Recently I got a prospectus from a faith-motivated advisory firm that outlines what they invest in as Christians. On one level, the responses were predictable. They don’t invest in alcohol, cannabis, pornography, or weapons. And they do invest in companies that have ethical leadership, policies that value employees, and a “positive societal impact.”
But after reading the prospectus, I had to pause and say to myself: this is really, complex stuff.
On one level, investing is quite straightforward: capital should be used to bring about returns. Yet, what is positive societal impact? What companies are “ethical” and which aren’t? Aren’t all companies – like people, a mix of good and bad, moral and immoral? How do you even think through ethics? And which societal impacts are primary, and which are secondary? Why?
I’m not trying to be esoteric. Here’s an example for you for you make an investment decision, shared with me by a dear friend and leader in the faith-based investing space.
Example 1: Building materials company
Example 2: Restaurant franchise company
Now, both seem to be solid public companies having a good impact on employees and are profitable.
But how do you decide between the two? Returns? Opportunity for low-income employees? Or do you prioritize the product itself: would you rather invest in expanding a building materials company or a fast-food business? Or do you instead decide to look into the environmental practices of their supply chains?
Investment analysis obviously goes through a financial filter. And increasingly so, it goes through some combination of a social or ethical filter. But what of theology? For the secular investment firm, this, of course, makes little sense. (Though, whether they acknowledge it or not, all their investments are going through a philosophical filter.) But for the faith-driven investor, isn’t “the faith once entrusted to the saints” the most central filter for investing in any company (Jude 1:3)?
If so, are you sure that your perspective on faith and investing is coming from historic Christian belief rather than, say, your cultural background, your social class, your family of origin, your education, your political persuasion, or your own church’s emphases?
Let me make that case that every faith-driven investor needs to hire a theologian. Here are three reasons.
1. Combining faith with investing is inherently complex.
Here’s what faith-driven investors are trying to do. They’re trying to take ancient texts written originally in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew to ancient peoples, grasp the core teachings of these texts enough to then understand the core doctrines of Christian belief developed over 2,000 years of church history, apply those doctrines to the modern social construct of business with all the complexity of finance, marketing, operations, and sales, and then decide on which businesses to invest in based on those beliefs and practices!
To go from the book of Daniel to fintech, or from the Doctrine of the Trinity to human resource practices is not for the faint of heart!
Far too often in the faith-motivated investing space have I seen simplistic interpretations of texts (like the parable of the talents) to investing, without understanding the doctrinal, historical, or social context of particular passages, or even their own biases in reading the Bible as 21st century American Christians. Just like finance, doing theology well requires knowledge, practice, and a breadth of learning.
The reality is, we need experts who can help wade through these waters if we actually want our core investment philosophy to be Christian.
2. Theologians bring a unique set of specialized skills.
Ever since the Protestant Reformation, we’ve believed that since we can all read the Bible for ourselves, we can understand it just as well as the next person. Now, I’m a big fan of everybody reading the Bible, but this has led to a deep devaluing not just of pastors, but those who have literally spent decades studying theology and scripture – like theologians. To say that “anybody can understand the Bible” to a theologian is like me saying to an investor that there’s no difference between a managing partner at Blackrock and an entry-level financial advisor at Thrivent. They’re both equally valuable in the eyes of God, but they’re not both equally competent or knowledgeable when it comes to investing.
Years ago, we at Denver Institute for Faith & Work hired Ryan Tafilowski as a “resident theologian.” He has a Th.M. in ecclesiastical (church) history and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He writes and speaks on inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and ethics. And to top it off, his ability to recall episodes of Arrested Development is astounding (to the great delight of our entire staff team).
Over the years, Ryan has taught our staff team everything from political theology to the doctrine of sin. And when we’re weighing in on tough social issues, ranging from gender to race to immigration to how much profit we should reinvest versus give, his expertise in theological foundations and frameworks has regularly surprised and delighted us. Often, it has completely transformed our views of an issue.
Ryan has education and knowledge that I don’t have. Because this is true, when he speaks, though I’m technically his boss, I’m careful to listen. He actually knows more than I do about the “faith” aspect of “faith and work.” He adds tremendous value to the team, not just in production, but in faithfulness to our own tradition – a tradition I’m still just learning about.
Having a theologian on my staff is incredibly valuable.
3. They’re worth the investment.
Now, the vast majority of theologians don’t know the first difference between public equities and private equity. To that end, they need to listen to professional investors. Yet I believe that professional investors also need to listen to theologians.
I believe it’s worth having a full-time theologian on the staff of every faith-motivated investment firm. They should weigh in on every social, ethical, political, or philosophical decision, drawing the company continually back to the great drama of Scripture, the creeds, and the history of the Church, and what they mean for investing today.
One of our five guiding principles at Denver Institute is to think theologically: “Embracing the call to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of Christ, we value programs that enable men and women to verbally articulate how Scripture, the historic church, and the gospel of grace influence their work and cultural engagement.” To do this, we need theologians to guide, illuminate, and advise. This is why having a resident theologian on our staff is a necessity, not a luxury. (Can’t convince your nonbelieving partners to hire a theologian? Fear not: the vast majority of theologians would happily take the title “Philosopher in Residence.”)
And on the bright side, compared to your typical MBA from Kellogg, theologians are relatively cheap. With thousands more PhDs in theology than there are professorships, there is certainly market supply.
Yet I’d say they’re worth their weight in gold. Some may balk at this comparison to theologians and gold: $1764 per ounce, assuming a 150-pound theologian, are they really worth $4,233,600?
Depending on what you’re investing in, they might just be…
Jeff Haanen is the Founder and CEO of the educational nonprofit Denver Institute for Faith & Work, CityGate, a national network of leaders working at the intersection of faith, work, justice and community renewal, and The Faith & Work Classroom, a free, online learning platform.
When I was in elementary school, my mother took my older sister and I to Lake Itasca State Park for summer vacation, located in the cool northern woods of Minnesota. A life-long teacher, she would glory in making the outdoor visit into a lesson: spotting the diving loons in search of breakfast, explaining the history of old-growth red pines towering over the landscape, and proudly declaring that we were looking at the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River.
My sister and I, however, were more concerned with the number of times we could skip a rock across the glassy surface and the tiny creatures we discovered on the lakeshore. Barefoot and with a cool breeze in my curly blond hair, I would spend afternoons hunting for tadpoles or grabbing tiny oysters to crack them open, in search of treasure. Though I never did find a pearl in those oysters, the shell’s rainbow iridescence, shimmering in the sunlight, hinted at a joy embedded deeply within creation.
Three decades later, with a wife and four daughters of my own — and nearing forty years of age — I now spend more time landscaping behind my mortgaged house, cleaning dishes, and checking email than I do whimsically searching for marine treasures. Yet amidst the ever-present responsibility of directing a nonprofit, paying bills, and supporting family, I’ve found that my daily work has become the central arena in which I sense the magic of the Creator’s handiwork in my own life.
Like the refracted light of a rainbow, faith shapes the breadth of my human experience, including the one-third of my life I spend working. When I feelthe neck-tingling stress of hitting financial goals or the sadness of a coworker who’s lamenting singleness, I pause to pray. When I discuss future office space needs with my COO and the wild uncertainty of our current cultural moment, I draw on the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation to think through the problem. When I lose motivation to knock out my task list on a long, hot afternoon, I draw fresh inspiration from Christian authors like Dorothy Sayers, who remind me, “We are made in the image of a Maker,” and my work is a part of my humanity. When I read a news story that recounts the millions of women who’ve lost jobs due to the pandemic, I rework plans for our largest annual event, Business for the Common Good, to reflect God’s own concern for the vulnerable (Exodus 3:17). There is simply no extracting faith from my daily work. My working life is spent at the intersection of my human experience. If I was to remove faith from my working life, it would make me not just less Christian, but less human.
Why should we bring our whole self to work, including our faith? Well, for the Christian, there is no other option. The very oldest Christian confession is, “Jesus is Lord,” (1 Corinthians 12:3). For the early church, calling Jesus kurios (“lord”)was a challenge to Caesar’s claim to that same title. Both Jesus and Caesar claimed ultimate allegiance, forcing early Christians to make a choice. The early church chose the name ekklesia tou Theou (“church of God”), refusing the official protection of “private cults” by the Roman empire, precisely because an ekklesia was a public assembly to which all people in the empire were summoned to discuss the public affairs of the city. The followers of Jesus were making their own self-understanding clear: the church would not be merely a “private religion,” but would instead be public assembly by which all humanity is summoned, called by God himself.
Today, our modern notions of a strict divide between public and private, sacred and secular, faith and work trace their ancestry originally to Greek dualism, and more recently to Enlightenment thinking, which places the individual human at the center of the universe. Indeed, the idea that people could be “religious” at some times and “secular” at others is a relatively new notion. (Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Ageare helpful here.) Yet it is that awkward but unspoken expectation of fencing off our deepest convictions that still dominates most government, corporate, and nonprofit entities today. And so, millions of men and women across faith traditions are forced to ask, how am I supposed to be fully human at work, but ignore the very source of my humanity for the majority of my waking hours?
In my own tradition — I am a Presbyterian drawing from the rich well of historic American Protestantism — there has been much handwringing about this question, especially in the context of a changing culture. Pew reports that in just the last 30 years, the percentage of U.S. adults who identify as Christians has declined from 87% to 65%, whereas the number of adults who claim to be “religiously unaffiliated” has swelled from 8% to 26%. That’s 30 million more “nones” than just 10 years ago.
As culture has shifted from a Judeo-Christian social consensus to a secular one in the last 60 years, I lament that the Christian response has largely been around the politicization of faith, the privatization of belief, or the accommodation to culture. In one camp, the culture wars rage on and faith is politicized in a battle for control over the future of America. Others largely retreat from culture, content either to restrict faith to “just my private belief” or live in evangelical subcultures neatly removed from mainstream culture. Yet, by far the most common response is Christians accommodating to popular culture, adopting whatever social, cultural, or economic practices are popular in the moment. Each of these play out as Christians try to answer the question: what does faith mean for my life, my work, and the world I live in?
At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we believe that work is a way to love God, serve our neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel. We believe vocation is first a call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Matthew 22:37-40). Vocation is our response to God’s voice in all areas of life, including our work.
I think many people, including much of corporate America, see this view and feel concerned that bringing your faith to work will cause conflict between people of divergent beliefs. But in my experience, the opposite has been the case. Pete Ochs creates and runs Seat King, a company that manufactures car seats inside a medium-security prison and gives prisoners a fair wage, “life lessons,” and a newfound sense of dignity. Young professionals tackle the challenges of social media, innovate new HR benefits for refugees working in pallet company, and highlight the plight of undocumented immigrants in local newspaper — all as an expression of their faith. From tech workers advocating for better family leave policies to investors humbly admitting they have an anger problem and recommitting to emotional healing, faith in the workplace can be a powerful force for good.
Of course, Christians also sin, and as such, “bringing your whole self to work” can also mean bringing greed, lust, pride, envy, prejudice, and laziness to the workplace as well. I myself have been a fine example of many of these vices to my coworkers and family. Yet, it’s in moments of being drawn to addiction, self-aggrandizement, or brute selfishness that I need God in my own work all the more. Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart….” I think many of us are tempted to believe that the problem with our world today is “them.” But daily I’m reminded that the greatest problem our world faces beats within my own breast.
Two millennia ago, when Jesus was being crowded by throngs of admirers, he hopped in a boat, pushed off from shore, and began to teach. Voice echoing off the water’s surface, he told the story of a farmer who found a treasure buried in a field. Wild with excitement, he sold all he had to buy the field, knowing that in the end he was getting an incredible deal. Similarly, he told the story of a merchant in search of pearls. When he found one, overcome with joy, he too sold everything he had just to possess that single treasure (Matthew 13:44-45).
When I was a boy, strolling along the shores of Lake Itasca and hunting for oysters, my work was simply to delight in the world around me. Now as an adult, nonprofit leader, husband, and father, my work now is to allow that same pearl of God’s grace to permeate my daily life. For me, like the headwaters of the Mississippi River, God is the Living Water who has given me new life (John 4:14-16). If everybody worships, as the late David Foster Wallace claimed, is it such a strange thing to acknowledge that source of life in our working life?
So why faith and work? Like a merchant finding a pearl — or a child finding a shell on a lakeshore — the answer for the Christian is simple: joy.
This post first appeared at Denver Institute.
Recently I got good news from my publisher: An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life surpassed 10,000 copies sold.
So I recently re-read portions of the book, and after a 18 months since release (I know, I’m biased), I think the book really does offer a clear, compelling vision for retirement in a faithful, practical, and story-driven way.
My friend Mark Roberts at Fuller Seminary’s Depree Center recently interviewed me about the book. Above is our interview. Enjoy.
If you’d like more information about the book, or a sample chapter or a free discussion guide, can you visit uncommonretirement.com.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,” writes the author of Psalm 46. “Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts…. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
The changes to the world of work since the pandemic began feel like this psalm: waters roar, mountains quake, nations are in uproar, and my daily work rhythms just got blown up.
Yet in this cultural context of change, Christians bring a unique perspective: the unchanging reality of God. If you’re a secular person, focused just on the individual and your ability to control your own destiny, the storyline is actually chaos. Each day is a grasping attempt to bring security and stability in a world being tossed by the fierce winds of an economic, social, and cultural storm.
In contrast, the Christian can breathe. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
She believes Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). God is a rock and a fortress, an anchor that allows for stability, resolve, and peace even amidst turmoil (Psalm 18:2, Hebrews 6:19). It’s this foundation that both brings down the decibel level around current debates and allows people of faith to be reformers as citizens of another kingdom.
Following up on my first article, here I will suggest three macro changes to our world as a result of the pandemic, as well as how Christians might understand those changes and what practices we might consider in light of those truths.
Eventually we will go back to in-person gatherings and offices, but digital connectivity is speeding up. The world’s most powerful companies (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google) are all in the tech sector and during the pandemic, each saw record stock prices. Zoom (and dozens of other video chat services) are here to stay.
Former Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that the pandemic accelerated technology trends that were already there, and many workers (especially women) lost competitive ground on their peers in 2020.
Theological Frame: Vocation. How should we think about the pervasiveness of digital technology in our lives? Vocation isn’t first about job choice or “meaningful” work. Vocation calls us first to love God, and then our neighbor. It is a summons to offer ourselves completely to God in all areas of life, including our hearts, our family lives, and our work.
I believe vocation also puts a certain priority onproximity and place. When God speaks, He wakes us up from being connected to everyone and everywhere, and reconnects us to our real, daily lives. “I have a spouse and children. I have neighbors. I have family. I have co-workers.” Vocation pushes back on the “everything, anywhere, right now” culture of tech.
There are positives and negatives to the tech sector and its growing influence on our work. But vocation reminds us first to be present to God and to our actual, embodied lives.
Practice: “Identity, Context, Practice.” Here’s a simple practice you might consider to interrupt the domination of screens over your working life. Close your laptop, find a notebook, and write down answers to three questions:
Putting limits on tech resituates us back into our real, embodied lives, and can reattune the heart to hear the voice of God.
We’ve been on this train for a while, but the pandemic accelerated this trend. We also feel it at work. CEOs make statements on nearly every new social issue. We find it difficult to have a conversation with coworkers about issues we disagree on. People come to work on pins and needles, caught in an anxious cycle of news, performance, loneliness, and more news.
Theological Frame: Reconciliation. In such a tense environment, God calls his people to a message of reconciliation, as if “God were making his appeal through us,” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The New Testament idea of reconciliation conjures images of making peace between two warring parties — an image we’re not unfamiliar with in a culture of deep divisions that find their way into homes, churches, hospitals, schools, and workplaces.
Practice: Spheres of Influence. How do we really become people of reconciliation in a hyper-politicized environment? How can we model gentleness, conviction, and real love for others as we seek to live out our faith amongst our coworkers and our areas of influence?
Part of the answer is to think through what we can control, what we can influence, and what we cannot control.
The temptation is to think that the news and the thick anxiety of our culture is something that we can and must change right now. But the constant influx of media fools us and fuels the workplace and personal anxiety that acts like an acid, burning through our most precious relationships and most important tasks.
With what we can control (attitudes, motivations, behaviors, use of our time), let’s offer them in worship, surrendering to God and living life “with God” at work. With what we can influence (other people), let’s witness, demonstrating the reconciling love of God to others through our work and with our words. And finally — this is important — what we can’t control, we release. Don’t hang on to the news and global events, believing you can control more than you can. Pray and release those things to God and ask him to do the cosmic work of reconciliation that only he can do (2 Corinthians 5:19).
You’ve probably heard the term a K-shaped recovery. It comes from looking at a graph: as we recover from the pandemic, those connected to education, technology, and financial capital will come out ahead. Those with less education, less connection to tech, and in a lower income bracket are bearing the brunt of the negative impact of the pandemic.
The pandemic didn’t cause these macro trends, but again, it is accelerating trends that sociologists like Robert Putnam at Harvard University have seen growing since the mid-1960s. Inequality is now as vast as the Gilded Age (the late 1800s).
Theological Frame: Shalom. Shalom is a word that encompasses ideas of both peace and justice. It is about right relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others in our community. Shalom is about wholeness spreading from peace with God to restoration in our cities. The prophet Jeremiah insists that there can be no shalom until there is an end to oppression, greed, and violence in our social relationships (Jeremiah 6:1-9; 8:11). In an age of vast disparities, which the pandemic has made worse, the call of God is to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15).
Practice: Creation and Compassion.If you’re one of the lower- to middle-income workers, let me say this to you: God is with you. Feel his hope and his power. He has called you to himself and sent you to serve him with the talents he’s entrusted to you (1 Peter 4:10). You may be serving him in a job you don’t like, or you may be struggling to find a job. Either way, God is with you. Your secular counterpoints may cheer you on, too — but it’s just cheerleading. As a Christian, you actually have the Triune God at your side. He is with you and calling you to create (Genesis 2:15).
If you’re a higher-income worker who hasn’t been very affected by the pandemic, now’s the time to get in the game. You’re called to love and serve those with less power than you. There are so many opportunities to get involved: through your church, by offering opportunity to an entry-level employee, by getting involved with charities serving low-income communities. God is calling you to compassion (1 John 3:17).
The world of work has changed. Yet Christians have a unique foundation and calling to rest in God’s character, listen to his voice, seek reconciliation, and work for justice through our work.
“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our Fortress.”
The first article of this series took a look at three macro trends and how the pandemic changed our work. For more resources on faith and work, subscribe to the Faith & Work Podcast or sign up for a free account on the Faith & Work Classroom.
by Jeff Haanen
Scrolling through my Facebook feed, last week I noticed a rare delight: Edith Franco was beaming. Recently graduated with a masters degree, she posed in black cap and gown in front of the Texas State University sign smiling ear to ear.
Almost a decade ago I was her youth pastor at a small church in Brighton. Optimistic, kind and bright, Edith was the first to volunteer, the last to complain and she ran circles around her AP classes in high school. As I wondered where the time had went, I also worried for her: What will an undocumented immigrant do with all that potential?
This week I was one of 180 entities and individuals representing business, law enforcement and faith communities to urge the new Biden administration to reform our nation’s outdated and broken immigration system.
I come to this debate not as a business leader, clamoring for an updated immigration system that meets employment needs of our modern economy, nor as a police officer, wanting to bring security to communities that live in lawless limbo because of unenforceable immigration laws that haven’t been substantially changed since 1965.
Instead, I support immigration reform primarily as a person of faith.
From 2011-2013, I pastored “Dreamers,” youth who were brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents as children, often infants. High school students like Edith, so eager to contribute to the only country they had ever known, lived under a constant cloud. The fear of deportation and separation from their family — not to mention minimal job prospects in a shadow economy — gave me an introduction to the ways outdated laws could oppress rather than “establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, and promote the general Welfare,” as our constitution states.
My experience as a pastor of a Hispanic congregation led me to investigate what the Bible said on the topic. I was surprised to learn that the Hebrew word for foreigner or stranger, ger, occurs 92 times in the Old Testament. And some of the most well-known figures of my faith were immigrants. Abram was called “out or Ur” to leave his homeland and move to Canaan. Joseph was an immigrant in Egypt, as were Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 2:22) Reminding them of this fact, God commanded his people to not mistreat the foreigner, but instead to “love them as yourself,” because they too were once immigrants in a foreign land (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Jesus himself was a refugee as a child, fleeing persecution with his parents as an infant (Matthew 2:13-15). Later in life, Jesus made foreigners the heroes of his parables (Luke 10:25-37) and even claimed that welcoming the stranger is the same as welcoming him (Matthew 25:44-45).
Friends in my own theologically conservative circles are quick to point out the importance of the rule of law, citing Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
To this I wholeheartedly agree. Because laws must be obeyed, when they cease to serve the common good, they need reformation.
Indeed, all 180 signatories believe in the need to make changes to our immigration law which strengthens communities, addresses border security, grows our economy, expands visas for high tech and agricultural work, and regularizes the status of the estimated 10-12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including more than 800,000 Dreamers like Edith.
In my work at Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we teach that all people are made in God’s image and created to work (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). We believe all work has value, must be fairly compensated (Deut. 24:15), and both workers and employers should obey the rule of law. And all should have the opportunity to reach-their God-given potential.
I recently called Edith to catch up. Two years ago she married a Puerto Rican and is now a legal resident. She’s working in a law office, using her masters degree to help other immigrants navigate a broken immigration maze that desperately needs reform.
“There are so many people who want to be here and want to contribute to this country,” Edith said. “Shouldn’t they be able to?”
This op-ed first appeared in the Boulder Weekly. It is the rare piece of advocacy I do on an issue I care about. If you’d like to learn more about the topic of immigration, here’s a nine-minute Scripture reflection focused on the theme of the “foreigner.” Also, here’s a series of talks from leading Christian thinkers and practitioners on the topic of immigration from a Christian perspective which I helped produce at a conference nearly 8 years ago. Finally, I should mention that Edith’s new married last name is “de Cardona.”
What are the major concerns of people facing retirement? How does the “vacation” view of retirement contrast with what the Bible says about retirement? How important a dimension of retirement is Sabbath? What do you believe is the most important component of a godly retirement?
What am I going to do with my retirement?
I was recently interviewed by Paul Arnott, the executive director of Q4:Rethinking Retirement, on my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.
Paul was a delightful, humble host. He exemplifies what it means to be an “elder” of influence and wisdom.
I hope you enjoy this video…
The following is a brief introduction to my work at Denver Institute for Faith & Work that I gave at a recent fundraiser. It first appeared on the DIFW website.
It doesn’t take much to make the case that the world is deeply broken.
Even as you read this, my guess is that today – in your own experience – you can feel the fallenness of our culture all around. From anger and fear in the news to our day-to-day experience of broken relationships, we know that something is amiss.
As the executive director and founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, I, too, feel that something is deeply wrong with the world. I’m often asked by donors, “What problem are you at Denver Institute trying to solve?” Let me try to answer by briefly sharing about the why, the how, and the what of our mission at Denver Institute.
First, why? Take a moment to think about the ways you long for healing in our world today. We know that our society is deeply broken; loneliness, division, and economic disparity are growing. The Church in the U.S. is shrinking rapidly: today, there are 30 million more people who claim no religious affiliation than just 10 years ago, according to Pew Research. We live in a time of pain and uncertainty, not just for Christians, but for our entire culture.
Yet, as Christians, ultimately we live in a story of hope. We believe Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was not just for the salvation of our souls, but for the salvation of the world. This salvation includes my heart, but it also includes cities and cultures. Isaac Watts once wrote, “He comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.” At Denver Institute, we talk about the depth and the breadth of the gospel; we believe that if sin has infected both souls and systems, so can grace.
But I think there’s a question we must ask about each of these: the pain of our culture and the breadth of salvation Christians embrace. What do these have to do with me?
This is where our daily work comes in.
Our mission at Denver Institute for Faith & Work is to form men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their daily work. Why work? We spend one-third of our waking lives at work. Work is where we make culture, from legal systems to art to carburetors. It’s also where we come into contact with our pluralistic world through co-workers, clients, patients, and students. Work is central to God’s mission in the world to redeem both souls as well as systems and structures.
So, how does Denver Institute think about its own role in equipping the saints for works of service through their work (Ephesians 4:12)? Let me briefly share about our “how.”We believe in “transformation from the inside out.” That is, rather than first looking at the world’s problems, we must first look at our own souls.
We believe there are three major movements of transformation. First is the interior life. We believe change first happens as people seek deep spiritual and emotional health and as they learn to think theologically about their work. This is why we talk about spiritual disciplines, Christian theology, and a deep interior renewal as the basis for a whole life and Christian mission.
Second, we believe faith also changes our exterior life. Namely, we at DIFW come alongside people to create good work and embrace redemptive relationships. The community needs your work. From investing to teaching in public schools, we believe work is an act of loving our neighbors. Rather than work only being about personal success or earning a paycheck, we believe the work we do and the relationships we form are central to God’s calling in our lives.
Finally, we at DIFW talk about civic life. The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 has made it clear that we are economically, politically, socially, and culturally connected. We believe that as Christians set their faces toward culture, the posture of a sacrificial servant – the way of the cross – is the way to show people the gospel through our deeds. We at DIFW deeply care about the pressing social issues of our day because we believe they’re a category of neighbor love. Indeed, “for God so loved the world… .” If God loves the world and sent his Son to save it, we too must commit to healing this fallen world as those sent by God the Healer.
So, what on earth does Denver Institute do? I’m glad you asked! We’re an educational nonprofit and we do work in three primary categories: public engagement, thought leadership, and intensive formation. In the category of public engagement, throughout the year we host a podcast and we host events. Each year we do two larger events called Women, Work and Calling and Business for the Common Good, and we do smaller events on topics such as the sciences, arts and culture, work and calling, and poverty and opportunity. We want to engage the public with the meaning of the good news for our work and world.
Second, thought leadership. We create short courses, books, articles, and other educational resources that connect Christian thinking with the wide world of work. Resources such as Spiritual Disciples for Your Work and the Faith & Work Classroom help you and those at your church or in your place of work dive deeper into the radically transformative nature of Christian faith for our world today.
And finally, intensive formation. We are now in our fifth class of the 5280 Fellowship, a nine-month program for emerging leaders in spiritual formation, professional development, and civic engagement. Years ago, we built a program around the idea of transformation from the inside out that has deeply shaped the hearts and careers of our fellows. For years, leaders in other cities have asked us to help them develop similar programs in their cities, and as we look to the future, we are prayerfully considering helping additional leaders launch fellows programs in their cities throughout the U.S.
But for now, what is Denver Institute for Faith & Work? An educational organization? Yes, but not only that. We are a network of people.We are a community of people who care deeply about our faith in Christ and our work, and our commitment to engaging the needs of the world while staying rooted in God’s love.
There it is: an answer to the question, “What is Denver Institute for Faith & Work.”
But don’t click away quite yet. I want you to find a co-worker or family member today and simply share your own dreams for what gospel impact might look like in your work and community. Where is God calling you into his great story of redemption?
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It’s hard to find the right metaphor for our current political moment. Are we in an echo chamber with megaphones? Are we, like a nuclear reaction, splitting atoms and roasting all our opponents? Or perhaps we’re more like vikings on social media: we land ashore, pillage and plunder all who oppose us, and then sail off once again to hang out with our village people.
Whatever the metaphor, we’re in an election season, and the weight of pandemic-soaked culture is turning up the dial on every debate. How should people of Christian faith think about and respond to the politics of our day?
There are as many answers to that question as there are people, yet few have more insight than Reinhold Neibuhr. His book, Christian Realism and Political Problems, first penned in 1953, is a hidden gem. In his chapter on “The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order,” he masterfully diagnoses our situation, turns a critical eye toward secular society and then the church, before landing the plane with a beautiful, yet uncomfortable, answer to the question of Christians in politics.
Here are 11 insights from Reinhold Neibuhr on the question of how Christians should respond to politics.
11. Don’t blame those “godless” people for all our problems. That’s too easy.
“The natural inclination of the convinced Christian, when viewing the tragic realities of our contemporary world, is to bear witness to the truth in Christ against the secular substitutes for the Christian faith which failed to anticipate, and which may have helped to create, the tragic world in which we now live.”
Neibuhr starts by saying that it’s just too easy to blame the “secular substitutes,” like many of the ideologies prevalent in Neibuhr’s day and the idolatries present in our own, for our current political mess. He starts at a better position: have we brought “the word of God to bear upon the secular roots of our present predicament?” Rather than simply blaming, have we actually done the hard work of thinking through how Christian faith challenges the broader secular culture that we live in?
10. The real problem is that our culture thinks “sin” is an outdated notion.
“The liberal part of our culture thought that the Christian idea of the sinfulness of all men was outmoded. In its place it put the idea of a harmless egotism, rendered innocuous by a prudent self-interest or by a balance of all social forces which would transmute the selfishness of all into a higher social harmony.”
First, we traded the idea of sin for mere selfishness, which we thought was more of an inconvenience than a fundamental human condition. Others thought that we could overlook sin and simply call people to be socially conscious and virtuous through their own good will. The problem: our will actually is the problem.
Niebuhr doesn’t hold much hope that capitalism can save us, but he doesn’t think much of Marxism, either. Marxists believed “in the revolutionary destruction of property” and promised “redemption through the death of an old order and the rise of a new one.” But this idea was not the promise of life through death in the Christian gospel; it was the promise of “new life for us through the death of our foes.” Sound familiar?
Secular visions of the fall have fallen short, and so have secular versions of redemption. Both are rampant in politics today.
9. Both Right and Left have grains of truth, yet when they are the only frame of reference for our politics, they plunge us into a never-ending battle that cannot be won.
“Perhaps it is because there is a little truth and so much error in both secular alternatives to the Christian faith that they have involved the world in such a hopeless civil war in which each side had enough truth to preserve its sense of high mission and enough error to frighten the other side with the possible consequences of its victory.”
One side, represented by a totally unregulated capitalism, minimizes the state in hopes that the free market will save us, only to find grueling injustices spread throughout our country; the other side, exemplified by a totally planned economy (such as in Marxism), minimizes individual liberty and the free market with the hope that the right technological or policy solution will bring about a just republic. Both contain hints of truth, yet neither system can save us because there are sinful people inside of both systems. So we live in fear that “the other side” will finally take control and we might one day live under “their authority.”
Progressive and conservative visions of political life may be inevitable, but they both incomplete and need a larger frame.
8. But Christians shouldn’t be too quick to throw darts at secular culture: the Church is far too implicated in this current mess to wash our hands of politics.
“Society in both its liberal and Marxist variety came into being partly because of the deep involvement of Christianity in the social sins of our day and in the stubbornness of the social injustices.”
You say Christians in America actually helped to create this mess? How so? Read on…
7. Christians have often “sanctified” the social evils of our day, making them even harder to change.
“There is no social evil, no form of injustice…which has not been sanctified in some way of other by religious sentiment, and thereby rendered more impervious to change.”
How can that be? Wasn’t it Christians who abolished slavery? Yes. But it was others who used Christianity to tighten the stranglehold of slavery. Wasn’t it Christians who led the civil rights movement? Yes again. But it was other Christians who resisted desegregation in the name of “order.”
Christians have been reformers, but if we’re honest, we must recognize that others clung to the unjust, broken status quo to protect themselves and their own interests rather than to seek biblical justice.
6. Other times Christians have declared politics irrelevant to religious life, deepening secular ideologies and helping them to grow.
“A part of the Church, fearing involvement in the ambiguities of politics, has declared the problems of politics to be irrelevant to the Christian life.”
When the Church is “neutral,” it more often than not is “an ally of the established social forces,” like the ones we are so apt to criticize.
If we say that faith has nothing to do with politics or with our culture, how can Christians complain about what’s happening to politics or to our culture?
5. “Just be nice” isn’t very helpful.
“A part of the Church, facing the complexities of the political order, has been content with an insufferable sentimentality…It has insisted that the law of love is a simple possibility when every experience proves that the real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love each other, but do not.”
Just be nice. Love each other. Do random acts of kindness.
The Church has often succumbed, both in Neibuhr’s day and our own, to a “sentimentality” in our praise songs, our bullet-pointed sermons, and our attitude toward politics that calls people to “be nice” but often overlooks the harsh truth that our wills are depraved. We should be nice, but we can’t; we are in bondage.
And though Neibuhr points the finger at the Church here, I’d also say this is even more prevalent in the slogans, hashtags and bumper-sticker wisdom of our consumeristic, secular society than in churches. In most churches you’ll get hints, at least, of a divine drama that involves good, evil, and the fallenness of our own hearts. You get very few of those hints in the never ending newsfeed of our society today. Many articles or tweets are bubbling with a respectable disdain for “the other side” that just doesn’t get it. Our culture would still have us believe the problem is in others, not me.
Efforts at communal and political reform without acknowledging the devastating sinfulness of humanity will always fall short.
4. Still other parts of the Church have turned faith and politics into a never-ending scheme to legislate righteousness into every part of our society.
“A part of the Church, conscious of these perplexities, has been ready to elaborate detailed schemes of justice and of law for the regulation of the political and social life of mankind, below the level of love and of grace. But it has involved itself in a graceless and inflexible legalism. It does not know that all law can easily be the instrument of sin; that inflexible propositions of justice, particularly in the rapidly shifting circumstances of modern technical development, may hinder rather than help the achievement of true justice.”
Neibuhr says that because this is true, we need to put laws in their place, “recognizing that none of them is sacrosanct as some supposedly Christian or secular system of law has made them.”
Galatians warns that when our freedom devolves into legalism, the law itself becomes a “power and principality” that sets itself up against the ultimate authority of the living Christ. We must not absolutize passing the right laws as the only goal to which Chrisitans in politics are completely committed. Laws are good servants, but bad masters.
So, what hope does the Gospel offer politics?
3. Christians must first recognize that the promise of new life is both for individuals as well as nations, and that if sin affects systems, so can grace.
“Positively our task is to present the Gospel of redemption in Christ to nations as well as individuals…It is possible to live truly if we die to self, if the vainglory of man is broken by divine judgement that life may be truly reformed by divine grace. This promise of new life is for individuals; yet who can deny its relevance for nations and empires, for civilizations and cultures?”
Without faith there is only sorrow. Without faith, says Neibuhr, there is only despair and meaninglessness and confusion. Yet with faith, grace makes possible both a new life individually, but also collectively—but only after we acknowledge our individual and collective sinfulness We are all subject to judgment, but, as James says, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
The biblical notion of shalom – commonly translated as peace – carries broad connotations of inner peace, peace with God, and peace between others, even in the complex relations of nations, states, classes and culture.
Christians cannot be so pessimistic about politics that we block the flow of divine grace through us as his Body into the cities, states, and nations that we call home.
2. A faithful Christian engagement of politics cuts against both parties and our personal interests in a way that is often offensive because God’s kingdom is the aim, not this present political order or our personal comfort.
“Must we not warn powerful and secure nations and classes that they have an idolatrous idea of their own importance…and must we not remind those who are weak and defrauded and despised that God will avenge the cruelties from which they suffer but will also not bear the cruel resentment which corrupts their hearts?”
“Must we we not say to the rich and secure classes of society that their vaunted devotion to the laws and structures of society which guarantee their privileges is tainted with self-interest; and must we not say to the poor that their dream of a propertyless society of perfect justice turns into a nightmare of new injustice because it is based only upon the recognition of the sin which the other commits and knows nothing of the sin which the poor man commits when he is no longer poor but has become the commissar?”
How these two statements from Neibuhr offend us!
When the gospel confronts our political life, we all have reason to be uncomfortable because it confronts us. How easy is it to criticize and condemn the other party and wish for real reform, and not recognize that if we were the ones in power, the world may indeed be worse off than it is now!
We err when we too closely align with one ideology, and we also err when we too closely identify our personal identity with a political party. The Christian is forever a citizen of another heavenly country, and this gives her the freedom to look squarely at injustices in the world that mirror the injustices within.
Humility is the key.
So what is left? Is there anything that can be done?
1. Christians must make their peace with “proximate justice” and do our small part in taking the next step toward the health of our communities through our vocations and through the political process.
“There is the promise of a new life for men and nations in the Gospel; but there is no guarantee of historic success. There is no way of transmuting the Christian Gospel into a system of historical optimism. The final victory over man’s disorder is God’s not ours; but we do have responsibility for proximate victories. Christian life without a high sense of responsibility for the health of our communities, our nations and our cultures degenerates into an intolerable other-worldliness….Only a small leaven is needed, only a little center of health can become the convalescence for a whole community. That fact measures the awful responsibility of the people of God in the world’s cities of destruction.”
In short: the way forward is clouded, difficult, and riddled with potholes. And our hope is ultimately not in this world, but in the next. And yet, because of the love of neighbor and the call of God to be His Body in the world, we must do what we can. We must take small steps in the right direction and do what we can to bring healing to our communities and our countries.
It would be nice if we could say that God condemned the world and washed his hands of it all, but instead, we must listen once again to the apostle who wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave…”