Work without Vocation

Thanks to EconJeff for alerting me to this article in the Wall Street Journal by a Christian writer and some time WORLD contributor Tony Woodlief. In trying to figure out how to make his kids enjoy work, he dismisses Adam Smith for reducing work to making money and finds nothing from churches that helps. He finally finds his answer in Karl Marx who praises creative labor! The author COMPLETELY MISSES the doctrine of vocation!

Maybe churches can help. But Thomas Aquinas fretted that work distracted men from God. Protestants like Billy Graham, meanwhile, see workplaces as venues for evangelism but say little about the inherent value of labor. When every plutocrat who runs for president must manufacture middle-class roots for himself, wealth is no longer proof of piety. And work itself, many pastors claim, is destined to be miserable because of God’s curse after Adam ate the forbidden fruit. So work is unpleasant, and its fruits are suspect. No wonder Concordia University’s Center for Faith and Business, among a growing crowd of organizations devoted to fusing Christianity and capitalism, sums up this theology of work in the last of its Ten Commandments for the Workplace: “Be satisfied with what you have.”

Max Weber is rolling in his grave.

Ironically, it’s that scruffy, godless rabble-rouser reviled by capitalists — Karl Marx — who offers a helpful work philosophy where traditional fonts of conservative wisdom fail. Marx saw humans as naturally creative: “free conscious activity constitutes the species-character of man.” Furthermore, humans want to craft loveliness: “Man . . . produces in accordance with the laws of beauty.” . . .

Sure, Marx advocated common ownership of property, which he might have been cured of had he observed children around a bag of cookies. And there is the fact that millions of humans have been enslaved or slaughtered by his intellectual progeny. But toxic governance prescriptions aside, Marx certainly had his finger on a truth, I think, about humans and labor. Left-leaning theologians like N.T. Wright and Miroslav Volf, meanwhile, agree that work should be seen not as a pietist’s grim duty or as an avenue to wealth but as a way of participating in God’s creative order. Liberal Tom Lutz’s “Doing Nothing,” a book that ostensibly sets out to justify Slackerism, likewise has a beef not with work but with purposeless work.

I’m a small-government guy, but when it comes to a work ethic, I find myself siding with the left. Humans need work, and they need to see that their work has a purpose. Come to think of it, you’ll hear that from any of America’s countless business gurus. We’re all Marxists now.

How can the doctrine of vocation be so invisible? Tony, send me your address via my WORLD e-mail address, and I’ll send you a copy of my book “God at Work” to free you from your Marxist shackles.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Of course Marx does hit on a point of truth, good lies always do. I take issue though with the idea that I have to be a left leaning or liberal theologian to see the value in work.
    I have always thought that man was created to be creative. God gave us this charge long before he attached a curse to work. He created us to take care of his garden, and his zoo. I don’t think we would have thought about it as work though, until we sinned. Now we have to do this if we want to eat. Before we were just going to do it for the joy of it.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Of course Marx does hit on a point of truth, good lies always do. I take issue though with the idea that I have to be a left leaning or liberal theologian to see the value in work.
    I have always thought that man was created to be creative. God gave us this charge long before he attached a curse to work. He created us to take care of his garden, and his zoo. I don’t think we would have thought about it as work though, until we sinned. Now we have to do this if we want to eat. Before we were just going to do it for the joy of it.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    And there is a certain joy in hard work. I often realize my feelings this way about trimming the hedges and yard work which I never seem to want to start. But once I’m doing it, it becomes a creative process and there is always that wonderful sense of satisfaction of looking at the fruits of your labor over a cold beer when your done.

    The same goes with organizing or cleaning my office and sometimes with teaching the catechumens :)

  • Bryan Lindemood

    And there is a certain joy in hard work. I often realize my feelings this way about trimming the hedges and yard work which I never seem to want to start. But once I’m doing it, it becomes a creative process and there is always that wonderful sense of satisfaction of looking at the fruits of your labor over a cold beer when your done.

    The same goes with organizing or cleaning my office and sometimes with teaching the catechumens :)

  • Rose

    Dennis Miller had a great observation on Michelle Obama’s speech: She spoke at length of the sacrifice of her father working to provide an education for Michelle. Yet she ‘turns around’ and calls on the government, not parents, to provide the desire and background for a good education. Dennis said, “Wasn’t she watching what her father did?”

  • Rose

    Dennis Miller had a great observation on Michelle Obama’s speech: She spoke at length of the sacrifice of her father working to provide an education for Michelle. Yet she ‘turns around’ and calls on the government, not parents, to provide the desire and background for a good education. Dennis said, “Wasn’t she watching what her father did?”

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Yes nothing like a cold beer looking over a freshly cut lawn.
    We should have an office cleaning party.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Yes nothing like a cold beer looking over a freshly cut lawn.
    We should have an office cleaning party.

  • Bruce

    Not to blur the distinctiveness of the pure gospel, but there is a “law and gospel” aspect to work that balances joy and duty. Filled with the joy and peace that Christ’s gospel provides, work does take on a gleam of creative fun. But it also has its gloomy aspects: timetables, errors, the feeling of being over one’s head. Boredom.

    I think what we love about work is success. We love to accomplish, to be creative. We love to mow lawns, because this simple act creates visual harmony out of chaos.

    And then there is the promise of beer.

  • Bruce

    Not to blur the distinctiveness of the pure gospel, but there is a “law and gospel” aspect to work that balances joy and duty. Filled with the joy and peace that Christ’s gospel provides, work does take on a gleam of creative fun. But it also has its gloomy aspects: timetables, errors, the feeling of being over one’s head. Boredom.

    I think what we love about work is success. We love to accomplish, to be creative. We love to mow lawns, because this simple act creates visual harmony out of chaos.

    And then there is the promise of beer.

  • T Sherm

    “…work should be seen not as a pietist’s grim duty or as an avenue to wealth but as a way of participating in God’s creative order.” (Woodlief, above)

    “…and his work in feeding thousands of people he does not know is an act of love–if not his own, God’s love working through him.” (Veith, “God at Work” p 40)

    Surely, he is closer to an understanding of the doctrine of vocation, if he can assent to a statement like this, than you lament at the end of your post?

    On page 53 of “God at Work” you use two examples:
    Of the first, someone who chooses to be an accountant based on the pay and is able to pass the CPA exam, you write:

    “If he hates the work, though, if he is bored and miserable balancing books, he is unlikely to be a good accountant. This is probably not his calling.”

    The second is of a dedicated college student, who despite his best efforts, cannot keep his grades up and drops out of school to do what he enjoys, working on cars. Of him, you say:

    “He was apologetic to his professor, but he should not have been. He had found his vocation.”

    In “God at Work,” it seems that we are told that excercising our vocations is something that allows us to participate in God’s plan for the world, and when properly understood, is something that can bring great joy. As I read it, the author of the article acknowledges the first statement to be true, and is trying to instill a proper understanding of the second in his children.

    I too, find the statement by Marx (in the context into which it was placed by Woodlief) to be fairly consistent with our Lutheran understanding of the nature of work. Humans have God-given gifts and talents which they desire to use, and in so using them, serve their neighbor. An artist, musician, artist, singer, craftsman, etc. is moved to create something beautiful for the sake of his own enjoyment, and also for that of his fellow man. This is something which we should celebrate and for which we should give thanks to God.

    I also think it is a fair criticism of our society to lament that there are jobs which stifle this natural human inclination.

    My father was like the CPA described above. He would have rather been a teacher, yet decided to be an accountant because of the pay. He had considerable skill as an accountant, and worked for twenty plus years for a major U.S. meat-packing company. Of course, this job allowed him to provide for the needs of his family, thus helping in two vocational areas, but after some time, the work was no longer satisfying. He realized that the purpose of his job was to move money towards the pockets of a few rich people who already had more than enough. He saw first-hand that while the company did in fact provide food and jobs for great numbers of people, that was not their purpose, and they did those things as sparingly and unlovingly as the law would allow.

    He left the job because he saw no good, nothing beautiful, being produced through his work. (Of course he saw that it provided for his family, which was good and beautiful, but it was not the only line of work which would allow him to do so).

    What Woodlief seems to be arguing is that he wants his children to do meaningful work, and to find joy and fulfillment in that work. Should this not be what every parent has in mind for their child? Isn’t this what the doctrine of vocation is about? We should do more to cultivate people with a desire to work cheerfully, to produce for the good of their neighbors, instead of merely conditioning them to be consumers of the fruit of other people’s labor.

    It seems that such people will raise children who understand the “…divine division of labor in which everyone is constantly giving and receiving in a vast interchange,” (Veith 40). We should encourage people who understand that “Humans need work, and they need to see that their work has a purpose.” (Woodlief) rather than tearing them down.

    The only criticism I see to be made, is that one need not look to the Far-left, but only to the Scriptures, and instead Graham and Aquinas, to Luther and Wingren (and Veith as well). And come to think of it, that may well have been the point of your lament, and if so I agree. I simply found the rebuke a tad harsh when the man seems to speak the language of vocation, he simply fails to name it as such.

  • T Sherm

    “…work should be seen not as a pietist’s grim duty or as an avenue to wealth but as a way of participating in God’s creative order.” (Woodlief, above)

    “…and his work in feeding thousands of people he does not know is an act of love–if not his own, God’s love working through him.” (Veith, “God at Work” p 40)

    Surely, he is closer to an understanding of the doctrine of vocation, if he can assent to a statement like this, than you lament at the end of your post?

    On page 53 of “God at Work” you use two examples:
    Of the first, someone who chooses to be an accountant based on the pay and is able to pass the CPA exam, you write:

    “If he hates the work, though, if he is bored and miserable balancing books, he is unlikely to be a good accountant. This is probably not his calling.”

    The second is of a dedicated college student, who despite his best efforts, cannot keep his grades up and drops out of school to do what he enjoys, working on cars. Of him, you say:

    “He was apologetic to his professor, but he should not have been. He had found his vocation.”

    In “God at Work,” it seems that we are told that excercising our vocations is something that allows us to participate in God’s plan for the world, and when properly understood, is something that can bring great joy. As I read it, the author of the article acknowledges the first statement to be true, and is trying to instill a proper understanding of the second in his children.

    I too, find the statement by Marx (in the context into which it was placed by Woodlief) to be fairly consistent with our Lutheran understanding of the nature of work. Humans have God-given gifts and talents which they desire to use, and in so using them, serve their neighbor. An artist, musician, artist, singer, craftsman, etc. is moved to create something beautiful for the sake of his own enjoyment, and also for that of his fellow man. This is something which we should celebrate and for which we should give thanks to God.

    I also think it is a fair criticism of our society to lament that there are jobs which stifle this natural human inclination.

    My father was like the CPA described above. He would have rather been a teacher, yet decided to be an accountant because of the pay. He had considerable skill as an accountant, and worked for twenty plus years for a major U.S. meat-packing company. Of course, this job allowed him to provide for the needs of his family, thus helping in two vocational areas, but after some time, the work was no longer satisfying. He realized that the purpose of his job was to move money towards the pockets of a few rich people who already had more than enough. He saw first-hand that while the company did in fact provide food and jobs for great numbers of people, that was not their purpose, and they did those things as sparingly and unlovingly as the law would allow.

    He left the job because he saw no good, nothing beautiful, being produced through his work. (Of course he saw that it provided for his family, which was good and beautiful, but it was not the only line of work which would allow him to do so).

    What Woodlief seems to be arguing is that he wants his children to do meaningful work, and to find joy and fulfillment in that work. Should this not be what every parent has in mind for their child? Isn’t this what the doctrine of vocation is about? We should do more to cultivate people with a desire to work cheerfully, to produce for the good of their neighbors, instead of merely conditioning them to be consumers of the fruit of other people’s labor.

    It seems that such people will raise children who understand the “…divine division of labor in which everyone is constantly giving and receiving in a vast interchange,” (Veith 40). We should encourage people who understand that “Humans need work, and they need to see that their work has a purpose.” (Woodlief) rather than tearing them down.

    The only criticism I see to be made, is that one need not look to the Far-left, but only to the Scriptures, and instead Graham and Aquinas, to Luther and Wingren (and Veith as well). And come to think of it, that may well have been the point of your lament, and if so I agree. I simply found the rebuke a tad harsh when the man seems to speak the language of vocation, he simply fails to name it as such.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Yes, cleaning the office, that is the gloomy aspect of my vocation. But perhaps a party which ended in a fire of useless paper over beer might be just the thing.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Yes, cleaning the office, that is the gloomy aspect of my vocation. But perhaps a party which ended in a fire of useless paper over beer might be just the thing.

  • Anon

    I have not found that the doctrine of vocation – that Judaeo-Christian doctrine regarding work and relationships – to be well-known among our congregants. What would Walther have said to those who thought it sufficient to have gotten through confirmation, were (not are) baptized, and come to church often enough to remain on the rolls?

  • Anon

    I have not found that the doctrine of vocation – that Judaeo-Christian doctrine regarding work and relationships – to be well-known among our congregants. What would Walther have said to those who thought it sufficient to have gotten through confirmation, were (not are) baptized, and come to church often enough to remain on the rolls?

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