Acton Institute Powerblog

The Thread of Work and the Fabric of Civilization

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

globe-fabricIn Leonard Reed’s famous essay, “I, Pencil,” he highlights the extensive cooperation and collaboration involved in the assembly of a simple pencil — complex coordination that is quite miraculously uncoordinated.

Reed’s main takeaway is that, rather than try to stifle or control these creative energies, we ought to “organize society to act in harmony with this lesson,” permitting “these creative know-hows to freely flow.” In doing so, he concludes, we will continue to see such testimonies manifest — evidence for a faith “as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.”

In his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster explores the theological aspect of this phenomenon, noting God’s grand design in these webs of service and exchange. For DeKoster, this “practical faith” points rather clearly to a Creator, and when we recognize it, we begin to see how His purposes might manifest through our work in ways out of our immediate control or humanistic intent.

Echoing Reed’s essay, DeKoster refers to this web of exchange as the “fabric of civilization,” stitched together with the “countless tiny threads” of human work, each dependent on the other, but each mysteriously guided by an independent source.

An extended excerpt of this chapter is available over at the Oikonomia blog, which captures this as follows:

The fabric of civilization, like all fabrics, is made up of countless tiny threads—each thread the work of someone. Superficially, any given thread might be readily spared or replaced—that could be my job or yours…

Consider the furniture around you. It’s congealed work—and worker. Countless hands fashioned it all along the way from raw material to finished product. Our homes are furnished because there is a tightly woven fabric of civilization, or there would be no chair, no sofa, no table, and no car, no street, nothing at all. What civilizes our world is the fact that work is done. Somewhere in the whole mosaic of goods and services our work is being done too. My chair would be no more useful were it autographed by every hand that gave something to its creation! I can use it simply because everyone did their job…

If we put a painting under a microscope, it becomes apparent that each color exists thanks to innumerable tiny dots. If we analyze a television screen, it is evident that the figures we see are in fact visible because each is composed of small individual units. And if we could trace our automobiles back through all the steps involved in making them, we would find workers’ hands investing workers’ selves every step of the way. All wholes are made up of individual parts. What matters, always, is not who can count the parts or how readily each part could have been replaced. What matters is that the parts are, each of them, there. What matters is that the job, each job, like yours or mine, has a doer and gets done.

…The day we went to work we locked hands with humankind in weaving the texture of civilized life—and our lives each found the key to meaning.

This process moves along quite “naturally,” one might say. As image bearers of a creative God, we are wired to create and produce and share in relationship and exchange with others.

But how much greater might our contributions be if we were to expand our imaginations and more readily and intently embrace and pursue our work with service at the center? How much brighter would the fabric shine if we recognized that these are far more than mere ripple effects? That our toil is not just for mere survival or provision, but for the glory of God and for the building and budding of civilization?

Read the full excerpt from DeKoster’s book here.

Work: The Meaning of Your Life

Work: The Meaning of Your Life

Where do we find the core of life's meaning?  Right on the job!  At whatever work we do -- with head or hand, from kitchen to executive suite, from your house to the White House. New Foreword by Stephen J. Grabill and Afterword by Greg Forster

Joseph Sunde Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute, serving as editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and content manager of the Oikonomia channel at Patheos.com. He is the founder of Remnant Culture and was a longtime contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism project. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Mission:Work, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Comments