Over at Think Christian, I reflect on an “authentically Christian” view of work, which takes into account its limitations, failings, and travails, as well as its promises, prospects, and providential foundations.
The TC piece is in response to a post by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, in which they juxtapose the pscyhologizing of work as subjectively authentic self-expression with their own preferred view of work as something done simply “for the sake of sustenance.”
Critchley and Webster are right to point to the dangers of unchecked subjectivism, but are wrong in devaluing work as merely instrumental. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary penned a monumental indictment of the inroads radical subjectivism has made in Christian, and particularly evangelical, circles in his 1994 book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. As Wells puts it, the difference between the objective and subjective points of departure for our knowledge amount to two different ways of seeing the world; one is biblical, the other is worldly. “The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the sense can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent,” writes Wells.
More recently, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud, Marcuse and his followers effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations,” writes Trueman.
But there is a middle way of viewing work, between a necessary evil, made indispensable by the fall into sin, “a curse or an obligation for which we received payment,” and work as the highest manifestation of human self-realization, “the expression of one’s authentic self.” Work as it exists in this fallen world includes aspects that touch on both of these realities, but it is not reducible to either.
One of my favorite sections that gets at the subjective and spiritually-formative character of work is the following from Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster’s Faithful in All God’s House (excerpted in the latest Religion & Liberty):
Work matures the worker because it requires ethical decision. Merely to rise to one’s daily tasks requires an act of will, a decision to serve the community, however reluctantly, however unaware the worker may be that such is the case. Such willed acts of service not only make and sustain the fabric of civilization and culture, but also develop the soul. And, while the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.
This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.
This doesn’t mean that all work is equally valid or equally conducive to positive moral and spiritual formation. But it does mean that work is irreducibly significant for the development of the working subject, the working person, in addition to its objective or productive measure.
I conclude the TC piece by claiming that “an authentically Christian view of work” will ground “our subjective experiences of work within God’s objective and transcendent providence.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the relationship between the subjective aspects of work and the transcendent divine objectivity in relational terms:
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.