Last updated: 9/4/2022
Note: This essay is a work in progress.
Thesis: Capitalism has horrifically distorted the meaning of work. In light of this, it is absurd to preach “hard work” in a purely individualized sense without first critiquing how work functions in society.
- The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
- Crisis and Communisation by Giles Dauve
- The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers
From the very beginning, the question of work versus leisure has generally been considered a stumbling block for Protestant discourse, with preachers often opting to either fall back on old moralisms or ignore the question altogether. Are people getting lazier? Is leisure inherently bad? These are questions Leland Ryken attempts to answer in his book titled “Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective”. Against his contemporaries, he attempts to directly address the question by arguing in favor of a healthy work-life balance.
I doubt that attitudes toward work are very different in our churches than in our culture at large. We find the normal quota of workaholics in the pew on Sunday morning. And what percentage of Christians view their work with the sense of calling that the Reformers proclaimed with such clarity?
The lack of a Christian work ethic is particularly acute among young people. A recent book-length study surveyed attitudes among young people enrolled at Christian colleges and seminaries. One of the conclusions drawn by the researcher who wrote the book was this:
“What has been seen thus far merely confirms what is already well known about the place and value of work for Evangelicalism—that work has lost any spiritual and eternal significance and that it is important only insofar as it fosters certain qualities of the personality.” (Ryken 1987, 13)
Forty years later – well after the generation of the yuppies he derides – Ryken’s position has become the mainstream one. The broader public sees value in the notion of a healthy balance, yet work holds this same drudgery for us. So what gives?
Making sense of this requires us to confront what is quite possibly one of the biggest failures of the modern church: its complete and utter inability to conceive social behaviors outside the context of the individual and some mythical vacuum they’re assumed to exist in. Any time there’s an issue, these preachers always give the same vague responses about “changing one’s attitude, but also not too much, lest you end up going too far in the opposite direction.” Ryken, unfortunately, also falls into the same trap at various points in the book.
The main conclusion this book pushes us toward is a deep appreciation for the provision God has made for human life in the rhythm of work and leisure. That rhythm sounds so simple when we encounter it in the creation account of Genesis and in the fourth commandment that it is easy to miss its significance. Yet all the analysis of the problems of work and leisure in society comes back to the keystone of the goodness of both work and leisure in human life.
Not only are work and leisure goad in themselves, they also balance each other and help to prevent the problems that either one alone tends to produce. If we value work and leisure properly, we will avoid overvaluing or undervaluing either one. (Ryken 1987, 243)
If this is the only thing the church has to contribute regarding the issues that continue to plague people’s everyday lives, no wonder they continue to turn to self-help books and “life coaches” for their problems. After all, they’re offering the same banal and inoffensive advice without needing to confine themselves to any sort of religious affiliation.
This isn’t to say that individual responsibility/agency doesn’t exist, of course it does. To say otherwise would be disingenuous. But at the same time, society is a complex net of relationships between individuals, something which is constantly molding its members yet is capable of developing in a quasi-autonomous fashion. It is based on abstraction upon abstraction, to the point that it can often cause individuals to act against their own nature. This is called “alienation”, and it poses a distinct threat which can’t be explained by simple character traits such as “greed, laziness, selfishness, etc.”
Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else…
Consequently the ‘coincidence’ of the change in circumstances and of human activity as a change in man himself applies to Christian practice to an eminent degree. The alternative between arousing faith in the heart and the changing of the godless circumstances of dehumanized man is a false one, as is the other alternative, which hinders by paralysing. The true front on which the liberation of Christ takes place does not run between soul and body or between persons and structures, but between the powers of the world as it decays and collapses into ruin, and the powers of the Spirit and of the future. (Moltmann 2015, 34)
The church cannot continue to act as if our religious duty is something that exists on an entirely separate plane from our social environment. To do otherwise is to entirely betray the essential spirit of a missionary religion.
Understanding this requires that we ask ourselves two questions:
- How has church orthodoxy been molded by these external factors, and how can we go about weeding out this revisionism and maintaining the integrity of our doctrine?
- What can the church do towards actively challenging and seeking to alter society? How can we give individuals the necessary autonomy and encouragement to be able to serve God unimpeded?
Returning back to the topic of work, we begin answering that first by question by taking upon a historical-material analysis of work. This may seem irrelevant to a theological argument, but a proper analysis is only possible once we understand its specifically social implications. Failing to do this would only cause us to repeat the mistakes made by countless Christians of the past:
All of this demonstrates that Christians are utterly unable to express revelation in a way that is both specific and adequate for the social reality in which they live. They either repeat timeless formulas (which they take to be eternal), or else they initiate a pseudo-rereading of the Bible: in reality a method of harmonizing biblical content with the dominant ideology. In this way Christians constitute an important contributing socio-political force on the side of the tendency which is about to dominate. As a result, they obtain a small place in the new social order. (Ellul 1988, 14)
Once we have deconstructed and filtered out the secular influences on our interpretation of work, we will be able to turn to the Word to understand what a proper Christian work-ethic should look like.
1. Defining Work
The worst arguments tend to be over semantics, and unfortunately for us, there is a lot of semantic disagreement on how the word “work” is to be interpreted. It’s very easy to walk into a topic like this leaning on preconceptions, so our first task should be properly defining work, and distinguishing it from labour.
The line drawn between work and labour is generally ambiguous, so before we proceed we will have to reconcile this matter. For the purposes of this essay, labour is defined as any mental or physical activity conducted by a person onto an object as to either transform it into one of value (either use-value or exchange-value could apply here, depending on the context) or add to its value. As for the definition of work, we will have to take a more thorough investigation:
(For the purposes of this essay, I will be considering work as a historically-specific activity peculiar to industrial-capitalist society. Obviously, toil has long existed outside of this context, but what is going to be apparent throughout the course of my argument is that it takes upon a unique character within the currently existing economic framework. Considering work as an unchanging activity across all time periods without distinction would end up neglecting how it has fundamentally evolved alongside human civilization.)
1.1. Work as Compulsory
The traditional understanding of work stresses that it is compulsory, not just in an internal sense (such as an animal being compulsed to forage for food by the logic of its biology), but also in an external sense. This distinction means that an activity can be considered “labour” or “productive” without it necessarily being “work” per se.
My minimum definition of work is forced labour, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it. But work is usually even worse than its definition decrees. The dynamic of domination intrinsic to work tends over time toward elaboration. In advanced work-riddled societies, including all industrial societies whether capitalist or communist, work invariably acquires other attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness. (Black 1986, 6)
What exactly this external pressure looks like varies not just based on one’s interpretation but also the environment in which work is being employed. Some may interpret their work as part of a religious obligation. Certain readings of the Vedas have long been used to justify the Indian caste system. Even in Christianity, the concept of a “vocational calling” has been echoed by writers such as John Calvin.
The magistrate will execute his office with greater pleasure, the father of a family will confine himself to his duty with more satisfaction, and all, in their respective spheres of life, will bear and surmount the inconveniences, cares, disappointments, and anxieties which befall them, when they shall be persuaded that every individual has his burden laid upon him by God. Hence also will arise peculiar consolation, since there will be no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our vocation) as not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed highly important in the sight of God. (Calvin 1536, 870)
Divine commands aside, there also exist more objective forms of coercion. A country which employs slavery or work-camps, the work is being compelled by the state and the threat of physical retaliation to those who refuse. It could even be argued that the market in and of itself could compel people to perform activities which may not be directly linked to their survival.
First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature;that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. (Marx 1844, 30)
Whether or not the compulsion in any of the above scenarios are justified or not is irrelevant to the point made, which is that work is a compulsory affair, the compulsion is external in nature, and that this compulsion dictates not just the existence of the worker but also the character of “work” itself.
On that note, although this characteristic may seem the most apparent, it fails to really shed much light on the matter. If this conception of work is something to be holistically “abolished” as Black proposes, then where is the line to be drawn?
If we define work as “external activity”, then social production entirely ceases to function with its abolition. I fail to see how “the commune needs me to produce this” is any less external than “the market needs me to produce this”. Your individual wants and needs are inevitably going to be tied to and shaped by social wants and needs. Severing that connection would be to turn every man into his own Robinson Crusoe, to put an end to civilization itself. Perhaps that’s an attractive outcome for some, but the implications of that aren’t something I see as worth entertaining in this essay.
If we wish to only abolish “coerced activity”, then we run the risk of reiterating the fundamental axioms of capitalist society. Freedom of contract already exists, meaning wage-slaves aren’t slaves in the conventional sense. Some socialists may object to this, arguing that this freedom is a farce because of the existence of private property, but that is completely besides the point. My work does not suddenly cease to become work now that I’m performing it at a co-operatively owned factory. So, there must be a deeper explanation.
It certainly doesn’t help that the space between “external activity” and “coerced activity” is nebulously defined. A debate over whether or not the invisible hand really forces people to work will inevitably devolve into one of semantics, obfuscating the true nature of the topic. Barking up another tree will prove more fruitful to our investigation.
1.1. Work as a Division of Labor
What I’d rather focus on instead is the essential characteristics of work as being comprised of a set of divisions.
Firstly, there’s the division of labor, a concept that has been known to us for centuries now. Even writers as old as Calvin and Smith provide extensive insight into this division. Calvin was interested in understanding what such division could mean to a Christian, whereas for Smith it was a question of the economic origins and implications of its existence.
“Division of labor” can interpreted in two ways, one is in the vocational sense which Calvin refers to. The second form is best described as the specialization of labor.
One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some factories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small factory of this kind, where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day…
But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth, part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations. (Smith 1776, 8-9)
Using the example of a pin factory, Smith demonstrates the division of labour by associating each man with a task. Within the context of this larger factory, we see each man’s work as defined by a specialized task. Each of these tasks only play one part in the production of the pin. No matter how skilled a worker becomes at drawing out the wire, he alone cannot produce the pin. Just like a machine, his training refines his skills towards being able to only perform one specialized task incredibly well: this renders him dependent on the factory as a whole to render his labour useful. This only intensifies as the firm grows and each worker’s role in the production process becomes more and more narrow.
Unlike the vocational form, the effects industrialization had on this are much more pronounced. In medieval and early-modern societies, artisans would develop goods and tools by hand from start to finish, with a full understanding of the production process, control over the supply-chain, and distribution to market.
Yet beneath the similarities with the Old Regime there lurked a difference, for the seeming independence of artisans was built increasingly on a foundation of dependency. No longer did masters,or shopkeepers for that matter, have much control over access to their materials, now provided by merchant industrialists, factors, and wholesalers. Moreover, masters came to rely on a steady flow of orders,often from only a few middlemen or owners of factories. The same can be said of access to credit and to markets, which was increasingly controlled by merchant operations (Farr 2004).
Today, we have the assembly line. Rather than making it one person’s job to create a hammer, we have one person to cut the wood, one person to shape the handle, one person to dye the handle, and so on and so forth. This is of course a hypothetical, but point still stands, which is that man has become not just alienated from the product of his own labor, but also the process itself.
The artisans had an easier time finding a positive identity in their work because they still held a degree of autonomy over the production process, they still felt as if their labor was their own. This most likely explains the prevalence of artisan culture and the appeal of early “worker-ist” movements to predominantly this class.
Another key aspect of artisan identity, which existed alongside these status divisions, was the close relationship between production and retailing. Buying raw materials and selling one’s products were integral to artisan identity, and most Florentine guilds both manufactured and retailed their wares. Artisan identity always involved the sale of products in the local marketplace, though some artisans eventually moved into the ranks of the mercantile class. Artisans are often defined in opposition to merchants because of their ties to local rather than foreign markets and the cultural perception of their rootedness (often more imagined than real) in contrast to the merchants’ mobility. Yet precisely because the master craftsman’s identity was localized, dependent upon recognition by peers and neighbors, premodern artisans often imaginatively constructed their relations to the nation. In the fourteenth century, the brothers of the London Bowercraft censured the bowstrings of non-guild members, maintaining that “the greatest damage might easily ensue unto our Lord the King and his realm” through faulty products. The work of craftsmen, like that of knights, was cast as protecting the entire nation; through their collective identity, the bowers articulated a sense of national belonging. (Pappano 2013)
The same cannot be said for the proletarian, who in his work, is reduced to a mere machine, something subhuman.
Utter, unnatural deprivation, putrefied nature, comes to be his life-element. None of his senses exist any longer, and not only in its human fashion, but in an inhuman fashion, and therefore not even in an animal fashion…
The savage and the animal have at least the need to hunt, to roam, etc. – the need of companionship. The simplification of the machine, of labor is used to make a worker out of the human being still in the making, the completely immature human being, the child – whilst the worker has become a neglected child. The machine accommodates itself to the weakness of the human being in order to make the weak human being into a machine…
By reducing the worker’s need to the barest and most miserable level of physical subsistence,and by reducing his activity to the most abstract mechanical movement; thus he says: Man has no other need either of activity or of enjoyment. For he call this life, too, human life and existence.
By counting the most meager form of life (existence) as the standard, indeed, as the general standard – general because it is applicable to the mass of men. He changes the worker into an insensible being lacking all needs, just as he changes his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. To him, therefore, every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need – be it in the realm of passive enjoyment, or a manifestation of activity – seems to him a luxury. (Marx 1844, 50-51)
While Smith focuses on the effects this has on total productive efficiency and the factory system as a whole, Marx analyses the same phenomena from the perspective of the individual worker:
The accumulation of capital increases the division of labor, and the division of labor increases the number of workers. Conversely, the number of workers increases the division of labor, just as the division of labor increases the accumulation of capital. With this division of labor on the one hand and the accumulation of capital on the other, the worker becomes ever more exclusively dependent on labor, and on a particular, very one-sided, machine-like labor at that. Just as he is thus depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine and from being a man becomes an abstract activity and a belly, so he also becomes ever more dependent on every fluctuation in market price, on the application of capital, and on the whim of the rich. Equally, the increase in the class of people wholly dependent on work intensifies competition among the workers, thus lowering their price. In the factory system this situation of the worker reaches its climax. (Marx 1844, 4)
The division of labour we see in this factory model is specific to the capitalist mode of production, and is magnitudes more intense than the vocational divisions to be found in pre-capitalist societies which still retained a concept of “work”. The stratification in our society is not just one of judges, doctors, and priests, but rather instead divided up by each step in the production process of a commodity. In addition, the increased efficiency and circular logic of capitalism ensures this fate remains a perpetual one.
1.2. Work as a Division of Activity
This not just only alienates the worker from his product as the socialist talking point goes, but also from the production-process itself. Man’s relationship to his labour is not merely a pragmatic one, but also an essentially existential one too, it is through labour that one is given the opportunity to assert their humanity:
For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence…
It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him. (Marx 1844, 32)
This activity represents something more than just mere toil, it is the means by which one’s will can shape the world, the bridge between a person’s innermost passions and their immediate environment.
And the Lord God took the man Moses now adds, that the earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation. Whence it follows that men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. This labor, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness; since however God ordained that man should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned in his person, all indolent repose. Wherefore, nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do. (Calvin 1578, 77)
As made clear in the Genesis narrative, we were made in the likeness of the Creator, so it is only natural, that even despite our fallen state, we find purpose in the act of creation. But what separates this creation, this activity, from the daily routine of animals is the unity of mental and physical faculties. Our minds allow us to formulate an idea while our hands allow us to bring that idea to fruition. Marx’s conception of labor in its essential form attests to this.
(Secular readers may object that many animals have demonstrated intelligence, but this neglects that the Christian conception of humanity is an inherently dualist one: the body may be composed of carbon, but the soul is incorporeal. This can only imply an inherent distinction between man and the other creatures of the earth, one which cannot be understood in biological terms.)
Marx sees in Hegel’s account the bourgeois division of labour into physical and mental activities. In Marx’s view human beings are born not only with nutritive capabilities, but with mental ones that are inseparable from them. Human beings engage in their own process of reproduction with both material and mental capabilities united as a whole. (Uchida 1988, 9-10)
However, we do not live in Eden. The world we live in — its institutions, its social relations — has always been a corruption of God’s ideal, realized not just on the individual but also the structural level. We see this apply to work too: capitalism completely fractures its unity, so thoroughly separating the physical and mental components that any element of passion or will is to be drained. Unable to realize this unity individually, both the workers and the capitalists must interface through the value-form, which demands all labor, whether physical or mental, be entirely devoted towards its own reproduction. How can we argue that we are working to God’s glory when Caesar demands control over the spirit?
This claim can be challenged in one of two ways: either God does not care for the specifics of our work or that industrial society has not actually alienated labor.
In considering production in general Marx takes the human mind and body to be naturally united. This unity is broken by the capitalist division of labour in which the capitalist appears as mental labourer and the wage-worker as physical labourer. The capitalist orders the worker to labour in material production. Capital itself necessitates and posits a specific person, the capitalist, who mediates it. The capitalist has a mission to measure capital-value, which has to be maintained and increased in prospect during production. The capitalist’s mental activity continues in the process of circulation which actualises this possibility. Capital is personified in the capitalist, who internalises its value in capitalist consciousness. (Uchida 1988, 13)
Activity is also divided along lines of production and consumption, each commanding its own distinct sphere. Intuition tells us that this relationship is one-way: that consumption is like a pit which we fill up with the goods we produce. Production creates, consumption destroys, so the logic goes. Socialists often internalized this mentality, valorizing the proletariat as a class of production as opposed to petite-bourgeois consumerism. This perspective is the perspective of capital, which is unable to see activity the way the individual does.
Because Adam Smith studies capital from the viewpoint of the circuit of productive capital, he believes that the movement of capital starts from production. Therefore, with respect to the relation of production to consumption, he considers individual consumption as an act apart from production, and he does not take it up in relation to production. He thinks that individual consumption is unproductive and should be restrained in order to increase capital-stock, which is to be invested as capital in production. He merely affirms consumption when it is productive, and he emphasises parsimony as a subjective fact in capitalist accumulation. Though he asserts that the purpose of production is individual consumption, in fact he theorises production for the sake of production.
However, is individual consumption always unproductive? The individual returns to the process of production afterwards, not only with physical abilities reproduced, but with some knowledge of production and a revitalised morale. The political economist omits the subjective aspect of reproduction, which is typically shown to move from consumption back to production. But why does the political economist abstract from the subjective factor? This is because production is considered from the capitalist standpoint, so in this way any funds to reproduce the lives of workers appear as costs to be reduced. The subjective factor belongs to and is monopolised by the capitalist. (Uchida 1988, 14-15)
Just as the artist draws on previous influences, consumption is to be understood as a source of inspiration for future creation. This process is reciprocal and essential for the individual to be able to find meaning in their own activity through a process of continuous inspiration and re-appraisal against their own needs, aesthetic sensibilities, and virtues.
If we can speak of art as an industry, a job, and a commodity, whose to say we cannot reverse the logic? Is engineering not in and of itself creative? Whenever we look at an emerging industry, whether it be aviation or mobile phone technology, we see an incredibly wide array of designs and concepts. These periods are often referred to as the “wild west” in that there is no clear direction or standard, forcing engineers to exercise a large amount of creativity in their creations and where they draw inspiration from.
Given his close observance and use of nature as a foundation for many of his ideas, emulating natural flight was an obvious place to begin. Most of Leonardo’s aeronautical designs were ornithopters, machines that employed flapping wings to generate both lift and propulsion. He sketched such flying machines with the pilot prone, standing vertically, using arms, using legs. He drew detailed sketches of flapping wing mechanisms and means for actuating them. Imaginative as these designs were, the fundamental barrier to an ornithopter is the demonstrably limited muscle power and endurance of humans compared to birds. Leonardo could never have overcome this basic fact of human physiology…
In less than 20 pages of notes and drawings, the Codex on the Flight of Birds outlines a number of observations and beginning concepts that would find a place in the development of a successful airplane in the early twentieth century. Leonardo never abandoned his preoccupation with flapping wing designs, and did not develop the insights he recorded in the Codex on the Flight of Birds in any practical way. Nonetheless, centuries before any real progress toward a practical flying machine was achieved, the seeds of the ideas that would lead to humans spreading their wings germinated in the mind of da Vinci. In aeronautics, as with so many of the subjects he studied, he strode where no one had before. Leonardo lived a fifteenth century life, but a vision of the modern world spread before his mind’s eye. (Jakab 2013)
The artisan and the factory worker may produce the same thing, yet one finds much more meaning in his activity than the other. Why is that? To answer that question we have to ask ourselves: why do we work? If you were to bring the factory worker something he produced, would he be able to identify it? Or have those hours become a blur, just like the rest of his life? Would he be able to remember what he was thinking when he made it or how it affected him? Does the commodity in and of itself tell us anything about its production or the person who made it?
When we perform the same basic activity for multiple hours a day, every day, engulfed within the larger mass of the assembly line, how does it affect our development and psyche? What challenge does it provide, what opportunity does it provide for us to grow? Maintaining a routine, learning to become numb to drudgery and fatigue, and performing tasks without question or emotional hesitance are all things we expect out of our machines. What makes a man then, if he can never measure up to the machine he’s competing with?
If we can’t come up with a satisfactory explanation to any of these questions, if we remain entirely ignorant as to what we’re really doing or why our lives are structured in such a way, how can we confidently say that we’re doing a good job, that what we’re doing is to the glory of God?
Perhaps that’s why we can only conceive external justifications, it’s easier to just assume work can only ever be this way. Perhaps we can say that there’s more to life than work, but this ignores the importance of activity to the life-process. God gave us hands for a reason, after all.
When faced with this question of why, we often avoid the subject by resorting to cliches: we do what we do because “that’s how society functions”, or because “we have do do something”. These may be catchy and broadly acceptable, but they do not actually provide a meaningful answer to the matter at hand.
As a society, we betray our impoverished work ethic by our slogans. On a recent car trip I was passed by a truck with the following jingle painted on the back: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” Here, in rather crude form, is a dominant work ethic today. It views work in mercenary terms – the thing that makes our acquisitive lifestyle possible. (Ryken 1987, 12)
These cliches mask the larger truth, which is that under a system of wage-labor, what we’re inherently working towards is going to be the wage. What else is there to look towards? The result, the reward, is what takes logical precedence and this is not a matter of personal interpretation. No amount of “social obligation” will change the fact that if you stop paying an employee, they’ll stop working whether by choice or by starvation.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Soviet society, which put a great deal of effort into manufacturing a cultural work-ethic without necessarily changing the nature of work itself.
Soviet “cavalier attitudes toward work” entered the political discourse as a never-ending problem and the popular culture as a constant joke.2 Some of those jokes about the notorious Soviet work ethic are still told today, most famously: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”…
Late Soviet society was famous for its presumably nonexistent work attitude across all occupations. Blue-collar workers got drunk during their shifts, collective farmers seldom showed up, students amused themselves instead of studying, and white-collar workers were rarely present in their offices. Employees working in the Soviet administration were everywhere but at their desks. (Oberländer 2017)
Is this because of some sort of immorally lazy tendency in people or a lack of emphasis on hard work in cultural values? Not likely:
Soviet scholars and party members did not always see the situation in this light. Instead they usually detected a low work morale that troubled them—especially considering that the generation now working had been entirely raised under Soviet socialism yet seemed to lack essential features of the new Soviet person. If people did not work, it indicated a lack of a proper socialist attitude toward work. The dubious Soviet work ethic was regarded, first and foremost, as a moral problem: accordingly, complaints and measures were aimed at working people themselves. Instruments to improve work discipline were introduced on an almost yearly basis across the country or at individual enterprises. If the moral education (vospitanie) provided by trade union members or factory sociologists did not help, compulsion exercised by comrades’ courts were used to try to discipline the workers…
While the Soviet literature was mostly preoccupied with immorality, the Western perspective usually stressed the lack of incentives as a reason why people did not work. (Oberländer 2017)
When we consider the work itself rather than the workers, the pieces begin to fall into place. We see that Soviet and Western society actually held very similar attitudes to the nature of work:
The Soviet Union built its existence on more than one paradox. One of its numerous contradictions is that the workers’ state cherished work as the means that made men into men and thus endorsed the biblical notion that those who do not work shall not eat. At the same time, the USSR claimed communism as its goal and therefore strove to extend nonworking time, based on the Marxist notion that the wealth of nations consisted in free time. As opposed to the biblical notion, work in the Marxist sense was less a moral condition of people who through work realized themselves than a price to be paid to gain as much free time as possible. Self-realization was supposed to happen in one’s free time, by and through the activities conducted in that portion of the day…
Although the two positions seem to be different at first glance, they share some commonalities. Both take for granted the lack of a positive attitude toward work. Both put forward a moral explanation, even though the Western perspective is only implicitly a statement about morality. Soviet observers detected a lack of socialist morality proper, while Western economists detected a general humanitarian problem: If people are not rewarded, they will not work. (Oberländer 2017)
The Soviet economic institutions, being far less robust and prone to abuse than the Western ones, did actually provide us with the opportunity to observe something revealing. The people did work, but they did so outside of the official firms:
The peculiarities of the Soviet planned economy need to be taken into consideration if we are to understand what “work” meant in the Soviet Union. Work in the sense of the eight-hour workday as gainful employment was not necessarily the primary means to provide for oneself or one’s family. Instead, in a society where many things could not be bought with money but had to be obtained through unofficial channels, the sphere of leisure gained importance for material production. Consequently, leisure was not necessarily a sphere for recreation and rest but rather a busy time governed by tight schedules. Gainful employment, in contrast, seemed to provide better possibilities for recreation and relaxation than so-called free time. This article hopes to expand notions of work by highlighting the many spheres in which Soviet people did work—be it in the official or the shadow economy, during official work time or beyond. In this sense, the spheres of work and leisure overlapped, and to a certain degree even changed places…
Last but not least, some workers in the Soviet Union used a considerable amount of their working time to work for themselves. They crafted material provided by their enterprises into something useful for their homes or garden plots. One female worker used to clean her pans and pots at her factory—during official work time, of course. Chaffeurs used the time spent waiting for their bosses to deliver certain items from A to B. Dacha owners, for example, hired a state-employed driver to transport stolen wood in a state-owned car to their dachas during the chauffeur’s official work time. In the first case, workers produced a useful thing for their own direct consumption; in the second, they sometimes earned money and more often engaged in useful networks known as blat. Whatever the reason for engaging in such forms of informal economic practices, it cannot be argued that those people did not work. (Oberländer 2017)
From all this we can conclude that people do have a natural inclination towards activity: one that blurs the lines between work and leisure, defying the rigid structure of the eight-hour day. It may not be work-proper, but it is undeniably productive.
1.3. Work as a Division of Time
However, the characteristic of work that has yielded the most discussion is its constitution of a division of time. When we talk about work in relation to time, we counterpose it against leisure, forming a dialectical relationship between the two. While this overlaps with the previous division, the uniquely temporal element here makes it warrant further discussion.
The quickest way to illustrate such a division is to allude to the very first division as a metaphor of sorts:
It was proper that the light, by means of which the world was to be adorned with such excellent beauty, should be first created; and this also was the commencement of the distinction…
Further, it is certain from the context, that the light was so created as to be interchanged with darkness. But it may be asked, whether light and darkness succeeded each other in turn through the whole circuit of the world; or whether the darkness occupied one half of the circle, while light shone in the other. There is, however, no doubt that the order of their succession was alternate, but whether it was everywhere day at the same time, and everywhere night also, I would rather leave undecided; nor is it very necessary to be known. (Calvin 1578, 39-40)
Day and night were both created and defined simultaneously. Day is the not-night, night is the not-day. When there was no day, there was no night either, because there can be no night without a day. Their unity and opposition are simultaneous. It is the same with work and leisure; there cannot be one without the other, because the boundaries of one are defined in opposition to the boundaries of another.
The relation between leisure and the everyday is not a simple one: the two words are at one and the same time united and contradictory (therefore their relation is dialectical). It cannot be reduced to the simple relation in time between ‘Sunday’ and ‘weekdays’, represented as external and merely different. Leisure – to accept the concept uncritically for the moment – cannot be separated from work. After his work is over, when resting or relaxing or occupying himself in his own particular way, a man is still the same man. Every day, at the same time, the worker leaves the factory, the office worker leaves the office. Every week Saturdays and Sundays are given over to leisure as regularly as day-to-day work. We must therefore imagine a ‘work–leisure’ unity, for this unity exists, and everyone tries to programme the amount of time at his disposal according to what his work is – and what it is not. Sociology should therefore study the way the life of workers as such, their place in the division of labour and in the social system, is ‘reflected’ in leisure activities, or at least in what they demand of leisure.
Historically, in real individuality and its development, the ‘work–leisure’ relation has always presented itself in a contradictory way. (Lefebvre 1947.)
We already conceive work only as one half of this division, but it should also be understood as the catalyst of the division too, the light that divided itself from the darkness, so to speak. Taking this into account, it is not to just be understood as one half of the division but the division itself.
From a historical perspective, conflicts between labour and capital resulted in the adoption of an eight-hour work schedule:
“The movement to reduce the work-hours is intended by its projectors to give a peaceful solution to the difficulties between the capitalists and laborers. I have always held that there were two ways to settle this trouble, either by peaceable means or violent methods. Reduced hours, or eight-hours, is the peace-offering.” (Parsons 1912)
The unrest that preceded this negotiation should serve as evidence of one thing, and it was that the previous division of time was unsustainable. Work is perpetual by nature, and it was necessary to adjust the division of time to maintain labour’s cooperation.
Why must the spheres of time be exclusive? Because another essential characteristic of work is that it itself is exclusive. Those eight hours spent at work belong wholly to work and none else, the existence of the worker reduced to a machine.
With this division of labour on the one hand and the accumulation of capitals on the other, the worker becomes ever more exclusively dependent on labour, and on a particular, very one-sided, machine-like labour. (Marx 35)
Yet, it is incorrect to conclude that the exclusive nature of work restricts its dominion. Leisure is still defined in relation to work, and is thus governed by it. What the 8-8-8 schedule inadvertently highlights is the exclusivity of each of these spheres of life.
One response to this is an attitude of complete laziness, but what becomes clear is that embracing leisure is no better. Just as night is the not-day, leisure is little more than the not-work.
Due to the success of separate production as production of the separate, the fundamental experience which in primitive societies is attached to a central task is in the process of being displaced, at the crest of the system’s development. by non-work, by inactivity. But this inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity: it depends on productive activity and is an uneasy and admiring submission to the necessities and results of production; it is itself a product of its rationality. There can be no freedom outside of activity, and in the context of the spectacle all activity is negated. just as real activity has been captured in its entirety for the global construction of this result. Thus the present “liberation from labor,” the increase of leisure, is in no way a liberation within labor, nor a liberation from the world shaped by this labor. None of the activity lost in labor can be regained in the submission to its result. (Society of the Spectacle, Section 27)
1A. Comparing with Ryken’s Theory
2. Historical Origins of the Ethic
The main goal of this essay is to be able to distinguish Christianity from Christendom, Gospel from superstructure. Or, in simpler terms, we must be able to identify what parts of our religion are actually rooted in Scripture. To do this, it is necessary to take a materialist analysis of Protestant theology, framing it within its historical and economic contexts.
When dealing with the intersection of Protestant Christianity and the capitalist mode of production, one book stands out as a rather in-depth investigation of this very topic: Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The book mostly deals in historical and sociological terms, focusing moreso on analyzing relationships than making any normative claims. There are some things I heavily disagree with Weber on (which we will get to later), but overall, the book is a suitable source for our purposes.
Weber’s aim is to connect the virtues of early Protestant theology with what he terms the “capitalist spirit”. He composes the definition of this phrase “from its individual elements, taken from historical reality.” (Weber 1905, 94)
We shall nevertheless provisionally use the expression “spirit of capitalism” for that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling [berufsmäβig], strives systematically for profit for its own sake in the manner exemplified by Benjamin Franklin. We do this for the historical reason that this attitude has found its most adequate expression in the capitalist enterprise, and conversely the capitalist enterprise has found in this attitude its most adequate spiritual motivation. (Weber 1905, 107)
To put it succinctly, the “spirit of capitalism” is the process of production interpreted as “ethical activity”.
2.1. The Spirit of Capitalism
To better illustrate what this ethic entails, Weber cites Benjamin Franklin, more specifically, his “Advice to a Young Tradesman”.
Some of the “individual elements” to be found in this are:
- The Prolific Element: “Money can beget Money, and its Offspring can beget more, and so on. Five Shillings turn’d, is Six: Turn’d again, ’tis Seven and Three Pence; and so on ’til it becomes an Hundred Pound. The more there is of it, the more it produces every Turning, so that the Profits rise quicker and quicker.” (Franklin 1748)
- The Temporal Element: “Remember that time is money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.” (Franklin 1748)
- The Social Element: “The most trifling Actions that affect a Man’s Credit, are to be regarded. The Sound of your Hammer at Five in the Morning or Nine at Night, heard by a Creditor, makes him easy Six Months longer. But if he sees you at a Billiard Table, or hears your Voice in a Tavern, when you should be at Work, he sends for his Money the next Day. Finer Cloaths than he or his Wife wears, or greater Expence in any particular than he affords himself, shocks his Pride, and he duns you to humble you.” (Franklin 1748)
From this, Weber makes a rather insightful point:
All Franklin’s moral precepts, however, have a utilitarian slant. Honesty is useful because it brings credit. So are punctuality, hard work, moderation, etc., and they are only virtues for this reason—from which it would follow that where, for example, the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose, then this would suffice, and any unnecessary surplus of this virtue would inevitably seem, in Franklin’s eyes, like unproductive and reprehensible profligacy. And indeed: anyone reading his autobiography must inevitably come to the same conclusion. It contains an account of his “conversion” to those virtues  and, in particular, describes how, by strictly preserving the appearance of modesty, or officiously belittling one’s own merits, it is possible to enhance one’s standing in the community.  According to Franklin, these virtues, like all others, are only virtues at all to the extent that they are “useful” to the individual in concrete situations; the mere appearance of virtue is an adequate substitute wherever it serves the same purpose. (Weber 1905, 97)
These “virtues” are primarily concerned towards the ends of capital. They only hold merit insofar as they continue the reproduction of profit. Calvin attributes this to human greed:
We have a frenzied desire, an infinite eagerness, to pursue wealth and honour, intrigue for power, accumulate riches, and collect all those frivolities which seem conducive to luxury and splendour. On the other hand, we have a remarkable dread, a remarkable hatred of poverty, mean birth, and a humble condition, and feel the strongest desire to guard against them. Hence, in regard to those who frame their life after their own counsel, we see how restless they are in mind, how many plans they try, to what fatigues they submit, in order that they may gain what avarice or ambition desires, or, on the other hand, escape poverty and meanness. (Calvin 1810)
Calvin’s “spirit of greed” would fail to explain the attitude taken upon by the Pietist labourer; why would the greedy man put in additional work for the same reward? Our modern mindsets may see it as part of climbing up the ladder, the journey of the soon-to-be-success, but for the Pietists it was truly something they expected to spend their whole lives doing, not as a stepping-stone but as a genuine duty to society.
If we had to make a provisional assessment of the practical effect of these differences, we might say that the virtues cultivated by Pietism tend to be those which might be developed by, on the one hand, the “faithful” [berufstreu] employee, laborer, and home worker, and, on the other hand, in the manner of Zinzendorf, rather patriarchally minded employers displaying pious condescension. (Weber 1905, 194)
As capitalism is predicated on the existence of wage-labour, workers are just as (if not more) essential to its reproduction as capitalists. What we are dealing with is the tendency for all things to be subordinated to the self-perpetuating logic of capital. This is how these different various strains of Christianity can coexist, each assuaging Christians of their respective classes of their role in the larger process:
Compared to this, Calvinism seems to have a closer affinity with the tough, upstanding, and active mind of the middle-class [bürgerlich] capitalist entrepreneur. Finally, pure emotional Pietism—as Ritschl  has stressed—is a religious pastime for “leisure classes.” Inadequate though this description is—as will be shown—it does tally with certain differences in the economic character of the peoples who have been under the influence of one or other of the two ascetic traditions. (Weber 1905, 194)
It is impossible to chalk this up to simple “greed”, for it is not individualistic ends that capitalism perpetuates. There is no inherent opposition between the labor and the leisure classes in this system. Both are essential for the reproduction of something larger than their own self-interests.
In truth, though, matters are not as simple as that. We are here dealing with something quite other than a case of purely egocentric maxims being dressed up as moral precepts. This is clear both from the character of Benjamin Franklin himself, as revealed in the rare honesty of his autobiography, and the fact that he saw his discovery of the “usefulness” of virtue as a revelation from God, who wished to direct him toward virtue by this means. Instead, the “summum bonum” of this “ethic” is the making of money and yet more money, coupled with a strict avoidance of all uninhibited enjoyment. Indeed, it is so completely devoid of all eudaemonistic, let alone hedonist, motives, so much purely thought of as an end in itself that it appears as something wholly transcendent and irrational, beyond the “happiness” or the “benefit” of the individual. (Weber 1905, 98)
Calvinists could testify to the existence of such an ethic, but because they failed to grasp the larger picture, they assumed this was towards a greater social end:
But what had been for him a tentative suggestion became for the Calvinists a characteristic part of their ethical system. “Christian charity” [Nächstenliebe]—since, after all, it was to serve only the glory of God, not that of the creature—expressed itself principally in the fulfillment of the duties of the calling given through the lex naturae, and in this it took on a peculiarly neutral and impersonal character—one which served the rational structuring of the surrounding social cosmos. The wonderfully purposeful structuring and organization of this cosmos, which, according to the biblical revelation and equally according to natural insight, is evidently designed to be of “use” to the human race, shows that labor in the service of this social usefulness furthers the divine glory and is willed by God. Later, we shall be analyzing the significance of these points for the light they shed on the political and economic rationalism of Calvinism: the source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics lies here; important peculiarities of the Calvinist concept of the calling also originate from it. (Weber 1905)
The ends of capital and the ends of society are conflated; capitalism is not just a tool, it is a set of social relations which have become an end in and of itself. It has remade society in its own image. It requires the coordination of countless actors all working towards the same goal in mind: in this case, economic growth. It’s here we begin to see the Social Element.
Think back to the example of the Pietist laborer, who works for “the greater good of society”. His commitment to neither wealth or higher ambitions, but the carrying out of his duties in a responsible manner is what ends up making him an ideal employee. Similarly we could speak of ideal management, ideal consumers, ideal entrepreneurs, and so on. This ended up forming the foundation for Taylorism, the primary management philosophy for the vast majority of businesses throughout the 20th century. Continuously throughout Taylor’s own writings do we begin to see the inherently social character of work:
The writer wishes to again state that: “The time is fast going by for the great personal or individual achievement of any one man standing alone and without the help of those around him. And the time is coming when all great things will be done by that type of cooperation in which each man performs the function for which he is best suited, each man preserves his own individuality and is supreme in his particular function, and each man at the same time loses none of his originality and proper personal initiative, and yet is controlled by and must work harmoniously with many other men.” (Taylor 1913, 140)
In industrial society, what links all of these people is not the dominance of one group over the other but the firm itself. The firm acts as a mediator of something essentially social. Without that link, these tasks would seem absurd and one-sided. This is all well and fine, social production is the foundation of civilization. The issue is that as social production is near-monopolized by firms, the ends of the firm have become the ends of social production and by extent, society.
But what are the ends of the firm? To maximize the amount of value generated.
Why? Because in a competitive environment, the firm’s continued survival depends not just on not just output as weighed against social needs but relative to the efficiency of other producers.
But how does this diverge from social need? Because value of any given commodity can be understood in two ways: either as use-value or exchange-value. If you’re not sure what that means, I’d recommend taking a minute or so to read this brief definition of the value-form.
The divergence becomes clear when we consider that while there is a convergence, a theoretical limit on what people need, the same cannot be said for objects of exchange. As each firms and economies judge themselves in relative terms, there’s an infinite tendency towards the generation and accumulation of capital with no end in sight, just continuous expansion into all facets of life. The means become their own end, with productive output either being discarded or re-invested into new gains. The “frenzied desire” and “infinite eagerness” Calvin speaks of is systemic rather than individual in nature.
As we have seen, capital is M-C-M’, self-valorising value, value that gives birth to value…
Capital, in contrast, does not come out of the process as it entered it. It is in the process that it is first converted into actual capital, into self-valorising value. The total product is now the form in which capital exists as realised capital, and as such it again confronts labour as the property of the capitalist, as a power which is independent and has been created by labour itself. Hence the production process was not only its reproduction process, but its process of production as capital. Previously the conditions of production confronted the worker as capital in so far as he found them to be present over against him in independence. Now it is the product of his own labour that he finds confronting him as conditions of production that have been converted into capital. What started as a presupposition is now the result of the production process…
Capitalist production is not only the reproduction of the relation, it is its reproduction on an ever growing scale; and in the same proportion as the social productive power of labour develops, along with the capitalist mode of production, the pile of wealth confronting the worker grows, as wealth ruling over him, as capital, and the world of wealth expands vis-à-vis the worker as an alien and dominating world. At the opposite pole, and in the same proportion, the worker’s subjective poverty, neediness and dependency develop. The deprivation of the worker and the abundance of capital correspond with each other, they keep in step. At the same time the numbers of the working proletarian these living means for the production of capital, increase. (Marx 1864)
Echoes of the “prolific element” Franklin speaks of can be found here: this is why I refer to the logic of capitalism as self-perpetuating; all that enters the market and its accompanying relations enters a cycle which results in the reproduction of this exchange-value. The exponential growth is inherent to the mode of production, not some immutable fact of the universe.
Returning to the value-form, a question lingers: what is the basis of this exchange-value? Is it some sort of arbitrary social fiction? No. As discussed in the above article, exchange-value exists as an abstract representation of a common property which links otherwise unrelated goods which happen to be in exchange. When looking at an entire economy and all of the countless goods circulating, they hold one thing in common, being the products of human-labor.
Labor is a rather abstract concept; how do we measure its value? In hours. Irrespective of the variations between occupations, technology, economies, and work-ethics is the fact that sixty minutes is still sixty minutes and that it takes time to produce things.
3. Distilling the Ethic (section incomplete)
Modern Christian attitudes towards work take one of three forms: valorization, pessimism, or moderation. The insight provided by each of these perspectives are incomplete in their own respective ways. What does unite them is the failure to consider the topic not just as a matter of individual choice or some unchanging state of nature, but social organization.
The previous sections functioned as an examination of work through a broader lens, setting context for the matter at hand. Having a historically-grounded basis is what allows us to stress the reality of the matter; it gives the following argument a foundation which goes beyond one of countless purely subjective interpretations of how people should view work.
If the issue was just a matter of culture or attitude, then perhaps we could down some life-coach’s advice like a cheap bottle of wine, but despite how much we wish for that to be the case, widespread alienation remains stronger than ever.
3.1. Work as a Virtue (section incomplete)
And it looks like I’m not the only one who thinks this way either. Christians today can get their advice from the Internet, just a few taps and clicks away from getting a consultation on any moral issue. This is important because it gives us a window into the advice that permeates the mainstream, a look at the thought process of your average person (whether or not this is a good thing is a debate for another day). Within the span of one search, I’ve already come across plenty of articles to work with. Some of these are written by Protestants, some by Catholics, but what ties them together is this understanding that work, not just in the general sense, but in the sense of employment, is a virtue.
We’ll start with the article I picked up from the previous time I drafted this section, giving the topic a broader treatment. This article seems to run through a lot of the points you’d expect, viewing work as challenging but rewarding, condemning sloth, and detailing how it’s part of God’s plan for us.
The author, David Mathis, begins by invoking the cultural mandate as evidence of the inherent goodness of work.
From the very beginning, God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” ([Genesis 1:28](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Gen 1.28)). Work is not the product of sin, but a major facet of God’s original plan for human life in his world.
Right off the bat, this raises some questions. Were Adam and Eve really called to work in the same way that we understand now? Is this understanding of work consistent with the way in which work is presented through the rest of Scripture?
I scarcely know a biblical text which presents work as valuable, good, or virtuous. It is necessary to be clear on this. In the Bible work is a necessity, a constraint, a punishment. except in a few, unusual texts. Of course, everyone knows the story of Genesis 2, in which humanity, before the break with God, was called cultivate and to guard the Garden of Eden. Hence, the whole battery of theologians who find in this text the origins of work and who thus claim to have proof that work is part of human “nature”. What I would like to point out, however, is the paradox that this original notion includes none of the characteristics of work! True, cultivation is required, but it has little utility, because the Garden already flourishes on its own without any particular human help. Also, it is necessary “to guard” the Garden, but from whom? We will not enter into a debate on the preexistence of evil in creation; of this evil I find no trace in the Bible. There is no enemy there, no “principle of evil”, no Satan. There is only the serpent, not a mythical or metaphysical serpent, just a simple animal. Nevertheless, Adam is told to cultivate and to guard, to concern himself with functions perfectly useless and unnecessary. This is neither law, constraint, nor necessity. At the same time the distinction between these activities and play does not yet exist. One is not able to speak of work in the ordinary sense.
When we go to the next verse (Genesis 2:16), the garden is clearly one of abundance, where Adam is capable of feeding himself with fruit from any number of trees. There’s no mention of the sweat of his brow or thorns and thistles. Maybe one could argue that the difference between Genesis 2 and 3 is that in 3, the land is more hostile. But the sort of agricultural labor Mathis imagines Adam performing exists precisely because the land is hostile. The Garden is self-flourishing, and as Ellul states, it’s difficult to distinguish between work and play in this context.
The rest of the article is dedicated to the example of the Apostle Paul, and the steadfastness he showed in his mission.
There is a word of hope here for those who battle laziness. Paul professed again and again that the key to his seemingly tireless labors was God at work in him ([Philippians 2:12–13](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Phil 2.12–13); [Colossians 1:29](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Col 1.29)). It was not in his own strength to do what he did. Christ was strengthening him ([1 Timothy 1:12](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/1 Tim 1.12); [Philippians 4:13](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Phil 4.13)). In the same breath, he says he “worked harder than” the other apostles, and he says, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” ([1 Corinthians 15:10](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/1 Cor 15.10)). And still today, Christ strengthens his church by grace ([Romans 16:25](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Rom 16.25); [2 Timothy 2:1](https://biblia.com/bible/esv/2 Tim 2.1)).
And, this is where I think the semantics of the issue really begin to have an effect, which is why I gave so much time to articulating and defending an alternative definition of work. If we define work as a generic catch-all term for any sort of task conducted with effort, we run the risk of neglecting the various nuances associated with it on both historical and political planes.
The same can be extended to the label which the author bestows upon Paul: hard-working. What does it mean to be hard-working? Is a man who spends half his day in the factory and half his day drowning himself in alcohol not hard-working? Could not the same be said about the slaves who spent their lives working in the Roman salt mines? The answer is, yes they are hard-working; but their situation isn’t inspiring, its pitiful.
So, what separates Paul from them, if effort and time aren’t the central characteristics? Let us take a minute to think what kind of words can describe the example he set forth for Christians: persistence, courage, discipline, patience, humility (Romans 12:3-8): the list goes on. These characteristics remain so striking to us thousands of years later because this was not some task he took up reluctantly. What sets apart Paul’s mission is not the way in which he approached it but the nature of said mission. When Paul sets sail for Rome, his resolve testifies not to any personal greatness he has but rather instead the power of he who sent him and what he has been sent out to do.
3.1a. The Great Resignation
This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to Section 3.2 if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.
The essay as a whole has taken me over a year to write, but the world moves on irrespective of my personal schedule. In the months since I first wrote this section, a new development seems to be taking place here in the United States (perhaps other countries as well, but I am not informed enough to speak on them). The COVID-19 pandemic and the various responses to it have had numerous effects, one of which has been a spike in labor shortages, unemployment, and turnover rates within countless industries. A lot of reasons have been cited for this, both speculatively and through actual surveys:
- Existing government stimulus programs are sufficient income
- Issues with the work environment (poor safety conditions, general stress, limited benefits)
- Inflexible or overly long work-schedules
Whatever the causes, people are seeing more and more reasons to quit their job, and less and less reasons to get a job. The press has taken to labeling this the “Great Resignation”, and taking my rule regarding current events into consideration, I do think it actually holds enough relevance to merit discussion in this essay.
And it looks like I’m not the only one who thinks this way. One search later and I’ve already found plenty of articles by various Christian preachers offering their own two cents on this issue. But before we get into the actual meat of these articles, let us take a second to consider why they would care so much. The guiding principle of our society has long been “mind your own business”, and it shows in how the secular world constantly finds itself responding to Christians. They’re perplexed as to why we bother ourselves so much with the lives of others, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t be the same for this issue? Why should a Christian preacher care about whether or not others are living off of government assistance? But when we consider our discoveries in the earlier sections of this essay, it begins to make sense: labor constitutes one’s own life-activity. How one labors exists as a refection of how one lives their life and views the world around them. If we are witnessing a clear shift in how people labor, then it makes sense to investigate the issue.
How any of these various articles put forth by said preachers approach and respond to the matter is of course something subject to variance. Some are more sympathetic, others more disapproving, all of which of course stem from various political, denominational, and personal leanings of the author in question. I’ll be focusing this section towards the attitude which is more critical, as it seems to be more prevalent in evangelical circles (which I am a part of), and will prove more relevant to the arguments made in the previous section.
In this article by Reformed blogger Elizabeth Prata, we definitely see the ways in which Christians can react with condemnation to the events going on. She derisively refers to the phenomenon as “The Great Laziness”, going at length to describe the ways in which it is ultimately selfish:
Some of the top five reasons people are leaving their jobs, and 4 million quit this past April (WUT!), are that they aren’t making enough money (hello, we have received multiple pandemic stimulus monies in the last 18 months), that the job isn’t interesting enough, (self) that their job won’t let them work from home or remotely (self), or work is just so hard it interferes with or leaves little energy for leisure pursuits. (self)
She seems to hone in on this idea that the wave of quitting is for fundamentally selfish reasons, which I won’t dispute. But it’s still rather disingenuous to frame it this way given how the free-market literally functions based on these principles of rational self-interest.
Why do shop owners charge money for their goods? Because it is in their self-interest to do so. Why do people spend their weeks working with the expectation of a wage? Because it is in their self-interest to do so. How many of these ideal pre-pandemic Christians and business owners would offer their services independent of compensation? Should they be expected to feel the same willingness to contribute to society even if they get nothing out of it? Of course not, so why start now? If we are going to uphold the free-market, then that means upholding freedom of contract. If employers are offering a poor work environment, then laborers have the right to look elsewhere or not at all.
There’s this bizarre double-standard when it comes to market-morality, where the right to self-interest is granted to everyone but the employee. Why is this the case? Well, I think it ties back to the earlier discussions had regarding the work-ethic as seen in Section 2.1. The work-ethic is something that varies on a class-basis because each class has a different role to play in the reproduction of the economy. When an entrepreneur acts in self-interest, it helps spur competition, innovation, and efficiency. When a consumer acts in self-interest, they create demand and help the market select out the best products for continuous production. It’s only in the case of the workers where the self-interest can often prove disruptive to said economy.
The assertion of these interests whether shown through strikes or occupations (as seen historically), tend to bring the functioning of society to a halt. The effects of this can be felt all over, not just by capitalists but also by consumers trying to get on with their day. And the article briefly testifies to such:
At school, we can’t get substitutes. Farmers can’t get workers into the barn. Restaurants can’t get wait staff. Almost every industry is reporting a shortage of workers. Law Enforcement particularly is feeling the pinch, with great swathes of officers putting in their retirement papers.
For a lot of people, this undeniably sucks. At the end of the day it’s going to be their problem if their neighborhood is under-policed, if their kids aren’t getting a proper education, if produce prices are beginning to rise to the point that it hurts their wallet. All of that is self-interest, the same self-interest they condemn the unemployed for, and it colors their perspective on the world. Self-interest is a fact of the world (especially a market-driven one) which gives us an understanding of how people on average tend to make decisions and how their own individual experiences affect how they view the world. As a model, it can give us an idea of how to best enact solutions which deal with these widespread problems most effectively or how to approach and talk to those with said experiences.
None of this is a substitute for moral guidance; that can only be found within Scripture. And we must be careful that while we can apply Scripture to modern problems, we cannot start with our own interests and retroactively weaponize Scripture to justify them. So, when we look in Scripture, what do we find? The Bible undeniably condemns sloth, as far as I am aware, this is beyond dispute. (Proverbs 21:25, Proverbs 26:13-17, 2 Thessalonians 3:8-12, etc.) But, at the same time, why should we assume that work (and by extent its opposite, sloth) is a purely vocational concept?
Instead of reflexively condemning others for not returning for their jobs, let us take a second to stop and think what opportunity this actually provides. A lot of people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to think about anything apart from their career are finally being given a great deal of free time that they may not be sure what to do with. The world has provided a false dichotomy as its solution: either suppress your feelings and return to your job or spend your time idly lounging, presumably through the means of passive forms of consumer entertainment. Our society can only conceive of work as a means to a wage, and free-time as a time for us to spend said wage on consumer goods. In both of these scenarios, the choice is done towards the end of spurring on the economy, towards continuing the circulation of money. Perhaps that’s why the debate had to be framed in such binary terms, rather than considering if there’s even a third option.
The fact is that even if there’s a social safety net, people are lost, they’re uncertain. The disruption caused by this pandemic has altered many lives and has left people who had a plan without a plan, and people without choices with plenty of choices. Contrary to what popular myth tells us, human nature has a drive towards contribution, the need to feel a part of something larger than them. Without it, one begins to shrivel and become lethargic, and this is why we consider conditions such as depression to be abnormalities. This is a drive that was visible as early as in the days of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:3-4) to the modern day.
What the church has the opportunity to provide here is guidance, on how and where people can direct their energies and time. Instead of chiding them to return to the job they fled, why not encourage them to use this time to take upon other forms of activity? This could be requesting their help in various church faculties, getting them connected with soup kitchens and various volunteering opportunities, or perhaps sending them off to spread the Gospel in their neighborhoods. Even beyond organized forms of volunteer work, why not encourage them to spend more time with their families, channel their creative faculties towards art, learn a new skill, or use the time to study Scripture more in-depth? Ask yourself: should any of this be considered less fruitful than time spent in a cubicle? If the wage really makes the difference, then maybe the next question we have to ask ourselves is: to whose glory are we really working?
3.2. Work as a Curse
3.3. Work as a Balance (section incomplete)
With the 20th century, we began to see a lot of these debates between capitalism and socialism, individualism and collectivism take place.
Leaders of the Dutch Reformed movement (most notably Abraham Kuyper) attempted to meet these problems with a new theory of social relations. Looking to strike a middle ground between a full church-state (as was the case with various medieval Catholic societies) and the complete secularization of liberal societies, Kuyper developed the concept of “sphere sovereignty”.
Kuyper’s Third Way between the evils of popular-sovereignty, on the one hand, and State-sovereignty, on the other, was sphere-sovereignty—or, as he called it himself, “sovereignty in the individual social spheres.” For Kuyper, society was made up of a variety of spheres, such as the family, business, science, and art. They derived their authority not from the State, which occupied a sphere of its own, but from God, to whom they were directly accountable. Each of the spheres developed spontaneously and organically, according to the powers God had given them in the first moments of creation. (Heslam 2002, 17)
The idea behind sphere sovereignty is that society can be broken down into relations, each of which fall into various categories, known as spheres. The workplace may be one sphere whereas the household may be another. These spheres have their own norms, hierarchies, and purpose in both social and individual life. In order to best carry out the Christian duty, no one of these spheres should intrude on the other. Through this balancing act, Kuyper hopes that the ideal of doing all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) could be realized.
But there was a dual meaning to this concept of sphere sovereignty, not just in the conduct of the life of the individual, but also society as a whole. Kuyper, being the Dutch Prime Minister and the founding father of a major political party (the ARP), was able to see his theory implemented into practice. Building off of his ideas, the Dutch developed a system of “pillarization” in which their nation was divided up into multiple sub-societies. Within pillarization, society would be divided up into various political/religious groups (Protestant, Catholic, socialist, etc.) each with their own set of institutions. Each group was given space to cultivate their own schools, media outlets, hospitals, unions, and so on.
Kuyper attached, however, a secondary meaning to his idea of sphere sovereignty. This was the notion that confessional or ideological groups in society were free to organize their own autonomous institutions. As rector of the Free University he called for orthodox Protestants to separate themselves from the rest of society to develop an independent sphere of life (levenskring). “We wish to retreat behind our own lines,” he declared, “in order to prepare ourselves for the struggle ahead.” The argument found backing, Kuyper claimed, in those ideas of his intellectual mentor Groen van Prinsterer, that were encapsulated in the motto: “In isolation lies our strength” (“In het isolement ligt onze kracht”). (Heslam 2002, 19)
It stood not just as a way to mediate competing interests and give every religious group space to properly thrive, but also as a bulwark against the secularizing forces that were beginning to dictate every aspect of life and social organization since the Enlightenment. It affirmed the religious character of society in a time when people increasingly began to understand it as something purely mechanical or abstract.
Clearly Kuyper’s theory was based on an organic understanding of the nature of society. As such, it was a response not only to individualism but to the mechanism and scientism prevalent in the intellectual world at the end of the nineteenth century. In opposition to these latter two theories, which taught that society is governed by neutral forces that operate in terms of cause and effect, Kuyper argued that society should be understood as a moral organism. (Heslam 2002, 17)
However, also in this plan, we can see the connection between his vision for both individual life and social life. He correctly understood how the two were connected, that how one approaches the day-to-day and how one interacts with their neighbors feed into each other. Society is not merely the sum of its individuals, but it is also not entirely detached from the individual experience.
At the heart of his thought lies not the human individual but the human person with the complex matrix of relationships that belong to true personhood. Hence, his stress on the group and on the organic way in which groups, or “communities,” operate and develop. He understood society as a relational entity, and his model of society is a persons-in-relation model. It is this balance of the person and the community that underlies the respect that the German theologian Ernst Troeltsch displayed toward Calvinist social theory. (Heslam 2002, 25)
And at a glance, it really does seem as if departs from the principle laid out in his famous quote. (“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”) That principle is wholly admirable, and something I agree with, but I
3.3a. The Sabbath
This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to Section 3.4 if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.
Related to this topic of work and the division of time, we have the Sabbath, a theological stumbling block for the modern church. You’d expect that with a topic which is so seldom delved into by most Christians, that it’s either an issue of minor importance or one that has long been settled. This isn’t the case: there currently remains no real consensus on how to interpret the Fourth Commandment despite how frequently it is invoked in Scripture.
Throughout its history, the Church has failed to provide a satisfactory answer to the essence of the Sabbath and its relationship to the Lord’s Day. In its early years, the Church avoided the matter of religious days entirely as to appease pagan converts.
It’s not entirely clear how Sunday was celebrated in the very early centuries of church history nor how in that period Sabbath and its relationship to the Lord’s Day was viewed. There can be no doubt, however, concerning the state of affairs that began to emerge in the fifth century…with the issuance of the Edict of Milan (AD 313), was the inclusion of many within the ranks of the faithful for whom professing Christian faith was little more than empty words. The erstwhile pagan now became the nominal Christian, with predictable results… Among the concessions the church made to the pagan world about it was a failure to take a clearly defined stand on the matter of festivals and religious holidays. Such celebrations had played an important part in pagan worship. (Gaffin 1998, 15)
As we moved into the medieval era, the matter began to take upon a ultra-legalistic (and often arbitrary) nature. One could dress meat but not wash dishes. One could travel to a shrine but not return from it. This is another matter in which one would not be wrong to draw parallels between the practices of the Pharisees and that of the medieval Catholic Church.
As the medieval period progressed, the true meaning of the Lord’s Day almost disappeared, and the complexion of its celebration became increasingly colored by the legalistic system it was a part… The situation however, continued to intensify as time passed. As the church hierarchy strengthened its domination over the life of the individual, so did the prescriptions regarding conduct on the Lord’s day increased both in number and in minuteness… in the final analysis all these regulations are part of a sacramental system, where observing them was believed to have a part in determining an individual’s state of grace. (Gaffin 1998, 17-19)
As the Reformation itself marked a massive re-examination of all aspects of Christian doctrine, it is not surprising that this would apply to the Sabbath too. But the scope of their project meant that they often couldn’t give their full focus to investigating this question, not when much more urgent matters of doctrine had to be hashed out.
It may be difficult for Christians today to appreciate fully the spiritual and intellectual turmoil the Reformers experienced in breaking with the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, however, we can understand how those called to spend their lives in dispelling centuries-long darkness that had engulfed truths that are the indispensable life source of Christianity, would not likely be as concerned with questions related primarily to a specific and less central aspect of piety.
For Calvin, forced to spend an entire lifetime contending for a fully gracious salvation and the Scriptures as our sole authority in matters of doctrine and practice, the Sabbath question never recieved the attention it might have, nor was it subject to the full force of his exegetical powers. In short (and at the risk of suggesting an ultimately false disjunction), his dominating preoccupation was gospel, not law. (Gaffin 1998, 144)
Through the course of the Reformation, we saw a variety of views pop up from groups such as the Puritans and the Anabaptists. Most of these can be broken down into one of two camps, however: the Sabbatarians and the non-Sabbatarians. The debate really manifests itself as a debate on Law: the Sabbatarians held that because Christ came to fulfill the Law that it still applied, but
I think what’s missing from a lot of these discussions though is the question of why. The Sabbatarian arguments repeatedly come back to invoking the commands outlined in Scripture, and are often rooted in larger debates regarding covenants and the Law in the abstract. These are important discussions to have, but what’s missing from the discussion is the Sabbath itself. It does not make sense to view the Sabbath as merely a stand-in for broader discussions of Law, when Scripture clearly affords it a much more significant place.
To be fair to the Reformers though, that’s not to say there hasn’t been any genuine discussion. Both Luther and Calvin connected this to some concept of rest, both in the physical and spiritual sense. Calvin took it a step further, arguing that it was primarily a rest from the works of sin, and that this could be tied to the Great Commandment. But, as pointed out subsequent theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, this doesn’t really explain the position in Scripture that the Sabbath is given.
For Calvin, spiritual rest is ceasing from sin, and the positive side of such cessation is loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and… your neighbor as yourself”. But according to the uniform teaching of Scripture, the… particular elements of the Decalogue are related to Christ’s love summary as a species to a genus, specific aspects to an integrating whole.
Consequently, to attribute any one of the ten commandments, the comprehensive force that properly belongs to Christ’s summary deprives that particular commandment of its place in the Decalogue… The notion of spiritual rest he finds there gives to it a basic force it cannot have biblically; a part of the Decalogue recieves the meaning divinly intended for the whole. Johnathan Edwards, for one, already grasped this point. In commenting on Calvin’s views, he says, “And if it stands in force now only as signifying a spiritual, Christian rest, and holy behaviors at all times, it doth not remain as one of the ten commands but a summary of all the commands.” (Gaffin 1998, 145)
The other items of the Decalogue we are able to understand the deeper meaning behind without sacrificing their specificity. Take the Second Commandment for example. Countless commentaries have been penned regarding the profound theological significance of this command, and the discussion often strikes to the essence of what a “graven image” is. From understanding this command we get an appreciation for the invisible God and how the scope of his being is incapable of being contained in any one image.
We see this applied in Scripture too; during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:21-27) what do we see? He takes these prohibitions in the Decalogue, such as those pertaining to murder and adultery, and fulfills them by investigating the nature of each command. One cannot understand the sin of adultery without understanding this essence of lust, murder without anger.
We must not imagine Christ to be a new legislator, who adds any thing to the eternal righteousness of his Father. We must listen to him as a faithful expounder, that we may know what is the nature of the law, what is its object, and what is its extent. It now remains for us to see, what Christ condemns in the Pharisees, and in what respect his interpretation of it differs from their glosses. The amount of it is, that they had changed the doctrine of the law into a political order, and had made obedience to it to consist entirely in the performance of outward duties.
Hence it came, that he who had not slain a man with his hand was pronounced to be free from the guilt of murder, and he who had not polluted his body by adultery was supposed to be pure and chaste before God. This was an intolerable profanation of the law: for it is certain, that Moses everywhere demands the spiritual worship of God. From the very nature of the law we must conclude, that God, who gave it by the hand of Moses, spoke to the hearts, as well as to the hands and to the eyes. (Calvin’s Commentary on Matthew 5:21)
It only makes sense to approach the Fourth Commandment with this same mentality too. This is one of those areas where I believe it is useful to look towards Jewish theology to get an understanding of the original purpose and character of the Sabbath. The main work I’m going to be looking at for this sort of dialogue is The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
(It is worth noting that my general instinct is to caution against this sort of Judeo-Christian analysis. The existence of Christ requires one to view the old Scriptures in a radically different light than had he not been the Son of God. Yes, Christ came to fulfill the Law, but when we speak of fulfillment (πληρόω), or completion, we admit the incompleteness of what came before. It’s a concept that is fundamentally retrospective in its impact. We see this notion of Christ as an “inflection point” throughout Scripture (Romans 5:9-11, Romans 8:1-4, Hebrews 6:13-20). However, it is still important to understand the Law to make sense of how it is fulfilled. When the Church insufficiently fails to address certain matters pertaining to matters of the Law, I do believe it is worthwhile to engage in dialogue to re-examine foundations, as long as the utmost caution is exercised. One key example of this is the Reformers adopting the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, discarding the Apocrypha. I don’t see sufficient reason to doubt that modern-day Jews are unable to testify to the tradition of the Sabbath and its character.)
So, before we can even get to the question of whether or not the Sabbath is binding to Christians, we have to first understand what the Sabbath is. But understanding the Sabbath in essence requires that we understand how God (and by extension the day) relates to the concepts of space and time. I’ve selected out some passages to help get these concepts across:
Even religions are frequently dominated by the notion that the deity resides in space, within particular localities like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are, therefore, singled out as holy places; the deity is bound to a particular land; holiness a quality associated with things of space, and the primary question is: Where is the god? There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His presence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit. (Heschel 1951, 4)
The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept its premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.
…Passover, originally a spring festival, became a celebration of the exodus from Egypt; the Feast of Weeks, an old harvest festival at the end of the wheat harvest (hag hakazir, Exodus 23:16; 34:22), became the celebration of the day on which the Torah was given at Sinai; the Feast of the Booths, an old festival of vintage (hag haasif, Ex. 23:16), commemorates the dwelling of the Israelites in booths during their sojourn in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:42f.). To Israel the unique events of historic time were spiritually more significant than the repetitive processes in the cycle of nature, even though physical sustenance depended on the latter. While the deities of other peoples were associated with places or things, the God of Israel was the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting Himself in events of history rather than in things or places. Thus, the faith in the unembodied, in the unimaginable was born.
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. (Heschel 1951, 7-8)
And it’s from here that we begin to get an understanding of what this “essence” I spoke of earlier could be. Sabbath was not merely a “shall not” to work, but something to be positively observed and celebrated (Exodus 31:12-17). It served as a reminder to the Israelites that they and their God are related through time. That by experiencing the moment in itself (as opposed to experiencing a Time that is subordinated to Space), the individual is reminded of what lies in Eternity.
Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. When the Romans met the Jews and noticed their strict adherence to the law of abstaining from labor on the Sabbath, their only reaction was contempt. (Heschel 1951, 10)
As discussed earlier, keeping the Law does not mean to simply abstain from an activity in a purely legal sense, but rather instead realize a greater good that the command embodies. By upholding the Sixth Commandment, we affirm the value of human life. The negation of adultery in the Seventh is implicitly an affirmation of love and commitment in marriage. Even the Law as a whole is explicitly presented as an embodiment of the broader concept of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Matthew 22:37-40). This is the mistake the Pharisees made with their own interpretation of the Sabbath, where they transformed the practice into a political order. Outward expression was their primary concern, rather than the essence, what it actually meant for man.
The glorification of the day, the insistence upon strict observance, did not, however, lead the rabbis to a deification of the law. “The Sabbath is given unto you, not you unto the Sabbath.” The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety may endanger the fulfilment of the essence of the law.”
…To observe the seventh day does not mean merely to obey or to conform to the strictness of a divine command. To observe is to celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again, the majesty of holiness in time, “a day of rest, a day of freedom,” a day which is like “a lord and king of all other days,” a lord and king in the commonwealth of time. (Heschel 1951, 17-20)
This ties back into the larger point of my essay when we consider how much of this command is intrinsically tied to these concepts of labor and time. The language used to discuss the Sabbath very much echoes the language used in these deconstructions of work.
To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.” The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living. (Heschel 1951, 14)
When we then reflect back on our industrial society, one in which every hour is spent either working, resting from work, or drowning ourselves in the products of our work; one in which the scale of our industry exists for the soul purpose of finding dominion over space, it has very grim implications. The modern “weekend” may happen to overlap with the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, but its purpose very transparently goes beyond that. Otherwise there would be no need for the secular world to observe this. The weekend’s primary purpose in our society is to serve as that rest from labor, but is that okay? Should we remain content with this? What are we to make of the weekday then? Questions have been raised by other Jewish thinkers such as Buber and Kaufmann as they grappled with these dilemmas in modern life.
Buber succeeds in endowing the social sphere with a religious dimension. Where other critics of religion tend to take away the sabbath and leave us with a life of weekdays, Buber attacks the dichotomy that condemns men to lives that are at least six-sevenths drab.
While man cannot live in a continual sabbath, he should not resign himself to a flat two-dimensional life from which he escapes on rare occasions. The place of the sacred is not a house of God, no church, synagogue, or seminary, nor one day in seven, and the span of the sacred is much shorter than twenty-four hours. The sabbath is every day, several times a day. (Buber 1970, 30)
I largely agree with Kaufmann’s sentiment here, but with the stipulation, that — coming from the Christian perspective — it is not just possible, but necessary to strive towards this so-called “continual Sabbath”. If the Sabbath represents a temple of time, a holy moment sanctified by God, then what are we to make of it once that temple’s veil is torn? The veil we see referenced in Matthew 27 represented a separation between man and God, a place set apart for the Lord to dwell. With its tearing, Christ brings together what was once separate.
Christ, the true and everlasting Priest, having abolished the figures of the law, opened up for us by his blood the way to the heavenly sanctuary, that we may no longer stand at a distance within the porch, but may freely advance into the presence of God. For so long as the shadowy worship lasted, (287) a veil was hung up before the earthly sanctuary, in order to keep the people not only from entering but from seeing it, (Exodus 26:33; 2 Chronicles 3:14.) Now Christ, by blotting out the handwriting which was opposed to us, (Colossians 2:14,) removed every obstruction, that, relying on him as Mediator, we may all be a royal priesthood, (1 Peter 2:9.) Thus the rending of the veil was not only an abrogation of the ceremonies which existed under the law, but was, in some respects, an opening of heaven, that God may now invite the members of his Son to approach him with familiarity. (Calvin’s Commentary on Matthew 27:51)
In this sense, I’d argue the “continual Sabbath” represents the fulfillment of this law. The completion is attained by taking the day and transposing it onto the entire week. The individual stands before God not as a duality of a working-man and a Sabbath-man, but in a unified existence. When Paul instructs us to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), it means all; he doesn’t make exception for meals, so why should he for work? The totality of our existence — even our routines, struggles, and sufferings — constitute the canvas against which our continual relationship with our Creator manifests.
With this new light, we can appreciate what the Reformers were able to grasp: just as with the other tenets of the Law, Christ has not abrogated, but rather instead elevated the Sabbath.
Still there can be no doubt, that, on the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished. He is the truth, at whose presence all the emblems vanish; the body, at the sight of which the shadows disappear. He, I say, is the true completion of the sabbath: “We are buried with him by baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life,” (Rom. 6:4). Hence, as the Apostle elsewhere says, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ,” (Col. 2:16, 17); meaning by body the whole essence of the truth, as is well explained in that passage. This is not contented with one day, but requires the whole course of our lives, until being completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days. (Calvin 1536, 2:8:48)
We cannot settle for the “six-sevenths drab”; if this world continues to drag our attention away from the Almighty, to beat people down until they can only conceive the mundane, then it must be revolted against. While even in the context of sinful societies God can make use of our labors, it does not relieve us of our responsibility to resistance.
3.4. Towards a New Work-Ethic
In the end, we still have to speak of a work-ethic in some positive sense: not so we can somehow learn to love our 9-5 schedule, but so there can be an actually existing movement to speak of. If we are to assign activity an existential importance, then it makes itself manifest in all aspects of life and society.
This also goes for revolutions. For far too long have socialists been content to concern themselves with questions of distribution: how are we going to deal with inequalities in wealth, who is going to own what, who is stealing from who.
Production, and by extent work, is treated as a simple means to an end: the structure of our day-to-day lives isn’t altered, society is expected to continue on as it did before minus some reshuffling of cards. In this sense, their mentality is no different from that of the capitalists. This mentality has been entirely outmoded by the welfare state, which provides the aforementioned reshuffling but in a more orderly fashion.
But as we’ve seen in the above sections, work is so much more than that. It’s dynamic, its the link between potential and actuality, the purest expression of will. Work is creation.
Work in the Bible begins with God’s work of creation. God’s work of creation is obviously not toil. It is mote like play or the exuberance of the creative artist. It is joyous and energetic, unencumbered by the need to overcome obstacles or wrestle the physical elements into a finished product. Yet the activity of God in creating the world must be considered work. We know, for example, that after six days of creation “God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (Genesis 2:2). In the actual account of creation, moreover, God rests from his creative work after each day, setting up a rhythm of work and rest. (Ryken 1987, 120)
We have spent the last three-hundred years erasing this fact, suppressing the most vital of aspects to our existence. Instead we have created a culture in which we live vicariously through our consumer goods, one where one can only live as a spectator. Is it any surprise that when we treat work as an obstacle, that people will seek to avoid it? What does it tell us that our rejection of what is most essential to us is rooted in fear and complacency?
In our society, man is being pushed more and more into passivity. He is thrust into vast organizations which function collectively and in which each man has his own small part to play. But he cannot act on his own; he can act only as the result of somebody else’s decision. Man is more and more trained to participate in group movements and to act only on signal and in the way he has been taught. There is training for big and small matters—training for his job, for the driver and the pedestrian, for the consumer, for the movie-goer, for the apartment house dweller, and so on. The consumer gets his signal from the advertiser that the purchase of some product is desirable; the driver learns from the green light that he may proceed. The individual becomes less and less capable of acting by himself; he needs the collective signals which integrate his actions into the complete mechanism. Modern life induces us to wait until we are told to act.
Man is a product of his environment, and modern man is characteristically modern. His cowardice, indecision, complacency, passivity, and entitlement all allow him to thrive in this environment. Of course, these have all been inherent to humanity since the beginning of time, but there remains another fact about man which is just as timeless: in social life he finds his justification. His moral compass is trained on what he sees in his peers, his eyes are trained on the path of least resistance. This attribute allows us to stably co-exist in societies but it also means that individuals embody the attributes of the societies they live in.
And it just so happens that industrial and capitalist societies happen to be defined by commodities. To us, the product rather than the process is what matters. We spend our time looking for ways to save time, we enter the office fixated on the clock. When the time comes to rest, the clock still looms, only counting down the hours with dread rather than anticipation. The only way we can afford this is by giving every aspect of life its own private sphere which it cannot overstep: the family gets night-time, God gets Sunday, the job gets the day.
And if that’s what’s dominant, if that’s what occupies our thoughts, then that must be what we fight against as Christians. We stand against the world, and while that relationship remains unchanging, whichever idol currently demands our attention has always been subject to flux. They come and pass, never able to measure up to the Eternity they claim. The task remains the same as it always has: to unmask all that presents itself as inevitable, all that demands our undivided attention. The world is willing to grant religion its bubble, a place to be slotted in only after all other considerations of time, politics, logistics, and economy have been hashed out. All this and not an inch more. But it is up to us to resist the temptation of integration.
Only through the ruthless criticism of all that exists — a truly radical negation — can the light of the Gospel come to penetrate every aspect of life. Before God, the duplicity of time fades away, life reveals itself as a unified, undivided stream of pure existence. Man, looking past all earthly abstractions and loyalties, stands in a direct, intermediated relationship with God.
Our minds are not infinite; and as the volume of the world’s knowledge increases, we tend more and more to confine ourselves, each to his special sphere of interest and to the specialised metaphor belonging to it. The analytic bias of the last three centuries has immensely encouraged this tendency, and it is now very difficult for the artist to speak the language of the theologian, or the scientist the language of either. But the attempt must be made; and there are signs everywhere that the human mind is once more beginning to move towards a synthesis of experience. (Sayers 1941)
This is not something which can be accomplished with a mere shift in cultural or individual attitudes. No amount of reflection will change the fact that without the wage there is no survival, that the reproduction of this society is something that’s expected out of all of its members. Refusal is not merely punished, but rather instead granted as impossible. Our perspective can only spur us to action, the renewal of the self under salvation creates a will to see the renewal of the world.
Just as social critique absent of individual critique can often shield men from acknowledging the weight of their own sins, the reverse also holds true. The Tower of Babel reflects the character of its builders; institutions of man are no less fallible than men themselves. If we erect a barrier beyond which our critique cannot be extended, can we truly say that it holds a radical presence?
We struggle for this not because we expect sin to be eradicated by socio-economic change, not because we believe the Lord has predestined us political victory in some millenarian fashion. We struggle because the means and the end are simultaneous, each and every moment contains historical potential. Christ has overcome the world, that much was accomplished on the cross. To many, this fact seems to lend itself to complacency, but the example of the apostles shows us the opposite.
Christ is victorious, this means we have nothing to fear. Christ is victorious, that means that no matter what happens, we have no reason to resign. Christ is victorious, that means that even in the face of momentary defeat, the Gospel will be preserved, others ready to carry the torch. It fills us with a restlessness, an eagerness to participate in the saga of mankind’s redemption.
Liberation theologies throughout history have chosen to focus on some arbitrary future hope, some point at which everything falls into place. Because of that, it has found itself generally in concord with programmatic variants of socialism, which promise just that in exchange for present party adherence. Deferred enough, this hope becomes an un-reality, a future so distant that it may as well constitute an alternate universe. The mistake is failing to recognize that the hope is in front of us.
We might be tempted to approach the problem from the other side and list all the reasons not to revolt, chief among them the enormous repressive power of the state. Most revolts end in failure, even if we define success in the most modest terms, and failure means, let’s be clear, not only wasted effort but injury, death, imprisonment. Except in situations where survival is truly at stake, there is always good reason to keep one’s head down, to stagger on under the nightmare weight of history. But fear explains both too much and too little, since many do revolt in situations when the odds are not particularly good and the risks great. At a first pass, we are confronted by an insufficient positive explanation (reasons for) and an insufficient negative one (reasons against). Moreover, as nearly all commentators have noticed, since the odds of success for a revolt are not determined by the force of the enemy alone but by the number of those who participate, there is something circular and self-fulfilling about whatever judgments participants make about the risks. Bad odds can be transformed into good ones if, by misapprehending the situation or ignoring the risks, some small group decides to go ahead anyway, creating felicitous conditions for everyone else. A leap into the void can make the ground appear, just as a refusal to leap can turn solid ground to thinnest air. (Bernes 2020, 193)
It is here the essentially spontaneous character makes itself known. As said before institutions reflect the character of their architects, this is the same for revolutions. If revolution is defined as means to the end, a provisional situation which is to be tolerated until the bureaucrats bring about utopia, then it will indefinitely wallow in whatever it has actually achieved. The product once again takes precedence over the process. This was the case for the Soviet Union, which during the post-Stalin era, languished in corruption, un-ambition, and drab mediocrity.
There has never been a golden age, there never will be a golden age. We cannot expect communism to solve every problem of human nature, logistics, or philosophy, but we don’t need to. Our world has always been a hellhole and will always be, just in respectively different ways. It’s still our hellhole, and we will still continue to persist, no matter the conditions. We exist in this reality no matter how absurd it is, same as our forefathers.
Does this mean we should give up the task of radical social transformation? No, quite the opposite. There is nothing for us to wait on, nothing for us to fear, nothing for us to settle for, nothing for us to resign to. This world has been wholly corrupted by sin, but Christ has overcome the world. (John 16:33) If anything the good news is vibrant, it’s energizing. It calls a person to carry out their duty to the Lord without hesitation, unwavering in commitment and drive.
This leaves us not with contentment but complete confidence. Modern radical movements have been entirely rattled by the end of history. Terrorists, in a mix of cynicism and panic, blindly kill in the hopes of history remembering them as a tragic hero. Electoralists settle for “harm reduction”, having subconsciously given up on anything more ambitious than damage control. The parties and organizations of old continue to panhandle for power, idly fantasizing about all the things they can do with sufficient political leverage.
Revolution is the ends making themselves known through the means, a simultaneous process of destroying and prefiguring, a movement which incubates its own conditions. The re-kindling of social bonds in a currently atomized world, the creativity in insurrection which paves the way for actual social organization, the unapologetic self-indulgence which forms a basis for an authentic collectivity. It is inherently social, there is no deferring this. If there are no feelings of sociality, nothing in the movement itself apart from its results, it will inevitably be consigned to the dustbin of history. Certain conditions and crises can set the stage for it, but the spark is still ultimately pure collective will.
3.4a. Why Christianity? (section incomplete)
This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to the Bibliography if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.
Through this essay, I’ve given a lot of focus to defending Marxism from a Christian angle, but the reverse is often just as contentious a topic.
I want to make it clear that first and foremost I am a Christian. The paradox of the cross is the a priori axiom through which I understand everything else. I am concerned first and foremost with the salvation from mankind from itself,
Often in these sorts of arguments, you’ll see Christian Marxists go on about the ways in which Christianity benefits Marxist ends, their shared principles, or how what a person believes doesn’t matter. This is incredibly shortsighted, and only exacerbates the dissonance, even if it gets other Marxists off their back about their faith. After you’ve sufficiently performed apologetics for the faith, what actual substance is left of the faith?
How much simpler it would be not to deal with all this! But our Marxist Christians would not dream of abandoning their faith; they feel a sentimental attachment to God’s revelation, and would suffer traumatically if they eliminated the label from their lives. They prefer to reconcile and rationalize. Falling prey it) a process repeated throughout history, they claim to safeguard Christianity’s authenticity by selecting from it those elements that can be made to coincide with the prevailing ideological movement of the day: in this case, Marxism.
Ignorant of history, they fail to realize that this process has been tried a thousand times, for the purpose of restoring Christianity’s authenticity. Always it has appeared extremely helpful, but without fail it has produced catastrophe for faith and the revelation. How much better it would be to blot out the Bible and Christ, abandon them once and for all, and thus be able to limit one’s efforts to “serious matters”: politics, the economy, revolution, the Third World, and the oppressed classes. (Ellul)
If Christianity is supposed to be merely some liberatory myth, some tool to advance a political cause, then the next question is what do we even mean by Marxism? Do we mean the ideological tradition of proletarian revolution as espoused by the likes of Marx, Engels, and Lenin?
If so, then how do we grapple with the fact that this tradition has long been, in Lenin’s words, “atheistic and positively hostile to all religion”. And for those who reject Lenin, we can even point straight back to Marx in his famous quote:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Even when we look at the broader context of this passage there is no getting around the fact that religion cannot be merely used as a tool for liberation.
When Marx states that “the struggle against religion is a struggle against the world”, he does so with an understanding of Religion as the consecration of all things worldly. This is not a metaphysical but an anthropological statement: the point of interest is how religious institutions and ideas integrate into mainstream society. Whether or not a God exists or what form that God takes is besides the point for Marx, because irrespective of that answer, the world is the world. We can see how the world functions for ourselves, the church doesn’t need to tell us how our eyes work. Marx’s aim is not to disprove the existence of higher truths, but to show how refusing a material analysis to material reality only amounts to obfuscation regarding said reality.
But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
All of this so far only testifies to the negative essence of Marxism. We can see what Marx recognizes as existing and how he criticizes that which exists. But what fills that void? Is it some belief that the material is somehow superior or “more real” than the spiritual? Is it that the political programme of the proletariat is some supreme good to which individuals are morally obligated to subject themselves? No, because if we were to distill some sort of “pure Marxism”, it would be fundamentally negative in nature. It can explain tensions, it can show contradictions, it can provide tools for analysis but Marxism alone is not a metaphysical or existential prescription.
That’s not to say Marx didn’t have a philosophic foundation. His arguments against capitalist society were downstream from a secular humanist tradition which stretched from the beginnings of the Enlightenment to the Hegelians of his time. This philosophy was implicit through his writings, as the values espoused by them were taken for granted by both the people he was interested in engaging with and the larger cultural environment in which he existed. He did not need to re-litigate the inherent goodness of humanism, that would only be redundant. Instead, his concern in this respect was showing how the mechanisms of capitalist society are an obstacle to the humanist ideal.
Communism is a means to an end, rather than the end in and of itself. The mistake in these discussions is that the framing essentially puts the cart before the horse. Christianity when treated as something ancillary becomes little more than a cultural or political mantle-piece, its entirely gutted of any sort of subversive content. Marx witnessed this in his time, and we see it in our time with the countless “conservative” and “progressive” Christianities which are near indistinguishable from their secular counterparts.
Communism when treated as an end unto itself denies agency to the individual; it defers any hopes of meaning or fulfillment until their external environment has changed. It demands the individual view himself as a historical subject as opposed to a historical agent, waiting upon history to happen to him rather than making his mark upon history. It justifies atrocities and compromises by deferring the question of fulfillment or meaning to an arbitrary future state. It produces martyrs, not human beings. Ironically, this approach to communism is the epitome of what Marx characterizes as religion; a social opiate which renders men passive by detaching themselves from their present situation and self.
What is left of Marx in our day? Nothing. I say “nothing” even though I take Marxists themselves into account. What do they think of Marx’s political economy? It has been quietly swept into a corner; it contains so many errors, ill-conceived explanations, and false predictions that Marxists generally prefer not to mention Marx’s political economy in concrete terms. What about Marx’s philosophy? Insofar as it attempted to provide a coherent materialist system, Marxists have usually abandoned it as well, so that materialism is no longer considered an essential axiom. Marx’s materialism was necessarily tied to the overall thought of the nineteenth century. And Marx’s strategy? Why, Communism was supposed to come to life in the most economically developed country, where capitalism had reached its greatest potential…
What remains, then, are scattered pieces of Marx’s thought; Marxists clutch at these, as if by themselves they could have some obscure meaning: class struggle, prevailing ideology, relations of production, etc. Certain quotations of Marx are especially useful-profound phrases that get applied to everything, and that can be interpreted however one likes!… Unfortunately, Marx’s thought is utterly gutted as a result: it lies lifeless and incoherent. (Ellul 1988, 15-16)
We can say, then, that present-day Communism has become an ideology in the most vulgar sense of the word. It is worthless: a bunch of beliefs, a mixture of all sorts of things, since it has grasped everything that belonged to our society’s mood. Communism is the most perfected ideology, because it makes use of absolutely everything that makes up the ideological panorama of our society. It expresses our state of mind and has spread everywhere, because it has given the label “Communist” to the various feelings-beliefs-commonplaces-ideas that are present everywhere. Communism has taken the lowest common denominator of all French people and adopted this as its doctrine. As a result, nothing prevents the average French person any longer from joining that which calls itself Communism, and then he can become a member of the organization representing this Communism: the French Communist Party. In so doing, a person simply moves from the vague state of mind in which he lives naturally to becoming formally a member of the organization that best typifies that state of mind. (Ellul 1988, 18)
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