By John Thomas
On February 24th, in an article titled Workism Is Making Americans Miserable, Derek Thompson made a compelling case that for many college-educated men and women, work has become a religion. Thompson writes,
The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.
Thompson, an astute observer of both America’s religious landscape and workplace culture continues,
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
According to Thompson this devotion to work isn’t necessarily about greed but rather these men and women choose to go to work for the same reason Christians go to church, “its where they feel the most themselves.” By making the case that this is a spiritual matter, Thompson raises the stakes on a bewildering issue. Throughout the article he continues to use religious and spiritual imagery to emphasize his point. “The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—,” writes Thompson, “is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion.”
As the title of the article suggests, Thompson sees this decades-long development as troubling, with far-reaching negative consequences. He states, “…a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” He even goes so far as to suggest that this worship of work might offer an explanation to America’s increased depression and anxiety rates.
It was encouraging to see Thompson’s article address this topic seriously and in a way that so clearly paints it as a spiritual issue. At times it felt like reading the transcript of a Timothy Keller sermon more than an article from The Atlantic. The words already mentioned above, “everybody worships something,” deserve a hearty “Amen” and have been echoed in Christian literature and pulpits across the country for years. And Thompson’s conclusion that, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight,” make him sound like a gospel wingman out on the streets getting people ready for a presentation on the four spiritual laws.
On the one hand we can read Thompson’s article and these developments in America’s workplace culture and see them as the logical conclusion of a culture divorcing itself from the rich theology of work and vocation its former faith espoused. This robust evangelical tradition and theology of work of course finds its roots in the reformation when Martin Luther rescued the concept of vocation from over a millennium of misuse. Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,
…the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ on whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.
By encouraging Christians to see their work, all work, as valued by God, Luther essentially redirected the understanding of vocation away from ministry to the everyday. This concept, steeped in theological tradition and meaning, has steered Christian thinking, writing, and preaching about work since the 1500’s. In his 2012 book Every Good Endeavor, Keller describes vocation this way,
“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.”
For Christians then, work is seen as a calling, a chance to honor God in our day to day life. This fits well with 1 Corinthians 10:31 where Paul writes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” And for Luther and Keller, by doing work faithfully as unto the Lord, people could fulfill their life’s purpose of honoring God. Whether that be as a farmer or hangman or in today’s economy a cashier or biophysicist.
Hugh Whelchel, in his book, How Then Shall We Work, outlines another key tenet of Luther’s theology of work. Not only does our work honor God, but, “According to Luther,” Whelchel writes, “we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work.” In this way work allows Christians to fulfill both of the Great Commandments from Matthew 22.
And so a culture that, as Thompson noted in his article, has by and large separated itself from the faith and doctrine that infuses the concept of work with the aforementioned value and purpose, we would expect to see myriad perversions rear their ugly heads in the workplace. This is true for all the “new atheisms” mentioned in Thompson’s article and it is true in the case of workism.
However, simply identifying America’s workism problem isn’t enough, a solution must be offered as well. Unfortunately, Thompson’s prescribed remedy is lacking in comparison to the nature of the disease. Though Thompson skillfully analyzes the problem of workism in America as a form of idolatry, when it comes to offering a solution he abandons the idolatry metaphor and simply suggests a surface level solution. After rattling off a few public policy ideas intended to direct Americans’ worship away from work, a plan he admits won’t actually solve anything for the very people stuck in this cycle of work worship, he comes to the one suggestion with any real substance for this class of workers. “On a deeper level,” Thompson writes, “Americans have forgotten an old-fashioned goal of working: It’s about buying free time.”
He goes on to describe work not as an idol but as a currency with which people can buy more free time. This idea of work as currency is altogether unsatisfying as a solution to the workism question. The most glaring inadequacy with this antidote is that if work is merely a currency with which to buy free time we simply exchange one idol, work, for another, leisure. If followed, this advice would lead to whole generations of people lost to hobby cars, hiking and collecting seashells. Additionally, a very strong working-for-retirement-so-then-I-can-do-what-I-really-want current, a current that is hard to swim against, already exists.
But does the already mentioned Christian ethic of work do any better with the workism quandary? Luther, Keller, and all the others who have written on this issue have usually done so with the aim of helping Christians with secular jobs no longer feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. The theology usually assumes a deep love for God and a complicated relationship with work.
The problem, as Thompson so shrewdly points out, is the opposite, people love their work and have a complicated or nonexistent relationship with God. In that way looking solely at Luther’s theology of work to solve this problem isn’t sufficient. Luther’s theology of work, robust though it may be, does better against Thompson’s error of work as currency, elevating it from a mere transaction to something with a purpose; but leaves us searching for more when it comes to work as idol. For that we need to delve deeper into our hearts.
It was John Calvin who famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” Thompson too, alludes to this fact in his article when he says that everybody worships something. Those who have traded in God now worship beauty, sex, power, money, work, children, etc, and are reaping their rewards, which as Thompson suggests for those who worship work, is misery.
In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Keller elaborates on the idols of the human heart:
Most people know you can make a god out of money. Most know you can make a god out of sex. However, anything in life can serve as an idol, a god-alternative, a counterfeit god…We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.
To be clear it isn’t just atheists who struggle with idols. Christians are just as prone to letting an idol into their hearts as atheists are. The idols may or may not be different for Christians than they are for atheists, but they are still there, they are still a temptation. With that in mind fleshing out how to keep work in its proper place isn’t just something we say to atheists with a told-you-so tone while we wag our fingers. When it comes to work, Christians need to honestly assess if their desks have become their altars too.
However, because as Christians we might be a touch quicker at admitting our insufficiency and need for a savior, we have a few more weapons in our arsenal in the fight against workism. For one it is helpful keep Luther’s theology in mind one, so that we don’t degrade work to the level of currency and two because it reminds us of our purpose in work of serving neighbor and honoring God.
Secondly, we need to take a broader view of what constitutes work, calling, and vocation. Assuming that we are limited to one calling can just as easily make us obsessed with work as idolizing work can. Instead, understanding calling or vocation, as a job and as a role is not only more biblically accurate, it also offers healthy checks on our other callings. We are called to many things.
Fathers and mothers are called to parent their children. Children are called to honor their parents. Neighbors are called to love one another. In the church too, various people, might be called to various stations of ministry, some paid and more structured like a career, others on a volunteer basis. Putting all of these various callings on the same level is one way to keep us from letting our career-calling control us. If we devote too much of ourselves to any one calling we will neglect our other callings and be out of balance. This is no more pleasing to God that idolizing work or only treating work as a currency.
But ultimately workism is an idolatry issue that requires a heart level solution. Again Keller has instructive words for us to keep in mind,
Have you heard God’s blessing in your inmost being? Are the words, “You are my beloved child, in whom I delight” an endless source of joy and strength? Have you sensed, through the Holy Spirit, God speaking to you? That blessing- the blessing through the Spirit that is ours through Christ… is the only remedy against idolatry. Only that blessing makes idols unnecessary.
Thompson wrote a timely and important article and did a excellent job of identifying workism as an idolatry issue. Why he chose to move away from that theme and offer a mere surface level solution is puzzling. Any attempt to encourage America’s post-Christian workists to solve this problem without addressing the underlying idolatry factor is at best a cop out and at worst disingenuous. A proper understanding of the purpose of work is helpful, but only when we find something truly worthwhile to desire will we be able to overcome the idols our hearts are so prone to worship.
John Thomas lives and serves in ministry in Central Asia with his wife and two kids. You can follow him on Twitter @John_Thomas518.