The Purpose of Work
“We work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” So said Aristotle, quoted by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting to explain “What Work Is For” in a recent article for The New York Times. Luther countered this medieval view of work—which is coming back into style in our consumerist culture—with his doctrine of vocation.
To be sure, as Gutting says, we celebrate Labor Day by not working. We work so that we can save up money to take a vacation. We spend most our lives in the work force so that we can retire. Or as the British rock group Hard-Fi says, we are “Living for the Weekend.” We work in order to not work.
For Aristotle, contemplation is the activity in which human beings reach their highest fulfillment. For that, we need leisure. In our culture today, though, most people probably do not use their leisure to contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful. Our leisure is filled more with entertainment than contemplation.
Gutting recognizes that leisure can degenerate into idleness and boredom. We should use our leisure, he says, for “productive activity enjoyed for its own sake.” Some things are good in themselves, Aristotle says. Other things are good because they lead to things that are good in themselves. For example, money has no intrinsic value—it is just dirty paper—but it is an “instrumental good” because it allows us to buy food so that we can stay alive, provide for our family, help others, and other human purposes, all of which are valuable in themselves. In Book 7 of the Politics, Aristotle argues that work is such an instrumental good.
If the “productive activity” enjoyed in leisure can be good in itself—say, writing poetry or building a birdhouse or reading a book—it would seem that similar exercises of human creativity and rationality occur in the workplace. But the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods is useful. What is missing, though, from Aristotle is other people.
Love and Serve
According to Luther, the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbor. The farmer tills the ground to provide food to sustain his neighbor’s life. The craftsman, the teacher, the lawyer—indeed, everyone who occupies a place in the division of labor—is providing goods and services that neighbors need. This is God’s providential ordering of society. But for a Christian, the service rendered can become animated with love.
For Luther, vocation was far more than economic activity, including also our callings in our families, the church, and the culture as a whole. Each of these vocations calls us to particular neighbors whom we are to love and serve. Husbands are called to love and serve their wives, and wives are called to love and serve their neighbors. Pastors love and serve their parishioners, who love and serve each other. Rulers are to love and serve their subjects, and citizens love and serve each other for the common good.
Notice, vocation is not primarily about “serving God” for Luther. He was battling the high view of “contemplation” found in monasticism, which required the rejection of the vocations of marriage and parenthood (the vow of celibacy), the vocations of economic activity (the vow of poverty), and the vocations of citizenship (the vow of obedience, which replaced the authority of secular law with that of the church). Luther denied that “the contemplative life” of monasticism was more spiritual than “the active life” of ordinary Christians living in the world. The problem with the former was that it tended to isolate Christians from their neighbors, at worse becoming a retreat into oneself. The monasteries claimed to serve God—indeed, to allow for salvation by works—but God in Scripture commands that we love and serve him by loving and serving our neighbors.
“God does not need our good works,” Luther taught. “But our neighbor does.” Our relationship with God is established solely by his grace in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. But then he sends us out into the world to live out our Christian faith in love and service to our neighbors.
Furthermore, God himself, in his providential care for his whole creation, is working through our human vocations. God gives us our daily bread by means of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. He protects us by means of lawful magistrates. He creates and cares for new human beings by means of fathers and mothers. He proclaims his Word and administers his sacraments by means of pastors. He creates beauty by means of artists and musicians.
To use Aristotelian terms, loving one’s neighbor means to treat other human beings, particularly those we meet in our vocations, as intrinsic, not instrumental goods; that is, we see them as being valuable in themselves, and not just for how we can use them. This holds true for the way husbands and wives need to treat each other, and for the way a Christian business owner treats customers. Luther’s neighbor-centered ethic requires self-denial—bearing the Cross, which is not just suffering but sacrificing oneself for others. Thus, wives submit (an act of self-denial) to their husbands, who “give up themselves” (an act of self-denial) for their wives—thus, in their callings embodying the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5).
What Transforms Our Work?
Gutting goes on in his essay to criticize capitalism for its view of work. Though Luther’s doctrine of vocation played a major role in the rise of free market capitalism, as many scholars have shown, his focus on self-denial and service to the neighbor give it a different ethical dimension. The free market, according to the Enlightenment, is governed by individuals all pursuing their rational self-interest. Luther would no doubt recognize economic laws as part of God’s ordering of creation. He would acknowledge that fallen human beings do not usually act in selfless love and service to others, but are instead motivated by selfishness and the desire to be served rather than to serve.
Nevertheless, God providentially works through vocation so as to bless others despite the sinner’s evil motives. (A business owner may have selfish motivations, but unless the business meets people’s needs, it will not be successful.) For the Christian, on the other hand, ordinary labor and ordinary relationships can be transfigured, as faith discerns the presence of God, who is active in the humblest of callings. Our vocations become the arena for the Christian life, where sanctification happens, the site of “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
The economy can indeed be a dog-eat-dog, Darwinistic, self-obsessed struggle, which we yearn to escape—whether on a weekend, a vacation, or retirement. But even the leisure, bought at such a cost, may still keep us trapped within ourselves. The doctrine of vocation, properly understood, frees us from our sinful selves through the gospel as our love for God overflows into love for our neighbors. Our very work becomes transformed not in its substance—Christian workers mostly perform the same tasks as non-Christian workers—but in its meaning and in its value.