Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Work and Vocation
I teach Bible and Theology at North Park Theological Seminary. But I also venture on occasion into the literary world. Next week I will be teaching a course on the American farmer/essayist/poet/novelist Wendell Berry. Theologian Brent Laytham and I teach this course every two years. This requires me rereading most of Berry's work over the Christmas holidays. This is not the most auspicious time to read this critic of the consumerist economy. He suggests, among other things, that the industrial economy is "firmly founded on the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments." The consumerist orgy of Christmas does little to challenge this assertion. Berry has frequently been called a Luddite. He has been accused of being a hopelessly naive conservative and a Communist. Berry in turn has attacked both industrial Capitalsim and industrial Communism. With Edward Abbey he argues that our current economy shares the philosophy of the cancer cell--continuous growth until it kills the host. In many of his works he addresses the question of good work. In our passion to rid ourselves of the "drudgery" of manual labor many of us have demeaned work and scorned farmers, factory workers, waitresses and just about anyone who works with their hands (with the possible exception of celebrity chefs and athletes). I would suggest that this means, among other things, that we have lost the sense of work as "vocation." If the Facebook postings of my friends are evidence, many if not most people dread Monday. They seem to drag themselves to their tasks with great reluctance. The weekends are precious. Days off are highly valued. For many of us, I suspect, our work is not a vocation, a calling, but simply a way to make money--a necessary evil. Berry would suggest that there are good reasons for our disenchantments. Our work is often boring, sterile, and unproductive. It is not a source of pride or joy, but a grim necessity that blights our days. There is frequently little skill involved and no pleasure in making a contribution to the larger community. In his provocative essay "Discipline and Hope" (in Recollected Essays, North Point Press, 1981) Berry argues that "an urban discipline that in good health is closely analogous to healthy agriculture is teaching. Like a good farmer, a good teacher is the trustee of a vital and delicate organism: the life of the mind in his community. This is high calling, deserving of a life's work. We have allowed it to degenerate intoo careerism and specialization. . . .Education is coming to be, not a long term investment in young minds, but a short-term investment in the economy. We want to be able to tell how many dollars an education is worth and how soon it will begin to pay." Many in the field of educaiton would support this contention. But,this is what happens when a vocation becomes a job. This is what happens when the focus of work is on money and not on good work or the health of the community. As a result we frequently do poor, violent, and destructive work--wrecking the sources of life and production. We will never have a health and just society until we address the issue of work and vocation. This is a cultural problem, a spiritual problem, a religious problem. There is no top down solution. As a Christian I suggest the beginnings of a solution are found in a recognition of the world as a creation of God and of each one of us as stewards and lovers of this good creation.