At Work

The Historical Influences of the Sacred-Secular Divide

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The sacred-secular divide has deep historical roots. The early church held a sound biblical view of work, but lost it during the Middle Ages. The Reformation helped rectify this, but historical, intellectual movements of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries paved the way for the sacred-secular divide to rear its head again. These movements have had a significant impact on the contemporary church’s view of work.

Philosophical Influences of the Sacred-Secular Divide

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a wide-ranging intellectual movement, the Enlightenment, emerged. It sought to understand the natural world and humanity’s place in it solely on the basis of reason, without turning to religious belief.

Immanuel Kant was an influential Enlightenment philosopher of modern Europe. His ideas opened the way for a radical change in society’s prevailing view of work. Kant divided reality into two parts, the phenomenal and the noumenal.

  • The phenomenal is the public world of empirical fact, that which can be proven with reason alone.
  • By contrast, the noumenal world deals with morality and spirituality, things which cannot be rationally or empirically proven. All beliefs in this realm must be accepted by faith; therefore we cannot know these things for certain. Noumenal beliefs should be kept private and outside the public domain.

Such a dichotomy between fact and spirit produced a pronounced compartmentalization in Western thinking. Sacred and secular are seen as divided, which leads to an incorrect understanding of vocation as being strictly secular.

Theological Influences of the Sacred-Secular Divide

Also during the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a fundamental shift in the theology and practice of American evangelicalism. Preachers such as Charles Finney led a revival movement now known as the Second Great Awakening.

Although it was part of a larger movement opposed to Enlightenment ideas, the Second Great Awakening was focused on obtaining professions of faith. The revivalists’ techniques were pragmatic, and in the process they affirmed the “spiritual” over and against the “secular.” For American Christians, the legacy of this movement has been an increased dichotomy between work and faith.

Economic Influences of the Sacred-Secular Divide

During this same time period, two additional forces emerged which would have lasting influence on the theology of work in the Western world: the Industrial Revolution and Marxism. Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic ushered in the “spirit of capitalism,” which led to the Industrial Revolution. Others maintain the historical shift resulted from a corruption of the Protestant work ethic and the effects of the Enlightenment.

Regardless of the origin of the idea, the concept of vocation became so closely associated with a person’s career that the words became synonymous, and all connection with the calling of God disappeared. The views of vocation held by the Reformers and Puritans failed to address the rapid changes brought on by industrialization.

While Marxism and capitalism are regarded as opposites, both see the pursuit of a vocation as an end in itself. Both encourage workers to look for personal fulfillment through the labor of their own hands. What Marx promised  alienated workers of mid-nineteenth century England was that the work of their hands mattered to history. While he profoundly misread the human heart, he did speak to the deep human longing for our work to matter. The hammer and sickle, ordinary tools, represent the hope that what one does day after day will affect history and change the world.

Neither capitalism nor Marxism can deliver on the promise to bring significant meaning to our work. That is why so few people, including Christians, find genuine satisfaction in their jobs. As a result of these philosophical, theological, and economic changes, the biblical doctrine of work was all but lost to the church by the end of the nineteenth-century. Finding significance in our work requires that we once again overcome the sacred-secular divide and embrace a biblical view of work.

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Further readings on At Work

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