What do markets have to do with monasticism? Quite a lot to the Benedictine monks of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Southern California, according to a recent press release. Their prior Fr. Joseph Brennan describes MonksInk, the monks’ business selling ink and toner cartridges:
Over at Rough Trade, the always intriguing James Poulos celebrates the increased attention now being given to the “relationship between economic and religious life,” pointing to the Acton Institute’s very own Samuel Gregg to kick things off.
Yet he remains unsatisfied, fearful of a return to what he views to be unhelpful “conceptual frameworks and cultural antagonisms” of the past, and urging us to push toward “a new mode of analysis that breaks away from the old, exhausting debates.” For Poulos, this means embracing an “economics of grace,” an interrelated component of something he has called “radicaltarianism” in the past (see more on this here and here).
Poulos observes the typical divides among Christians as follows:
Christians who accept these teachings [about the fall of man and grace] tend to split into two economic camps: those who lean toward an uncritical embrace of free-market capitalism, and those who tilt toward a far more skeptical, suspicious attitude. For the first group, the social upshot of Christianity is an institutional framework that supports flourishing with minimal reliance on the state. Christianity supplies a good foundation for market activity. For the second, the most durable and authentic institutional frameworks supplied by Christianity raise damning questions about the sustainability of neoliberalism — the secular “democratic faith” that gives market capitalism its modern philosophical foundations. For both groups, the key is that, ultimately, religion drives sustainable economic life. The difference is that the first group typically understands religion in a Protestant way, as a driver of explosive, and morally legitimate, economic growth, while the second takes a more Catholic view, doubtful of the moral purity of explosive growth, and focused much less on growing capital than other sorts of things, like families.
According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.
In Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life, Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make a similar case. They argue that “the church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” They also cast the hopeful vision that another reversal might occur: “The church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems if enough believers caught the vision.”
While Fikkert is largely drawing on the early twentieth century in America for his argument, Berghoef and DeKoster examine more broadly the Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and works of charity. This dynamic is, after all, is a perennial challenge for Christian social engagement, and the interaction between the Social Gospel and evangelicalism in America is just one example. Another is the reversal over the last century or so in the Netherlands, where there has been a move from Abraham Kuyper’s claim that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” to the church’s plea “for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government.” Read more on A Great Reversal of the Church & the Welfare State…
Joseph Sunde’s fine post today on vocation examines the dynamic between work and toil, the former corresponding to God’s creational ordinance and the latter referring to the corruption of that ordinance in light of the Fall into sin.
Joseph employs a distinction between “needs-based” work and something else, something privileged, a first-world kind of “fulfilling” work. The point DeKoster makes is right on target; we need to, in Bonhoeffer’s words, break through from the “it” of the work to the “you” (ultimately the divine “You”) that we meet in the work itself.
The discussions of these kinds of distinctions between “hard” work and “head” work have a long pedigree. There was a philosophical dispute running throughout the ancient and medieval eras about the value of the active versus the contemplative life. But I’d like to highlight a more proximate antecedent for some of this thinking, the British controversialist and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900).
Television is often lamented for its propensity to exaggerate the mundane and the ordinary. Yet when it comes to something as routinely downplayed and unfairly pooh-poohed as our daily work—the “rat race,” the “grindstone,” yadda-yadda—I wonder if television’s over-the-top tendencies might be just what we need to reorient our thinking about the broader significance of our work.
As I’ve argued previously, we face a constant temptation to limit our economic endeavors to the temporal and the material, focusing only on “putting in our 40,” working for the next paycheck, and tucking away enough cash for a cozy retirement. Whether we know it or not, plenty of transcendent activity is also taking place in such efforts, whether through our service, creativity, productivity, collaboration, relationship-building, or plain-old ordinary exchange. How we think about the greater significance and spiritual potential of our efforts is bound to impact how we behave in our daily efforts, either pushing us in the direction of earthbound toil or unleashing us further toward transcendent ends.
If, as Lester DeKoster puts it, work is the “meaning of our lives,” whether we’re scrubbing toilets or selling high-priced widgets, it would seem that such a striking and all-encompassing reality deserves at least a little drama. Thus, below is a select list of my favorite TV shows that draw out some of these features (some more sincerely and effectively than others). None are “Christian” in any explicit sense, and each involves its own share of tasteless theatrics and contrived scenarios, but each nevertheless illuminates some untold truths about the significance of our work beyond the merely material.
(Tip to producers: Add a concerted focus on the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to any one of these shows, and that Emmy is a shoo-in.)
5. Dirty Jobs
Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe is passionate about “celebrating hard work and skilled labor,” and by trying his hand at some of the dirtiest jobs in the land, from coal miner to sewage sifter to animal-husbandry parts-grabber, he has drawn enormous attention to some of the less celebrated and most essential jobs around. Each has its own unique requirements and pay scale, but plenty of Rowe’s undertakings involve manual labor that we might be tempted to label “undignified” or “dehumanizing.” Yet even the persistently cheery Rowe—who is surely well paid for his toil—is rarely able to outdo the positive attitudes of these workers. These are folks who ooze with passion, pride, and an acute awareness of the pressing needs they are meeting in their local communities and society at large. Read more on 5 TV Shows That Demonstrate the Importance of Ordinary Work…
In his latest column, Ross Douthat contemplates what a world without work might look like:
Imagine, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.
If such a utopia were possible, one might expect that it would be achieved first among the upper classes, and then gradually spread down the social ladder. First the wealthy would work shorter hours, then the middle class, and finally even high school dropouts would be able to sleep late and take four-day weekends and choose their own adventures.” — “to hunt in the morning,” as Karl Marx once prophesied, “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner …”
Yet a widespread decline in work is not just an imaginative possibility. As Douthat goes on to argue, such decline has become “a basic reality of 21st-century American life,“ but without following the typical Marxist trajectory. “Instead of spreading from the top down,” Douthat notes, “leisure time – wanted or unwanted – is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.” Despite our persistent longing for rest and relaxation, however, this trend is not viewed as a positive development for society, even for the folks at Mother Jones.
I recently pondered what might come of the global economy if we were to to put God at the forefront of our motives and decision-making. The question came as a reaction to Tim Keller, whose recent book calls on Christians to challenge their views about work. By re-orienting our work to be a “servant” instead of a “lord,” Keller argues, we will actually find more fulfillment in the work that we do.
On the one hand, when we understand DeKoster’s definition of work, we might be a bit more amenable to the suggestion. DeKoster says that work is essentially our “service of others.” This means that “work” as such is not strictly defined as waged labor outside the home, for instance.
Thank you to our friends at The High Calling for excerpting this passage of Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life, recently republished by The Acton Institute and Christian’s Library Press. DeKoster, the former professor and director of the library at Calvin College and Seminary, also edited The Banner, the Christian Reformed Church’s monthly publication. Acton is grateful for its relationship with both The High Calling and DeKoster, who left his 10,000+ book library to the Acton Institute upon his passing in 2009.