The Idolatry of Work

I spent over a decade working with a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, whose main contribution has been to draw our attention to the problem of war. It is good, important work that I am honored to support. There is no question that war is a reality that should weigh heavily on any Christian’s conscience. It is a big problem—a sin—that should solicit our reflection and call us to repentance. There are many big problems, problems that rightly call for our attention and make headlines. The following remarks are not meant to draw attention away from the “big” problems. If anything, I hope what follows will contribute to further reflection on how such problems manifest to such large proportions.

I tend to be, partly by station and partly by personality, someone whose concerns are more often taken up with smaller matters. Or, perhaps, better stated: I tend to be concerned with the subtler, more pervasive forms of violence that infiltrate the every day. The small ways we contribute to the indignity of others and ourselves.[1]

In his commencement speech, “This is Water,” delivered to Kenyon College students in 2005, David Foster Wallace opened with the following “parable-ish story”:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

Wallace goes on to warn the soon-to-be graduates that what stands in the way of living a meaningful life are all of the small choices they will make every day and the attending (false) sense that freedom ensures the autonomy of these choices when, in fact, these are not freedoms at all.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race”—the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

The Church has its own language for describing these realities. But I begin with Wallace to descriptively suggest that when the Church speaks of something called “human dignity” it is describing something very similar: the everyday realities that either facilitate or impede human flourishing. And when I think of how much of these scenes/choices are played out in the everyday life of the American adult, I think of the workplace—and Wallace’s fish.

The majority of American adults today spend most of their waking hours in the workplace. It is our water. Even before we set foot in the door, or open the laptop, the abstract notion of “the workplace” determines how we spend our hours and with whom. These are no small matters, for our lives’ meaningfulness consists of these things, that is, how we spend our time and with whom. The temptation is to think that our lives take place outside of the workplace when in actuality they do not. Even if we practice detachment from it, the very practice implies that our work plays a significant role in determining the lives we lead. And that, according to Catholic Social Teaching, is not only unavoidable, it is a good (or meant to be one)—but a good that can only be realized under certain conditions.

On the ninetieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II released Laborem Exercens. It is a document that further praises the dignity of humankind, and in particular the relationship between human dignity and work. These things—human dignity and work—are inextricably linked. Humanity’s dignity is the gift of being made in the image and likeness of God. And work is an expression of this unique relation between human and Creator.

Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work . . . Thus work bears a particular mark of man and humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.

Thus John Paul II will later explain that this imago dei anthropology means that work is to be understood as having two senses. The first, objective sense pertains to the ways in which humankind (universally) fulfills the scriptural imperative to subdue the earth. As worker, humankind develops technologies to continually refine the processes of subduing. This ongoing process of development necessarily raises questions that both directly and indirectly affect the second sense of work, that is, work in the subjective sense: “The primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject.” The two senses together imply a proper ordering, that is to say, the prioritizing of the subjective sense, i.e., the worker, constitutes the “Gospel of work” and it is in understanding and instantiating this Gospel that promotes our perception of idolatry and enables us to try and avoid it in the workplace.

This leads immediately to a very important conclusion of an ethical nature: however true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is “for man” and not man “for work.”

Considering idolatry in the workplace may seem an odd use of a term typically reserved for reflection about worship. Idolatry, technically speaking, is the worship of that which is not the LORD. It is to value something/someone more than the LORD, i.e., in place of the LORD. Yet it is precisely in light of this definition that it is incumbent upon us to reflect on the various subtle yet nefarious ways idolatry informs our everyday assumptions, habits, and work. Idolatry remains hidden to us only because it so close.

There are loves/desires that inform all aspects of work in the modern technological world. Technology is not natural in the sense that it is man-made. The creation of technology, like all creative acts, requires engagement with the human imagination. And the human imagination involves an act of the will that draws upon and produces desire. The loves (desires one seeks to affirm) inspiring the will determine the technologies produced. These loves may be expressed through laws or ideologies that inform policies at the State level. This is what is meant by John Paul II’s use of the term “indirect employer” which “includes both persons and institutions of various kinds, and also collective labor contracts and the principles of conduct which are laid down by these persons and institutions and which determine the whole socioeconomic system or are its result.”

When such systems are ordered properly, according to the priority of the subjective sense, that is, maintaining the preeminence of the dignity of the worker, the “Gospel of work” is manifest.  Work is not an end in itself, but is a primary means by which the human flourishes and, consequently, society. When such systems are not ordered toward this good—the good of human flourishing—they manifest some form of idolatry, that is, some disordered love. But this happens not only indirectly, and it is in the more direct sense I want to draw our attention.

Warning (it gets personal):

It is obvious that, when we speak of opposition between labor and capital, we are not dealing only with abstract concepts or “impersonal forces” operating in economic production. Behind both concepts there are people, living, actual people . . .

It is our/society’s ill-formed loves that both Leo XIII and John Paul II warn against when proclaiming the “Gospel of work.” That is because the socio-ethical dimension of labor reflects the degree to which tensions with the subjective sense might exist. In other words, the ethical dimensions of work do not primarily reflect the arguments from socio-economics but rather what John Paul II calls the “personalist” argument:

But here it must be emphasized, in general terms, that the person who works desires not only due renumeration for his work; he also wishes that, within the production process, provision be made for him to be able to know that in his work, even on something owned in common, he is working “for himself.” This awareness is extinguished within him in a system of excessive bureaucratic centralization, which makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above . . . The Church’s teaching has always expressed the strong and deep conviction that man’s work concerns not only the economy but also, and especially personal values. The economic system itself and the production process benefit precisely when personal values are fully respected.

Pause and ask yourself whether the above describes the ethos of your workplace, or whether you or your workplace have succumbed to the spectacular pragmatics of bureaucracy. This question is not meant to suggest all bureaucracy undermines human flourishing. Again, the aim of bureaucracy can and should be to facilitate the worker’s flourishing. But in capitalist societies it is safe to assume, even in our Christian institutions, that bureaucracy is simply the water that surrounds us. We do not know our lives apart from those systems that seem to make our lives possible. Thus, the assumed indispensability of such systems is so pervasive that even our processes for institutional accountability rely on further bureaucracy for recourse and resolution. For those who are the subject of a system’s idolatrous gaze, it is a double-bind that seems inescapable. There is no option of appearing, manifesting as one made in the image and likeness of God. The problem with institutionalized systems is that you cannot look them in the eye, yet you cannot seem to escape their gaze.

I mentioned briefly the role of the imagination as it relates to the technologies of work. I now want to briefly suggest how the imagination participates in unmasking idolatry and, thereby, contributes to upholding the dignity of the human worker.

In his book The God of Faith and Reason Robert Sokolowski makes helpful distinctions between the virtue of Christians and pagan virtue. Again, the Creator—creature relation is determinative. To be a Christian in the world, he explains, is not to deny the obvious reality of human hierarchies and the real differences between people these hierarchies articulate. To be Christian is not to be anti-hierarchical or anti-institutional. However, to be Christian does entail calling such things into question when they fail to comply with the right order of things. And, importantly, to call “things” into question means calling the people who uncritically participate in them into question:

Christian belief does not diminish, for example, the public honor that is due to virtue, and it obviously does not imply that public responsibility should be given to the ignorant or the incompetent instead of those who are suited for it. Such discriminations are not eliminated when Christians emphasize the common dignity of all men before God. And of course the decision as to how these factors are to be brought together in a virtuous course of action depends ineluctably on the prudence, on the power of appraisal, of virtuous agents; no scheme, formula, or pattern can ever take the place of such persons in determining concretely what ought to be done (84).

In short, those who are tasked with leadership and oversight of others—those who hold power—should be people who understand they are moral agents whose agency does not go on hiatus simply because they work within a bureaucracy or institution. Moreover, managers should be expected to be agents whose “power of appraisal” is informed not only by procedural know-how, but, more importantly, by the preeminent dignity of the worker, thereby acknowledging that her dignity is not a by-product of an imposed institutional value.

Where the institution will always tend toward idolatry, cultivating the allure of pragmatism—an over-reliance on systems—and reducing the worker to replaceable cog, leaders with a virtuous imagination (marked by prudence and humility) will recognize the temptation toward idolatry, resist it, and not only not feel threatened by the worker’s dignity but understand their (the manager’s) own work to entail guarding it.

The imagination becomes a crucial weapon in combating idolatry in the workplace as it enables us to see not only the invisible realities that threaten human dignity, but also the liminal space we inhabit as the invisible image and likeness of a God who desires, through us—each of us—to be made visible.

[1] This is not to suggest that Stanley Hauerwas has not also been concerned with more subtle forms of violence. He certainly has and, in fact, his own work on war often entails attending to subtler forms of violence that both lead to war and exist as a consequence of it.

Featured Image: Anselm Kiefer, Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe [Faith, Hope, Love], 1984-6, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0.


Carole Baker

Carole Baker is a Th.D. candidate at Duke Divinity School. Her dissertation, Communion of Incorruption: A Theology of Icons and Relics, looks at the theological significance of relics and holy images and the ecclesiology that informs that significance. Baker also studies traditional icon-writing with a Russian Orthodox school of iconology and exhibits contemporary paintings and installations in both sacred and secular spaces. She is the mother of two.

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