How is modern work alienating? It lacks “self-directedness and opportunity for development in work” according to Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.
Why is this a problem? Because it inverts “the means and the ends.”
Specifically: “human beings are created in the image of God in order to have a fellowship with God.” This necessarily implies “freedom and responsibility” are “divinely conferred” attributes of “personhood.” If a person is “compelled to do what he has not freely adopted as his own end” — for the sake of greater productivity, for instance — then that person is being treated “as a mere means.” This “contradicts” the person’s “nature as a personal being.”
I’m all for attempting to recover “self-directedness” of each worker. But the task seems too lofty. If every “compulsion” necessarily violates freedom, then the goal would have to be to transform work to such a degree that there is no compulsion and each worker is completely self-directed in all his work. That, to me, seems impossible, at least before the new creation.
Perhaps that is the point. We are to recognize we will never attain that goal on this side of heaven, but continue to work towards it nonetheless.
(Also, if this vision is true, i cannot wait till I get to “work” in the new heaven and new earth.)
“I will not comment…on the alienation [in work] that results from the incomprehensibility and tyranny of the complex social and economic interaction in which the individual’s work takes place,” says Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.
I was hoping he would, especially since alienation in my work as a lawyer involved in massive and massively complicated development and financing of infrastructure seems to stem from the “incomprehensibility and tyranny of the complex social and economic interaction in which” my work takes place.
Some Christians are against attempts to humanize alienating work, sometimes arguing for a type of “virtue [in] suffering” and other times noting the futility of all such attempts, observes Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.
Volf himself recognizes that “the inescapable reality of human sin makes work unavoidably an ambiguous reality: it is both a noble expression of human creation in the image of God and a painful testimony to human estrangement from God.” He acknowledges that this calls for realism. But he believes this also “prohibits quietism in relation to alienating work.” For “those who acknowledge Christ’s lordship,” the presence of the Holy Spirit “gives hope that work also can be transformed in ever greater correspondence” to its ideal — “pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness” (quoting John Calvin).
So, it is our tasks as Christians to “hope against all hope and strive in the power of the Spirit to make work ‘full of delight.’”
In Work in the Spirit, one of Miroslav Volf’s aims in constructing a pneumatological theology of work is to combat the tendency inherent in the vocational theology of work to accept, rather than to challenge, work that is alienating.
He explains “work is alienating when it does not correspond to God’s intent for human nature.” While “alienation in work is not equivalent to dissatisfaction with work,” “discontent with work is an unmistakable indicator of the presence of alienation.”
But, what constitutes us as human beings is “not human work (or any other human activity)” but “God’s personal relation” to human beings. Put theologically, “sin against God has ontological…priority over all other forms of human sin and misery,” and “the fundamental form of alienation cannot be alienating work, but alienation from God.”
This means we should not “expect too much from any success one might have in overcoming alienating work” because “such success does not reach deep enough into the human predicament.” Moreover, “even attempts to humanize work with more modest goals will be less successful than they could be” if the focus is solely on humanizing work while neglecting our alienation from God. Finally, “since alienation from God will be overcome only in the new creation, all attempts to humanize work will be crowned with only partial success.”
A business leader who runs his company according to the Christian vision “should create an environment where the work is seen as important, enriching and purposeful” according to Kenman Wong and Scott Rae in Business for the Common Good.
“Work that is boring, mindlessly repetitive or fundamentally stultifying can have a deadening effect on a person’s spirit, which is not consistent with seeing people as made in God’s image.”
Put differently, Kenman Wong and Scott Rae believe, as does Miroslav Volf, that Christians should seek to transform dehumanizing work.
What is the relationship between work and leisure?
In the past, “much of Christian tradition over the centuries subordinated work to leisure.” In modern times, both in theory and in practice, leisure has been subordinated to work.
The proper approach, according to Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit, is to not subordinate one to the other. There is “no hierarchical ordering of charisms that corresponds to ‘spiritual’ tasks, on the one hand, and to ‘secular’ tasks on the other.” “If God’s Spirit inspires people both to work and to worship without systematically preferring either one or the other, then both work and worship must be fundamental activities of human beings that cannot be subordinated to each other.” Volf quotes Nicholas Wolterstorff: “rhythmic alternation between work and worship, labor and liturgy is one of the most significant distinguishing feature of a Christian’s way of being-in-the-world.”
What is leisure for? Volf has a traditional answer: “the Sabbath commandment for the first time in history interrupted work with regular periods of rest,” and thus “liberated human beings from enslavement to work.”
He goes further: the very existence of the Sabbath commandment “presupposes that people can meet their basic needs without having to forego leisure.” So, according to Volf, the very existence of this right to leisure implies there is a “corresponding right to sustenance for all those who are willing to work ‘six days a week.’” In other words, if someone is unable to meet his basic needs for sustenance by working “six days a week” — does Volf mean this literally or figuratively? — and thus is forced to work all the time without rest for his basic needs, his right to leisure has been violated, and the system must be changed.
This, I think, is a part of what Volf means when he said his pneumatological theology of work does not privilege status quo the way a vocational theology of work tends to.
Henry Ford, well known for his embracing the use of the assembly line, a quintessential example of division of labor, once asked, “Why is it that I always get the whole person, when all I want is just a pair of hands?” says Kenman Wong and Scott Rae in Business for the Common Good. To Henry Ford, people were instruments for production.
To a Christian leader, people are “not [to be]used but developed and coached to reach their potential and fulfill their callings, while at the same time doing what is required of them.”