Some see sacred/secular as good/bad. In the lives of two famous runners, Roger Bannister and Eric Liddell, we’re reminded it’s a false dichotomy.
On March 3rd, Roger Bannister passed away. He was 88. Bannister was the first to run a mile in under four minutes. It happened while he was a student in medical school in London. He was also a member of an amateur running team competing against Oxford University on May 6, 1954. About 1,200 people showed up on a blustery and damp day to watch. Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes—3:59.4, to be exact.
Then he walked away from the sport. Roger Bannister retired from competitive running, feeling drawn more to medicine. He enjoyed a long career as a neurologist. But Bannister excelled in both—medicine and running, He led an extraordinary ordinary life.
Ordinary comes from the root orderly. Work and play are part of properly ordering the created world. They are vocations. In The Middle Ages, there were two types of vocations—sacred and secular. Both are good because God is equally present in both.
Secular (meaning “age” or “generation”) referred to ordinary vocations such as farming. You didn’t necessarily feel called to it. You simply did it as part of God’s general call to everyone to properly order creation. Thirteen years ago my wife Kathy went to work as a reading technician in the public schools. I doubt she initially felt called to it. It was good work, we needed benefits, and reading is essential to human flourishing. In ordinary vocations, people do their work well and get paid.
God will judge the quality of everyone’s work regarding how well it ordered life (I Cor. 3:10-15). But some vocations “incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). In the Middle Ages, the clergy was considered an extraordinary vocation, sacred, for teachers of the Bible must “correctly handle the word of truth” (II Tim.2:15). Airlines mishandling luggage is bad enough. Teachers mishandling God’s Word is worse.
This reminds us sacred/secular—imagined as good/bad—is a false dichotomy. God judges all work, some more severely. But he is equally present in the secular and the sacred, as William Tyndale wrote: “Between the doing of dishes and the preaching of the Word, there is a difference. Concerning pleasing God, there is no difference at all.”
Another famous runner, Eric Liddell, seemed to get this. Watch the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Liddell, “The Flying Scot,” is one of England’s leading hopes for a gold medal at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. But he learns that his event, the 100 meter race, is scheduled for Sunday. Liddell, a Christian, refuses to run on the Sabbath and withdraws. British officials are furious and try to change his mind. They fail.
But they make an accommodation. Harold Abrahams will run the 100 meter event. He wins the gold. Liddell will run the 400 meter race. He isn’t expected to win. He does.
Then Liddell walked away from the sport. At the end of Chariots of Fire, the screen reads: “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned.” True, for Eric Liddell led an extraordinary ordinary life.
Here’s the rest of his story. Liddell was born in Tientsin, China in 1902. His parents were missionaries. They sent Eric and his brother to boarding school near London where Eric became known as a great runner and a winsome preacher.
After the Olympics, Liddell returned to university, graduated, and went to China as a missionary. He taught, preached, and met his wife, Florence. When WWII broke out and Japan invaded China, Liddell sent his pregnant wife and two daughters home. He was soon taken prisoner and placed in a Japanese internment camp. Eric died of a brain tumor shortly before the camp was liberated. He never met his third daughter.
Liddell believed that “God made me for China.” It was an extraordinary vocation, sacred. Running was an ordinary vocation, secular, “an addendum” writes Duncan Hamilton, author of For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr. Eric saw God as equally present in both. There was no sacred/secular dichotomy.
If you’re unfamiliar with Eric Liddell’s life, watch Chariots of Fire. In 2016, a Chinese film company produced Wings of Eagles, the story of his life after he won Olympic gold. It was only shown in Chinese theaters. It becomes available for purchase on March 19. I can’t vouch for Wings of Eagles because I haven’t seen it. I can vouch for Chariots of Fire. It’s a good way to see the equal goodness in secular and sacred callings.