“Work gives meaning to life: It is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”
–Lester DeKoster, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, 2d ed. (Christian’s Library Press, 2010).
“Work gives meaning to life: It is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”
–Lester DeKoster, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, 2d ed. (Christian’s Library Press, 2010).
Two more thoughtful reviews of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness are in. Ross Emmett says that, “those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by reading and reflecting on Ballor’s excellent critique of the ecumenical movement’s political economy.” And in the new issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, Thomas Sieger Derr agrees with Jordan that the ecumenical movement should be “appropriately circumspect in its ethical pronouncements on specific matters of public policy.”
And, on his blog, Hunter Baker (he’s a PowerBlogger, too) chats with Jordan about Babel. Here it is in full:
Baker: Writing a book is serious undertaking that requires a lot of motivation. What was it that inspired you to write Ecumenical Babel?
Ballor: A number of years ago I first became closely aware of the kinds of advocacy that was going on by officials at ecumenical organizations. In the meantime, while pursuing graduate work and various duties at the Acton Institute, I kept an eye on ecumenical affairs, and when the 2010 Uniting General Council of the soon-to-be-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was announced I had the idea to write something engaging the social teaching of the various ecumenical groups. The WCRC was going to be formed at a meeting here in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, so I thought that this was an event that was perfect for the launch of a project that would later become Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness. (The less-colorful working title was Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Engagement.) As I say in the book, given my denominational background, including my current membership in the Christian Reformed Church (a member denomination of the WCRC), I have a real theological as well as spiritual interest in ecumenism, which I believe is of utmost importance in contemporary Christian life. The real promise and challenge of authentic ecumenism is undermined to a great extent by the kinds of frivolous and downright irresponsible pronouncements coming out of the mainline ecumenical groups, and this is a tragic state of affairs that I feel needs some ongoing response. Building on a line of criticism I find in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey, and Ernest Lefever, Ecumenical Babel is an opening statement in what I hope will be a renewed conversation.
Part of your argument, as I understand it, is a complaint against the practice of left-wing economics tied to the Christian faith. You would prefer that denominational confabs leave matters of economic policy undeclared and advert to prudence, instead. Is that a fair representation? And if so, does your book cut into the efforts of many Christian thinkers to encourage the integration of faith with a variety of fields?
It is a fair representation, provided that it is balanced with my similar discomfort at particularly right-wing economics coming from pulpits as well as denominational and ecumenical offices. What I hope is that my book interrupts the efforts of many Christians to bring their faith to bear on public life in a facile and superficial way. I do believe that the Christian faith is relevant for all of human life. It is a vigorous and comprehensive faith. As Jesus says, he has come that we may have life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I take this to refer to the “bigness,” the comprehensiveness and complexity, of the Christian life in this fallen world. But it is typically not the case that there is a single Christian position on particular economic or political questions, and I find that there is all too often a kind of ideological imposition on the church and its social witness. This happens both on the left and the right, but in this case I focus particularly on the ecumenical movement where the problem is largely left-wing brands of economic and political ideology. Carl Trueman has written a book, Republocrat, that focuses on a rather different context, that is, socially and theologically conservative or confessional Presbyterianism in the United States, where he finds the problem to be an unduly close connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Insofar as our objects of critique are different (and indeed our sensibilities are rather different regarding the prudential questions of economic and politics), then our respective criticisms are on one level quite radically opposed. But this opposition is particularly in the application, not in the principle, which is that we both write against the ideological interpretation of the Christian faith along particular economic or political lines.
This book was published by the Acton Institute where you have worked for a number of years now. In a nutshell, can you make their case for “religion and liberty”? And can you tie that mission to your book’s message?
The focus of the Acton Institute is to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue. The thesis, you might say, is that true freedom is only possible and realized within the context of virtue, the kind of virtue you get from a biblical account of God and his creation. The two must go together; you don’t get lasting or vigorous freedom in society without a virtuous people, and you don’t get a virtuous people without the institutional and structural freedoms that minimally allow, and maximally promote, such virtue. My book’s message relates to this in that it engages a particular set of voices that undermines this rather tenuous balance that holds freedom and virtue in harmony. The mainline ecumenical movement has been advocating for decades now for a kind of social, political, and economic transformation that I think would have deleterious consequences, and they have done so in a way that overreaches the mandates and responsibilities of the Christian churches as institutions in social life. One of the founding motivations for the Acton Institute was to present religious leaders with some introduction to economic ideas, so that their proclamation of the Gospel might be informed by some familiarity with what is involved with entrepreneurship, vocation, and business. The recent statements of the mainline ecumenical movement display the kind of ignorance of economics and un-nuanced rejection of economic realities that the Acton Institute has been working to dispel for the last two decades.
Finally, this book is the first publication of a renewed Christian’s Library Press, which was purchased and put back to work by Acton. Why did Acton buy the press? And what are Acton’s plans for the press going forward?
The Acton Institute’s acquisition of Christian’s Library Press was part of the institute’s reception of the literary and intellectual estate of Lester DeKoster, who passed away in 2009. Along with DeKoster’s books, notes, and unpublished manuscripts, the Acton Institute became the steward, you might say, of the publishing imprint that DeKoster began with his friend Gerard Berghoef and their families in 1979. Over the following decades Christian’s Library Press put out a number of important and valuable books on stewardship, discipleship, and Christian leadership that got some significant, albeit limited, circulation in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. One of the things Acton is committed to doing with CLP is to update and bring some of these texts back into circulation, introducing some of them for the first time to the broader evangelical world. So, for instance, we published DeKoster’s book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in a second edition last year. This is a little book that captures well, in an accessible and popular way, a core understanding of the value of work and its meaning in the Christian life. Moving forward we have plans to expand the imprint as we make available some of the CLP backlist in new editions as well as publishing new books in the broad area of Protestant social thought.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Sheep and the Goats: Work and Service to Others,” I visit Lester DeKoster’s interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. Although not many have discussed this as an “economic” parable, DeKoster’s point is that anyone who truly serves another through legitimate work, whether paid or unpaid, can be understood to be a “sheep.”
Work, for DeKoster, is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”
I don’t discuss another point DeKoster makes in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective, that relates to what results from the aggregation of individuals’ work. The answer is civilization: “Work shares in weaving civilization, which is the form in which others make themselves useful to us, by providing us with the tools for doing our work well.”
DeKoster points to the chair in which you sit while you read, or any of the other myriad objects that surround you, that could only have been produced by the contributions of countless workers through the assembly line and supply chain. Joseph Sunde over at Remnant Culture has a post up today that echoes this, focusing on the example of the toaster. His poignantly asks whether this illustrates “that free trade is primarily about collaborating and sharing? Hasn’t free trade shown that it holds great power for expanding, connecting, and shaping a global community?”
Or as Kevin Schmiesing has put it, “No Man is an Economic Island.“
In this week’s “Two Minute Warning,” Chuck Colson shows that “work is something we are all called to do, using our gifts to God’s glory.”
Where we serve others through our work we are serving God. That is the central insight of DeKoster’s book. He writes that “a right view of work becomes the key to a satisfying life, as it now looks to me. And whenever, and wherever, I see people working—at any kind of work, such as head or hand, blue-collar or white-collar, trade or profession—I want to shout out the good news: This gives meaning to your life! Right here! Right now!”
Very often it is difficult to see in any concrete way how our work really means anything at all. The drudgery of the daily routine can be numbing, sometimes literally depending on your working conditions. What is the purpose, the end of our work?
Last week I linked to Joe Carter’s On the Square piece, “What the Market Economy Needs to be Moral,” challenging his view that we need a “third way.” He has since clarified his position, and noted that what he wants is not really an alternative to the market economy but an alternative grounding, view of, and justification for the market economy. This is a position with which I wholeheartedly concur.
Today I want to highlight something else from Carter’s helpful piece. Carter first cites an anecdote from Andy Morriss:
One minister recounted how another minister had told him how God had answered his prayers and healed a headache the second minister had before a major sermon. The first minister commented on how arrogant the second minister was, to demand a miracle to cure his headache when God had already provided aspirin. Surely it is arrogant for us to pray for miracles to relieve drought and poverty when God has already handed us the means to do so—markets. Again, however, we rarely hear moral criticism of those who refuse the miracle of the market and insist that God (or someone) perform the far greater miracle of making economic planning work.
Carter then goes on to note:
This raises an interesting question for Christians: Does God’s sovereignty not extend to markets? If so, why do we expect God to circumvent the institution he has created and provided for our well-being by providing a “miracle”? The primary reason, in my opinion, is that we no longer think theologically about economics.
These two quotes bring out one of the most intriguing points in Carter’s piece. The point is that we are to appreciate the market for what it is, a God-given institution in which human beings created in his image relate to one another for the betterment not only of themselves but also of each other.
Think about the implications of Morriss’ anecdote for a moment.
God works through human means…this is his regular or normal way of acting in the world, through secondary causes including human action. We need not always pray for miraculous healing, but rather that God empower skilled doctors and nurses to heal us. We need not always pray that manna fall from heaven, but rather that God enable farmers to farm.
In his important book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective, Lester DeKoster makes programmatic use of this reality in an interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats. As DeKoster writes,
The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!
So, in the case of the sheep who gave Christ something to eat when he was hungry, we find that
God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in …
- wholesale or retail foods,
- kitchens or restaurants,
- food transportation or the mass production of food items,
- manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries,
- innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible.
DeKoster goes on to outline similar lists for those who regularly provide water to satisfy the thirst of others and those who provide clothing for those in need. These three are representative, he says.
The Lord’s choice of the kinds of services that are instanced in the parable is carefully calculated to comprehend a vast number of the jobs of humankind. The parable is about the work needed to provide the sinews of civilization. Doing such work, the Lord says, is serving his purposes in history, and in exchange he rewards workers far beyond their input with all the abundance of culture’s storehouse.
As I’ve noted previously, this view of work is transformative for how we approach views of wealth and poverty. We begin to finally be able to see work not just as a way to get a paycheck, but as the way God has ordained for us to truly serve others and thereby to serve Him as well.
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.
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.
The first thing I’d like to point out about Lester DeKoster’s claims regarding work is that he has in mind, at least partially, the classical Greek philosophical distinction between the active and contemplative life, particularly its disdain of manual labor. You can get a hint of this from the video short, “How did Plato and Aristotle Justify Slavery?” Some people are simply born to work with their hands and be governed by those who are wiser and able to think, take responsibility for society, and so on.
It’s with this distinction in mind that DeKoster and Berghoef write,
The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Hand work makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart. While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands, the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.
In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, as some comments have noted, DeKoster explicitly takes on Pieper’s thesis that leisure is the basis of culture. DeKoster writes,
The writer who speaks of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (Josef Pieper) is confused, even though he can quote some ancient Greek thinkers in his support. Work is the basis of culture. Leisure cultivated as a way of life produces no harvests but only dilettantes—drones that absorb culture without sacrificing for it, merely thieves of others’ sweat.
The disdain of manual labor, literal manufacturing, and the celebration of leisure, contemplation, rest, are in this way correlated.
We get a sense of why this is so in DeKoster’s distinction between work and play. He defines work as that which we do for others, but play as “that which is done to please or serve the self.” Thus he observes,
Play may absorb much effort, long planning, and lots of time. But so long as the end in view is the satisfaction of the self, such effort cannot be called work. This is true whatever the form of play, whatever its esteem in the community as compared with work. What the self heaps up in time for its own use does not carry over into eternity, and burdens the soul which is thus occupied.
Play may be indulged as recreation, that is as preparation for doing work better when the worker has been so refreshed.
This is, in many ways, a more helpful distinction than Pieper’s juxtaposition of work and leisure. For after all, work in DeKoster’s sense is really much more than what we do for a paycheck. It includes all of the things we do primarily for others. Service in its various forms is work, including that work done by mothers and fathers for their children inside the home.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s views on work and culture complement DeKoster’s in that his social ethical structure makes no basic distinction between work and culture [Bildung]. Each term is used essentially synonymously to cover the estate of our interrelations along with the church, family and marriage, and government [Obrigkeit].
We’ve pointed to play as one of the concepts that limits work. But some of the discussion has also pointed to a kind of sacred/secular distinction, that between worship and work. And here the traditional pairing of prayer and work comes to the fore.
In his Life Together, Bonhoeffer has a helpful way of putting how prayer and work are distinct and yet relate intimately. He says,
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.
Prayer is not conflated with work in this account, but rather provides work with its limits, its boundaries, and orients it towards its ultimate end in God.
For more on Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of work as an order of divine grace in the context of global Lutheranism, see “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth.”
And for the rest of this week you can pre-order the new paperback edition of Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective at a special Labor Day discount. Just add the book to your cart to see the discounted price, or download it to your Kindle reader right now.
Leading up to next week’s Labor Day holiday we’ve been reflecting on the nature of work the last few days. Today I’d like to conclude this little series with a note on the relationship between work and civilization, with specific reference to work in the context of Western civilization.
Yesterday I passed along the perspective on work as a formative influence on the soul of the worker: “…the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.”
But as DeKoster and Berghoef also note, “God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.” What they mean is that God has providentially arranged that the work of each individual in a society, when properly oriented toward the service of others, to create a civilization, in which the needs of others are met by the work of their neighbors, whether proximate or at a greater remove.
In his little book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, DeKoster puts these pieces together. The two definitions fit well. Work is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And civilization is “sharing in the work of others” and “good and services to hand when we need them.”
As he writes, “It is a circle we will finally see close: our working puts us in the service of others; and the civilization which work creates puts us in the service of ourselves. Thus work restores the broken family of mankind.”
You can pre-order Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective in hardcopy today from the Acton BookShoppe or download it to your Kindle reader and read it right away. There’s a special Labor Day discount for the pre-order (add the book to your cart to see the discounted price).
And for the broad account of the relationship between the Christian faith, including the theological perspective on work, and the development of Western civilization, see the Acton Media production The Birth of Freedom. You can view the trailer below:
You can also visit The Birth of Freedom website to get more information on the related small-group curriculum, as well as complementary video shorts, which address questions related to work and civilization, like “Why didn’t China have an industrial revolution before the West?” and “If medieval Europe was so great, why were so many medievals poor?”
One of this week’s contributions to Acton Commentary, in honor of the upcoming American Labor Day holiday is titled, “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments.”
In this piece I focus on how we can view work as a means to express our love for our neighbor and for God. I say a bit about what work does for us as individuals as well.
There’s a great deal that could be said on this very important topic. Work is a huge area of our lives. Lester DeKoster, whom I refer to in the commentary, goes so far as to call work the “basic form of stewardship.” (You can find out more about DeKoster’s view of work in his little book of the same name, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective.)
He writes, along with Gerard Berghoef,
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 be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.
Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about work and civilization.