Reflections on Work

3/29/09

I have thought about the whole issue of a Christian perspective on work for forty years. I still haven’t figured it out clearly. Even so, I have been meaning to write down some of my thoughts.

The Genesis story tells us that Adam was driven out of Eden for eating the apple of the knowledge of good and evil and told that he would toil by the sweat of his brow from hence forth. Happy thought! Our fallen state from being in the Garden of Eden and a little lesser than the angels results in there being sin and evil in the world and our having to “toil”.

But the Bible is complex, ambiguous and not monolithic in its ethics or in its theology. In fact there are many theologies in the Bible. Over arching is the idea that history is linear and not cyclical like Hinduism, and, to some extent, Buddhism. God’s people are on a journey of discovering and knowing Him and of building a society that is theocentric rather than homeocentric. Hence toil is placed in an overarching theology of “we’re all in this together, but we are going somewhere and our common tasks are important.” Some work in the Bible is fun: dancing after slaughtering the Philistines, rejoicing in the harvest, making as many children as the numerous sheep on the hillside (Abraham). Jesus goes to the marriage in Cana of Galilee, which lasts several days and is so good that they run out of wine and his mother tells him to get more.

In the Epistles of Paul there is the marriage of Greco-Roman philosophic thought and Hebrew thought (Hellenistic Judaism). The Greeks bring in concepts and cosmic “ideas” such as Truth, Wisdom, Reality, Beauty, etc. Paul adapts a lot of stoicism, and we get rules of behavior in his writings. Read Paul on the necessity of women obeying their husbands and you will tee off all of the women you know. Whereas in Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, also a marriage of Judaism and Hellenistic thought, you have “What is man that thou art mindful of him!” in Paul you get “a good man does thus and so”. Dutifully serving God by proclaiming in thought, word and deed the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, incarnation of divine love and eternal life is the whole purpose of whatever one does, be he a shepherd, soldier, ruler or schmuck.

So serving God by serving the Church becomes the ideal, the Church being the body of Christ and also the only operative social institution around for many centuries. What develops in thought is the idea of a system of orders in the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Society is a loose system in which everyone has his place. There are knaves, yeomen, publicans, priests, knights, royalty and kings. This is patently feudal and is a caste system, which endures today in its remnants in England.

John Calvin, (I translated his Institutes from French and wrote a major paper on them early in my academic career), believed that everyone had his/her place. It is our lot in life to be and do what we are. Sometimes we are called to be static and sometimes to be dynamic. But each person has a specific task in his/her life and that is a good and noble thing. There is an architectonic structure to society; lawyers and rulers and merchants are particularly important and are to be respected; but there is also a latent democracy in that the individual man/woman is valued - even though sinful.

There is, then, a latent enlightenment strain in Calvin’s doctrine of man. In Calvin’s thought (a reformer like Luther and Zwingli) there is the foreshadowing of the opening of Western Europe to a whole new idea of work. Work ceases to be doing your job in maintaining good society. There is the beginning of a shift to the importance of learning, seeing, exploring and opening up all of creation - discovering the hand of God in the flower and sun and moon and stars, etc. Here lie the seeds of “self-fulfillment” as each person becomes important as a discoverer. Knowledge and enlightenment are important. Hence the scholarly life is exalted more than the butcher, baker or candlestick maker, and maybe even the priest. Well, this clashes with the hierarchy of aristocracy and the Church, and you get wars, tumults and much oppression.

The Puritan Ethic springs from the head of Calvin, although it certainly lies hidden in the Roman Catholic theologies. Work is important because it builds society. We are all called to work, make families, sell goods and defend the state. Killing the Indians is good because we are establishing a better society and also establishing the Christian religion as defined by the Roman Catholic explorers or the Protestants. Now what most of the theologians overlook is anthropology and social sciences in the “real world.” Most of the world gives at best lip service to the Church, regardless of its structure. In society there are groups and tribes and caste systems. Those with the power or money or talent are rewarded within their particular lineage group (Irish, Italian, etc.) The calling of the group is very important and everyone works to promote it. Hence the Irish take over the police and firemen in New York and politics became the pastime of the Irish. Note that there has been only archbishop of St. Patrick’s Cathedral who was not Irish. With the opening of the West (kill the Indians) and the subsidizing of the railroads by the government there arose the idea of manifest destiny. The calling of every American was to build America’s railroads, roads, ports, etc. There was a “higher good” that was promoted. Forget the fact that those doing the work were Chinese, African Americans and the desperately poor. Even so there was a common secular system of caste and vision for society and work.

With the coming of the twentieth century capitalism and democracy were the visions that defined work in the popular press and general secular view. WWI was to fight the war to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy. WWII was to fight totalitarianism. The Koran and Vietnam were wars to fight “godless” communism. These were national purposes and part of our secular religion that consciously and unconsciously defined work. (For consciously, see the wonderful posters of women in work clothes rolling up their sleeves to work on the assembly line. Of course the Russians did the poster bit better.

So there have been Church religious theological structures and secular semi-religious theological structures that seek to define work. Each system has its idea of a “calling,” “finding oneself,” and using one’s talents to “discover” (Enlightenment) truth and beauty for oneself or for society.

Frankly, the whole thing is a mess. Having a caste system or structure for understanding work may give one a road map, but it doesn’t make the journey enjoyable or motivate one to go on it. Like it or not, life is a journey or pilgrimage in which there are many experiences, obligations and discoveries that involve responsibility and enjoyment as well as foolishness and pain.

My simple-minded template is the following (which can be corrected by anyone with a brain). There are: 1) Vocations. What one is. That can be an artist, lawyer, businessman, salesman, writer or priest. 2) Avocations. What one enjoys and uses one talent in that is not income producing. This can be singing, drawing, writing, gardening, athletics, etc. 3) Occupations: Baker, employment counselor, teacher, doctor, nurse, school bus driver.

Vocations and occupations can overlap. A mistake that my mother, who ran a personnel agency, used to say many people make is that they look for avocational enjoyment in their occupation. They want a social life on the job, interpersonal relationships on the job, and a sense of fulfillment as a “real person” on the job. Dear old Mom said, “Get a life outside your job. As a secretary or accountant your job cannot provide it and you are making an unrealistic demand.” Good old Mom was tough.

4) Work. Work is, to use the definition in physics class, energy expended. Building a stonewall in my yard is work. It is not my calling, vocation or even avocation. Nor is it my occupation (being a mason). Most of what we do is work. I do the laundry, dishes, bring in the firewood, go to the bank, etc. That is work. 5) Job. Job is the formal structuring of work. My job is to show up at St. Andrew’s and celebrate Mass at 12:10 p.m. every day. That is my job. It is work. It is part of my vocation.

Vocation, occupation, work and job are all done for various reasons. Usually they are done to earn money or some kind of reward. From the monetary reward various things result: 1) Choices. I have a certain degree of flexibility and freedom because I have money. Money gives me opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t have to live within the family (home). I am less reliant on others. People seek money in order to have a wider range of opportunities (private rather than public schools, better doctors or dentists than a public health clinic, etc.) 2) Personal gratification. I can buy a Starbucks coffee or a beer or a book if I have money. I can have an ipod and download whatever sounds appeal to me. 3) Interpersonal relationships. I do not want to live alone. I want to be loved and to love. I want someone who cares for me and likes me even when I am unlikable. I want companionship and pleasure. That is called family. We work because we know and feel it is important to contribute to our family. My wife has always earned more than I do. My mother always earned more than my father. But dear old Dad and I worked because we didn’t want Mom or my wife out there on a limb and vulnerable. I worked because then I could buy my children books or games or clothes or an education, hoping my sons would enjoy, use and profit from what I gave them. I got gratification from that, and it was also a prudent and wise investment with financial and emotional and societal pay back.

So this is the way I see things. It is not visionary or motivational. It is a flat-footed, Midwestern WASP perspective. It is looking at life in a similar way that the stage manager does in Our Town, but less existential and grim. It is knowing that life is basically good, that there is an ebb and flow to existence that is profound and sustaining, hidden and apparent, and binds us all together in a human family that supports, has a strong tug of meaning and a fascinating hard to pin down profundity.

Life is a journey. It is hard and easy, clear and opaque, obvious and confusing. But it involves love and birth and death and joy and pain and music and stillness. It is the glimpse of great beauty and the recognition of terrible tragedy. It is all of Shakespeare and Conrad, of Beethoven and Verdi. It is one hell of a ride. The good news is that we don’t do it alone. We are pushed on by the élan vitale (vital force) in life and by the presence of others, be they loving or annoying.

Most of us will have at least three major stages in our lives - call the stages careers if you like. Most of us will fail in our careers in the eyes of the world. I set out to be a scholar in the area of Biblical literature. I failed because due to illness in the family I did not complete my degree and go on to fulfill my career choice of a college professor. In business I did slightly better than survive and pay my bills. Although I lasted ten times longer than anyone in my industry, I failed to build a sustaining business that would support my family and me indefinitely (like franchising it) and enable my wife to not have to work. In my vocation as a priest I have failed in the eyes of the clerical caste system in that I am not a rector of a “successful parish.” Even so, there are rewards. Many people at St. John’s and St. Andrew’s value my work and my life. Some were actually helped.

My rewards have been disparate and often tangential. I have seldom ended up where I started out aiming to go. But it has been fascinating, being let into people’s lives and walking with them in my own loping gait. I have loped through two great universities and delved into a bit of their offerings. I live in a fabulous metropolitan area where I can go to the Philharmonic and hear beauty that is beyond description. I can see my sons and their wives and hear them talk to their mother and give her immeasurable joy and satisfaction.

Have I had a career? Have I had three careers? Heck, I don’t know. Have I been more satisfied than discouraged? Beats me. Have I used what was given me? Hopefully. Have I ended up better off than my classmates or siblings? Arguably. Have I been blessed? Yep. Can I spell? Nope.

-Fr. Gage