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.
- 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.
- Ibid., pp. 287-88.
- 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).