On a Wednesday afternoon a few days into a new normal brought about by covid-19, I spoke by phone with Dr. Steven Garber – Professor of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College, founder of The Washington Institute, and author of three books. We started our conversation with his newest book, The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love & Learning, Worship and Work. As with all good conversations, we started in one place and ended in another. Our conversation explored prayer and politics, life and labor, God and grace.
Our discussion was wide-ranging precisely because this book, The Seamless Life, is short in pages but broad in scope. It was an unusual endeavor for Steve – rather than advancing a structured argument or narrative, Steve wrote a series of essays that meditate on a common theme. The goal was to reflect on the question “What does it mean to see seamlessly?” This question has been at the heart of much of Steve’s life and work. As he told me, “I try to think about questions that human beings as human beings think about, not a more parochial ‘These are Christian questions for Christian people.’”
The idea that seeing seamlessly is relevant for all people is rooted in Kuyperian thinking. Abraham Kuyper was a Dutch theologian, politician, author, and pastor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His work and thought figures prominently in Steve’s vision for this book. The Seamless Life is divided into two parts: “At Work in the World” and “Making Sense of Life.” I asked Steve about these divisions and other topics from his book. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
The book is organized into two headings, “At Work in the World” and “Making Sense of Life.” How did you decide to organize it this way? In what ways are these topics interrelated?
The book’s subtitle is a window into [these divisions]: A tapestry of love and learning, worship and work. There’s a sense in which it’s all meant to be offering a view of the whole of life. I’ll mention Kuyper here – I’m quite Kuyperian in most of my thinking. The concept that every square inch of the whole of reality belongs to Christ. I do see life that way. The first half [of the book] is principally looking at questions of what we might call labor or work. The second half is primarily looking behind all that – not necessarily explicitly at the question of the work of my life, but at the question of how I understand the rest of my life. The rest of our lives shapes how we understand the work of our lives.”
Early in the book, you introduced the idea of ora et labora. You mentioned your grandfather introduced this idea to you.
The reality of it was introduced by my grandfather, but it comes from St. Benedict, a long, long time ago, who in the face of the demise of the Roman empire called people to create an alternative life. If Rome was crumbling, he called people to a life of ora et labora. But what I wrote in that essay was that my grandfather, who had probably never read Benedict in his life – though he was university educated and a very smart man, but he wasn’t reading Benedict, I’m sure –but just watching the way he lived his life, I realized his life was born of this Benedictine call, to pray and to work at the same time.
So much of your work and reflections have to do with how we physically interact with the world around us through vocation, and yet your own work is so much in words. How have you instituted ora and labora in a very different context than your grandfather?
It’s an important question. I’m like most people. In the 21st century, most people live in the cities all over the world, so a dramatic change has taken place in the past 125 years. Honestly, I thought I would be very agricultural in my life. My grandfather was a cattle buyer, and my father was a research scientist with the University of California but working with agriculture. I thought for the first 25 years of my life that I’d do something like this, something that would be interesting to me, that I could do, that would be related to my father and grandfather’s lives. This turned out not to be the case, which in some ways was a grief to me.
I can see ora and labora even in the course of this week even with the Coronavirus, as everyone is trying to figure out what to do with all this – how we respond on Wednesday is different than how we respond on Monday is different than how we respond on Friday. I was meeting with the president and dean of Regent College, talking with the future of our programs here. We spent an hour talking about the very particular questions of, “Will we do this and not that?”
And at the very end, I said let’s pray about this then, before we leave. And that prayer is like everything else in life… You can give a perfunctory kiss. And your fiancée wouldn’t like many of those from you. She’d like sincere kisses from you, that meant something between you. A prayer can be perfunctory in the same kind of way of course. But it’s different if it’s heartfelt, and sincere, and true –simply saying what’s true about the whole of life, that at the end of the day, “O Lord, we depend upon you. Give us wisdom to see clearly and to act rightly.” That’s one way to put it.
I’d also say – back to Kuyper – I have lots and lots of books in my life. My wife is very gracious to me, she doesn’t ever come down hard on me. She sometimes says, “Are you sure?” but she’s very generous with me. Of all the books I have, if were to be sent to the proverbial desert island, one of the books I would take with me without even a blink would by Kuyper’s “To Be Near Unto God.” It’s a book of 110 meditations he wrote while prime minister of Holland in the early 1900s. It is a useful book for all of us who desire to have a life near to God. Here’s someone certainly known for a very public life – prime minister of course – but 110 times he does what I enjoy referring to as “Calvinist lectio divina.” He takes one phrase from Psalm 73, a phrase which is full of terror and horror and weight and burden, yet the psalmist nonetheless concludes ‘and yet it is good for a man to be near unto the Lord.’ So Kuyper took those few words and 110 times reflected on them while involved in the pressures and business of life. Which I love, frankly, Joe.
Another little vignette here: maybe 20 years ago this happened. I got a call from someone at Prison Fellowship and they said, “Would you be willing to come and talk to headquarters staff about a question we have?” The question was, “Can you live in Washington D.C. and still have a contemplative life?”
I brought Kuyper with me, two of his books. I brought his Lectures on Calvinism given at Princeton 115 years ago. I also brought this lesser-known work of his, To Be Near Unto God that I just mentioned. I told them, I want you to see both of these books together. We know Kuyper as the prime minister and his words “every square inch of the whole of reality.”These two are held together of course. You can’t have one without the other. The public life he had, empowered by this vision of Christ’s lordship over everything, “every square inch” was actually borne out of this deeper more quiet personal life, of a life lived near to the Lord.
I was thinking as you were talking. Not only is there a fragmentation in our lives, but this is often borne out of the speed, the tempo at which our lives happen. Even in the midst of coronavirus response, there’s a push for more work, more content. I’ve been wondering, what does it look like with this newfound time to find a new pace of life that is a little more enriched, slower. So that’s a good word for me, even for thinking through this question of “Where does our public life find its strength?”
If I can speak very candidly to you, Joe, about this. Where you are in the larger Washington, D.C. world – it’s a huge problem there. Because of the very public character of the city, it’s easy to have a public face, a public life, that is unrelated to the deeper sources of life. For lots of reasons there’s a long history, a sad tragic history of a very privatized society in the city of Washington.
I would argue that the gospel of the kingdom, cuts deeper than the partisan divide. But local congregations are often riven by something other than that. We vote the party line – effectively saying, “I know we confess the Apostles’ Creed, but get out of here. Of course I’m going to vote the party line.” It’s its own tragedy. It’s a fragmentation of one’s sense of vocation.
Well, that calls up something that’s true even of my own life and story. Looking back at the 2016 election, there was a conflation of religion and politics – we were misplacing our hope. Personally, I realized in the midst of election craziness, I was putting my foundational hope in the political system, rather than in the Gospel. In one of your essays, you reflect on Wendell Berry’s understanding of the greater economy and lesser economies. The Gospel, or the Kingdom of God, is the greater economy and everything else – from politics to economics to art – are lesser economies that function in light of the greater economy. That was helpful for me. I realized I was making a lesser economy into the greater economy. It flipped my own life and my sense of security and peace because what I thought was the greater economy was being threatened by political changes.
That’s very perceptive of you and it’s a gift of grace to you, to see it that way.
Grace is a great word. The last essay in this book was a reflection on the proximate, which was really fascinating for me. I had never considered that word in quite the way you were thinking through it. It pointed me to grace immediately. The proximate is getting as close as we possibly can to what should be and yet realizing, because of a multitude of factors, that we will fall short.
Yes, that’s exactly it.
And yet the beauty is that there is grace for the gap. There’s a grace that picks up where the proximate leaves off. It was an interesting place to end the book, acknowledging that sometimes our best efforts don’t quite get us to where we thought they would. How did you decide to end the book in that way?
The book is titled The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love & Learning, Worship & Work. Which I like! It’s a good title, I think, in that it’s descriptive and honest. But it might be possible to imagine that what I am arguing for is perfection, is as it ought to be. If you read from the very beginning all the way through, I never ever have said that. In fact, I repeated the other argument essay by essay.
But I wanted to say this explicitly and very plainly before the book was over – we ought to wake up in the morning with a longing for a coherent life, with a longing for a seamless life. The word of the Lord to us is “Be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” But, whereas that’s true, we still fall short, we still stumble.
When my wife and I got married, I was more on the hippie side of things. We wrote our own wedding vows, which I was glad to do. They were very heartfelt, I worked out of my own heart to bring them to being. I chose them very carefully, but, I had no idea what I was saying to my wife until I began to live with my wife, to be married to my wife.
A week later, and three weeks later, and 4 months, 3 years, 40 years later, I have come to see that those are hard words to live by, actually. For me, I’ve given a lot of wedding homilies in my life. I’ve always said something about proximate happiness in marriage in the homily. Would you be willing to say all these things which are tender and sincere, would you be willing to make these promises in your heart of all hearts if you knew that by the grace of God you could look back in 25 years and say “We have found honest and true and real happiness together, a proximate happiness together haven’t we? It never was perfect, it won’t be perfect in this life, we are fallen people, but we’ve actually found a true and honest happiness together, even if it’s been proximate. And, for you to come to that, what you begin to realize is that all of life, just like marriage, has to be woven together by the meaning and weight and reality of grace, because there’s no other way for it to happen.