This blog post was co-written by Ben White and Jonny Rashid after our church hosted a meeting for theological thinkers and seminarians on developing a theology of work.
The problem of work in the 21st Century United States
France has a law that prohibits an employer from Emailing her employees after hours. They are enforcing “work/life” balance. Amazon warehouse workers are timed for how long they are in the bathroom. Speaking of Amazon, U.S. postal workers are being pushed to-the-max in order to keep up with the market driven by the supercompany. Meanwhile, our politicians keep promising us jobs and telling us how much they value the American worker. Amazingly, despite the flack they get from their parent’s generation, millennials are the hardest working generation—bordering on workaholism.
The meaning of work, it seems, has changed. In the United States, with many manufacturing jobs gone, we have an increasingly “knowledge-based” economy. It requires an education to enter, hence all the hullabaloo about free college and student debt cancellation from the rotating cast of presidential nominees. Work has taken up more of our interior lives by nature of this shift. “What is work?” is more of an internal question, and less of material one. The lessening of the physical materiality of work gives us a new problem. Work isn’t just about labor, it’s not just a means to an end, it’s something more—like religion.
Among our generation, people are trying to find existential fulfillment from their jobs. It’s only natural considering the above mentioned trend. But seeking fulfillment through such a limited medium isn’t working. Not for our friends, anyway. The pull, however, toward such patterns of thought, is present in us too. Our jobs aren’t meant to offer us the sort of vocational fulfillment we seek from them. But convincing serfs that their work for their lords is their ultimate calling is a great way to get good work out of earnest people. This is both true of folks who want to rise fast in their company, and those who serve in a helping profession.
When thinking is work, it’s hard to think about work
That pursuit, despite being fundamentally flawed, isn’t too far from what Christian vocation may look like. Jordan Burdge recently offered us a reflection on vocation drawn from the inspiration of the Middle Ages in Europe. Check out the whole video here. He summarized vocations for Europeans as the choice between being a priest, nun, monk, or being married. Those where the basic options they had. Today we have so, so many more options. It’s really hard to sort through them all. So when our endless appetites meet the myriad options it’s pretty easy to make unhealthy choices.
Vocation is a popular idea in the United States and the Christian church that lives here. Not only are we sold the lie that we can become anyone we want to be or do anything we want to do, we’re often told we have to figure out that one perfect thing we are meant to do. And Christians are as complicit in this behavior as Americanists are. Our calling from God is much more universal than specific. You aren’t necessarily destined to do the work you do for money. Your satisfaction does not have to be dependent on the perfect fit in your employment. Paul was called to be a missionary, for example, not to be the tent-maker that sustained him. Same with Jesus as a carpenter, and the fisherman who left their family business to have a New Family business. Again, we are working on understanding work in a difficult era for such thinking.
The culture of work in the United States is so messed up, that it may be tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Work may have been so corrupted by our economic forms that developing a theology of Christian work might be too much to consider. But Miroslav Volf took a shot at it and we would like to endorse and propose his core ideas as basis for our Christian understanding.
Volf highlights the challenge to think of these things because work is now by-and-large “knowledge-based,” and so “thinking” is working (as we said above). Space for contemplation, which may be seen as unshackling our minds from thoughts, in order to truly experience God, is taken up by “thinking as work.” There is rarely a moment in the day in which our minds are not fully engaged with work. We have to snatch every moment of mind to rest while our computer loads a file or we’re standing in the grocery line or we get no rest at all. It’s not all or nothing, but it seems like it is—like the only way to get any rest is to unplug and go to Bermuda, and who can afford that with all these student loans, right? Somewhere along the line the only people who could live a life of contemplation became those who left the world and lived as a hermit or something. It was the Ancient Greeks who drew all these lines between things, but it was us who agreed not to cross them. An active life and a contemplative life are not polar opposites. They actually harmonize quite nicely. Though varying in degrees of importance in different times and circumstances, they actually work together to complete the other.
Volf focuses on eschatology and pneumatology as his sources of understanding work. The work of the Christian is known in doing whatever it is that helps to bring about the Kingdom of God or New Creation which will be fully revealed at the eschaton or last day (that’s the eschatology). The work of the Christian is also known through the spiritual gifts, or charisma, we have been given (that’s the pneumatology). Christians, then, need to work to find their gifting in order to cooperate with God’s plan of bringing the Kingdom of God into its fullness. Volf says, “When people work exhibiting the values of the new creation (as expressed in what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the spirit’) then the Spirit works in them and through them.”
Seeing Christian vocation through a glass darkly
We think our work is neither “sacred” or “secular,” but that our cooperation with God is something that happens across our lives and not just in the confines of our “spiritual life.” In fact, we reject the notion of “work/life balance” because it distinguishes work and life, as if you aren’t alive when you are working, nor are you working when you are living the part of your life for which you don’t get paid. These incessant dichotomies belittle our full personhood. We are called to cooperate with God in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us.
Of course, this is hard too. Especially in the United States. The guiding philosophy we described above is imposed on us with strident force. Work is imposed upon us as a source of meaning, whether we like it or not. If we are not actively examining our lives it will almost certainly happen automatically without our consent. But we believe that we cannot find meaning in our work apart from the Holy Spirit and cooperation with God. This isn’t just a problem in our neoliberal political economy. It’s a problem in any competing economic form. The Kingdom of God, as demonstrated by the church of Jerusalem in Acts, and all over the Bible, really, is showing us another way to live and to work no matter where or when in world history we seek some understanding.
It is hard to remember who we are and what we believe unless we are living it out in some kind of new environment. Our attempt in Circle of Hope has been to create an environment where people can discern their own spiritual gifts and apply them in service to the church, and use them in every arena of their life. Your spiritual gifts are not just for the church, and your education is not just for your job. Your natural talents and proclivities are good signposts for what God has for you to do, but there are many ways to express our gifts, and one might be your ability to not get exactly what you want. You might give more from your understanding of what the community needs. Keep discerning what is best in community and hold your opportunities for service lightly, and you will be fine.
Paul is plain about how important the different parts of the body are. Unfortunately, our stratified society has made a sort of preference for certain roles and not others. Our job is to honor everyone in the body so that they are rewarded with gratitude and love for their service, no matter what they are bringing. Monetizing work may be a necessity, and sometimes may be a good incentive to work, but we admit it’s not the ideal way to honor work. Instead, love, respect, and appreciation are more in line with our kingdom aspirations.
You can see the environment we are creating best by being in our community. Sunday meetings and cells are our primary places to do this work. Serving and worshiping in these meetings is the best chance we have to offer for you to exhibit the values of the new creation and experience the Spirit working in you and through you. They might be the invitation to a life of cooperation with God. Check one out on our website. But if you’re far away, get connected somewhere where the demands of your life don’t end at your own, and the people you love have space to earn your trust and help you see your gifts.