Thoughts On Work (Oliver O’Donovan)
First, that work is a fulfilment of the vocation given by the Creator to Adam, to tend nature. The Lord God “put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Work satisfies our intelligent nature as human beings, our destiny to be in a responsible and formative relation to the material world.
Second, that work is a communication with other human beings, and as such formative for our relations with our fellows, satisfying our social nature as human beings.
Third, that work is a condition of rest and worship, and rest and worship are a condition of work. Work satisfies our destiny as human beings called to fellowship with God.
Let me comment briefly on each of these:-
(1) Work takes place within the material world, and makes an impact on what occurs in it. Yet the impact is not that of one material cause on another, like a storm starting an avalanche. Work does not merely affect things, it effects things. It is the deployment of a spiritual and intellectual power given to mankind. The first example of Adam’s work that we are given is not digging or sowing. It is “naming the beasts”, giving intelligible order to the uncategorised richness of nature. When we work, we use our intelligence to devise and execute purposes. We understand the power and limits of our material; we conceive and deliberate upon the impact we shall make on it.
(2) Our communications with other human beings through work determine the complex patterns of human society itself. Co-operation is one basic condition of friendship.
Some patterns of cooperation are free and fluid, formed for an occasion and then dissolved, others set and determined in a variety of ways for various periods of time. One of the important distinctions between what we call “work” and what we call “leisure”, which may involve many of the same activities, is that when we work, our communications can be relied on. The amateur chef and the professional may equally deserve their cordons bleus.
The difference is that the professional must turn up when the restaurant is open. The waiters and clients all depend on it. This contributes to the sense of necessity that distinguishes our work from our leisure. The constraints of the diary, the obligations of the deadline etc. etc. are not a malfunction of work or an inhuman burden, part of that “sweat of the brow” with which we experience work as toil after the Fall. They can easily become that, as we know too well, but in principle it is an aspect of our human dignity that we can sustain obligations of this kind. That there are some communications for which we are depended on secures our place in society, makes us “a something” for other people.
(3) Theologians are often inclined to rush into the discussion of work from the third point, starting from the sabbath-command in the Decalogue. The rhythm of work and rest brings home the truth that work is not its own justification, not an end in itself, but a path towards encounter with God’s holy being. Starting at that point may, however, make work look like a mere instrumental means, something to be got through in order to enable rest and worship to happen. The seventh day in the creation narrative is blessed by God, not only because he rested, but because it is the seventh, on which God rested from the work of the six days, which was “very good”. The blessing was the sign of accomplishment; and work is constructive only because it has the blessing of accomplishment always in view. The sabbath-rest is given as a point of reflection upon work, a moment when we may present an offering of our service to God, a fulfilment of what we have been called by God to be and to do before him. And this helps us to understand the mutual implication of rest and worship. It is worship that makes rest a culmination of work and a moment of satisfaction. For it takes into view the whole context of our work in God’s purposes that make our work of itself purposeful, and not merely an assertion of our own aggressive purposiveness.
Worship is rest that finds an object to rest in; apart from the object of worship rest will be empty inactivity. In this way, because it is presented before God, work becomes constitutive of our selves, a “vocation”, a way of being, not merely a way of doing. As we find our destiny in fellowship with God in bringing to him what we have been and done, we receive ourselves from God. Through work accomplished we are given to be someone.
Work, then, has these three aspects, material, social and liturgical, bound up together. Our social communications with our fellow-humans are mediated through our work upon the material world which we handle directly; together these provide the form in which we offer service of God, the goal of our existence.
All things of thee partake;
Nothing can be so mean
Which with this tincture, “For thy sake”,
Will not grow bright and clean.
Herbert begins with the twin poles of the divine and the material, held together in the worker’s intention through the phrase, “For thy sake”.
But immediately the social dimension enters the picture:
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
Not God’s servant only, but someone else’s servant, too; and the room is made fine precisely for other people to occupy.
Work can go wrong, and it does so when one or other of these three perspectives is lost sight of. Let me illustrate this, taking the three in reverse order:-
Work may fail to provide us with a vocation, a scope for the service of God which can allow the labour of our lives to amount to something with eternal validity. An age which has trouble believing in God will have trouble believing in work, because it cannot see what work is “for” in any sense that establishes the meaning of personal existence. It is, of course, unfashionable to make this connexion and conceive God as a necessary point of reference in our aspiration to fulfil ourselves in work.
Men and women have always looked to work as the medium by which their existence is given significance. They are satisfied when they feel that something real is being attained by their work, something worth the lifetime of a thinking reed to accomplish. But this attainment of reality is precisely what the appreciation and rewards conferred on us by other people cannot assure us of.
The value of our work is connected with the wisdom it affords us, and it is wisdom that puts us in touch with the real as distinct from the merely apparent. With the denial of God there comes the denial of philosophy and the denial of the dignity of practical wisdom as well as the denial of worship as the form in which accomplishment may be celebrated.
It is possible, as we know too well, for the division of labour in a complex business to be managed in such a way that the performance of many operations requires little or no wisdom of the operatives, so that the good of work is destroyed for them. But the problem of wisdom is not only a problem for the unskilled (or perhaps de-skilled) labourers. Imagine a successful banker, much rewarded in conventional terms and always on the head-hunters’ lists, who is consumed by anxiety about what his life amounts to “ultimately”. What is meant by that “ultimately”? However little he or she is conscious of it and articulates it, what is meant is, “before God, not merely before the standards of society”. We know what a banker is in society, but it is not enough for me to be just that, a perfect example of what society looks for in its bankers. I must also be a complete me, one whom God calls to himself by conferring upon the work I do a value that it cannot possess in itself.
Here is the question referred to in theological terms as the problem of “justification”: the problem of how my life may stand for something before God. We are familiar with the catchphrase that we are not justified by works. But that catchphrase is empty if it stands on its own. Its point is precisely that there is nothing that could possibly justify me other than my work, since justification means precisely living effectively in this world with the blessing of God. The worldly purpose of our living is our work. (Not only paid work, be it noted!) Yet my work will not by any means justify me merely by being done, discharged, added to the infinity of little individual exertions that are lost in the vast sea of history. It is possible, even inevitable, that “ultimately” this work of mine will be worth precisely nothing. Only if God in his outflowing goodness will redeem my work, will confer a point and value upon it which it does not have of itself, can it become what I most need it to be, a way into the presence of God.
Work may, in the second place, fail to set us into relation with society. It may afford us no sense that we are rendering others a service of cooperation. Adam Ferguson in the eighteenth century already noted how labourers “are made like the parts of an engine to concur to a purpose without any concert of their own”. We may describe this problem as the “displacement” of work – using “place” as the most general determinant of social communications, the broadest context within which all the more special communications arise. A society where we cannot see and encounter those we work for will feel this problem acutely. Certain types of work are constitutionally exposed to it: the manufacturer who never meets consumers, the broadcaster who never meets listeners, and so on. The tiresome phone-calls one gets every time one rents a car – would you say you were very satisfied, quite satisfied or not satisfied? – bear testimony to the want of social feedback that besets much work. In our own time displacement has become extraordinarily acute, and tends to undermine quite ordinary political and social relations. Telephone helplines run from Delhi (and in my experience, incidentally, sometimes run very well), parking tickets handed out in Edinburgh and payable in Bournemouth, all have the effect of leaving us uncertain where we are, who we are communicating with. But more important than these typical side-effects of globalisation is the way the all-pervasiveness of the market-conception destroys the stability of work itself by forcing it into conformity with the model of manufacture and purchase. Neither labour nor activity is well suited by a social mechanism designed for occasional exchanges. They require stable social relationships, expectations and roles. The “contracting out” of many forms of work can only result in the destruction of the social good that work affords.
(3) Work can, in the third place, suffer from a failure of effect, when it does not place us in the Adamic relation to material nature, moulding and shaping it to contribute to the good ordering of the world, acting upon it to some intelligent purpose.
We may call this the “trivialisation” of work. Labour becomes separated from achievement, “work” from accomplished “works”. An age in which a great deal of intellectual work is done – much of it, despite the pompous sound of the word “intellectual”, quite trivial – suffers acutely from this problem, which is why, I suppose, when white-collar workers get home, they like to rush into their gardens and do some digging.
A professional thinker and writer may understandably be paralysed by the anxiety that his thoughts will blow away with the wind, but so may the bureaucrat with his endless documents. Or the banker, again: there was a moment of truth a couple of years ago when billions were wiped off the value of financial institutions, and simple souls (journalists and social reformers for example) asked accusingly where all the money had gone. The answer was worse than they feared. It had gone nowhere, because it had been nowhere; the rows of disappearing noughts were the symbolic representation on a balance sheet of a mood of public optimism. Yet, for all their unreality, those noughts had eaten up hours, days, months and years of the energy of human beings, human beings with just one life to live, spent, as it turned out, contributing nothing real to the world. The gap that opens up between the worker and the material world in which, as a living body, life must be lived, is a product of abstraction – not only intellectual abstraction, as in the illustrations I have given, but other abstractions, too, not least the abstraction of forcible labour, where the effort involved in work has no character of self-determination about it, so that it is not clear what, if anything, the worker is “doing”. Marx’s “helot” is a human self-consciousness with thoughts, loves and hopes for the world, but the life of this self-consciousness is entirely unrelated to the forced relations with material nature. These are unhappy, because, essentially, they are purposeless, giving no effect to the worker’s purposes but only to someone else’s.
I want, finally, to offer some ad hoc remarks on what I regard as an important new threat to work in our time – not necessarily the greatest threat, absolutely speaking, but one of which we have become conscious in recent years, though it bears some relationship to threats longer recognised.
That is the formalisation and homogenisation of the organisation of work – “managerialism”, we may call it, though we should not allow it to reflect unkindly on those managers and students of management who really do understand what running a business is about, and whose wisdom, humble and aware of its own limitations, is as far removed from the “management-speak” of administration as is the legal advice of an able lawyer from the bureaucrat’s ideas of what the law requires to be done. What we mean by “managerialism” is a bad confusion of two things: the disciplines of the office, on the one hand, the conception of a managerial skill on the other.
The government of work comes to look like a skill of bureaucratic organisation, a specialism which a given class of bureaucrats has made its own and which disempowers specialist workers from exercising the wisdom inherent in their work. One might ask, “What’s new? The disempowerment of the worker by the manager is an old story.” What is new, I think, is the extension of the old story from manufacturing and labouring industries into spheres of work which have seemed, because of their specialist requirements, to be immune from them, spheres where workers have in the past been allowed to exercise their discretion because this has seemed inseparable from getting the work done. But now we hear of doctors, teachers and even lawyers complaining of their managers. Something new is afoot, even if it is only a universalising of a problem that hitherto has been class-specific.
Let us put our finger on what is complained of here. First, it is the corruption and constraint of specialist decisions which need to be made on their own terms if they are to be made well. The management function ceases to serve the art, and refashions it according to its own canons of efficiency. Doctors are told that they must be more alert to the diagnosis of – let us say – domestic violence. No good diagnostic decisions can be reached on those terms. Secondly, it is the generalisation of managerial conceptuality, so that the interests of the enterprise itself are trumped by the demands of managing it. There is at the heart of managerialism a collusion: on the one hand, the managers do not want to understand what they manage; on the other, the specialist workers do not want to make the effort, and perhaps incur the unpopularity, of upholding and sustaining the specialist wisdom they have received to the highest level they can.
It is easier for them to think in managerial terms. The growing influence of Human Relations departments in big, even in medium-sized businesses has excited much comment recently. In principle the purpose of such managerial specialisms is simply to follow the logic of division of labour and allow those who are appointed to do the core work to get on with it and leave it to others to cope with the intricacies of employment law. But the effect, brought about by the constant employment of new staff to suit alien criteria, is that the task itself is re-conceived, not in critical conformity with the wisdom that is inherent in it, but in conformity with some alien set of goals and practices which have nothing to do with it.
In this way all businesses become identical, and the specialist gifts which fit us for one service rather than another are set at nought.
In the Collect for Trinity XVII we pray that God’s grace may “prevent and follow us”, that we may “continually be given to good works”. Every word in that prayer is worth pondering. The “we” means not just “each of us separately”, but society as a whole, the only context in which work can be undertaken and effected. That we, as a society, may be continually given to our work, it is necessary that our works be “good” – well conceived, well fitted to their circumstance, broadly and wisely designed, and that we be fit to attend to “all” good works, and not only those fashionable ones with which we feel our tradition is at home, those which grace our culture or put us at the cutting edge of progress. And that can be so only if they can call not only on such strength of labour as they require to execute but on such wisdom as is needed to conceive them well – for which we must ask the “grace” of God, not only “accompanying”, as the scholastic phrase had it, but “preceding” and “following”. God’s grace is required not merely for the execution but for the prior imagination of good works and for their successful outcome. Which is why “we pray”, and pray, since good works are a cultural gift of such vast importance to us and all too easily lost above all by our own complacency, forgetfulness and negligence, that we may be “continually given” to them.
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