John Ames—the fictional Iowa pastor conceived by novelist Marilynne Robinson—is a worldly saint.
In Gilead, Ames is the aging father penning the wisdom of his last will and testament to his young son: "Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like a transfiguration," he writes. In Home, Ames looms in the background, troubled to forgive and love his namesake, Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of his oldest friend. In Lila, Ames is the improbable husband of a morally circumspect woman half his age: "Somehow [Lila] found her way to the one man on earth who didn't see [the blemish of her life]."
As a pastor and friend, husband and father, John Ames has lived devotedly, if imperfectly, for the kingdom of God. But he's loved the world, too. "It has seemed to me sometimes," he writes in Gilead, "that the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life."
In Becoming Worldly Saints (subtitled Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life?), Michael Wittmer may have imagined someone as holy and human as John Ames. Wittmer's central thesis—that we can serve Jesus and enjoy our lives—will sound paradoxical, if not blasphemous, to some. Doesn't Scripture sever the interests of heaven and earth? Doesn't it insist that gaining the world requires the forfeiture of our souls (Matt. 16:26)? Without dismissing the call to self-denial, Wittmer rejects the notion that eternal purpose is always irreconcilable to temporal, earthly pleasure.
‘If You Enjoy Being Human...’
Becoming Worldly Saints traces the cohesive story of salvation between Genesis and Revelation. This recapitulation recovers a lot of earthly good, especially for readers who grew up, like Wittmer, singing about the rapturous occasion of the "roll being called up yonder." From the doctrine of creation, Wittmer defends material enjoyment. If God made a good world for us to inhabit, we should take "wholesome" delight in created good without guilt. Arguing from the Incarnation and Resurrection, Wittmer defends "God's enthusiastic embrace of the material world." His argument has eschatological import: Heaven is not a sky kingdom, which we'll inhabit in ghostly form. Heaven is coming to earth in the form of a city, and through faith in Christ we'll become residents of the New Jerusalem in resurrected bodies. "If you enjoy being human and you enjoy being here, you are going to love the new earth."
While Wittmer affirms a worldly faith that embraces earth, he is also careful to emphasize the priority of heaven—and the purposes of redemption. He warns against finding ultimate satisfaction and meaning in the things of this world. "The pleasures of creation must not lull us to sleep. We are at war, and we must never forget our heavenly calling." To love the temporal world is good; to love eternity is best. “Everything counts, but some things count more. They just do. If God is the source of all value, then everything matters, and those activities that focus most on him matter most of all."
If this seems like contradictory advice (like simultaneously saying "stand up" and "sit down"), it is—in part, because we cannot resolve what is "productive" about the tension between robustly living in the present while also longing for the eternal future. "If we ever stop feeling the pull between creation and redemption, that can only mean we've fallen off one side or the other." And though the tug is real, Wittmer's conceptual framework proves unhelpful on the level of application. On the one hand, he argues persuasively for worldliness. "Where will you enjoy God's creation today? Thank God for the privilege of being human and of being here. Then go have some fun." On the other, he's equally convincing on the subject of sainthood. "If you want to live, really live, then do what Jesus and the other members of the Godhead do: deny yourself." If creation and redemption figure like these two theological poles, how can we help but feel like children shuttled between divorced parents? And if mom and dad both deserve our love and attention, will they have to settle for separate weekends?
"A good life is like good jazz," Wittmer writes. "It has rhythm. The best lives alternate between creation and redemption, family and church, work and play." Though he admits the importance of integrating the holy and the ordinary, the heavenly and the earthly, Wittmer doesn't necessarily show readers how “our love for Jesus and his world is not a zero sum game [and] attention given to creation is not stolen from its Creator." Here's one particularly unhelpful example: "A ham sandwich does provide a window through which we enjoy God—the ultimate end of all things—but it's also a sandwich that we can enjoy for its own sake. Sometimes a sandwich is (mostly) just a sandwich."
Praise of the Giver
Perhaps the biggest deficiency of Wittmer's argument (and the ham sandwich) is its inability to deal adequately with the nature of idolatry. What does it mean for any of us to inordinately love creation? Can we love the ham sandwich too much? I can't help thinking that Wittmer would have benefitted from citing more of Augustine, whom he dismisses early in the book for his Neoplatonist leanings. (Disciples of the philosopher Plato, the Neoplatonists thought of the heavenly realm as better and purer than the earthly realm.) Perhaps Augustine was too indebted to Plato. Or perhaps the modern Christian isn't indebted enough. (Read Hans Boersma's Heavenly Participation for an account of this argument.) These philosophical debates aside, Augustine's writing offers helpful language for teaching Christians to identify an idolatrous relationship with the material world.
In Confessions, Augustine writes that sin is related to the "immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good [and] we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law." For Augustine, Wittmer's ham sandwich might indeed pose a problem: we could love it to the exclusion of God.
In City of God, Augustine warns that any created good can become harmful "when used without restraint and in improper ways." (Too much ham, too few vegetables.) And he writes that we shouldn't seek to enjoy gifts, only God himself. "We are said to enjoy something which gives us pleasure in itself, without reference to anything else, whereas we 'use' something when we seek it for some other purpose. Hence we should use temporal things, rather than enjoy them, so that we may be fit to enjoy eternal blessings, unlike the wicked, who want to enjoy money, but to make use of God." Perhaps the distinction between "use" and "enjoy" will seem like semantic sport, but the question is as practical as our relationship to the ham sandwich: How do we eat to the glory of God? Can we enjoy the ham sandwich for its own sake? Or is it best understood as a penultimate good—something that points to God himself?
Wittmer's book nudges in the right direction: We should be as human and holy as Jesus himself, who used "his immersion in the ordinary acts of creation to support his mission of redemption.” There is no shame in loving the world (or the ham sandwich). Nevertheless, we are most worldly—most saintly—when gratitude for gifts becomes praise of the Giver.
“Cataract that this world is," writes John Ames, "it is remarkable to consider what does abide in it."
Jen Pollock Michel is a Her.meneutics contributor and the author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith (InterVarsity Press).
Image credit: Katherine Lim, Flickr