Miroslav Volf: Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work

41hjAYJ+nTL._AC_UL115_Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University Divinity School. As a native Croatian now living in working in the West, Dr. Volf has observed the world of work from many vantage points. Before making his case for a new theology of work, Dr. Volf lays a foundation based on the significance and historical transformation of work.

Importance of Work Work as a basic necessity provides sustenance, but human work goes far beyond that. Our work plays a significant role in how we understand ourselves anthropologically and sociologically. Indeed Volf states, “work is indispensable for the survival and the well being of both individual human beings and the societies they live in, and it conditions their individual and social identity. As such, it is the basis of individual human life and of all human history.”

Transformation of Work Throughout most of human history, “The wisdom of a trade was passed virtually unchanged from generation to generation.” Changes in the nature and character of work were subtle and spread of centuries. After industrialization, and further accelerated by the discovery of computer technology, work has been “revolutionized by increasing rapid technological development.” Volf roughly divides the history of human work in industrialized nations into three consecutive eras; the agricultural era, the industrial era, and the information and service era.

Dr. Volf shows how the nature of our work has significantly changed through these stages. Importantly, Dr. Volf shows how in preindustrial times, prior to machine production, the production of goods was the result of skilled crafts people. Volf creates a picture of workers using their own “skill, taste and judgment” in their work and finding satisfaction in being able to observe the results of their work. This is in stark contrast to the age of machine production in which the skilled craftsman is replaced by a machine operator. The worker’s skill and judgment were no longer required and work was reduced to mechanically enforced monotonous activity. In the current information and service era “human work is ceasing to be material activity and is increasingly becoming mental activity. This is a radical change from past centuries, in which the predominant form of work was physical labor.”

As opposed to traditional societies where an individual’s role and function with regard to their work was relatively static, Volf notes that in modern information societies our work is characterized by a high degree of vocational mobility. This feature in particular is significant in Volf’s reasoning with regard for the need for a new understanding of work and calling. Toward a Theology of Work Theologians have contributed little in recent years to the understanding of work. However, it is precisely the fact that humans spend so much of their time working that dictates the need for theological reflection. God’s purposes extend to all of life (not simply “sacred” activities.) Volf cites the contribution of early church fathers in recognizing and affirming the nobility of work and the “obligation to work diligently and not be idle.” In addition, they stressed that the Christian’s responsibility does not end with satisfying ones own needs, but also having something to share with needy fellow human beings. The early church fathers also saw an influence of work on character. Their view was that diligent work helped to keep evil desires and temptations in check. Volf writes that a contemporary theology of work must add to this negative notion of work “the positive idea that human beings achieve fulfillment through work.” Volf’s theology of work is primarily eschatological and pneumatalogical.

Eschatologically, Volf develops a deep and involved understanding of new creation that looks toward the consummation of the present age. “New creation is the end of all God’s purposes with the universe” (see 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1-4). According to Volf’s broad application of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, all work that survives the test of God’s judgment has eternal significance. All work that is in keeping with God’s purposes is therefore done in cooperation with God. In Volf’s understanding, “the noble products of human ingenuity will be cleansed from impurity, perfected and transfigured, to become part of God’s new creation.” It is easy to see the profound effect this view could have on our daily work. The belief that one’s work can have eternal significance in its contribution to humankind and God’s creation is transformative.

Pneumatalogically, Volf seeks to liberate us from the idea that the work of God’s Spirit in and through human beings is limited to the religious life. The Spirit of God inspires and empowers our work. As such, God’s Spirit is the source of our creativity and our ability. It is at this point that Volf addresses the inadequacy of the traditional Christian view of vocation as developed principally by Martin Luther. Volf is quick to credit Luther with the idea that all noble work is sacred, not just that of priests or ministers. Yet the traditional view has limitations. In Luther’s day an individual was called to a vocation or station in life; a blacksmith, a composer, a baker or a cleric. This calling was for life. Volf sees this identification of calling with occupation as far too static and limiting especially for our time. Volf formulates an understanding of work and calling that is rooted in charisms (gifts). God “through the spirit calls and equips a worker for a particular task in the world.” The calling therefore is centered around the use of one’s gifts rather than one’s occupation. A person, therefore, could change occupations or have more than one job at a time, and stay true to their calling as they effectively use their God-given abilities for the benefit of humankind in the world.

Miroslav Volf has given us the foundation for a fresh view of human work that is needed in our time. Inspired, empowered workers doing eternally relevant work; that’s a robust vision many will eagerly share.

Paperback: 268 pages. Publisher: Wipf & Stock Publishers (April 2001). ISBN-10: 1579106412. Price: $24.30.