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Labor and the Limits of Work

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There has been some good discussion over the past week and Labor Day holiday about the nature of work and its role in our lives (particularly here).

The first thing I’d like to point out about Lester DeKoster’s claims regarding work is that he has in mind, at least partially, the classical Greek philosophical distinction between the active and contemplative life, particularly its disdain of manual labor. You can get a hint of this from the video short, “How did Plato and Aristotle Justify Slavery?” Some people are simply born to work with their hands and be governed by those who are wiser and able to think, take responsibility for society, and so on.

It’s with this distinction in mind that DeKoster and Berghoef write,

The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Hand work makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart. While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands, the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.

WorkIn his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, as some comments have noted, DeKoster explicitly takes on Pieper’s thesis that leisure is the basis of culture. DeKoster writes,

The writer who speaks of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (Josef Pieper) is confused, even though he can quote some ancient Greek thinkers in his support. Work is the basis of culture. Leisure cultivated as a way of life produces no harvests but only dilettantes—drones that absorb culture without sacrificing for it, merely thieves of others’ sweat.

The disdain of manual labor, literal manufacturing, and the celebration of leisure, contemplation, rest, are in this way correlated.

We get a sense of why this is so in DeKoster’s distinction between work and play. He defines work as that which we do for others, but play as “that which is done to please or serve the self.” Thus he observes,

Play may absorb much effort, long planning, and lots of time. But so long as the end in view is the satisfaction of the self, such effort cannot be called work. This is true whatever the form of play, whatever its esteem in the community as compared with work. What the self heaps up in time for its own use does not carry over into eternity, and burdens the soul which is thus occupied.

Play may be indulged as recreation, that is as preparation for doing work better when the worker has been so refreshed.

This is, in many ways, a more helpful distinction than Pieper’s juxtaposition of work and leisure. For after all, work in DeKoster’s sense is really much more than what we do for a paycheck. It includes all of the things we do primarily for others. Service in its various forms is work, including that work done by mothers and fathers for their children inside the home.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s views on work and culture complement DeKoster’s in that his social ethical structure makes no basic distinction between work and culture [Bildung]. Each term is used essentially synonymously to cover the estate of our interrelations along with the church, family and marriage, and government [Obrigkeit].

We’ve pointed to play as one of the concepts that limits work. But some of the discussion has also pointed to a kind of sacred/secular distinction, that between worship and work. And here the traditional pairing of prayer and work comes to the fore.

In his Life Together, Bonhoeffer has a helpful way of putting how prayer and work are distinct and yet relate intimately. He says,

The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). The prayer of the Christian reaches, therefore, beyond the time allocated to it and extends into the midst of the work. It surrounds the whole day, and in so doing, it does not hinder the work; it promotes work, affirms work, gives work great significance and joyfulness. Thus every word, every deed, every piece of work of the Christian becomes a prayer, not in the unreal sense of being constantly distracted from the task that must be done, but in a real breakthrough from the hard It to the gracious You.

Prayer is not conflated with work in this account, but rather provides work with its limits, its boundaries, and orients it towards its ultimate end in God.

For more on Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of work as an order of divine grace in the context of global Lutheranism, see “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth.”

And for the rest of this week you can pre-order the new paperback edition of Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective at a special Labor Day discount. Just add the book to your cart to see the discounted price, or download it to your Kindle reader right now.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • JohnElfering

    I won’t try to hide the fact that work, leisure, and their role in building culture are still somewhat of a muddle in my mind. I’m not so sure actions can be easily placed in solely one category or the other, or possibly either. I doubt for instance that DeKoster would call idleness work, but neither would Pieper call it leisure. And is something work or leisure because of the subjective intention of the act, the objective results of the act, or whether the primary beneficiary of the act is myself or someone else?

    Whatever the case, what is it that you hope readers will change in their lives, and why?

  • Patrick

    Yes, it bit confusing… when I got done reading it, I was reminded of a Readers’ Digest Humor in Uniform story of a group of senior officers debating if sex was work or fun. They asked a Pvt serving them for his opinion. He responded that “it must be fun because if it was work, he’d be doing it.” Sometimes examples and specifics help us to understand.

    I question the cases of musicians and artists. Do the great artist balance a mix of leisure and labor, or does their leisure become labor, maybe a labor of love, but work nevertheless.

    What of Mary, Martha and Jesus?

  • Peter Swanson

    “Work is the basis of culture. Leisure cultivated as a way of life produces no harvests but only dilettantes—drones that absorb culture without sacrificing for it, merely thieves of others’ sweat.”

    It seems to me if this guy would have read Pieper attentively he would not make the mistaken charge of Pieper defending dilettantism. He is speaking of a straw-man of leisure as explained and defended by Peiper.

    Where is there room for gift, for inspiration in this view, where is the passive yet intelligent and purposeful receptivity? What is prayer considered by this author? Or worship? Are they form of work, or thievish drones stealing the fruit of others? Yeah what about Mark and Martha–does this author consider them?

    The direction a biblical view of this should take it seems to me (and I do think Pieper can be improved upon in this regard, at least in the concreteness of the discussion) is to reject the anti-materialistic greek dualism/Platonism, while retaining the distinction between activity that is intrinsically valuable vs. only instrumentally valuable.

  • The challenge is defining work. It is not as easy as it might first appear. If a farmer owns a tomato farm and I am growing some tomatoes in my backyard, then we are engaged in the same core activity. Are we both working?

    In the “Work in the Spirit,” Miroslav Volf defines work:

    “Work is honest, purposeful, and methodologically specified social activity whose primary goal is the creation of products or states of affairs that can satisfy the needs of working individuals or their co-creatures, or (if primarily an end in itself) activity that is necessary in order for acting individuals to satisfy their needs apart from the need for the activity itself.” 10-11

    Darrell Cosden does a lengthy analysis on the various aspects of work and the way people have tried to define it in A” Theology of Work.” He comes to the following tentative, if lengthy, definition:

    “Human work is a transformative activity essentially consisting of dynamically interrelated instrumental, relational, and ontological dimensions: whereby, along with work being an end in itself, the worker’s and others’ needs are providentially met; believer’s sanctification is occasioned; workers express, explore and develop their humanness while building up their natural, social, and cultural environments thereby contributing protectively and productively to the order of this world and the one to come.” (178-179)

    My own definition would be something like:

    Systematic human action that transforms matter, energy, and data from less useful forms to more useful forms primarily for personal consumption or exchange with others.

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