In today’s Acton Commentary, “Mike Rowe and Manual Labor,” I examine the real contribution from a star of the small screen to today’s political conversation. Mike Rowe, featured on shows like The Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs, has written letters to both President Obama and Mitt Romney focusing attention on the skills gap and our nation’s dysfunctional attitudes towards work, particularly hard labor, like skilled trades and services.
In his letter to Romney, Rowe writes that “Pig farmers, electricians, plumbers, bridge painters, jam makers, blacksmiths, brewers, coal miners, carpenters, crab fisherman, oil drillers…they all tell me the same thing over and over, again and again – our country has become emotionally disconnected from an essential part of our workforce.”
Besides the perennially sinful temptations to shrug off hard work, and particularly to avoid the “toil” with which we are cursed after the Fall into sin, people have often rationalized a worldview that tends to devalue the physical, the material, the dirty and to idealize the spiritual. This tendency has worked itself out in the Christian tradition in various ways, from heresies like Gnosticism or Manichaeism, to more common phenomena like clericalism or secularism.
It was against a radical separation of the material and the spiritual that Cornelius Plantinga once wrote that “the things of the mind and spirit are no better, and are sometimes much worse, than the things of the body.” He continues by asserting that a consequence of this perspective is that “it is not more Christian to play chess than to play hockey. It is not more Christian to become a minister than to become a muck farmer.”
Understood as a reaction to a kind of radical separation between material and spiritual realities, and the overvaluation of the latter, this kind of claim indeed has some merit. But it also is a dangerous claim, in that it can result in a worldview that simply conflates (or merely equates) the material and the spiritual.
The fact is, as I think Mike Rowe’s concerns illustrate, is that we need to properly value the material, the physical, the work that preserves our natural life. But this doesn’t mean that we need to buy in to some radically egalitarian view of all work as equal in every way. This certainly isn’t the reformational view, at least.
The Reformation, with doctrines like the priesthood of all believers and vocation, did make all legitimate callings equally dignified before God. There is no longer a hierarchical and qualitative split between offices as such. But there remained a kind of hierarchy of good, a proper way of coming to grips with the complex world and the complicated workings of special and common grace.
Consider, for instance, the reformer Martin Bucer, who labored in Strasbourg for many years and was influenced heavily by Luther and in turn exercised great influence on Calvin and the reformation in England. As David Hopper puts it, “Vocation was, for Bucer, the necessary concomitant of a restored order of creation, to wit, a disciplined service and love of the neighbor–and all creatures–in this life, one freed, as in Luther, from concern for merit, but one integrated also into ongoing judgments about service to the well-being of the commonwealth.” This perspective necessitated some discrimination about better and worse ways of serving one another.
Bucer in fact held to a view of spiritual primacy, focused on the calling to ordained ministry, as the most significant way in which God’s special, redemptive grace was communicated in human work. In the second position Bucer placed the civil magistracy, in part because of it’s duty and concerns for the care of religion, as well as for its responsibilities to maintain public order. But in the third position, behind soulcraft and statecraft, so to speak, Bucer placed farmers and others who work for the material well-being of their neighbors.
So, indeed, we can serve each other and thereby serve God either in the ordained ministry of the Word and Sacrament, or in muck farming, or in myriad other callings. But we must also affirm the dignity of all human beings as manifested in legitimate work without conflating the qualitative differences between means and ministries of special and common grace.
Or as the Puritan Richard Baxter advises, “Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls.”