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The Fabric of This World



IN THEIR BEST-SELLING analysis of American society, Habits of the Heart, Robert N. Bellah and his associates claim that at the heart of any recovery of our common life, of our "social ecology," there must be "a change in the meaning of work."1 The meaning of work must change, they insist, because it has been too long informed by the spirit of modern individualism, a spirit which promotes the idea of work as a means of private advancement rather than public contributions÷a spirit which will rend the social fabric of our society and erode our democratic institutions if allowed to have full sway in American life.

According to the cultural taxonomy developed in Habits of the Heart, modem American individualism comes in two forms: utilitarian and expressivist. The utilitarian individualists among us locate the meaning of their lives in the public world of work. They turn to work in pursuit of personal success, which is often measured financially. They are hard working, highly competitive, and willing to sacrifice their private lives for the sake of career advancement. Expressive individualists, on the other hand, typically turn away from the harsh realities of the world of work and seek meaning in private life-personal relationships, leisure activities, and "life-style enclaves." They have decided to bow out of the rat race for the sake of a more humane and sensitive existence. Both kinds of individualists, however, live primarily for self. One seeks self-fulfillment on the job; the other seeks it off the job. Neither approaches work with the primary intention of serving others in it, of making a contribution to the common good. But this is precisely the meaning that work must come to have, the Bellah group claims, if American society is to regain its social solidarity and face the challenges of the future as a house undivided.

The understanding of work as service to one's neighbor, however, is by no means foreign to American soil. Within the now dominant cultural tradition of modem individualism lie the strands of two other cultural traditions which reach further back into American history: the republican and the biblical. And within the biblical tradition's understanding of social life, as articulated by the English Calvinists who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a strong emphasis on work as a form of mutual service, as a vocation. Indeed, the Bellah group argues, it is precisely this concept of vocation, embedded in our own cultural heritage, which must be made to live again and walk among us. If our troubled and fragmented social world is to be reconstituted, we need a "reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one's own advancement."2

The Fabric of This World might be read as an attempt to help revitalize the concept of work as vocation--or calling--at least within the professing Christian community, where it should have some force. My primary intent is to flesh out the concept of vocation, to delineate its historical background, to mark out its place in the array of possible attitudes towards the meaning of work in human life, to illuminate its full religious content, and to explore its practical implications, both personal and social. A glance at the table of contents will reveal that my work, on the concept of vocation is divided into two parts--expository and applicatory. In the first part I begin with a representation of the history of Western attitudes towards work. The scheme I employ in this representation draws its inspiration from a theme in Reformed theology. John Calvin stated in the opening sections of his Institutes that our self-knowledge depends upon our knowledge of God. In the first chapter of my work I generalize on this formula and convert it into a method of exposition: we understand ourselves-and the place of work in our lives-in terms of our understanding of the divine. Traditionally, Western thinkers have pictured humankind as occupying a place in the cosmic scheme of things somewhere between the divine and the animal. Something about us is god-like; but equally, something about us is animal-like. Furthermore, most Western thinkers agree that human beings must emphasize, cultivate, and reinforce what is god-like about us, and downplay, ignore, and even repress what is animal-like about us. Despite this formal agreement, opinions range widely as to the nature of the divine. Hence there is disagreement as to what is god-like about us and what kind of lives we should live. In the first chapter I indicate how Western attitudes towards work have been directly and decisively shaped by our self-understandings as they follow from our understanding of God. Work has sometimes been seen as activity which demotes us to the level of animal existence, sometimes as activity which exalts us to the status of divine beings. Attitudes towards work have been accordingly either negative or positive.

Against the background of these polarized attitudes towards work I set forth in the second chapter the concept of work as vocation as inaugurated by the Protestant Reformers. In a certain sense the Reformed concept of work as vocation steers a middle path between the vilification and the glorification of work. The concept of vocation, as we shall see, claims it is in our work that we bear within us God's image as Creator. Indeed, it claims more than that. Reformed thought claims that through the work we are called to do God himself carries on his creative activity in this world. But precisely for this reason work does not make us into gods, although it does relate to what is god-like about us. Rather, work makes us into God's representatives on earth, his stewards, entrusted with the task of developing the rich resources of the earth for the benefit of the human community. Although work does not make us into gods, it does not reduce us to the level of animals either. It relates to what is specifically human about us.

In the second part of the book I make two practical applications of the Christian concept of vocation-one to the personal issue of career choice, and one to the social issue of job design. The Christian understanding of work and its relation to career choice has been discussed in a number of recent books by evangelical authors. I think this is a good indication that many American Christians are concerned about the relation between their faith and their lives on the job. It bespeaks a commendable desire for integrating faith and life and for religious consistency. But the practical advice offered in most of these books rarely goes beyond the personal issue of career choice. Rarely does it raise the question of how best to pursue one's chosen career within the given social structure of work; and hardly ever does it take up the question of the social structure of work itself. In this regard evangelical reflection on work remains in the grips of modern individualism-not that it promotes or even condones self-seeking in work, but rather that it poses the issue of work strictly from the vantage point of the individual. It seeks only to guide the individual through the given structures of the world of work, but never to examine or challenge those structures themselves. Near the end of chapter 3 and in the whole of chapter 4 I attempt to examine critically the social and structural dimension of work in light of the practical implications of the concept of vocation. I am convinced that such examination is essential, and that any individualistic treatment of the problem of work is incomplete. For our work can count as a vocation only if it occurs in the kind of social structures that make it a genuine service to others through the responsible use of our talents and abilities.

I have written this book mindful of college students preparing themselves for careers. But I think it can be read with profit by any educated person concerned about the meaning of work, regardless of that person's stage or status in life. A word of advice, however, for the general reader: Chapter 4, on management theory, was written especially for those intending to go into-or already in-management. Unsuspecting general readers may find the treatment of the development of American management theory overly technical and personally unrewarding. Such readers may lay down the book at the end of chapter 3 and still have a 'complete reading experience.' I hope, however, that the flow of the argument will sweep them into chapter 4 and carry them through to the end, as this chapter sheds some light on the motive ideas behind the structure of the work world today-a world with which we all must contend to one degree or another.

Finally, a note to scholars: this book is not a scholarly treatise on work, although it does have a scholarly basis. For the aid and comfort of my readers I have tried to keep the qualifications and digressions to a minimum. These I have tucked away in the footnotes, and the scholars among us are hereby referred to them. Some will no doubt notice in my work the conspicuous absence of any reference to or discussion of the dreaded "Weber Thesis." Weber's claim that the fervent economic activity associated with the inception of capitalism in northern Europe should be understood as an attempt on the part of Protestants to relieve the religious anxiety induced by the Calvinist doctrine of election has been roundly and well criticized in other volumes.3 As much ink has already been spilled over this topic, I feel little obligation to add any. Nor do I want my discussion of the Protestant concept of vocation to be dominated by a speculative thesis which, in my estimation, has rightly lost its credibility.

Lee Hardy

  1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 289.

  2. Ibid., pp. 287-88.

  3. Cf. Robert W. Green, ed., Protestantism, Capitalism, and Social Science: The Weber Thesis Controversy. 2nd ed. (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1973), and Robert M. Mitchell, Calvin's and the Puritan's View of the Protestant Ethic (Washington DC: University Press of America, 1979).

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