Acton Institute Powerblog

The ‘end’ of work

In the Q&A part of a session I led at last month’s Acton University on Abraham Kuyper and Leo XIII (based on this recent volume), I was asked about specific areas where the two figures have something concrete to contribute today. One theme I highlighted was to their shared emphasis on the centrality and dignity of human work.

Today there is a great deal of anxiety over the future of work in an age of increasing globalization, automation, and structural changes to the economy. Kuyper and Leo, following the biblical account, both see work as constitutive of human nature; it is therefore a given that there will always be work as long as there are human beings.

We each have a particular role to play, something unique to contribute to the common good. Leo avers that “social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.” Or as Kuyper puts it in relation to the cultural mandate: “Our human nature is placed in the nature that surrounds us, not in order to leave nature as it is, but to work on nature instinctively and irrepressibly, by means of art, to improve and perfect it.”

All of this is why I find much of the discussion about the “end” (as in termination) of work overblown. That’s not to say there aren’t huge challenges, at both the macro and micro levels. But if we see the “end” (as in the goal) of work to be the productive service of human beings, then there never will be an end of good work to do, whether individually in our lives or collectively in our societies.

So part of rightly identifying what the challenges we face today really are and really require is in part definitional. If “work” is what you do for a paycheck, then there are already many people who do not work. But if work is what you do to serve others, as I think Lester DeKoster rightly identifies it, then what we are charged with, amidst transition and turmoil, is finding ever-new creative and productive ways to serve others and thereby make ourselves useful to God in this world. And that, in turn, places a great deal of emphasis on innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial dynamism in the new, global economy.

A follow-up question asked if I had some resources to recommend on this score. DeKoster’s book is a great place to start for redefining work away from merely what you do for pay. Someone in the session also said Jay Richards has a book coming out on this topic at some point soon. But in the meantime this recent CT cover story by Kevin Brown and Steven McMullen is also a good starting point for getting a handle on the dynamics of the contemporary landscape. As Brown and McMullen write, “Work is much more than unpleasant toil, a means to survive, or the pursuit of status. God calls humans not to be consumers, but to creatively serve those around us. He invites us to exercise our God-reflecting capacities to glorify him and serve others.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.