Acton Institute Powerblog

Work as if It Mattered

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

The conversations over the last few weeks here on work have raised a couple of questions.

In the context of criticisms on the perspectives on work articulated by Lester DeKoster and defended by me, commenter John E. asks, “…what is it that you hope readers will change in their lives, and why?”

I want to change people’s view of their work. I want them to see how it has value not simply as a means to some other end, but in itself. I want to change how they view their relationship to their work.

To echo DeKoster and Berghoef again, many of us simply view work as “a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial.” It may well be that. There is work that is better and work that is worse (to anticipate one of Schumacher’s points below). But we should also know that “the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more your will to persevere schools the soul.”

I want to add a bit of mystery back to the concept of work as well as a bit of spirituality. Again, DeKoster and Berghoef:

The results of one’s work can never be fully known. What will become of the produce raised, of the machine built, of the person fed? No one can foretell what will be the final consequence of today’s effort. Nor does the pay check really measure the value, nor the effort, of the work for which it is given. Wages are set by the market, and the results of work are hidden in the mists of tomorrow. What endures is what happens to the worker who bravely makes it through the day.

An aspect of this perspective, I think, is similar to that articulated by E.F. Schumacher in the essay, “Buddhist Economics” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Grace Marie Boggs notes the importance of the essay, in which Schumacher writes,

The modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

By contrast, the view of work in Buddhist economics is that it gives man “a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”

On this point, at least, there is some correspondence between the Christian and the Buddhist view of work as school for the soul. Joshua Snyder relates how Schumacher said of the essay, “I might have called it ‘Christian Economics’ but then no one would have read it.” The views of DeKoster and Berghoef on the one hand and Schumacher on the other are not identical. But what they share is, in Schumacher’s language, a criticism of “a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

In a related vein, David Michael Phelps wonders whether the perspective he articulates between work and art “is something that Reformed theology could/would/does support).”

The answers are affirmative, I believe: Yes, yes, and yes. Beyond the perspective on the schooling of the soul as written by DeKoster and Berghoef, the seventeenth-century theologian and pastor Richard Baxter has valuable things to say about the relationship between work and temporal goods and spiritual and eternal goods. But these are just a small sampling of the rich Reformed resources that can and ought to be brought to bear on these topics.

Phelps will be discussing “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment,” at tonight’s Acton on Tap, and he moderated our RFA podcasts on “The Stewardship of Art” (you can listen to part 1 and part 2 respectively).

You can also preorder Lester DeKoster’s little book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective today at the Acton BookShoppe.

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.


  • DMP

    I haven’t time now to return to it, but I have to believe that Caritatis in Veritate has quite a bit to say, perhaps implicitly, about the issue of work and economic action existing not simply for utilitarian ends, but for the real development of an individual human person, as well as of true culture.

    Perhaps this document would be a good help in this exchange.

  • Patrick

    Jordan, thank you for taking up this issue of work. As an employer and a worker, too, I have observations about the issue.
    First, I find the word “enthusiasm” (en-theos) missing from the discussion.
    Secondly, and unrelated to the first, not all jobs are objectively morally equivalent. I would not put a skilled brain surgeon’s labors on a par with those of a San Francisco sex worker, or even a skilled medical researcher who engages in embryonic stem cell research.
    Third, I came across a set of “work-out tapes” today and asked myself: “Is this a set of workout exercises that would have appealed to Mother Theresa?” The incongruity of Mother Theresa dancing to a Fonda workout tape struck me immediately, so I asked myself, is there a certain minimal level of physicality or menial labor required for a happy, meaningful vocation. Is there a correlation between physicality (incarnation) within vocation and the moral health of a culture. . . contrast the Roman (Platonic) cultures’ disdain of physical labor and Christianity’s integration of the material and spiritual universe?

  • JohnElfering

    Thank you Mr. Ballor. I think the goal of changing people’s attitude and relationship towards work is a noble one and is what attracted me to DeKoster’s book in the first place. It’s something that will require frequent reflection, but I believe that you at least achieved the goal of getting me to look at my work with a better attitude and see the goodness of work in itself. I recommend DeKoster’s book and there is much I agree with. My only trip-up was when he criticized Josef Pieper’s book, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”, just shortly after I had heard of him for the first time in a complimentary way and have since found other reviews that recommend his work.

    All of our time belongs to God, and I like the Shumacher’s quote you included, “work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

    I have Josef Pieper’s book now and plan to read it soon. Considering the haziness of the definitions of “work” and “leisure” (at least for me) I wonder to what extent DeKoster and Pieper really disagree. I wonder if DeKoster lumps too much into the definition of “leisure” when he criticizes Pieper and if some of what Pieper calls “leisure” would be considered “work” by DeKoster. I hope to find out so that I can better give all of my time, both work and leisure, to God.

  • John, I think you may be right re: DeKoster and Pieper. I’m looking forward to investigating more on this specific issue as well.

    I wonder: did you read DeKoster’s book on the Kindle? If so, did you like it delivered that way?

  • JohnElfering

    Yes, actually I think it was the first book I’ve really read electronically. I don’t actually have a Kindle, but have the free Kindle app on my iPod. Because it’s a fairly short book and only a few bucks, it was an ideal first choice to try out using the app. I like the instant access, lower cost, and lower clutter of Kindle books over print books, the generated index of areas I’ve highlighted, and being able to search.

    The downside is not being able to pass the book on to someone else or for others to see what you’re reading (which might also be a plus sometimes). Some potential discussion starters or opportunities for evangelism could be lost.