Monday, September 4, 2017

A Theology of Work

The issue of work is never far from my mind, and Labor Day is a great time to think about it in depth.  Not a week goes by when I'm not wondering if I'm doing the work I was put on earth to do.  Of course, that presupposes a purpose of sorts.

 It's interesting to me that I feel that I only feel I'm doing meaningful work if I'm making an important difference each and every day.  And if I'm being honest, I want it to be an important difference like the kind that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks made, the kind of difference where future generations will be better off because I walked the planet (and yes, I realize this could sound like monstrous ego, but it's also fueled by a fierce yearning for social justice).  Did Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King feel that they made a difference each and every day?  Probably not.  It's only in retrospect that it's clear.

Maybe it would be better to ponder the ways I could make life better for the workers around me. I'd like to move towards the Buddhist teahouse approach of meaningful work.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen.  It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road.  Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea.  She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, "This is the Zen teahouse."  All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it.  No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words:  A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).

I wonder why we don't hear much about a Christian theology of work--it could be that the workplace is changing so quickly that theologians haven't had a chance to catch up.  We've gone from being a nation where the majority makes a living from agrarian pursuits, to a largely industrialized work force--and that's the 20th century.  And now, all those industrial jobs that so many of us suddenly miss--even though when I was in college, we rallied against those evil factories that gave people repetitive use injuries and lung disease from the fibers released in factories (both cloth fibers and metal/asbestos fibers)--those are gone away, as are many office jobs, as is any hope of job stability.

Or maybe it's because that theology isn't taught in our seminaries and grad schools.  This article says, "Courses on marriage and sexuality are staples of university and seminary curricula, but courses on work are rare. This mutually acceptable silence is a great pastoral failure, a squandered opportunity to understand the universal call to holiness in everyday economic life."

The article reminds us that we do have a theology of work, if we dig back far enough, to the Benedictines:  "The Rule has a larger lesson, though. Its guidelines for living in the monastery teach that work can be a component of spiritual practice and is essential to fulfilling a community’s needs, but it must never become an end in itself and in fact should be limited in order to prevent it from inculcating vicious habits. The discipline that Benedict enjoins upon his monks, and that workers today could emulate, is selective disengagement from labor."

Life in a monastery is compartmentalized in a way that I envy:  there are times for work, times for prayer, times for meals, times for study--there's some overlap, but not the expectation of multitasking that so many of us face. 

Can we create something similar in our modern workplaces?

It's interesting to think about the way that a Benedictine approach would reshape the questions that we ask about work:  "Taking Benedict’s approach would force us to reconsider how we think about our work. Instead of, 'What work am I called to?' we might ask, 'How does the task before me contribute to or hinder my progress toward holiness?; Not 'How does this work cooperate with material creation?' but 'How does this work contribute to the life of the community and to others’ material and spiritual well-being?' Not 'Am I doing what I love?' but 'What activity is so important that I should, without exception, drop my work in order to do it?'”

These are good questions for Labor Day--or any day.

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