Work in the Spirit, by Miroslav Volf

Title:  Work in the Spirit:  Toward a Theology of Work

Author:  Miroslav Volf

Publisher:  Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001

Reviewer:  Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology

What would it mean if the starting point for a theology of work was the Spirit and charisma instead of creation and vocation? Theologies of work have been dominated by the latter two motifs, neither remains inadequate, but at the same time, Miroslav Volf argues that neither is comprehensive enough. For a Christian theology of work Volf suggests a shift “from the vocational understanding of work developed within the framework of the doctrine of creation to a pneumatological one developed within the framework of the doctrine of the last things” (ix). A pneumatological theology of work is “based on the concept of charisma,” while a doctrine of the last things is found in an “eschatological realism” (ix,x). Developing this shift and showing its importance for a theology of work is the project of this text; Volf steadily and acutely argues for its necessity.

Taking an approach similar to a practical theological method, Volf first describes the problem with work today, citing its tendency to exploit, discriminate, destruct environment, and cause dissatisfaction.   Of great concern is the dehumanization caused by work, and though Volf’s focus is industrial and post-industrial societies, the dehumanizing effects of work are evident throughout the world. Volf also describes the two dominant understandings of work presented by Adam Smith and Karl Marx. While an appropriate theology of work is not to be found in capitalist or socialist constructions, if it “wants to be relevant…there is no getting around the dominant philosophies of work in these [developed and developing] societies” (46). Volf’s analysis of Smith and Marx is specific to the issues of work, notably, the purpose of work, the division of labor, and the alienation of the worker from self, community, and product. Both Smith and Marx prescribe work as a central function in their economic proposals. And though their differences are seemingly evident, Volf shows their commonality as he explains how the function of both capitalism and socialism revolves around particular understandings of work.

In the second part of Work in the Spirit Volf provides a critical theological evaluation of work and its dominant understandings in contemporary society. Working toward a pneumatological theology of work, Volf first suggests that a theology of work should be based on charisms and that “the various activities human beings do in order to satisfy their own needs and the needs of their fellow creatures should be viewed from the perspective of the operation of God’s Spirit” (88). Second, Volf displays the significance of eschatological understandings for a theology of work. Contrasting what he calls the “two basic eschatological models,” annihilatio mundi and transformatio mundi, Volf finds that “radically different theologies of work follow” (89). While there are possibilities for good work in both models, it is the transformatio mundi that best allows for “human work as cooperation with God” (98). According to Volf, “God the Creator chooses to become ‘dependent’ on the human helping hand and makes human work a means of accomplishing his work in the world” (99).

Following the eschatological model of transformatio mundi, Volf continually emphasizes work in the Spirit as work in the new creation. “Without the Spirit there is no experience of the new creation!” The purpose of work, therefore, is “active anticipation of the transformatio mundi;” living into the new creation by practicing the charisms granted by God in the Spirit (102). Volf shows how this understanding of work differs from vocational understandings, of which he provides six strong critiques, and “supplies a stable foundation…both faithful to divine revelation and relevant to the modern world of work” (110). Ultimately, the emphasis on charism affirms two aspects necessary for a contemporary theology of work; it relies on cooperation with both God and community and makes it possible to understand the work of non-Christians pneumatologically (117-119).   These two aspects stretch a pneumatological theology of work beyond a theology of vocation. Volf concludes the second part of his text by addressing the implications of work as cooperation with nature. He provides an excellent analysis of the true meaning of “dominion” over nature while showing the dynamic relationship between humans and creation founded in the activity of the Spirit.

The final part of the text (technically still part two according to the book division) is devoted to the transformation of work from alienation to humanization. By “alienating work” Volf says he is “referring to a significant discrepancy between what work should be as a fundamental dimension of human existence and how it is actually performed and experienced by workers” (157). This alienation, between what work should be and what it is, can only be brought together by the humanization of work—work that “corresponds to God’s intent for human nature” (160, 168). Alienation of work takes many forms. Volf mentions the objectification of the worker, practices of “scientific management” under F.W. Taylor’s formulation, mechanization that stifles creativity and freedom, and the false goal of work to feed self interest. Much of the alienation of work is a result of the inversion of means and ends as “what should be an end in itself is perverted into a mere means for some other, less noble end” (172). Volf argues that “for the majority of people in the modern industrial and information societies, work is no end in itself, but a necessary means” (195). For work to be human, work must be an end in itself. “Because humanity is exclusively a gift from God, a person can be fully human without working, but because God gave him humanity partly in order to work, he cannot live as fully human without working. It is, therefore, contrary to the purpose of human life to reduce work to a mere means of subsistence. One should not turn a fundamental aspect of life into a mere means of life” (197). Volf concludes that the alienation of work will only be overcome through its humanization, and “to have full human dignity, it must be significant for people as work, not merely as a necessary instrument of earning or of socializing; and they must enjoy work” (197). Working in full human dignity is to experience work as cooperation with God in the new creation; a possibility only because of the person of the Spirit.

There are many aspects of this text that make it a necessary read for anyone interested in theology of work. Volf’s development of pneumatology as the foundation of theology of work reshapes the conversation in significant and needed ways as theology interacts and addresses realities of work in the modern—and now postmodern—world. Relating work to eschatology and charisms allowed Volf to contrast alienating work from human work, showing how only the latter is cooperative with God and anticipates the new creation. These elements alone, plus the wonderful insights that help comprise his main theses, make this text a substantial contribution to the theology of work.

Two issues remain unaddressed in the text from which it would benefit greatly. First is Volf’s emphasis on the need for human work to be enjoyable. Certainly this is an ideology of work for which Christians should strive as they anticipate the new creation, and not the reality of work in the world. Nevertheless, as Volf seeks to transform work from its alienation some engagement with the undignified, dissatisfying, non-creative, and un-freeing reality of work today would be helpful. In the midst of this reality—people whose work is such and have no option to choose otherwise—how might work become humane? How does the new creation break in to their reality? Can their work be free from alienation or must they simply hold on to an ideological transformation? A second unaddressed issue, and central to Volf’s argument for a new theology of work, is why a pneumatology of work is the necessary lens. Work in the Spirit is in response to the common placement of theology of work in the doctrine of creation. The necessity of this move makes clear sense; Volf does a superb job of arguing for the needed change. But why the Spirit and not Christ? Or at least, why not both pneumatology and Christology? Charism is equally understood in light of the body of Christ. John Howard Yoder does exactly this in Body Politics on the “Fullness of Christ.” For him, the “the distribution of gifts to all is a part of the victory of Christ” made evident in the life of the early church (Body Politics, 48). Not that Yoder need be a voice in Volf’s theology of work, but certainly, as Yoder shows, charism or gift require more than a pneumatology for a rich Christian theological interpretation. How might a Christological theology of work also overcome some of the misunderstandings of work under the doctrine of creation? How is the person of Christ relevant to work today? The new creation? And the move from alienation to humanization? Even if Volf finds pneumatology to offer more than Christology for a theology of work, the why still needs to be answered. This, I fear, is a major shortcoming of this text.

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