July 1, 2021

The Earl of Sandwich was responsible both for your sandwich and for the soda that you drink with your sandwich.  He was also a factor in the American colonies gaining their independence from Great Britain.  And he exemplifies an important point about the doctrine of vocation.

I came across a fascinating article from the BBC by William Park entitled How Processed Food Became So Unhealthy.  (Although this should be read in conjunction with another BBC article by Jessica Brown, Which Processed Foods Are Better Than Natural?)

In the course of the historical survey of food preservation, Park brings up John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792).  His main claim to fame is that he really did invent the food item named after him, the sandwich.  It seems he was an inveterate gambler who didn’t like to stop playing cards to eat.  He instructed a servant to just bring him some meat between two pieces of bread so that he could hold his meal in one hand and hold his cards in the other.  Though others may have done the same before him–this is not a difficult concept–other gamblers began ordering the “Sandwich” meal and the concept caught on, taking on both simple and elaborate forms, to this very day.

But the reason the Earl’s name comes up in an article on food preservation is that, in one of his many government offices, he came to serve as the First Lord of the Admiralty.  He had to deal with a problem in the Navy, as well as the vast merchant fleet that was servicing the far-flung British Empire.  An ocean voyage took months, and over this amount of time, the supply of water, stored in barrels, for ship crews would become stagnant, foul-tasting, and unhealthy to drink.  Might there be a way to preserve water to maintain its freshness and palatability?

The Earl of Sandwich had the presence of mind to consult with the great pioneering chemist Joseph Priestly.  He found a way to infuse water with carbon dioxide, thus inventing carbonated water.  Priestly thought the fizziness would preserve the water and that it might even prevent scurvy.  Since carbonated water is slightly acidic, it did preserve drinking water for a little while longer, though not much.  And it didn’t do anything for scurvy, that severe vitamin-C deficiency that, it would be discovered around this time, could be prevented by the juice of lemons or limes.  The sailors still needed their grog ration–alcoholic spirits, usually rum, mixed with the water, which did preserve it–to remain hydrated.

So the big idea didn’t work, but carbonated water began to be manufactured for a niche market.  One use was in “tonics.”  Not just sailors but English colonists, merchants, and functionaries in the tropical regions of the British Empire–India, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean islands–had to worry about catching Malaria.  It was discovered that quinine, made from the bark of a South African tree, could both cure the disease, which was transmitted by mosquitoes, and prevent infection.  The problem was that quinine is exceedingly bitter.  Quinine was dissolved into carbonated water and then sweeteners were added, which helped, but the tonic still tasted pretty bad.  But then someone discovered that adding gin to the quinine tonic made for a very pleasant and complex flavor combination.  Add in the juice of a lime, your regimen for preventing scurvy, and you had a quite delicious and refreshing drink.  And thus, the Gin and Tonic was born, the mixed drink that helped the British survive their Empire and that remains a favorite libation today.

Then other tonics were developed, using a base of carbonated water.  Extracts of coca leaves and the kola nut provided a pick-me-up with Coca-Cola.  (Later, the coca leaves, which could also be refined into cocaine, were dropped from the recipe.)  Pepsi was billed as a digestive aid, alluding to the kola nut and the enzyme “pepsin,” though it contained neither of those ingredients.  Dr. Pepper, like other soft drinks, was developed by a pharmacy and sold with the claim that it “aids digestion and restores vim, vigor, and vitality.”  All of these drinks were sold at Drug Stores.  The medical claims for them were almost always bogus–though they contained and continue to contain caffeine, which gives the drinker a little “pep”–but now they have become universal beverages.  Often enjoyed with a sandwich.

Why do I bring this up?  I think the connection of the Earl of Sandwich to both the sandwich and to soft drinks is interesting historically.  But there is also a lesson here about vocation.

John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, held a number of important government offices.  He served in Parliament.  He was an officer in the army.  He became a diplomat, helping to negotiate important treaties and serving as the ambassador to the Dutch Republic.  He served three stints in the Admiralty.  He became Secretary of State.  He was Postmaster General.  And yet, it is said of him, “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.”

The fact is, the Earl of Sandwich was not very good at any of his many prominent offices.  That includes those of his family life, which was a mess.  And in his third stint as Lord of the Admiralty, he was in charge of the British fleet during the American Revolutionary War.  His bungling that task–by not assigning enough naval vessels to the Americas and keeping most of the navy at home in fear of a French invasion–is widely considered to have helped the American colonies gain their independence–another impact of the Earl of Sandwich and something else we Americans can thank him for!

And yet, despite his incompetence at his various vocations, the Earl of Sandwich had an enormous, though completely unintended influence on the world!

This should be an encouragement to us all.  We don’t necessarily have to be good at our vocations–as desirable as that might be–in order for them to have an important impact on our neighbors, though we might never know what that impact has been.  And sometimes it’s our weakness and our failures that can lead to our greatest contributions.

So, this weekend as we celebrate our nation’s independence from Great Britain with sandwiches and carbonated beverages, lift a glass to the Earl of Sandwich!


Illustration:  John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, by Thomas Gainsborough [detail]- The original uploader was Hugh Manatee at English Wikipedia., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=629907





May 6, 2021

“Being a free American requires practically loving your neighbors so that the government doesn’t have to love them for you.”

That’s the conclusion of a fascinating essay by Cameron Hilditch entitled America’s Unwritten, Unraveling Constitution.  You might recognize in that line the doctrine of vocation, which, as we keep saying, is not so much about our self-fulfillment as about loving and serving our neighbors.

Thus, Hilditch is suggesting that vocation is at the heart of America’s unwritten constitution.

He is discussing Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of American culture in his 1835 classic Democracy in America.  Hilditch points out that de Tocqueville, in trying to work out why American democracy avoided the dysfunctions of the French revolution, says little about the written framework set up in the U.S. Constitution.  Rather, he is trying to understand the “constitution” of the United States in an earlier sense; namely, how this nation is “constituted,” how it is made up and how it functions, according to its folkways and culture.

De Tocqueville is trying to understand how it is possible for a nation to be both democratic and decentralized.  “It was the social practices of Americans, their actions rather than their ideas, that constituted the true greatness of the country in his eyes.”  This is the “unwritten Constitution” that, in turn, formed the written, legal document.

De Tocqueville cited the importance of America’s local governments and associations, from churches to town meetings.  Life on the frontier gave Americans the habit–born of necessity–of banding together.

In the colonial and revolutionary eras, for instance, the material difficulties of life in a new land required that Americans depend on the work of their neighbors for their survival. This necessity of associating with one another to organize, compromise, and solve local problems recreated in democratic America the dense local and regional allegiance and autonomy that had existed in feudal France. The experience of convening with neighbors to solve problems also made the prospect of a distant and faceless central government both unappealing and unnecessary. As a result, Americans’ habit of joining local organizations did more, in Tocqueville’s eyes at least, to limit the reach of the federal government than any abstract philosophical or political principle. It made the American republic free in fact, not just in theory.

Today, of course, we have lost that vocational, love-of-neighbor ethic that creates both community and liberty. This is the context of De Tocqueville’s chilling warning–or prophecy–of how American liberty can be destroyed.  Quoted in Hilditch from Democracy in America, my bolds:

I want to imagine under what new traits despotism will appear in the world. I see an innumerable multitude of similar and equal people will turn incessantly in search of petty and vulgar pleasures, with which they will fill their soul. Each, standing apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of others; his children and personal friends forming for him the entire human race. As for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them. . . .

He exists only in and for himself, and even if he still has a family, one can say that he no longer has a country. Above these people rises an immense and tutelary power, which alone takes charge of assuring their pleasures and looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, foresighted, and mild. It would resemble paternal power, if, like it, its object was to prepare men for maturity. But it only seeks, on the contrary, to fix them irrevocably in childhood. . . .

It willingly works for their happiness. It looks after their security, foresees and assures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, regulates their principal affairs, directs their industry. . . .

Why does it not entirely remove the trouble of thinking and the difficulty of living? In that way it makes even less useful and rarer the exercise of free will, enclosing the action of the will in an ever smaller space. . . .

Equality has prepared men for all these things. It disposes them to endure them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

Sound familiar?  Are we there yet?


Illustration:  Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville (detail) (1850), by Théodore Chassériau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

March 16, 2021

Yesterday we discussed why evangelicals are more resistant to getting the anti-COVID vaccine than any other demographic.  As we said, there are lots of reasons–some good, some bad, some debatable–why Americans from different perspectives are leery about the vaccines.

But considerations about what religion has to do with it have raised some important theological issues.  And, as so many issues do, they have to do with the doctrine of vocation.

The never-Trump evangelical David French has written a provocative article entitled The Spiritual Problem at the Heart of Christian Vaccine Refusal.  After going over the statistics, he cites a particularly troubling finding from the study:  Evangelicals are not only more resistant to getting the shot than any other group, they are the least concerned about the effect of their decision on other people.

Only 48% of white evangelicals said they would consider the community health effects “a lot” when deciding to be vaccinated. That compares with 70% of Black Protestants, 65% of Catholics and 68% of unaffiliated Americans.

So even at least some of the 54% of evangelicals who do intend to get the shot are doing it primarily for themselves, not to stop the spread of the virus to others.  As for the 45% who won’t, many of them are looking primarily at the impact on their own health and well-being, rather than that of their neighbors.

Now Kylee Zempel of the Federalist has written a refutation of French’s article, in which she takes issue with his critique of evangelicals, arguing that resistance to the vaccine is understandable due to the flood of misinformation on the part of the government, the media, and health experts over the course of the epidemic.  So fine.  Maybe the resistance is not a “spiritual problem” as French claims.

But I still think that one fact is telling, that evangelicals–much more than other religious groups and even more than non-religious groups–apparently look at ethical decisions, including whether or not to get a vaccine, in terms of themselves in isolation, rather than in terms of their decision’s effect on their neighbors.

I think this approach to ethics is commonplace among American Christians and not just regarding the issue of vaccination.  This is a law-based way of thinking about right and wrong.  We have rules, and the individual must obey them.  The transaction is between myself, the law, and the Lawgiver.

Martin Luther, though, had a different understanding of the Law, especially for Christians, in light of the Gospel.  Jesus summarized the Law as loving God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:26-27).  Therefore, Luther taught a neighbor-centered ethic.

He expresses this in his explanations of the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism.   This is also fundamental to Luther’s  doctrine of vocation.  The purpose of every vocation–in the workplace, the family, the church, and the state–is to love and serve your neighbor.

Significantly, other treatments of vocation that I have seen neglect this dimension of the teaching.  They focus instead on vocation in terms of the self.  Your vocation, they say, is what gives you fulfillment, is God’s gift for your flourishing, is how you can serve God, and in other ways is always about you.  This is in line with the self-focus of much of American Christianity, whereas Luther sees vocation in terms of what God gives us to do to serve our neighbor; and–more importantly–how God serves our neighbors through what we do.

This other dimension of vocation is also an issue that the vaccine controversies bring to the surface.

Tish Harrison Warren has written an article for Christianity Today [subscription required] about different responses to the COVID epidemic.  She quotes the now-disgraced governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, who said, “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus.”

She then quotes Christians who are thinking along his same lines, though from the opposite perspective:  “If you have a mask on, it means you actually don’t trust God.”  And other variations, that God will protect me from COVID, so I don’t need to worry about it.

Warren calls this the error of “competitive agency,”  the notion that either God does something, or I do something.  We can ascribe some actions to God and some actions to human beings or other causes, and these are totally separate, one or the other.  This is opposed to the older notion that God works providentially in and through His creation.  She observes that,

Functionally, this kind of deism excludes God from human work, efforts, and choices.  In his book The Unintended Reformation, Brad S. Gregory notes how this “competitive, either-or relationship between God and creation” departs from historic Christian theology because it “presupposes that Christianity’s sacramental view of reality is false—that if God is real, he does not or cannot act in and through his own creation.”

Notice how this contrasts with Luther’s doctrine of vocation, in which God–far from being excluded from human work–acts “in and through” our ordinary callings (giving daily bread by means of farmers and bakers; creating children by means of mothers and fathers; conveying His Word by means of pastors; etc., etc).

Notice too that underlying the Lutheran doctrine of vocation is also the Lutheran doctrine of the Sacraments, that God, indeed, uses His own physical creation (water, bread, wine, a book, air vibrating as soundwaves) to bring physical human beings to Himself.

Oswald Bayer says that a distinctive quality of Luther’s theology–and what makes him different from many other theologians–is his conviction that God works through and by means of His creation.  Not only in the Sacraments and in vocation, but also in His governance of the Temporal Kingdom, both in the social and the natural order, as He providentially cares for all that He has made.

American evangelicals–including, I daresay, some Lutherans–have largely lost this “sacramental view of reality.”  They expect God to work without means.  If I am sick, I can pray, and maybe God will heal me with a miracle.  Or, instead, a doctor might heal me by giving me medicine.  Luther would say that God does, in fact, heal me.  He does so by means of the doctor, loving and serving me in his vocation, who knows how to apply the physical medicine of God’s creation to my physical body.

Thus, I can see the doctors, the scientists, the pharmaceutical companies, Trump and company with Operation Warp Speed, the manufacturers, the nurse who put the needle in my arm, as all means by which God is protecting me and others from the virus, as they love and serve their neighbors through the work that God has given them to do.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

January 20, 2021


Today is Inauguration Day.  Swearing in a new president has often been seen as a rite of national renewal, the beginning of a new phase of American history.

Not only is Joe Biden being installed into the presidency, but Donald Trump’s presidency is ending.  For many Americans, this will come as a great relief.  I expect to hear lots of metaphors in the media about how the long national nightmare is over.  But for many other Americans, the shutting down of Trump’s presidency is cause for mourning, and their nightmare is just beginning.  Still other Americans are somewhere in between, thinking that it’s time for Trump to go, while also dreading what a Biden administration might do.

Certainly, this Inauguration more than most signals a clear break from the past.  In the previous Inauguration Days of this century, incumbents were re-elected and new presidents succeeded incumbents after their second term.  This time the incumbent was turned out of office.  Before, even when new parties took over, there was not so much political distance between the alternating presidents as there is today.  This time, liberalism is completely triumphant over the whole government, while conservatism is in shambles.

So this is a happy day for some Americans, for others. . .not so much.  Let me address the latter, particularly my fellow conservative Christians.

My father used to say that while you might not agree with the man who is president, you should still respect the office that he holds.  That is how the “Greatest Generation” that fought in World War II used to think, back when Americans for all of their differences were unified in a common patriotism.

I now understand that distinction between the person and the office much better than I did back then, thanks to my study of the doctrine of vocation.

It’s always the office that God uses and that should command our honor, not the imperfect person whom God has called into that office.  This is true, according to Luther, even of the office of parenthood.  He says in his discussion of the 4th commandment in the Large Catechism:

We must, therefore, impress it upon the young that they should regard their parents as in God’s stead, and remember that however lowly, poor, frail, and queer they may be, nevertheless they are father and mother given them by God. They are not to be deprived of their honor because of their conduct or their failings. Therefore we are not to regard their persons, how they may be, but the will of God who has thus created and ordained. (LC, 4th Commandment, para. 108)

The offices of earthly government, Luther goes on to say, grow out of the vocation of parenthood.  “ In this commandment belongs a further statement regarding all kinds of obedience to persons in authority who have to command and to govern. For all authority flows and is propagated from the authority of parents” (LC, 4th Commandment, para. 141).

So the 4th Commandment provisions apply to President Biden by virtue not of his person but of the office that he holds.  That office also specifically entitles him to the “honor” mandated in 1 Peter 2:13-17:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[b] whether it be to the emperor[c] as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants[d] of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

In Peter’s day, the emperor was a very bad person with anti-Christian policies, but Christians are told to honor him nevertheless.  And not just him, but “every human institution”–which would include America’s political institutions–and to “governors” sent by God in general, which would include American presidents.

Furthermore, President Biden will, by virtue of his office, be entitled to our prayers:  “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

The bottom line is, we Christians should honor and pray for President Biden, even if we disagree with him, for the sake of his office.

These Scriptures hit me hard as Law, making me realize that I have sinned against them many times over many administrations.

But, through Christ’s grace and forgiveness, I am resolving to try to do better in regards to this new president.  I know we keep hearing about what people think he is going to do, but the truth is, he hasn’t done anything yet as president.  So we should give him a chance.  I’ll support him when he does something that I think is good, though I’ll also criticize him when he does something I think is bad.  But I’ll try not to ridicule him, make him a target of invective, or slander him.

Biden says he wants to unify the country.  Good.  I hope he does.  I’ll co-operate with that if I can.  He’ll have to overcome both the hostility from the right and the pressure from the left to punish all of us evildoers.  If he can pull that off, I’ll have a lot of respect for him.  If not, I’ll pity him.

His greatest fault is his advocacy of abortion, and my greatest fear about his administration is that it will normalize, promote, and fund this horrible evil.  And yet, he used to be pro-life.  He is a vocal, church-going Catholic, a religious tradition that, for all of its faults, is resolutely pro-life.  In his continual attendance at services and as he experiences the stress and trials of his office and turns to his church for strength, he could be won back to the ethics of Catholicism.  We should pray for that.

So I’ll listen to his Inauguration speech, allow myself the thrill of patriotism from the historical moment, wish the best for him, and pray that he will be good for our poor, troubled nation.


Photo:  Glyn Lowe PhotoWorks from lisbon, Portugal, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons



September 16, 2020


Simone Weil (pronounced “Vay”) was a French thinker who converted from Judaism to an idiosyncratic, mystical Christianity.  In her short life (1909-1943), she was a radical leftist, worked with the French resistance to the Nazi occupiers, and had a dramatic conversion experience when she contemplated George Herbert’s poem on human sin and the grace of Christ, Love III.   (See my book Reformation Spirituality:  The Religion of George Herbert.)

Through it all, Weil always worked, not just with her mind but with her hands, including a long stint in an automobile factory.  She wrote a great deal about the importance and value of working.  And her insights tie in interestingly to Luther’s doctrine of vocation.

Richard Gunderman sums up her thoughts on the matter:

Weil looked at work as more than an exchange of money for labor. She argued that people need to work not only for income but also for the experience of labor itself. From her perspective, money does not solve the core problems of joblessness. Instead, work provides vital opportunities to live more fully by helping others. . . .

Though Weil understood that people need work to live, she argued that labor fulfills other equally essential functions. One is the opportunity it offers to become more fully focused and present in living. To multitask is to live superficially, but those who are completely present with another can give fully of themselves. She called attention “the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Weil believed that humans are not cut out for lives of idle pleasure. It is through work, whether in agriculture, manufacturing, the service industry or maintaining a home and raising children that people contribute to the lives of others. Work reminds us, she wrote, that individuals are part of something greater and provides a larger purpose to live for. She wrote of the calling to serve others:

“Anyone whose attention and love are really directed towards the reality outside the world recognizes at the same time that he is bound, both in public and private life, by the single and permanent obligation to remedy, according to his responsibilities and to the extent of his power, all the privations of soul and body which are liable to destroy or damage the earthly life of any human being whatsoever.”

Work must be seen in its larger context, for if it isn’t, laborers may soon feel like cogs in a machine, winding a nut onto a bolt or moving papers from an inbox to an outbox. To do work well, people need to understand the context of work and how it makes a difference in the lives of others.

Here is Luther’s emphasis that, while vocation is important to our own well-being, the purpose of all of our vocations is to love and serve our neighbors.  She also has Luther’s understanding that God is in vocation, that He loves and blesses those whom He has created through us.

Here is how the Wikipedia article about her describes her insights about loving God and loving our neighbor:

In Waiting for God, Simone Weil explains that the three forms of implicit love of God are (1) love of neighbor (2) love of the beauty of the world and (3) love of religious ceremonies.[70] As Weil writes, by loving these three objects (neighbor, world’s beauty, and religious ceremonies), one indirectly loves God before “God comes in person to take the hand of his future bride,” since prior to God’s arrival, one’s soul cannot yet directly love God as the object.[71] Love of neighbor occurs (i) when the strong treat the weak as equals,[72] (ii) when people give personal attention to those that otherwise seem invisible, anonymous, or non-existent,[73] and (iii) when we look at and listen to the afflicted as they are, without explicitly thinking about God—i.e., Weil writes, when “God in us” loves the afflicted, rather than we loving them in God.[74] Second, Weil explains, love of the world’s beauty occurs when humans imitate God’s love for the cosmos: just as God creatively renounced his command over the world—letting it be ruled by human autonomy and matter’s “blind necessity”—humans give up their imaginary command over the world, seeing the world no longer as if they were the world’s center.[75] Finally, Weil explains, love of religious ceremonies occurs as an implicit love of God, when religious practices are pure.[76] Weil writes that purity in religion is seen when “faith and love do not fail,” and most absolutely, in the Eucharist.[77]

She is also interesting on the subjects of beauty and of suffering.  Again, from Wikipedia:

For Weil, “The beautiful is the experiential proof that the incarnation is possible”. The beauty which is inherent in the form of the world (this inherency is proven, for her, in geometry, and expressed in all good art) is the proof that the world points to something beyond itself; it establishes the essentially telic character of all that exists. Her concept of beauty extends throughout the universe: “we must have faith that the universe is beautiful on all levels…and that it has a fullness of beauty in relation to the bodily and psychic structure of each of the thinking beings that actually do exist and of all those that are possible. It is this very agreement of an infinity of perfect beauties that gives a transcendent character to the beauty of the world…He (Christ) is really present in the universal beauty. The love of this beauty proceeds from God dwelling in our souls and goes out to God present in the universe”. She also wrote that “The beauty of this world is Christ’s tender smile coming to us through matter”.[66]

Beauty also served a soteriological function for Weil: “Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.” It constitutes, then, another way in which the divine reality behind the world invades our lives. Where affliction conquers us with brute force, beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.

Though she is quite Christ-centered, she is not completely orthodox.  She is extreme and aesthetic in her pursuit of virtue.  She said that Hinduism and Buddhism also “deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive,” and yet she opposed syncretism.

She was most interested in Catholicism, but she never became a Catholic.  I was under the impression that she refused to be baptized out of a sense of solidarity with those who were not inside the church, but while that was true for awhile, the Wikipedia article said that she finally was baptized shortly before she died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.

Her take on Christianity is so unusual, yet substantive, that she might get through to that “None” friend of yours who is “spiritual but not religious.”




Photo:  Simone Weil by Unknown photographer / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

July 24, 2020

In his book that I blogged about, Defending Boyhood, Anthony Esolen discusses the masculine qualities that lead to the military virtues.  He quotes the Victorian author John Ruskin on why we tend to admire soldiers more than “merchants.”

The quotation is from Ruskin’s 1862 book Unto This Last.  He goes on to apply his principle to other occupations that we admire, and in doing so, makes some striking points about what we can recognize as the Reformation doctrine of vocation.  I’ll discuss those, and then say a few words on behalf of “merchants.”

From John Ruskin,  Unto This Last (free online):

For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be — fond of pleasure or of adventure-all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact — of which we are well assured — that put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that his choice may be put to him at any moment — and has beforehand taken his part — virtually takes such part continually — does, in reality, die daily.

From the soldier’s willingness to die out of a sense of service, Ruskin develops the concept of self-sacrifice, of being willing to deny oneself for a higher principle or for the good of someone else.  He then addresses other professions that we admire:  lawyers (OK, the Victorians evidently held that profession in greater esteem than is common today), physicians, and (quite rightly) clergymen:

Not less is the respect we pay to the lawyer and physician, founded ultimately on their self-sacrifice. Whatever the learning or acuteness of a great lawyer, our chief respect for him depends on our belief that, set in a judge’s seat, he will strive to judge justly, come of it what may. Could we suppose that he would take bribes, and use his acuteness and legal knowledge to give plausibility to iniquitous decisions, no degree of intellect would win for him our respect. Nothing will win it, short of our tacit conviction, that in all important acts of his life justice is first with him; his own interest, second.

In the case of a physician, the ground of the honour we render him is clearer still. Whatever his science, we would shrink from him in horror if we found him regard his patients merely as subjects to experiment upon; much more, if we found that, receiving bribes from persons interested in their deaths, he was using his best skill to give poison in the mask of medicine.

Finally, the principle holds with utmost clearness as it respects clergymen. No goodness of disposition will excuse want of science in a physician, or of shrewdness in an advocate; but a clergyman, even though his power of intellect be small, is respected on the presumed ground of his unselfishness and serviceableness.

All of this, of course, is the doctrine of vocation, that in every sphere of relationship or responsibility to which we have been called–in the workplace, the family, the church, and the society–we are to love and serve the neighbors who are brought into our lives by this calling.  And love and service to our neighbor in vocation is our “living sacrifice,” an example of the cross bearing that our Lord calls us to:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”(Luke 9:23).

But what about the “merchant”–that is, people in the business world?  Ruskin says that running a business takes just as much intelligence, personal skills, and leadership ability as is needed in the military, the legal profession, and the church.  The difference, he concludes, is that people in business are perceived to be primarily self-interested:

Now, there can be no question but that the tact, foresight, decision, and other mental powers, required for the successful management of a large mercantile concern, if not such as could be compared with those of a great lawyer, general, or divine, would at least match the general conditions of mind required in the subordinate officers of a ship, or of a regiment, or in the curate of a country parish. If, therefore, all the efficient members of the so-called liberal professions are still, somehow, in public estimate of honour, preferred before the head of a commercial firm, the reason must lie deeper than in the measurement of their several powers of mind.

And the essential reason for such preference will he found to lie in the fact that the merchant is presumed to act always selfishly. His work may be very necessary to the community, but the motive of it is understood to be wholly personal. The merchant’s first object in all his dealings must be (the public believe) to get as much for himself, and leave as little to his neighbour (or customer) as possible.

In defense of all of you “merchants,” I would add, though, that people in business do serve their neighbors, often in self-sacrificial ways.  Ruskin omits the aspect of vocation that teaches how God works through human beings in their various callings in order to bless and provide for His creation.  Even the selfish merchant only interested in his profits is compelled to serve his neighbor.  If the businesses doesn’t provide goods or services that help their customers, they will not stay in business very long.

The merchant serves his neighbor, whether or not he loves them.  Likely, because of his sinful nature, he mainly loves himself.  Faith in Christ bears fruit, though, in the love of neighbor.  So the Christian merchant can carry out his vocation as an act of faith and love.  The business still must make a profit or it will not last, but vocation can give it another dimension.  And if Christians in business demonstrate a spirit of self-sacrificial love and service for their customers and their employees, they too will find themselves admired.

The same, of course, is true for soldiers, lawyers, clergymen, and every other vocation we look up to.  (What would those be today?  Not politicians, who have developed a reputation for selfishness and power-seeking, rather than public service.  We admire athletes, though I’m not sure how Ruskin’s thesis applies to them.  I suppose they sacrifice themselves in their physical discipline and for the sake of their team.)  A soldier might serve his country without loving it, or give his life for his comrades without loving them, but the love gives his sacrifice a greater meaning.  A pastor might serve his flock without loving them as he should, though this is something all Christians must grow in as their faith grows.

Here is how Ruskin summarizes his thoughts about vocation:

Five great intellectual professions, relating to daily necessities of life, have hitherto existed — three exist necessarily, in every civilised nation:

The Soldier’s profession is to defend it.

The Pastor’s to teach it.

The Physician’s to keep it in health.

The lawyer’s to enforce justice in it.

The Merchant’s to provide for it.

And the duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it.

“On due occasion,” namely: –

The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle.

The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.

The Pastor, rather than teach Falsehood.

The lawyer, rather than countenance Injustice.

The Merchant–what is his “due occasion” of death?

It is the main question for the merchant, as for all of us. For, truly, the man who does not know when to die, does not know how to live.

Ruskin, by the way, often applies Christian ideas in fresh and unexpected ways.  In my book Painters of Faith, I discuss and apply Ruskin’s view that aesthetics–what we find beautiful–is an intimation of the qualities of God, since, he said, ultimately, we can find pleasure in no one but Him.  Thus, evocations of infinity are sublime and give us pleasure–because God is infinite.  Works of art that combine unity and complexity are beautiful–because the Triune God is both complex and unified.  (Painters of Faith is selling on Amazon for $59, but my daughter is selling them, through a coupon code she is offering, for just $18!)


Photograph:  John Ruskin by W. & D. Downey / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons [detail]

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad