Work, Workers & Wonder

Secular man won’t discuss -- but desperately needs -- a theology of work

Under the direction of the United Auto Workers, 48,000 “academic workers,” chiefly researchers and graduate students, at the University of California are on strike—the largest such job action in history. It even includes the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, whose task is to “mind” and “develop” the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The strikers have real grievances. They teach, help with research, and grade papers. The multiversity would grind to a halt without them. One professor laments that “faculty are facing having no preparation time for the spring because they may have to do all the grading, so it really is a crisis.” Poor baby? Yes for a class of 40; No for one of 1,400.

The strikers get skinflint wages that barely meet their housing and tuition costs. Their chief “perk” is not having to attend endless meetings, ranging from the tedious to the loathsome.

More government money is the only way to meet the strikers’ demands. Less administrative bloat would help, but the more government spends on higher education, the more “unis” need “admins” to deal with government requirements.

Negotiators will doubtless find a way to kick the can down the road. Bound by their secularity, what they won’t discuss — but what we desperately need — is a theology of work. Here are three critical elements of such a vision.

First, words matter. The term “academic workers,” like the broader “culture workers,” is flattening. Such generic categories ignore the distinct vocations of teachers and healers, of artists and story tellers, and of boilermakers and myth-makers alike. No recognition, no respect.

So, what’s going on? Reductive language is in aid of economism, the “-ism” that reduces the splendor of the real to the power struggles that bring profit. Work means money. Hence the politically correct “sex worker.” Time for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)?

Since Eden, of course, work has been our shared lot. St. Paul is blunt: “if they will not work, neither let them eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Given that we usually make a hash of things, workaholics are as plentiful as slackers. The Benedictine ideal of Ora et labora (Pray and work) promises the best balance. But how to achieve that balance?

It’s a question that leads to a second element of an authentic vision of work. Our every action is both transitive and intransitive. How we act, and thus how we work, changes the world around us either for better or for worse. That’s our acting insofar as it goes beyond ourselves, that is, transitively. But work is not merely the manipulation of money. Indeed, it can be the building up of the City of Man.

At the same time, every action also transforms us. Thus, in acting and working, we make ourselves, intransitively, to be either more or less fully realized human persons. Work is not merely jockeying for temporal power. Rather, it is about opening ourselves up, bit by bit, and giving ourselves over, day by day, to the City of God.

This ongoing, and daunting, process brings us to the third element of a theology of work. All our activity, and so all our work, is ordered to a receptivity. The active life offers wonderfully various approaches to the contemplative life. For in the end comes a blessed vision of the Creator, in Whom every good thing of our experience finds its source and in Whom we are immersed in wonder.

The human person is capax Dei, capable of receiving God. So it is that we do not, ought not, work like robots. We are not cogs in a machine. We are not mere creatures of the State. We are bound for glory. To evangelize our weary workaday world, we must bring this message to those who have eyes but do not see and to those who have ears but do not hear. How often have we been among them?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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