Let’s read Keller (2): the meanings behind ‘job’, ‘vocation’, ‘career’, ‘profession’

Let's read Keller

Tim Keller frames Every Good Endeavor in terms of the goal of recapturing the idea of vocation, entitling the introduction ‘The importance of recovering vocation’. He understands the notion in contradistinction to the “expressive individualism” that Robert Bellah identifies at the heart of American life in his classic Habits of the Heart (see here for a lecture by Bellah condensing some of the book’s main themes). Here is Keller’s summary of the term:

The Latin word vocare—to call—is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.

This summary made me curious to search out the etymology of other words we use to describe the work we do: ‘job’, ‘occupation’, ‘career’, ‘employment’, ‘profession’, ‘position’, ‘trade’, ‘livelihood’ and ‘work’ itself. What do these words say about the way we conceptualise work and the meaning with which we invest it? Armed with the trusty OED (surely one of my desert island books!), here are my findings. For each word below I begin with my summary of where I think the focus of the term lies, and then I paste selected fruits of my OED research (I found the etymology of ‘career’ particularly interesting).


JOB, n. Focus: the discrete task or ‘thing to be done’

1. a. A piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession.

2. a. An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis. Hence also (depreciative): a task or transaction performed perfunctorily or opportunistically for profit.

4.  a. A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled.

Etymology:  Origin uncertain. The fact that the word is earliest attested in the phrase job of work at Phrases 1 (see quot.1557-8 at sense 1a) suggests that ‘work’ may not originally have been part of the core meaning of the word. If the sense was originally ‘piece’, then the word may be a spec. use of JOB n.3 (A cartload; the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time)


OCCUPATION, n. Focus: that which takes up our time.

II. 4.  b. A particular action or course of action in which a person is engaged, esp. habitually; a particular job or profession; a particular pursuit or activity.

c1390   CHAUCER Melibeus 2781   He that..casteth hym to no bisynesse ne occupacion.

?1577   G. BUCHANAN Let. in Vernac. Writings (1892) 58   As to my occupation at thys present tyme, I am besy with our story of Scotland.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Othello (1622) III. iii. 362   Farewell, Othello’s Occupation’s gone.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman occupacion, occupacioun, occupaciun, ocupacioun and Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French occupation activity, employment (c1175)


EMPLOYMENT, n. Focus: takes the worker as the object, framing him/her as the passive recipient of work granted by an employer. The person who is ‘employed’ is ‘applied’ or ‘put to work’. It could almost stand as a secular equivalent of ‘vocation’.

2. An activity in which a person engages; a pursuit. Also as a mass noun: activity, occupation. Now rare (somewhat arch.).

4.  a. The action or fact of using or employing a person to perform a task, carry out a service, etc. In later use chiefly: the hiring of a person to undertake paid work, esp. in return for wages or a salary under an employment contract. Also: an instance of this.

b. The state or condition of being so employed; the state of working for an employer, esp. in return for wages. Chiefly in in (also into, out of) employment.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman imploier, Anglo-Norman and Middle French emploier, Middle Frenchemployer (French employer ) to use or apply (for a purpose), to put to work (c1100 in Old French), to engage (someone) in an occupation (12th cent.), to occupy (time) with an activity (c1220), to allocate, assign (14th cent.), to bestow (a gift, etc.)


CAREER, n. Focus: The focus here is on intensity, competitiveness and advancement. A term originally applied to animals.

Etymology:  < French carrière racecourse; also career, in various senses; = Italian carriera, Provençal carriera, Spanish carrera road, carrer < late Latin carrāria (via) carriage-road, road, <carrus wagon.

1. a. The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse; (also) the space within the barrier at a tournament.

2. a. Of a horse: A short gallop at full speed (often in phr. to pass a career ). Also a charge, encounter (at a tournament or in battle).Obs.

3. a. By extension: A running, course (usually implying swift motion); formerly [like French carrière] applied spec. to the course of the sun or a star through the heavens. Also abstr. Full speed, impetus: chiefly in phrases like in full career, †to take, give (oneself or some thing) career , etc., which were originally terms of horsemanship (see 2).

5.  b. In modern language (after French carrière) freq. used for: A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world. Freq. attrib. (orig. U.S.), esp.  (a) designating one who works permanently in the diplomatic service or other profession, opp. one who enters it at a high level from elsewhere;  (b) career girl, career woman, etc., one who works permanently in a profession, opp. one who ceases full-time work on marrying. Also,   careers master n. a schoolteacher who advises and helps pupils in choosing careers.,  career mistress n. = careers master n.

1927   Lit. Digest 25 June 14/2   The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert.

1931   F. J. STIMSON My United States xviii. 190   The career professors look somewhat askance at one who comes in from the outside world—just as career secretaries in diplomacy do upon a chief who has not gone through all the grades.


PROFESSION, n. Focus: work in which some body of knowledge or field is mastered and then declared or expressed.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman professioun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French profession (French profession ) declaration of faith (1155 as professiun ), vows taken when entering a religious order (c1174), condition, occupation (1362 as prophecie ; 1404 as prophecion ; a1417 asprofession ; 1495 as profection ), action of teaching publicly, professorship (1596) and its etymon classical Latin professiōn-, professiō open declaration, avowal, public declaration of one’s person and property, public register of people and property, vocation or occupation that one publicly avows

1.  b. Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.

4. a. The declaration of belief in and obedience to religion, or of acceptance of and conformity to the faith and principles of any religious community; (hence) the faith or religion which a person professes.

II. Senses relating to professional occupation. 7.  a. An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Also occas. as mass noun: occupations of this kind. In early use applied spec. to the professions of law, the Church, and medicine, and sometimes extended also to the military profession.

1605   BACON Of Aduancem. Learning II. sig. Aa3,   Amongst so many great Foundations of Colledges in Europe, I finde strange that they are all dedicated to Professions, and none left free to Artes and Sciences at large.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 21. ¶1   The three great Professions of Divinity, Law, and Physick.

4. b. More widely: any occupation by which a person regularly earns a living.N.E.D. (1908) notes: ‘Now usually applied to an occupation considered to be socially superior to a trade or handicraft; but formerly, and still in vulgar (or humorous) use, including these.’


POSITION, n. Focus: place within a predetermined constellation; connotation of comparison to others.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman posicion, posicioun and Middle French posicion, position, Frenchposition situation, site (late 13th cent. in Old French), thesis, assertion, statement (late 13th cent., earliest in a legal context; now spec. ‘tenet, point of doctrine’ (late 14th cent. or earlier in this sense; rare before 1690)), act of laying down (early 14th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman in a legal context)

3. d. The particular location allocated to an employee, esp. the place occupied by each cashier along a service counter.

1937   Times 25 Oct. 21/1   Our operators on the great 24-position switchboard deal with an average of 45,000 calls per day.

8.  a. fig. A relation in which a person stands with respect to another or others; a person’s circumstances, condition, or situation, esp. as affecting his or her influence, role, or power to act; spec. (freq. insocial position) status, rank, standing.

8. b. In a contest or competitive event: the place or standing of a contestant or competitor in relation to the others. In a specified category, field, etc.: the status or rank of any of those included in relation to the others.

c. A post as an employee; a paid office, a job.

1846   DICKENS Dombey & Son (1848) i. 4   Mr. Pilkins here, who from his position of medical adviser in this family—no one better qualified to fill that position, I am sure.


TRADE, n. Focus: habitual work. The track, course or way of work taken by an individual.

Etymology:  < Middle Low German trade (trâ ) feminine, track (Schiller & Lubben), Low German trade (traan < traden ) track (Bremisch. Wbch.); also West Flemish tra ( < trade ) walk, march, course (De Bo), < Old Saxon trada strong feminine, footstep, track = Old High German trata , Middle High German trate , trat strong feminine, footstep, trace, track, way, passage, < West Germanic ablaut-series tred- , trad- to TREAD v. Apparently introduced into English in 14th cent. from Hanseatic Middle Low German, perhaps originally in nautical language for the ‘course or track’ of a ship; afterwards used in other senses of Middle English trede TREAD n.

1. a. A course, way, path; (with possessive or of) the course trodden by a person, followed by a ship, etc.; = TREAD n. 3 common trade, a public thoroughfare. Obs.

5.  a. The practice of some occupation, business, or profession habitually carried on, esp. when practised as a means of livelihood or gain; a calling; formerly used very widely, including professions; now usually applied to a mercantile occupation and to a skilled handicraft, as distinct from a profession (PROFESSION n. 7a), and spec. restricted to a skilled handicraft, as distinguished from a professional or mercantile occupation on the one hand, and from unskilled labour on the other.in trade, following a mercantile occupation, spec. that of a shop-keeper. In earliest use not clearly distinguishable from 3; the sense is developed by contextual additions, as trade (i.e. practice) of husbandry , trade of merchandise, trade of fishing, etc.

1601   Act 43 Eliz. c. 2 §1   For settinge to worke all such persons..[who] use no ordinarie or dailie trade of lief to get their livinge by.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Julius Caesar (1623) I. i. 12   Mur. But what Trade art thou? Answer me directly… Fla. Thou art a Cobler, art thou?


LIVELIHOOD, n. Focus: Means to the end of living.

Etymology:  < LIFE n. + Old English lād course, journey, way, maintenance, support (see LOAD n., LODEn.). Compare Old High German lībleita food, provisions, means of living. The β. forms show remodelling of the ending by association with nouns in -HOOD suffix, and probably also subsequent remodelling by association with LIVELY adj

1. The course of a person’s life, lifetime; kind or manner of life; conduct. Obs.

2. a. A (person’s) means of living. Also as a mass noun: means of living; maintenance, sustenance. Esp. in to earn (also gain, get, make,or seek) a livelihood .

c1300   St. Mary of Egypt (Laud) l. 18 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 261 (MED),   With spinningue and with seuwingue, hire liflode heo wan.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 94. ¶8   He set himself to think on proper Methods for getting a Livelihood in this strange Country.

b. (A person’s) physical sustenance; an instance of this. Also: food, provisions.

a1382   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1961) Deut. ii. 28   Liflodys by prise sul to vs þat we etyn.


WORK, n. Focus: The most general of all the terms considered here. Implies effort, and can be used of human or nonhuman actors.

Etymology:  Old English weorc = Old Frisian, Old Saxon, (Middle) Low German, (Middle) Dutch werk, Old High German werah , werc (Middle High German werch , werc , German werk ), Old Norse verk(Swedish, Danish verk ) < Old Germanic *werkom (see WORK v.); cognate are Greek ἔργον , Armeniangorc , Avestan varəza- activity.

I. 1.  a. Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business; in pl. actions, doings (often collectively =3). arch. or literary in gen. sense.

1.  c. Qualified by phr. with of expressing the moral quality of the action, as a work or works of charity, of darkness, of mercy , etc.

2.  a. Something to be done, or something to do; what a person (or thing) has or had to do; occupation, employment, business, task, function.

1598   SHAKESPEARE Henry IV, Pt. 1 II. iv. 105   Fie vpon this quiet life, I want worke.

1604   SHAKESPEARE Hamlet V. ii. 274   The point inuenom’d to, then venome to thy worke.

4. a. Action involving effort or exertion directed to a definite end, esp. as a means of gaining one’s livelihood; labour, toil; (one’s) regular occupation or employment.

8. Physics and Mech. The operation of a force in producing movement or other physical change, esp. as a definitely measurable quantity: see quots.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 52   The work done does not depend on the pressure alone.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 53   The work done by a machine may be represented as certain pressures exerted through certain spaces.


My aim in offering these etymological reflections is not to draw any trite conclusions about which of these terms Christians should and should not use. I see the aim of this post more as a consciousness-raising exercise, both for myself and for readers of this blog: there are many different ways of considering our work (in terms of our position in a hierarchy, the effort involved, the body of knowledge we deploy, the fact of being given work by someone else, work as a means to the end of living…) and no doubt each term is appropriate in particular contexts. Nevertheless, I am struck by how all the terms apart from ‘vocation’ situate work on a predominantly horizontal level, focusing on our relation to other people and to the product of our labour, but not to God. For this reason, I am minded to echo Keller’s call to recover the concept of ‘vocation’ today. It reminds us of the origin, the goal, the standard and the authority of our work.

Let’s read Keller (1): Success at work, your relational net worth and speculating on the kindness market

Let's read Keller

Over the coming weeks I will be blogging my way through Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, with a particular eye out for insights that can be of help to Christian academics.

To get the ball rolling, here is a reflection on the book’s Foreword, by Katherine Leary Alsdorf,  the Founder & Executive Director of Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work, who describes the book in this clip:

In the foreword Alsdorf relates her experience of founding an internet company that was swallowed up in the great dot come bust of the late 1990s. She describes the reaction of her co-workers to hearing that the company would have to fold in this way:

The staff, entirely on their own, made a plan to come in the following day—for no pay—to celebrate one another and the work they had done. Though the celebration was bittersweet, they brought in musical instruments to play for one another or demonstrated the tai chi they taught in the evenings, and they laughed about fun times together. I was amazed. They were honoring a culture, an organization, in which they’d found some joy in their work and in their relationships with one another—despite the end result. Eventually I came to see that day as a glimpse of God at work, doing what God does: healing and renewing and redeeming.

The experience causes Alsdorf to reflect on the definition of failure, and it reminded me that there are always at least two dimensions to any job: what is being achieved and the relational context within which it is achieved. The “what” of Aldsorf’s company ultimately failed, but it’s relational context was a success. Sometimes, the tables are turned: the “what” can be achieved at the cost of the relational context: I get done what is necessary to succeed, but I leave an ugly trail of relational exploitation, broken promises and resentment in my wake.

If Blaise Pascal were writing the preface to Every Good Endeavor, he might have framed the distinction in terms of  the chase and the catch, suggesting that what often matters most to us is the journey rather than the destination, the relational context rather than the ultimate ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the enterprise. The weight of biblical material related to work would point us in the same direction: God is more concerned with how we work than with what we do, and with how we treat people than whether we are ‘successful’ in stock market terms.

For Christian academics, we must ask ourselves how we measure success in our own careers: by where we end up on the pecking order, or by how we treat people along the way?

The language we use is powerful in shaping the way we think, so let’s try some new concepts on for size, framing biblical values in the sort of language that is common in many workplaces:

  • When was the last time you thought in terms of your ‘relational wealth’, or ‘relational net worth’?
  • Have you ever been excited by the thought of innovating in obedience or making a strategic investment in holiness?
  • Have you ever speculated  on the kindness market or diversified into Christ-like service?

What story is your work part of? Here are Tim Keller’s diagnostic questions to help you find out

Every so often in the academic life you have a thought or–even worse–publish a paper, only to find that someone else has had a very similar thought and published before you. This is both an encouragement (because it’s an indication you might be on to something) and a let-down (because your idea is not as original as you thought it might be). This experience visited me a few days ago when, a couple of weeks after publishing the post on “the map and the mirror”, I read a post by RJS over at the Jesus Creed blog about the final section of Tim Keller’s book on work: Every Good Endeavor. It turns out that Keller’s exploration of how the gospel should shape and focus our work corresponds to some of the moves made in the map and mirror post. I’m a bit embarrassed by this (I should have read Every Good Endeavor by now, and I don’t want it to look like I’m copying Keller without acknowledging him), but also greatly encouraged that the thoughts presented on this blog might not be utterly dissimilar, mirabile dictu, to those in a book by someone as wise and culturally aware as Tim Keller. There are two main similarities between Keller’s approach, as related by RJS, and our own map and mirror exercise.

1) What story is my work part of?

The first similarity is the importance of the greater narrative we see our work as part of . There are, however, two differences between Keller’s approach and our own (which, happily, makes them complementary). First, whereas we used Two Ways to Live as a narrative outline, Keller focuses on the idea of story more generally, and secondly, while the map and mirror post focused on writing the narrative of “the world according to my discipline”, Keller very helpfully insists on seeing our work as part of God’s story. Here is RJS’s summary:

One of the most significant ways that Christian faith impacts work, for better or worse, is in the story we find ourselves in. Everyone sees themselves as part of a story, a worldview, that makes sense of life, death, and the universe. There is a problem, a plot, and a mission. We see ourselves as actors within this story.

…if you get the story of the world wrong – if, for example, you see life here as mainly about self-actualization and self-fulfillment rather than the love of God – you will get your life responses wrong, including the way you go about your work. (p. 156)

Keller turns this then to the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration,  summarized briefly. God made the world and everything in it good. There are no intrinsically evil parts of the world. The whole world is fallen and affected by sin. The whole world is going to be redeemed. The way we see this story and see God’s mission in the world will have a profound impact on the way we go about life.  The gospel, Keller points out, “teaches that the meaning of life is to love God and love our neighbor, and that the operating principle is servanthood.” This will affect every aspect of work, from purpose to performance.

To be a Christian in business, then, means much more than just being honest or not sleeping with your coworkers. It even means more than personal evangelism or holding a Bible study at the office. Rather, it means thinking out the implications of the gospel worldview and God’s purpose for your whole work life – and for the whole of the organization under your influence. (p. 168-169).

These thoughts echo the spirit of Geroge Herbert’s The Elixir, and also the following sermon illustration, which I heard a long time ago and can’t remember precisely (disclaimer: I haven’t read Every Good Endeavor yet, so apologies if Tim Keller uses this illustration too!) . It went something like this:

On the set of a great Hollywood blockbuster film, a boy was hired to sweep the set floor after each take. He threw himself into this repetitive and poorly-paid task with such enthusiasm and dedication day after day that, eventually, he drew the attention of the film’s lead actor, who himself was losing enthusiasm for the project. Approaching the boy, the star asked:

“I’ve noticed you around, and I have a question for you. Why do you race around the place like someone who has just won the lottery, when you only have this crummy job that no-one else wants? You come here every day in exchange for some loose change that most of us here wouldn’t pick up if we saw it on the sidewalk; nobody here is interested in you; you are ordered around like a slave, and all you are doing is sweeping the floor again and again. Why are you so enthusiastic?”

Undaunted by the actor’s attentions or by the strange question, the boy looked up at him and replied:

“It might look like I’m merely sweeping the floor, sir, but that’s just an appearance. In fact I’m helping make the best and the biggest film in the history of cinema.”

(If anyone knows the origin of the illustration, do post a link in the comments section). The boy knew what story his work was part of. His sweeping was not, ultimately, about sweeping. It was about playing his part in making the best movie in the history of film. Similarly, the story we see our work as part of makes all the difference in the world. If our sweeping, or data entry, or research, or teaching, or presence at meetings, is just about those things themselves, then we are likely to become either cynical and disengaged from our jobs or self-seeking and determined to build our own empires at work. But if we realise that our work is part of the greatest true story in the history of the world (because it is the story OF the world!), the story in which all things in heaven and on earth are being brought under Christ to the glory of God, then our drudgery is indeed rendered divine (though not in a way that results in Christians wearing a painted-on sickly sweet smile all the time).

Diagnostic questions

The second similarity is that Keller has a list of questions to ask concerning the areas in which we work, some of which are close to the questions we asked in the map and mirror post. Here is Keller’s list:

  • What’s the story line of the culture in which I live and the field where I work? Who are the protagonists and antagonists?
  • What are the underlying assumptions about meaning, morality, origin, and destiny?
  • What are the idols? The hopes? The fears?
  • How does my particular profession retell this story line, and what part does the profession itself play in the story?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are basically in line with the gospel, so that I can agree with and align with them?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are irresolvable without Christ? Where, in other words, must I challenge my culture? How can Christ complete the story in a different way?
  • How do these stories affect both the form and content of my work personally? How can I work not just with excellence but also with Christian distinctiveness in my work?
  • What opportunities are there in my profession for (a) serving individual people, (b) serving society at large, (c) serving my field of work, (d) modeling competence and excellence, and (e) witnessing to Christ?

RJS’s summary is well worth reading in its entirety, not least for the reflections he provides towards the end of the post on relating Keller’s principles to working in higher education. P.S.: After a bit of digging, I’ve found a talk given by Tim Keller in which he covers the idea of work in general, and the question of “what story our work is part of?” in particular. If you were ever curious to know the Latin name for the common duck, this is the clip for you:

Tim Keller shows how overwork and underwork are symptoms of the same disease, and Francis Schaeffer helps us find the right balance between optimism and pessimism

Every Good Endeavor

In this brief interview between Tim Keller and Matt Smethurst about Keller’s book Every Good Endeavour: Connecting your Work to God’s Work, the point that I found particularly helpful was Keller’s diagnosis of how “the counternarrative of the gospel addresses our propensity to idolize or demonize, to overwork or underwork”. This repeats a characteristic move of Keller’s, showing how the gospel saves us from both horns of a dilemma by cutting across it with a third option that resolves to neither of its dichotomous alternatives. He does the same in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, splitting the horns of self-importance and self-loathing by arguing that the bible encourages us to look away from ourselves towards God and others.

In Every Good Endeavor, it seems that Keller similarly groups together overwork and underwork, naïve utopianism and cynical disillusionment, as symptoms of the same disease of failing to have a gospel understanding of our work. Keller’s explanation of how the gospel helps us avoid both pitfalls takes the same form as his argument for why Christians should make the best cultural critics:

The gospel includes the news that the problem with the world is sin—sin in all of us, sin marring everything—and the only hope is God’s grace. That prevents us from locating the real problem in any created thing (demonizing something that is God-created and good) or locating the real solution in any created thing (idolizing something limited and fallen). Also, the Bible lets us know that while Christ’s kingdom is already here, it is not yet fully here. We are saved, but still very imperfect, yet we live in the certainty that love and goodness will triumph in the world and in us.

In short, we have no reason to become too angry or too sanguine about any trend or object or influence. We have no reason to become too optimistic or too pessimistic. In the book we argue that this balanced gospel-view of life has an enormous effect on how we work. Christian journalists should not be too cynical, nor should they write puff pieces or propaganda. Christian artists should be neither nihilistic and unremittingly dark (as so much contemporary art is), nor sentimental, saccharine, or strictly commercial (doing whatever sells). Christians in business should avoid both the “this company will change the world” hype or cynically “working for the weekend.”

Does this mean we need to be cynical and propagandistic in equal measure? I don’t think it does. What it means is that there is always hope in our critique, and always caution in our praise, when we are addressing earthly ideas or events. It also seems right and biblical to me that there should be a general predisposition in the Christian academic’s outlook to seek the positive. Francis Schaeffer characterised the negative as the “minor key” of Christian art, with hope and the positive as the “major key”. Now of course the proportion of the major and minor keys depends in each case on the context in which a particular work of art is being made or in which argument is being formed, but taken as a general principle we Christians should be striking the major chords more often than the minor. As Keller says in the interview above, “We are saved, but still very imperfect, yet we live in the certainty that love and goodness will triumph in the world and in us.”

The balance is nicely summed up by Paul’s conditional clauses in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

In the academic world I witness both naïve utopianism and cynical disillusionment around me all the time, and struggle to avoid both those pitfalls myself. Every Good Endeavor is a book I have yet to read, but I am grateful to Keller for expressing the danger, and its solution, so clearly, and I look forward to picking up a copy.

James Houston’s “Lord, help me to forget myself” and Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness

In another clip from the Biola Center for Christian Thought, James Houston Comments: “Many times we have to ask God for unconscious self-forgetfulness about what we are doing, and the difficulty about our professional life is that it is all self-conscious activity”:

What a liberation it is to forget self in this way. There is a sense in which it is deliciously counter-cultural in an academic world that is all about making a name for myself. There is also a sense in which self-forgetfulness is, in fact, what everyone is searching for anyway, through notions like flow or optimum experience, and which we can only truly find in God (see my post on Tim Keller’s reading of 1 Corinthians 1).

Houston’s comments here resonate with what Keller sketches in The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.

Let’s read Pascal (9): Would you rather know something about everything, or everything about one thing? The pitfalls of expertise

Let's Read Pascal

The intense specialisation and consequent fragmentation of the contemporary university is well documented. Fields of specialism are constantly shrinking and anyone who wishes to keep their job is required to become an “expert” in smaller and smaller parcels of knowledge with each passing decade.

While this trend certainly has its reasons (not least that we know more information about more objects of knowledge than we have ever known before), it comes at a cost that we are sometimes slow to count. Consider this pensée:


Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is the best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose the former. And the world feels this and does so; for the world is often a good judge.

Would you agree with Pascal? If you could only choose one of the two options, would you rather know a little about everything, or everything about one thing? With tongue just a little in cheek, we could frame the choice in this way: would you rather be a public intellectual or an academic?

In an age when the language of choice to refer to university employees is increasingly “experts” (just google “the university expert” and you’ll see what I mean), the species formally known as “dons”, “professors” or even “academics” now serve the public good by injecting off-the-shelf snippets of “expert” information into the “real world” when we are so bidden.

What we lose in the race to know everything about smaller and smaller areas is the wisdom (let’s use that word) that comes from a broad understanding, the balance that one disciplinary outlook and one set of disciplinary presuppositions can bring to another set, and the explosive arcing that comes when disparate areas of knowledge are brought into contact with each other. It also cements disciplinary group-think and the internal feedback loop of affirmation that can beset any closed group.

What we most risk losing, perhaps, is more serious than any of these disciplinary peccadilloes. We are in danger, in becoming too identified with our specialty or “expertise”, that our identity is first, foremost and foundationally as God’s creatures and forgiven sinners saved by grace who will give a final account of our lives to God alone. Why is this important to remember? One reason is that it ensures against one of the great academic temptations: to think that the expertise which we have the privilege of developing at the taxpayer’s expense in some way enhances the quality and worth of our souls. Now I know that to put it like that sounds ridiculous, but is there not a sense in which we are tempted to consider ourselves just that little bit elevated as people by virtue of our “superior knowledge and wisdom”? Elevated as academics: quite possibly; elevated as people: to think so would be spectacularly to misunderstand the very heartbeat of both the Old and New Testaments.

In his Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller quotes Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones musing on the trajectory that leads a person away from humanity and into to expertise: “there are many whom I have had the privilege of meeting whose tombstones might well bear the grim epitaph . . . ‘born a man, died a doctor.'”

God grant that it may never be said of us: “born a human being, died an expert.”

Let’s read Pascal (4): is my opponent mistaken, or incomplete?

Let's Read Pascal


When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

Here Pascal nails the crucial principle of walking in others’ shoes. If we can’t see why someone’s position is true for him or her, why it would make sense and be attractive, then we are not yet in a position to engage with it in a critical way. It is also the sound advice imparted in the Latin motto audi alteram partem (listen to the other side). Quite apart from being good academic etiquette and courtesy, a very careful and sympathetic attention paid to the arguments of those with whom one disagrees is often the very best soil for top quality scholarship to take root.

It strikes me that there are strong parallels between this pensée and the way in which Tim Keller handles 1 Corinthians 1. Engaging with the secular culture around us is not always (perhaps not mostly) a question of opposing, but of enlarging. Keller and Pascal here both start from the principle that the opponent of the Christian faith is not utterly wrong, but partial and incomplete.

This also reminds me of the thought-provoking maxim (I’ve never tested it) that all non-Christian positions (secular as well as religious) are in fact Christian heresies, taking some of the truths of scripture over others, or emphasising some over others in the wrong proportions. It seems to me a plausible hypothesis, and it would be interesting to follow up with some examples. Our task in our academic disciplines and in apologetics alike is frequently to adopt a posture not of “no!” but of “yes, but…”



A Pauline model for engaging with our disciplines

Somewhere in the  Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World series of talks (available on iTunesU), Tim Keller offers a brilliant fourfold schema that can help Christian academics to engage with our disciplines in a God-honouring and constructive way. Keller unfolds the schema as a way of understanding and engaging with culture in general, but I have found it useful as a way of feeling myself into my discipline. I reconstruct it here from memory and from my notes.

The schema is taken from 1 Corinthians 1:17-25:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  18  For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  19  For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  20  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  21  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  22  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,  23  but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,  24  but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  25  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Keller discerns four moments in Paul’s analysis of Greek and Hebrew culture.

Keller schema from 1 Corinthians 1


  1. This is what you want: Each culture has a value, something it seeks and esteems. For Jews it is divine power (in the form of miraculous signs), and for Greeks it is wisdom (in the form of philosophy).
  2. This is why you can’t have it in the terms you are searching for it: But each culture is cutting itself off from the very thing it seeks by looking for it in the wrong places. The Jews refuse to countenance the possibility of an agitating and inconvenient religious outsider having any ultimate clout with God, and the Greek search for wisdom is too narrowly focused and refuses to question its own constricting assumptions. The Jews could never accept a crucified messiah, even if this were God’s brilliant plan. If there were a wisdom from God in Christ, the Greeks could never know it, shackled as they are to the presuppositions entailed in their philosophical approaches. (I remember Keller being better on this point than I can reproduce here. I think he used an example from Albert Camus in a really helpful way. Post in the comments if you can remember what he said!)
  3. This is how it is found in Christ alone: This third moment is both a tragic and a delicious paradox. The irony in the situation of both the Greeks and the Jews, in Paul’s analysis, is that the very thing they seek is to be found only in the very one they despise. The Jews see in Christ a stumbling block, a weak and politically manipulable rabbi unable to save himself from an ignominious and accursed death. And the Greeks see in Christ a rather backward-thinking yokel (what do you expect from the University of Nazareth!) whose followers blather on crudely about the resurrection of the body. And yet it is in union with this renegade rabbi that we can encounter the universe-sculpting and sin-erasing power of almighty God as nowhere else; and it is in the vulgarity of the cross (how backward, blood-soaked and barbarous!) that we see the wisdom of God’s ultimate plan to “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, my emphasis). There is no power to rival this, and there is no wisdom to rival God’s wisdom as it is revealed in Jesus, for “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men”.
  4. This is how you can have it in Him: And so (verse 23) “we preach Christ crucified”. Not as a rival to the deepest desires and concerns of Greek or Hebrew culture, but as their one true fulfillment. What we ask is not that our culture and our disciplines start wanting different things, but that they swallow their pride and accept that they might find those things in what for them is the unlikeliest of places.

In the light of this passage, part of the task for Christian scholars is carefully to discern the values of the cultures of research in which we work, see how those values can only ultimately be satisfied in a Christ who paradoxically seems to offer their opposite, and then hold out Christ not as the enemy of all that our colleagues and our disciplines hold dear, but as the only hope of seeing those treasured values realised.