A Theology of Work 3

imagesIn A Theology of Work, Darrell Cosden says the vocational model of work outlines the spiritual meaning of work as both “acts of personal obedience to God/God’s call, and, as outward service to others as God’s means for meeting their physical needs.”  Put differently, the vocational model “emphasises particularly the importance of work’s instrumental aspect (especially with respect to human obedience / sanctification) and its relational aspect (concerning how our work can contribute toward meeting the needs of others and the broader society).”

He cites Miroslav Volf as someone who moved from protology to eschatology as the foundation of the theology of work.  This “eschatalogical orientation mean[t]…work is perceived as teleologically directed and oriented forward toward the future new creation rather than backward toward the restoration of the initial creation.”  As a result, work becomes a type of “eschatological mandate rather than simply a creation mandate.”


A Theology of Work 1


Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit tries to build a theology of work in light of new creation rather than one anchored in vocation.  In A Theology of Work, Darrell Cosden seeks to provide “a more detailed unfolding of the implications of this eschatological realism for a theology of work.”

“Normative theological understanding of work is best construed threefold as a dynamic inter-relationship of instrumental, relational, and ontological aspects,” says Cosden.  

First, work is instrumental “in the mundane sense” — “a means to continued survival” and “a means for further economic expansion and growth.”  Here, “the focus is not on work, but rather its product used directly or indirectly as a way of securing more of life’s necessities or wants.”  Work is instrumental “in the spiritual sense” as well — e.g., building character, meeting other’s needs, generating profits to be given to charity in order to lessen the pain of others and spreading the gospel message.

Second, work is relational when it “refers to work’s aim toward appropriate social relationship and / or to some form of human existential realization and fulfillment.”  This could be considered “a sub-category of the instrumental.”

Cosden’s focus, though, is on the third — ontological — aspect of work.  “God created us to be workers in nature” “not as an accident of nature but because God first is a worker and persons are created in his image.”  And work is “built into the fabric of creation by God.”  As such work “is a thing in itself with its own intrinsic value apart from but of course related to these [instrumental and relational] functions.”

Why Work? 1

imagesWriting during World War II, Dorothy Sayers asks in Why Work?: “shall we [after the war ends] go back to that civilization of greed and waste which we dignify by the name of a ‘high standard of living’?”

For her, “that [meant] going back to the time when labor was valued in terms of its cash returns, and not in terms the work.”  It meant asking the wrong questions about work: “will it pay?”  “What does he make?”  “Can we induce people to buy them?”  “How much a week?”  It meant reverting to the ingrained “habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money.”

Instead, the proper questions are: “”Is it good”?  “What is his work worth?”  “Are they useful things well made?”  “Will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?”  The proper view is to think about work “in terms of work done,” and “taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work — our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure — and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people.”  

In other words, as Miroslav Volf suggests, the proper view of work is to see it as having an inherent value rather than having solely an instrumental value.

Work in the Spirit 26

imgresMiroslav Volf concludes Work in the Spirit by stating, “neither work nor the product of work should be a mere means but should also be ends in themselves.”  Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor, hints at the same, referencing Dorothy Sayers who once said “the worker’s first duty is to serve the work.”

Volf comes to this conclusion by examining “human nature as God desires it to be.”

If the purpose of human life is either reflection (as in much of philosophical tradition) or worship (as in much of Christian tradition), then work can have only instrumental value.  One works in order to keep alive, and one lives in order to think or worship.  But if work is a fundamental dimension of human existence, then work cannot have only an instrumental value.  If God’s purpose for human beings is not only for them to ensure that certain states of affairs come about (the cultivation and preservation of the Garden of Eden) but that these states of affairs are created through human work (tilling and keeping), then work cannot be only a means to life whose purpose exists fully in something outside work, but must be considered an aspect of the purpose of life itself (emphasis in the original).  

Therefore, “if I am created to work, then I must treat work as something I am created to do and hence (at least partly) treat it as an end it itself.”  We should “not turn a fundamental aspect of life [that is, work] into a mere means of life.

This is very much contrary to how we often perceive work.  We strive “to produce things most efficiently [and are] not interested in work at all, but in the product of work.”  “The unreachable ideal” that we nonetheless strive foolishly for is “to have the product without the work.”  But the original design for work was not so.  “Human beings are called to achieve something efficiently as well as gifted to enjoy the process of achieving it.” And we were intended to work “without inconvenience” and “as it were, in play and with the greatest delight.”

So we come to Volf’s conclusion again: “neither work nor the product of work should be a mere means but should also be ends in themselves.”  This means:

…every good worker goes out of herself and loses herself in her work.  Without such “self-forgetfulness,” in which the inborn egoism that twists everything into means for our ends loosens its grip on us, there is no true joy in work.  The opposition between the self-forgetfulness in work and self-realization through work is only apparent.  Just as “everything else” will be added to us when we seek the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), so will self-realization be added to us when we seek good work, when we serve others by self-forgetful, enjoyable work that does not violate our personhood.

Work in the Spirit 25

imgresWorking solely for self-interest is “at odds with one of the most essential aspects of a Christian theology of work,” says Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.  “One should not leave the well-being of other individuals and the community to the unintended consequences of self-interested activity.”

Why not?  Because the New Testament says we should work to provide for our own sustenance as well as “to provide for [our] needy fellow human beings.”  In fact, the reception of the gifts of the Spirit “obligates one to serve fellow human beings…and service constitutes an important criterion of the genuineness of” such gifts.

Therefore, “in order for my work to be humane…the good of others must be a goal toward which I am consciously striving.”  Ultimately, “my own good and the good of the whole human family are both included in the shalom of the new creation,” so there is no “contraction” in one “giving himself up” for someone and “loving himself” at the same time in one’s work.  

This has couple implications according to Volf.  First, “it is…necessary to create structures that will not foster egoism.”  Second, “respect for individual liberty will not suffice as a basic rule for the market game,” but “respect for the right of sustenance of all individuals must be added.”  If market “will not behave according to this rule,” “it is the market that has to go.”

A call-to-arms, if you will, for Christians work to transform the market rather than simply accepting it as is.

Work in the Spirit 24

imgresIn the old days, “in small and relatively self-contained communities with a low degree of division of labor, “ it was easy “to see how one’s work contributed to the good of the community,” observes Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.

But in modern days, that’s gotten much harder.

To start, the society has become so “highly complex” and “the interrelations between individuals and social groups” so “unintelligible” that a person often “does not even understand how her work relates to the final product and is also at a loss to know how her product serves the common good after it enters complex national and international markets.”

On top of that, people nowadays perceive themselves as “autonomous individual[s] interacting economically with other autonomous individuals.”  He owes “nothing to the society” which is “only an agglomeration of individuals.”

Finally, there is an enormous “stress on the pursuit of self-interest.”  And such “economic self-centeredness leaves little place for concern for the common good in one’s work.”

As a result, even when people work together, we do not see such cooperation as “an association of people whose wills and energies are directed towards a common purpose.”  Instead, we see it as “an interlinking and interworking of people who are indifferent to the goal of the common action…[and who work] exclusively for the benefit cooperation delivers to them as individuals.”

I see this often at my own work.  Building a power plant takes the coordination of multiple parties – a developer and a lender at its core, plus various strategic investors on top of that, plus multiple advisors in numerous disciplines (including financial, engineering, environmental, legal, insurance and the like).  And each party consists of multiple individuals.  While some  people in a deal of this sort do work towards the common goal intentionally, many others are not so invested in the goal as such: they are invested in the goal only because it brings some benefit to them in the form of recognition and money.

So what are we to do about it, Mr. Volf?

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.