Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

    R&L: In your book, The American Hour, you say that America, at her best, is a liberal experiment. In this context, what do you mean by “liberal”?

    Guinness: I mean it, not it its modern sense, but in its nineteenth-century sense of liberalism in the relation of faith and freedom. I think the framers were clear that faith and freedom were integral.

    Faith was foundational to the United States at three points. The first was winning freedom; just take the enormous influence of the “black regiment,” the preachers and thinkers behind the American Revolution. The second was the ordering of freedom; nothing is closer to the genius of the United States than the First Amendment and its establishing the separation of church and state in such a constructive way. And the third–which is less stressed today–was the sustaining of freedom; refer to James Madison’s argument that faith is vital to virtue, and that virtue is vital to freedom. So, those who think you can have an empty or ungrounded freedom misunderstand the framers.

    R&L: Would you say, then, that freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for?

    Guinness: Paraphrasing Lord Acton, “Freedom is not the permission to do what we like, it is the power to do what we ought.” The trouble is that, today, freedom is purely negative: freedom from parents, from teachers, from the police, and so on. We have lost sight of it as freedom to be that which we can be or ought to be. We need to recover the idea that, as Lord Acton stressed wisely and as the present pope has written of so well, freedom is the power to do what we ought. That assumes, however, we know the truth of who we are and what we ought to do. That is the freedom the modern secular liberal tends to forget.

    R&L: And does being a follower of Christ tutor us in how to exercise our freedom in relation to the truth?

    Guinness: Absolutely. To me, one of the most appalling things in this country at the moment is the capitulation to the postmodern view of truth–the view that truth is relative, socially determined, and all a manner of human construction, and that any truth claim is really a disguised bid for power.

    What proponents of this view do not realize is that when all claims to truth are reduced to forms of bids for power, you just open yourself up to power games. That is an incredibly dangerous, Nietzschean moment.

    When Vaclav Havel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn resisted the Soviet regime, they did so on the basis of truth. “One word of truth,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “outweighs the entire world.” Or in the words of Havel, “Truth prevails for those who live in truth.” Many Western liberals applauded them at the time, but they do not have the same, strong concept of truth to do the job today.

    People thought that postmodernism promised a brave new world of knowledge, but they are suddenly beginning to realize it is a highly manipulative and very dangerous world. And when you see the dangers, suddenly you see the enormous significance of the words of Jesus: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” There is no freedom without truth.

    R&L: In the first chapter of your new book, The Call, you mention that you have been reflecting on the concept of calling for nearly twenty-five years. Why does this concept so appeal to you, and why did you write this book now?

    Guinness: On a personal level, it was the concept of calling that helped me discover my own purpose in life. Furthermore, in my travels through the English-speaking world, the questions I have been asked most frequently have to do with calling. All across the West today, people are seeking a deeper sense of individual purpose

    As Fyodor Dostoyevski put it, “The secret of man’s being is not only to live, but to live for something definite.” Or as Søren Kierkegaard put it, “The goal is to find the idea for which I can live and die.” I come across such longing in people again and again, and there is no question that the Call is this longing’s deepest answer.

    R&L: How do you define “the Call”?

    Guinness: Simply put, the Call is the idea that God calls us to Himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do is invested with a dynamism and a devotion because it is done as a response to His summons. In other words, those two words of Jesus Christ–“Follow me”–changed the world as millions since have risen up to follow His call.

    R&L: In the book, you note two primary distortions of the concept of calling. Can you elaborate on them?

    Guinness: Over the course of the past two thousand years, the concept of calling has been distorted in two ways. I label these–although this is slightly unfair–the Catholic distortion and the Protestant distortion, and both are reflections of a spiritual/secular dualism.

    The Catholic distortion is the idea that spiritual things are higher than secular things; so, calling is reserved for monks, nuns, and priests, and lay people are let off the hook, so to speak. This idea was introduced first by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, and was picked up by great thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas.

    The Protestant distortion is the other way around. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that calling includes your work, but about one hundred fifty years after the early Puritans, we see the words calling and vocation become merely synonyms for work and employment. Over time, that was distorted until it came to be seen that one’s work simply was his calling. So, we have a situation where calling is being secularized and work is being sacralized.

    R&L: But these distinctions are not hard and fast, are they? Especially in recent years, there has been a great deal of cross-over between Protestants and Roman Catholics on this issue.

    Guinness: That is exactly right. For example, many Protestants today more deeply manifest the Catholic distortion than many Catholics. You see it enshrined in the notion, “full-time Christian service,” as if ministers and missionaries are full-time and everyone else is part-time. That view is anathema to the New Testament’s understanding of discipleship.

    R&L: And in many ways the present pope seems to have a very “Protestant” view of work and calling.

    Guinness: Pope John Paul II is, in many ways, closer to Luther and Calvin than many of Luther and Calvin’s followers today. You also have the distinguished Catholic writer and speaker Michael Novak, who in his book Business As a Calling comes very close to an idea with which the Puritans would have felt thoroughly at home.

    R&L: Do you envision an important conversation between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants on the issue of calling?

    Guinness: I think it is another area where there can be very fruitful interchange. Calling gives a tremendous dignity to the whole of life. This is enormously significant as a way to combat secularization and the modern world’s tendency to sequester religion to private life, where it is free to flourish, and banish it from public life, where it is irrelevant. Both Catholic and evangelical followers of Christ have an interest in seeing the Lordship of Christ and the integration of faith with every part of life lived out in practice. This is one of those truths that can do it.

    In the United States, some Christians tend to talk as if the problem is that Christians are absent from certain spheres, say, the university or the media. In most cases, however, that is not the problem. It is not that the Christians are not where they should be, the problem is that they are not what they should be right where they are. It is a tragedy that so many Christians at such an hour, facing such challenges, should be so ineffectual, but a renewal of the notion of calling–everyone, everywhere, everything–can make an incredible, dynamic difference. Of the small handfuls of truths that have a historically proven track record for being able to stir people, calling, along with the cross of Christ, is at the very top of the list.

    R&L: Throughout your discussion of calling, you cite many who, out of their own sense of calling, opposed barbaric and tyrannous regimes–people like Dietrich Bonhoffer, Vaclav Havel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. What is it about calling that enables men and women to stand against the tides of the times?

    Guinness: One of the themes introduced by the Puritans is the notion that people live by calling, in other words, living by faith to the glory of God and having one audience–the audience of one. Today, so much of modern society is so other-directed, so audience-driven, and so seeker-sensitive, that much leadership is actually codependent on follower-ship, which gives rise to leaders who are really panderers, not leaders.

    I think of the difference between Winston Churchill and his friend, David Lloyd George. Churchill was described “as impervious to public opinion as a diver in a bell.” Lloyd George, on the other hand, was described as so amazingly attuned to public opinion that when he was alone in the room, there was no one there. Most modern leaders–not only in politics but also, sadly, in the church–are closer to David Lloyd George than they are to Winston Churchill. But the person of calling has one audience, the audience of one. So, if one believes on the basis of conviction and conscience that the majority is wrong, it becomes necessary to challenge received opinion, to take on the majority.

    R&L: I would like to read a quotation from your book. You write, “Calling, which played a key role in the rise of modern capitalism, is one of the few things capable of guiding and restraining it now.” Could you unpack that a bit for us?

    Guinness: I have no problems admitting the extraordinary superiority of market capitalism; it is a remarkable engine of dynamism, fruitfulness, productivity, and so on. I question that not at all. But it is only a mechanism, and the problem comes in when people make it a source of meaning.

    You see in the New Testament that those of us who are followers of Christ always have a choice. Either we love God and use money wisely and fruitfully, which is terrific, or we love money–call it Mammon–and try to use God, which is a dangerous form of idolatry. Calling helped produce the rise of capitalism; it also has the power to reintroduce a philosophical, theological, ethical notion that can be the guiding and disciplining force to channel capitalism so that it is purely creative and not destructive.

    R&L: What, then, is the relationship between markets and morality?

    Guinness: Unless capitalism has an ethical boundary, it will always create two problems. One is the problem of insatiability, never knowing when to stop, always wanting just a little more. The other problem–you can see this very clearly in America today–is commodification. The good society draws a line between what is and what is not for sale, but, in modern America, almost everything is up for sale, including much that should not be. We need powerful faith with strong ethics and knowledge of what is legitimate to buy and sell–that’s the market at its best–but certain things are not for buying and not for selling, and we should know why.

    R&L: It seems that you are making an important distinction–much like Pope John Paul II–between market institutions and market culture. Is that a fair description of what you are laying out?

    Guinness: Exactly. It takes faith, ethics, and discernment to keep a thoroughly valuable market mechanism flourishing, but in its place.

    Most Read

    Os Guinness is an author and social critic. Great-great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer, he was born in China in World War Two where his parents were medical missionaries. A witness to the climax of the Chinese revolution in 1949, he was expelled with many other foreigners in 1951 and returned to Europe where he was educated in England. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of London and his D.Phil in the social sciences from Oriel College, Oxford.