directed toward serving our neighbor or done for the sake of the neighbor or anything like that. The point is that we are finally and always drawn out of ourselves toward God and toward the neighbor in God.
R&L: In addition to vocation, what are some other theological concepts that are important to our thinking about work?
Meilaender: One is the effects of sin, which has turned work into toil, so that work takes on an irksome and burdensome quality that presumably it would not have had in paradise. Many of the burdens of work we discussed above can be thought of as burdens that we would not have had to carry in a perfect world but do have to carry in our fallen world.
Another is the idea of rest, of Sabbath, which is important because it qualifies any claim about the centrality of work in human life. To be human, finally, is not to be a worker but to be one whose life is directed toward God. The whole notion that one rests from work not to recharge for more work but to say that the world is not finally sustained by man's efforts has been of great importance in Christian, as well as Jewish, thinking about work.
R&L: In addition to Sabbath, there are other activities that limit claims of the centrality of work - I am thinking of things such as play, leisure, and rest. How do such activities differ from each other?
Meilaender: The distinction between work and play, though apparently obvious at one level, is, in fact, a difficult concept to understand clearly. For example, some seem to want to argue that, at the highest level, when the worker is fully involved in his work, it is difficult to distinguish work from play. But I do not think that this view ultimately rings true to experience; most find play to be simply a kind of carefree rest from work, an amusement that essentially makes it possible to return to work newly invigorated.
Leisure is something different. The point of leisure is not to recharge in order to work better. Leisure, finally, is a kind of activity - not an activity that is productive in the same way as work but in a way that engages the highest human capacities, whatever those finally are. For classical thinkers, that capacity is love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.
For Christian thinkers, that capacity is resting in God, as when Saint Augustine writes in the first chapter of the first book of his Confessions that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. And, in this context, rest means engaging in the praise of God; in fact, the whole first chapter of the first book of the Confessions is about praise. When the classical notion of leisure as the highest kind of human activity is Christianized, the highest form of human activity moves beyond love for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, to worship. So the point of the Christian Sabbath is not refraining from work for the sake of doing nothing but doing what is higher than work: engaging in the praise of God.