Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Church (and Buddhism) on Work

Nowadays the work we do for a living is often treated as a necessary evil, a mere means to a financial end. Even from an employer’s perspective, the less labour of others' he has to pay for the better. That work is viewed in this negative lightby labourers and their employersis the mark of a society that has lost touch with its own value system and has long forgotten both the creative and the redemptive nature of work. In contemplating this dual nature of work, one is able to move beyond the deceptions of modern neoliberal economics that obscureand thereby devaluewhat has been, from even before the Fall, the vocational calling of mankind.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that work ought to be fundamentally creative:
Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat’ (2 Thes 3:10). Work honours the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.1
Work is done for the physical and material good of ourselves and of others. Bringing forth goods which are needed by society is a duty of every man capable of working. But St. Paul’s connection between working and eating rests on an assumption long forgotten by those engaging in modern workplaces: our work should be directly related to providing that which is genuinely needed by our communities. Therefore our work ought to be for the material benefit of our community. We only have a right to what we genuinely need (St. Paul uses the most obvious example of food), insofar as we take part in bringing forth what is genuinely needed by the community (proper work). By accepting the invitation of the Creator to co-labour with Him we participate in his creative purposes of providing us, His children, with what He knows we need.2

That work is done to honour that which the Creator has given us
including both the resources of the earth and our talents and abilitiesshould also be a guiding light in determining what kind of work is proper to man. Every end-product of our modern economy has been made by combining the raw materials found in God’s creation with what He has given each of us in terms of our physical and mental talents. Consequently, every single thing we create for the consumption of ourselves or others should be brought under the scrutiny of whether it honours the true Creator.

One of the chief illusions brought about by post-industrial economics is that the primary purpose of work is to earn money. Work is therefore a trade-off: by engaging in something somewhat unpleasant we are rewarded financially. Work is a mere commodity and workers are consistently seeking to sell less of their labour for more. We forget, as Pope John Paul II reminded us in 1991, that “work is work with others and work for others: it is a matter of doing something for someone else.”3 Indeed, without the needs of others to be met there would not be any work to be done at all.

A year before Karol Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II in 1978, British economist E.F. Schumacher (pictured right) died, aged 66. Once a protégé of John Maynard Keynes, Schumacher, while appointed as Chief Economic Adviser to the UK National Coal Board (one of the world’s largest organizations, with over 800 000 employees) travelled to Burma in 1955 as an economic consultant. While there, he developed a set of principles based on the belief that people needed good work for proper human development. He came to understand that at the heart of a civilization's understanding of work lies its system of values, and more precisely, its view of the individual and his relationship with others. This realization led him upon a journey of spiritual awakening, and, following his wife and daughter, he eventually converted to Catholicism in 1971. Two years later he wrote the international best-seller, Small Is Beautiful, in which he outlined the ideas he had learnt in Burma, articulated in a chapter entitled ‘Buddhist Economics’. Schumacher clearly saw that work rooted in a participation in creation was a key aspect of human development, with its fundamental purposes being “to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties… and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” But he also understood that work went beyond a participation in creation and had a redemptive aspect when he identified a further function of work: “[T]o enable [man] to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task.”4 He saw that Buddhism and Catholicism in their common rejection of materialism, had happened upon a shared truth:
It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man's work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.5
One may as well replace the word ‘Buddhist’ in the above quote with the word ‘Catholic’. Unless we first understand the creative nature of our workthat it finds its divine purpose in providing the goods and services genuinely needed for a becoming existence, as opposed being a mere means to the fulfilment of materialistic desiresits redemptive nature eludes us. Only when we see our work as a service to our communities done in partnership with others to honour God for what he has given us, are we able to allow our work to become redemptive in our lives. As the Catechism continues:
By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.1
In Christ, our work is not only done in obedience to God’s original command to subdue the earth, nor is it limited to a type of participation in His creation, but it is elevated to a participation in His work of redemption. (This is why in the first centuries of the Church, Christianity spread so rapidly throughout the slave classes. Their lives were no longer understood as the fleeting economic instruments of their owners, but as having eternal value, not in spite of their condition, but because of it, in their union with the sufferings of Christ.) Here, in addition to the considerations given to work as a sharing in creation, we have an even brighter light for discerning the nature of work proper to man: it participates in God’s work of redemption. Dorothy Day’s once remarked that we should all be able to identify the work we do for a living as a work of mercy in one way or another, and it is with this understanding that we come to identify good work as that work which sanctifies the soul.

The two natures of man’s work are based on the two principal works of God among men: creation and redemption. As nature is perfected by grace, the latter does not exist without the former: our work fails to be redemptive if it is not also a participation in creation. Therefore, even if we are working strenuously, exercising self-denial and strict discipline towards our task at hand, our work nevertheless fails to be redemptive if what we are doing is not a participation in God’s good creation, i.e. not bringing forth goods genuinely needed by man. Examples of this may range from building weapons intended to be used on innocent civilians to designing enticing advertisements to increase people’s useless desires for things they don’t need.

The double nature of good work ought to help us to pause and reflect upon whether what we do for a living is really a vocational calling of God. As a nation we are in desperate need of rediscovering our work as something that meaningfully contributes to the common good, and as Christians we need to prayerfully reconsider what role our work plays as a daily means of drawing both ourselves and others ever-closer to our Redeemer. “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”6


1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2427
2. Matthew 6:32
3. Blessed Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, n. 31
4. E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, p. 45
5. E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, p. 46
6. Colossians 3:17

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