In an earlier post on this site, I wrote that Christians must “consider how their productive activities—who they sell their labor to or where they invest their capital—can grow out of their convictions.” Yet the suggestion that some occupations are better for Christians than others meets with a surprising amount of resistance. For example, a friend points me to this statement from Greg D. Gilbert’s The Gospel at Work: “No matter what you do, your job has inherent purpose and meaning because you are doing it ultimately for the King. Who you work for is more important than what you do.”
Downplaying the difference between kinds of work has a long history in the Protestant tradition. As Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf write in Every Good Endeavor, “The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, argued that all work, even so-called secular work, was as much a calling from God as the ministry of a monk or priest.” Of course, occupations that violate the moral or positive law might be off-limits, but otherwise, all work is basically equal.
I understand why Protestants have historically adopted this position. The Reformers wanted to get away from a medieval hierarchy that they thought privileged religious ritual over authentic service to one’s neighbors and thus corrupted true religion. Contemporary evangelicals want dignity for those on the wrong end of a modern vocational hierarchy that privileges creative work and denigrates manual or routinized labor as menial.
Yet while the Gospel at Work formulation of the Protestant doctrine of vocation may be responding to real concerns, I can’t blame the millions of Americans in our economy’s endlessly multiplying administrative, consulting, or financial services jobs for feeling gaslighted. (Nor, for that matter, the thousands of Americans filling orders in Amazon’s warehouses.) As David Graeber has observed, many of the harshest critics of these positions are the people who work in them: “Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.” We believe that God milks the cows through the vocation of the milkmaids. Must we believe that God sells the credit default swaps through the vocation of the ISDA Negotiator and Client Regulatory Consultant?
This latter prospect is what Alasdair MacIntyre would mark as a “deeply incoherent combination of the novel and the inherited,” an attempt to stretch old wineskins beyond their capacity for the new. As with other modernizing trends, the shift to viewing all possible occupations as equal tried to replace teleology—the consideration of a practice’s telos, its ultimate purpose or end—with an a priori rational rule. As with the Enlightenment attempt to find a new grounding for Christian morality, which MacIntyre explores in After Virtue, this project is doomed to failure. The Protestant doctrine of vocation was conditioned by the historical situation in which it arose, and circumstances have greatly changed in the last few centuries. Put another way, the popularizers of the Protestant doctrine of vocation are working with a faulty set of moral categories when it comes to evaluating the goodness of work.
Gilbert is not necessarily wrong to stress the importance of “who” we work for. In one sense, this is precisely what a teleological understanding of work does. If God is, in fact, the ultimate end or telos of our work, then our work will be good work. The problem is that not all work is equally God-directed, and some work may not be God-directed at all. This is easy enough to see when the acts required by an occupation necessarily involve us in immorality. The telos of the work is determined by the nature of the work, not by the good intentions of the worker.
When the Reformers announced the Protestant doctrine of vocation, they could be reasonably sure that most work had a sound telos. However imperfectly, the economy was disciplined by a Christian pedagogia that they mistook for its natural condition. But the economic situation has evolved such that we can no longer be blithely confident that our work serves God’s purposes. Channels of humanizing, Christianizing influence have been destroyed and nothing has replaced them.
First, technologies both mechanical and social have distanced economic activity from Nature. The part of the economy that deals entirely in abstractions and artifices, the financial sector, has become large and influential. People increasingly work at a remove from the realm in which natural law is operative, without regularly brushing up against its restraining influence.
Second, transactions are increasingly depersonalized and conducted at arm’s length. When economic activity is embedded in social context, when one’s business is with one’s neighbors, one is more likely to conduct business responsibly and charitably. With the human element removed or obscured from economic life, abuses and misappropriations of work are allowed to flourish.
Third, the overall liberalization of moral standards in modernity includes the economic sphere. C.S. Lewis characterized the modern temperament by its willingness to do things “hitherto regarded as disgusting or impious” in pursuit of scientific technique. This is precisely the attitude revealed in the modern embrace of traditionally prohibited economic activities like usury and speculation.
In short, as a modern worker (or investor—should you be so lucky), you have nothing like the same chance as Luther’s sixteenth-century farmer or craftsman, or even his sixteenth-century merchant, to be working in a way that meaningfully serves God or neighbor. You might just be pushing paper… or worse. If you can’t say why your work matters without recourse to economic theory, you probably are.
Given that this disorder is characteristic of our whole economic system, you may not have much freedom as an individual worker (“although if you can gain your freedom, do so”). But we should be clear-eyed and seek the best work we can. As much as possible, we should make good, truthful, and beautiful things. As workers, we should serve our neighbors in ways that resemble the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and we should judge our economic system by how well it supports us when we do.