Monday, July 7, 2008

Work in the Spirit

Back in 1992, I purchased and read Work in the Spirit, by Miroslav Volf, my theology prof at the time. Volf was a humble and kind professor, but he possessed an impressive intellect and a memorable discipline for study. I remember a conversation he had with a student who had "only" read one of the textbooks once. "Any book worth reading once," Professor Volf said, "is worth reading twice." So in that spirit, and in light of the recent change in my employment status, I recently picked Work in the Spirit back up and reread it.

Back in '92, my impression of the book was that it was solid, though not inspiring. On a second rereading, I think the book is both better and, in a few places, a bit worse than I remember it.

Some parts of it are really pretty interesting.

"After Western civilization has climbed up the ladder of the Protestant work ethic to a state in which incessant work has become one of its main features, it has pushed this ladder aside but continued to work even more frantically. Work thrives today more on the insatiable hunger for self-realization than on the Protest work ethic." (p. 129)

"God did not create human beings simply to be servants but above all to be God's children and friends. As much as they need to do God's will, so also they need to enjoy God's presence. In order to be truly who they are, they need periodic moments of time in which God's commands and their tasks will disappear from the forefront of their consciousness and in which God will be there for them and they will be there for God -- to adore the God of loving holiness and to thank and pray to the God of holy love." (p. 137)

"The dynamic character of human needs is a specifically human phenomenon. It is grounded in the permanent self-transcendence of human beings. What human beings need is always beyond the boundary of what they actually have and are, so they live in an endless spiral in which today's desires glide into tomorrow's needs. Depending on the culture, the movement of the spiral might be slower or faster. The upward-moving spiral itself seems inherent to the human condition." (p. 150)

That last point, about the "permanent self-transcendence of human beings", with the result that the sphere of what humans think they need is constantly growing, was new to me. I wasn't unaware that human beings are in that state – after all, I am one – I just hadn't heard it described as "permanent self-transcendence". In other words, I've only ever heard that particular trait described in negative terms. The fact that at least some aspects of that trait might be a good thing was an intriguing idea.

In addition, I admire his attempt to reframe Christian reflection on work in light of "new creation". It's sometimes claimed that theology can't progress in, say, the same way that the hard sciences can: but I think the newfound emphasis (in, oh, say, the last century or so) on the eschatological dimension of Christianity is a genuine advance. It's also one that hasn't quite worked its way through all the various fields and spheres which theology touches, and Volf's book is a valuable contribution to the effort to do so.

At the same time, there are specific areas of the book which I think are a bit weak. Most of them are details which don't touch the main thesis of the book, but some of them are fairly central. As one example, Volf's critique of Luther's concept of vocatio (pp. 106-110) didn't quite work for me: all it seemed to show was that Luther's formulations needed a bit of tweaking and redirecting, not complete reworking. Somewhat more central, I'm not sure that his attempt to understand all work charismatically has sufficient Biblical warrant. Paul seems to restrict the charisms to work that occurs within the sphere of the Church. Even the charisms of, say, evangelism or healing, which are directed outwards, are still the appropriate work of the Church. And practically, I think that you weaken the idea of charisms by extending it to the entire sphere of work: and specifically, you weaken it more than you strengthen the idea of work by applying it to charisms. At Zango, I used to say repeatedly, "If everything is a high priority, then nothing is." And as a purely practical matter, if everything is charismatic, then nothing is. I have great admiration for Volf's attempt to understand work pneumatalogically and in light of the new creation (here he reminds me of Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament), but I think that trying to understand it charismatically, i.e., through that specific manifestation of the Spirit's work, overly weakens the idea of charisms.

I should be clear that I'm not dismissing Volf's work. His central idea of human work as a cooperation with God, and as "building blocks" for the new creation, is a fascinating one, and it makes me think critically about my own contributions (or lack thereof) to the eschaton. It's definitely a worthwhile read. But there are parts that I would probably have constructed somewhat differently.

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