Work in the Spirit 23

imgresIn Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf argues we must strive to transform “alienating work” into “humane” work, that is, work that does not exclude freedom or stifle personal development of worker.

But, “free work that fosters one’s development is not necessarily humane work.”

Why not?

Because, “when one strives for individual freedom and personal development alone, freedom becomes empty – a mere absence of outward regulations for individual behavior” and personal development becomes “narcissistic.”

If a person is not “willing to serve others in love” through his work, then he is using his freedom “as an opportunity for the flesh.”  If work is not “framed by the concern for the common good,” then the “essential characteristics of humane work…degenerate into forms of alienation: by being free and developing myself I am alienating myself from my true nature as a being-in-communion” with my fellow men.

Luther argued that work is the means by which God shares his love of mankind.  Thus, when I work, I serve my neighbor.  In other words, Luther starts from God and his loving nature to arrive at work as service to others.

Volf reaches that same conclusion in a very different way.  For Volf, our very nature as a social being implies we ought to serve others through work or risk alienating ourselves from our true nature.  In other words, Volf starts from man and his social nature to arrive at work as service to others.


Work in the Spirit 16

imgresIn the Lutheran vocational understanding of work, God calls us to work and we respond to that call by obedience.  Hence, we “work out of a sense of duty.”  In contrast, in Miroslav Volf’s pneumatological understanding of work presented in Work in the Spirit, God “first and foremost…empowers and gifts [us] for work.”  so we work because we “experience the inspiration and enabling of God’s Spirit.”  “The sense of duty gives way to the sense of inspiration.”

Work in the Spirit 14

imgresMiroslav Volf is against tweaking the Lutheran theology of work based on the notion of vocation to make it work given its problems in Work in the Spirit.

For one, he thinks Luther misinterpreted 1 Corinthians 7:20 when Luther took “calling” in that verse to mean a “calling with which, to which, or by which a man is called” rather than “the state in which he is when he is called to become a Christian.”  For another, he thinks if one starts with “the singularity and permanence of vocatio spiritualis,” then one necessarily ends up with “a singular and permanent vocatio externa.”

Instead, he says the New Testament actually has “a carefully chosen term…to denote the multiple callings of every Christian to particular tasks both inside and outside the Christian church.”

What is that word?


Now we are getting somewhere.

Work in the Spirit 13

imgresMiroslav Volf offers six critiques of Luther’s understanding of work as vocation in Work in the Spirit.  The first is that it is “indifferent toward alienation in work.”

Here’s the rest.

The second: Luther’s notion of vocation is “ambiguous” because “Luther’s bold identification of vocation [i.e., vocatio externa] with the call [i.e., vocatio spiritualis] led again and again to the integration of the call into vocation and vocation into occupation….”  Why is this bad?  This eventually leads to “consecration of the vocational occupational structure,” and “vocation [begins] to gain the upper hand over the call.”

The third: “Understanding of work as vocation is easily misued ideologically.”  Since “every employment is a place of service to God…this [Lutheran] notion of [work as vocation] simply functions to ennoble dehumanizing work” without offering any “resources to foster” “structural or other kinds of change.”

The fourth & the fifth: the Lutheran notion of vocation is “not applicable to the increasingly mobile industrial and information society” which are “characterized by a diachronic plurality of employment” and “a synchronic plurality of employment.”  The former refers to the fact that, nowadays, a person goes through multiple jobs over his lifetime.  The latter means a person holds multiple jobs at the same time.  Because Luther often insisted that we remain satisfied in our vocation, “to change one’s employment [can be seen as] fail[ing] to remain faithful to God’s commandment.  In addition, in Lutheran theology, “vocatio externa as a rule refers to a single employment or job, which people hold throughout their lives.”  This is, again, at best inapplicable to modern contexts and at worst unduly condemnatory.

Finally, the sixth: “Lutheran social ethic…reduced its notion of vocation to gainful employment.”  “This reduction…coupled with the belief that vocation is the primary service ordinary people render to God contributed to the modern fateful elevation of work to the status of religion.”  And no good can come of such “religious pursuit of work,” of course!

Work in the Spirit 12

imgresMiroslav Volf offers six critiques of Luther’s understanding of work as vocation in Work in the Spirit.

The first is that it is “indifferent toward alienation in work.”

To Luther, “every type of work can be a vocation, no matter how dehumanzing it might be” as long as one is called to it (i.e., it has a divine origin) and one serves others through it (i.e., service is its purpose).  While this understanding can give comfort to people who are in fact engaged in dehumanizing work, it does so “only at the expense of the transforming potential for overcoming alienation in situations where transformation is both necessary and possible.”

In other words, one danger in embracing the Lutheran understanding of work is that it pressures people to think the only right thing to do is to accept dehumanizing, alienating,  mindless or degrading “types of work in industrial and information societies” when a more appropriate stance is to seek to overcome the alienation and transform the work.

Work in the Spirit 11

imgresIn Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf characterizes Luther as having believed that “all Christians (not only monks) have a vocation,” and “every type of work performed by Christians (not only religious activity) can be a vocation.”  Consequently, “Luther’s notion of vocation ascribed much greater value to work than was previously the case.”  In addition, “Luther’s notion of vocation overcame the medieval hierarchy between vita activa and vita contemplativa” for “every vocation rests on God’s commission, [and thus] every vocation is fundamentally of the same value before God.”

These insights should be preserved, Volf says, but “Luther’s notion of vocation has serious limitations, both in terms of its applicability to modern work, and in its theological persuasiveness.”

Onto the limitations, then!

Work in the Spirit 10

imgresChristian theologians have always recognized human work as “cooperation with God,” notes Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.

To wit: Martin Luther refers to human work as “God’s mask behind which he hides himself and rules everything magnificently in the world.”  This is because “God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional state of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way.”  While “the consummation [of the new creation] is a work of God alone,” “since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations of the new creation,” “human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi.”

Volf is aware that work can be viewed as cooperation with God in not only an eschatological framework with which he is working, but also in a more traditional protological framework (i.e., a framework based on the doctrine of original creation).  Anticipating his critique of the vocational understanding of work, Volf says he prefers the eschatological approach for four reasons.

First, since the very “nature of Christian existence” is eschatological, it is not possible to “develop a theology of work simply within the framework of the doctrine of creation.”

Second, “the new creation is not simply a negation of the first creation but is also its reaffirmation.”  This does mean a theology of work must be construed in light of the doctrine of creation.  But “the new creation is…not a mere restoration of the first creation.”  Mankind isn’t simply “put..back into the Garden of Eden.”  Rather, “it leads us on to that further destiny to which, even in the Garden of Eden, we were already directed.”  Hence a theology of work must taken into account “the broad context of the (partial) realization and of the expectation of the new creation.”

Third, the protological framework is conceptually inadequate “for interpreting the modern work.”  In the protological framework, “the ultimate purpose of human work…is the preservation of the world.”  (But is it?  When Adam was commanded to subdue the earth, was he being commanded to preserve it but not transform it?  I’m not convinced.)  But modern work “transforms the world as much as it preserves and it preserves it only by transforming it.”  The “static framework of preservation cannot adequately incorporate this dynamic nature of human work.”

Finally, “the protological theologies of work tend to justify the status quo and hinder needed change in both microeconomic and macroeconomic structures by appealing to divine preservation of the world.”

I can feel Volf’s critique of the vocational understanding of work beginning to emerge.  Dying to know what they are, especially since I haven’t encountered one to date.