In an article Gene Edward Veith wrote for The Gospel Coalition this past Fall, he concluded:
“Our very work becomes transformed not in its substance—Christian workers mostly perform the same tasks as non-Christian workers—but in its meaning and in its value.”
I’m generally a fan of Veith’s work, but this claim is truly astounding. Veith is claiming that when we truly understand the gospel’s influence on work, we will do the same tasks (and work) as non-Christians, but just feel better about it. That is, if we properly understand the idea vocation, our motivation and attitude will change, but the work itself will be no different. Astounding.
With all due respect for my brother in Christ, let me ask some honest questions: Is this not a high priestly blessing of the status quo? Is this perspective not simply baptizing the ways of the world with thinly veiled language of “calling” and “all work is spiritual work?” Should Christians really not be engaged in different kinds of work, and not just in become more emotionally psyched up to do the same job but with a rosier outlook? Here’s my real question: How on earth did we end up here?
Mr. Veith outlines in his article just how we got here: Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Luther lived in an age where “calling” (vocatio) meant to enter the priesthood or to become a monk. Thus, his response was to say that God calls people to all sorts of work – farmers, magistrates, bakers, mothers and pastors. No need to make one kind of work (ministry) holier than others (business, art, etc.).
Luther based his doctrine of vocation in the doctrine of divine providence. It’s through work that God provides for the needs of the world. He uses the farmer to feed us, the tailor to cloth us, and the carpenter to house us. Luther’s classic quote is, “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” That is, God is using the milkmaid to provide milk for the needs of others. The logical conclusion: stay where you’re at in life, and acknowledge that God is using your vocation to serve your neighbor’s needs.
One of Luther’s favorite Scriptures to prove this point is 1 Corinthians 7:17, “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” Luther’s conclusion: “calling” is connected with staying in your current job, because God has providentially put you there. Essentially, Veith follows Luther’s line of thought here: change your attitude and motivation for your work, but don’t change the work itself. Work harder (a la the Puritans), work happier, but stay put. If you’re suffering in your work, acknowledge that Christ suffered too – and keep working.
Now, 1 Corinthians 7 doesn’t have anything to do with work. It’s about men, women and marriage. But that’s beside the point. Luther’s view of work doesn’t take into account several critical factors. First, Luther assumed a static social sphere (as did most medieval people), and that one’s current work was one’s calling. But this just isn’t the case. Indeed for some, their current job is their calling for God, but not for most. The call to remain, be satisfied, and just recognize that your job is a “calling” is comforting to some – but to many it is suffocating. As Miroslav Volf has pointed out in Work in the Spirit, this view led to an eventual merger of the idea of “vocation” and “occupation.” Your job iss your vocation – you just don’t realize it yet.
However, second, and most importantly, Luther’s view focuses on the individual’s attitude, not on the work itself. Reflection on work for nearly 500 years, under Luther’s influence, has tended to focus on how a person feels about his or her work, and not on whether some kinds of work are essentially good and humanizing or bad and dehumanizing. Thus, the recent revival in interest in vocation has parroted the phrase “all work is spiritual” or “all work is God’s work,” without even a second thought to what types of work we might be baptizing.
For Luther, the only kind of work that shouldn’t be done was directly immortal – prostitution, etc. But the question remains: are there some kinds of work that make us more human, and some that make us less human? Or, to pick up on our initial question, should Christians do different kinds of work, or just bless “all work” equally?
I’ve been too theoretical. Let me give you an example. Mike Lefevre is a steel worker. Studs Terkel interviews him in Working:
“I put on my hard hat, change into my safety shoes, put on my safety glasses, get to the bonderizer. It’s the thing I work on. They rake the metal, they wash it off, they dip it in a paint solution, and we take it off. Put it on, take it off, put it on, take it off, put it on, take it off…
“I say hello to everybody but my boss. At seven it starts. My arms get tired about the first half-hour. After that, they don’t get tired any more until maybe the last half-hour at the end of the day. I work from seven to three thirty. My arms are tied at seven thirty and they’re tired at three o’clock. I hope to God I never get broke in…Cause that’s when I know there’s an end. That I’m not brainwashed. In between, I don’t even try to think.”
Mr. Lefevre does back breaking work day in and day out. But that’s not the problem. His work is so repetitive he feels like he’s getting brainwashed – tired arms are the only things that make him snap back into reality. For most of the day, he tries not to think at all.
A simple question: how many jobs today, whether white collar or blue collar (however we define them) partition doing from thinking? How many jobs have been reduced to the simplest possible task, and have left tired arms (or lower backs and wrists for the computer age) and empty minds? Can any job that does this regularly to God’s image bearers be a vocation with simply a right attitude change? What about the work itself?
Peter Drucker once said,
“Machines work best if they do only one task, if they do it repetitively, and if they do the simplest possible task…[But] the human being…is a very poorly designed machine tool. The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action. He works best if the entire human being, muscles, senses and mind is engaged in the work.”
Another question: do some types of work better facilitate coordination of the entire human being – muscles, senses, and mind – than others? We would all have to say yes. Then why has so much Christian theology focused on the individual’s attitude toward work (Luther, and recently Mr. Veith), and not on actual hard reflection about the different kinds of work itself, and what different kinds of work do to people themselves?
I have a theory. There is a trinity to good work. Thought, activity, and interaction with others, akin to the Father, Son and Spirit (clearly the topic for another article). The last 500 years focused on the theme of calling for a framework for human work; perhaps the next 500 years will focus on the work of the Triune God himself.
Even if they don’t, let’s not say that the only difference between Christians and non-Christians at work is that Christians see meaning and value where others don’t. Indeed, there is too much suffering, too much hardship, and too much of human life bent out of shape like a warped steel rod to settle for such a capitulation to the status quo.
Photo: Steel Works
Interesting article…though I think there may be some confusion as to what is meant by staying in one’s calling. The Scripture is not to be taken to mean that one cannot change one’s career (and perhaps should, if their abilities and potential are being under-utilized), nor do I believe that was Luther’s intent. (Although in medieval society, people were pretty much stuck in the roles they were born into, it’s true.)
Might I recommend an article from Modern Reformation ?http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var2=881
It does a great job at explaining the real upshot and significance of what this concept of vocation – the avenues in which God works through ordinary people doing ordinary things to supply the needs of us all – is fully about.
Jamie, my critique isn’t that God doesn’t use the ordinary. He clearly does – actually, based on the Advent of Christ, I’d say he prefers the ordinary. The problem is turning a blind eye to what the WORK does to people, and instead saying people just need to change their attitudes. This isn’t carefully looking at work itself. Take the mother of three who works in a textile factory for 7 days a week, 13 hours a day, for 25 cents/hour. Could this really be a vocation? Yes, it brings cheap clothes to the market – but at what cost?
I am leading a study on work and Christians and I have been reading Veith’s book God At Work, which, btw, I like a lot. But I did have some of the same thoughts as you mention–what about terrible jobs, inequitable jobs, jobs that while not immoral, do almost nothing to serve humankind. Do you have any suggestions of books or articles or blogs that discuss Christians’ relationship with work/vocation?
Hi Libby. Thanks for the feedback. I agree, Veith does a great job illuminating Luther’s view, but we’ve largely overlooked a critique of the work itself. In my opinion, one of the best at this is Work in the Spirit by Miroslav Volf. Also, thought it’s not a Christian book, Studs Terkel’s book Working is hugely insightful – you can’t read it and blindly say “all work is sacred” when we can clearly see that many forms of work suck the life right out of people. But this is a minority voice – to say some forms of work are better than others is something Christians haven’t explored with much depth because, I believe, of the underlying complexities of this kind of a critique, and what it suggests for how we organize both work environments and our social life.
Great discussion. I wonder, though, whether you misunderstood Veith. The quote of his doesn’t say anything about Christians feeling better about our jobs. It says, that our work is “transformed” in “its meaning and value.” I don’t think that is “blessing the status quo” at all. We should never become complacent about bad or dehumanizing work. Our faith should not dull us to the pain and injustice that may be present in our work, nor keep us from seeking to improve our lot. Yet even so–even in the worst job–following Christ does transform the meaning and value of our work. I think Veith is correct to say so. Even our faith impels us to protest or quit our job, that in itself brings a new meaning and value to our work.Our work is worth taking action about because our work has a lasting value in God’s eyes.
Again, great discussion, and I’m becoming a fan of your blog.
Thanks for visiting my blog! And thanks for your insightful comments. They’re much appreciated.
Perhaps I did overstate my case in this article in equating “blessing the status quo” with Veith’s quote. But I think my critique stands, and it’s really not a critique just of Veith, but of how we’ve applied the word “vocation” to work since the Reformation. I follow Volf on this – when Luther dignified the work of butcher’s, bakers and candlestick makers by saying that God was providentially using these jobs to provide for the world, he did a good thing. It’s certainly NOT just priests and monks who have a calling.
But is God really calling you to the current work you’re in? Maybe. Maybe not. God always calls us to follow him, love our neighbor, die to self, etc, but so much of our Protestant efforts to understand work in light of the doctrine of calling have led us to too quickly accept current industries, job characteristics, and even companies as they are today – institutionalized sin and all. Thus, my title “blessing the status quo.”
On a personal level, I’ve been in far too many “faith and work” groups that affirm this person’s work, affirm that person’s work, and affirm all of our work not just as job but as a “calling.” Good. We’re affirmed. But my question stands: what does the gospel say about the work itself, and not just our attitude toward the work?
I believe we need to take a step back from seeing work in light of the doctrine of vocation, and instead look first to where it all begins: the work of God himself. As those made in his image, I think we need to a new starting point for thinking about work, and take a look at God’s own work in human history as a model for our own work. (Thus, actually transforming the ‘substance’ of our work, to bring us back to Veith’s quote.)
Far too long of a response. Again, thanks for commenting, William. I hope we can meet up some day!
Hello Jeff. Yes, I agree that Miroslav Volf’s critique of Luther is correct on this point. Just because God calls people to all kinds of work does not mean that the job you’re currently in (if you’re in a job) is where God put you and where God wants you to stay. In a fallen world, the Christian faith must never be used simply to bless the status quo and affirm everything that’s happening.
We addressed this topic a bit in the Theology of Work Project’s article on Vocation in a section called “Freedom in Christ”, at http://www.theologyofwork.org/key-topics/vocation-overview-article/discerning-gods-guidance-to-a-particular-kind-of-work/guidance-to-a-job-or-profession/freedom-in-christ/. (I hope it’s OK to give a link.) We also have a podcast “What does ‘calling’ mean if you hate your job?” at http://www.theologyofwork.org/resources/what-does-calling-mean-if-you-hate-your-job/, if that’s of interest to anyone. Also, Darrell Cosden’s book “The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work” does a really good job of untangling the balance between affirming and challenging the status quo in our work. He gives a detailed analysis of Luther and Volf in the process. Hope these resources may be of help. Looking forward to meeting you through the Mission:Work channel at Patheos.com soon.
Thank God somebody is seeing the patent absurdity of the ‘vocation’ theology as anointing all evil works. It dives into the middle of the problem of evil – no to solve but to embrace it – accepting the premise that all human work is vocation makes God into a monster.
If God is a God of means only – then surely He is a mean God.