At Work & Theology 101

Work Expresses Who We Are, What We Are, What We Believe

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A popular bumper sticker in my current home state of Michigan reads something like this: “A bad day of fishing beats a good day at work,” which prompts (for me at least) the question: “What if fishing is your work?” And this follow-up: “Would fisherman rather find themselves working in an office, factory, or in retail or agriculture?”

Work, properly understood, negates the blithe sentiments of the bumper sticker however much it amuses the fishing obsessed. Nor does work merely mean, as the Greeks and Romans mistakenly put it, “not-leisure,” as noted by Josef Pieper in his seminal book, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture.”

The idea of a “worker,” contra Karl Marx, doesn’t reduce the person in question to a conceptual and ideological generality.

Work and the individuals who perform the tasks required of it are, in fact, expressions of human creativity applied toward productive results. Just as we refer to the panoply of artistic endeavors as “works,” we are called also by God to consider each moment of “not-leisure” as a creative activity. True, our labor and talent may not compare favorably with the ultimate act of Creation or even the works of Shakespeare and Dante, but however dimmed in contrast, they reflect the brilliance of humanity’s initial design in the image of God.

Work, either requiring toil and sweat, mental labor or performing even the most seemingly menial tasks, reveals an essential aspect of God’s plan for humankind. This may appear shocking to those modern-day Gnostics, who view the material world as anathema to the truly spiritual life. To persons possessed of such a mindset, work at best is a necessary evil or benign utilitarian requirement. However, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Pope John Paul II noted the flawed theological underpinnings of Gnostics, both in the past and resurgent in the present, regarding not-leisure when he wrote that work is required of man “because as the ‘image of God’ he is a person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself, and with a tendency to self-realization.” The pontiff concluded: “As a person, man is therefore the subject of work.”

The Catholic poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed much the same sentiment in “God’s Grandeur.” In this sonnet, Hopkins begins by relating to his readers the immutable fact: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and proceeds to describe the beauties of his boundless creativity. Nature, Hopkins reminds us, consistently replenishes itself by benefit of God’s creative hand. Humanity’s relationship with both God and nature suffers when work ceases to be a creative exercise, and instead, blindly, “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” resulting in an earth that “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.”

We are called to subdue the earth and dominate it, but only to apply such efforts to express not only our own creativity but also to acknowledge our own nature, as being created in the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God. Work expresses who we are, what we are, and what we believe. Just as the created order, God’s work, expresses his character (Ps. 19:1-6), so our work makes visible our invisible spiritual nature. It shows our character, just as certainly as good works make known the presence of faith in the heart of one who professes it (James 2:18). In work, we reflect the image of our Maker (Gen. 1:26), for he too works (Gen. 2:2, John 5:17), and at the moment of our creation he commanded us also, to work.

Whereas God’s creativity is infinite, humanity’s capacity to create is limited. There are times in anyone’s not-leisure life when that person desires to be doing something elsewhere or not doing anything at all. Ultimately, however, work should be perceived as a universal component of the human vocation, fully understood only when considering our obligation to others and our being created in the imago Dei, to be creative as God is creative. The unleashing of human productivity for the sake of the common good is the end result of accepting God’s instruction for us all, creatively and intelligently, to make use of our human resources.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in a special report by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and The Washington Times entitled, ”Faith at Work: Individual Purpose, Flourishing Communities.” Reprinted with permission. 

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