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