Should Christians live to work? The answer may surprise you

Phillip Jensen, dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia, is preaching a topical series on work at the moment, with some typically thought-provoking insights. One sermon in particular, on ‘Work-life balance’, grabbed my attention.

Should we seek a ‘work-life balance’?

Jensen helpfully interrogates the assumptions in the notion of “work-life balance”:

  • That work and life are contrasting ideas
  • That ‘life’ is to be equated with leisure
  • That ‘work’ is construed exclusively as paid employment
  • That the appropriate way to think of their relation to each other is in terms of a ‘balance’.

Work, he insists, is more than remunerated labour; it is any endeavor involving effort that is intended to achieve a determinate result. In terms of ‘balance’, Jensen offers instead the more biblical category of ‘zeal’: balance owes more to an Aristotelian mesotes that to a biblical outlook. Instead of opposing work to life, he argues that the former is more rightly understood in contradistinction to rest, and that both work and rest are part of life.

Live to work or work to live?

Like TPhillip Jensenim Keller in Every Good Endeavor, Jensen draws on the insights of Dorothy L Sayers. He specifically refers to Sayers to question the common wisdom that it is wrong to ‘live to work’ and that one should ‘work to live’. In her essay ‘Vocation in Work’, Sayers makes a contrast between ‘economic worker’ who work to make a living, and the artist who lives for her work, suggesting that the latter is closer to God’s original plan for work:

Let us for a moment consider a group of workers who have never – in spite of much incidental corruption – altogether abandoned the divine conception of what work ought to be. They are people whose way of life is, in essentials, so sharply distinguished from that of the ordinary worker that the designers of economic Utopias can find no place for them, and will scarcely allow them to be workers at all. Economic society has grown so far away from them that it views them with suspicion as mysterious aliens, does its best to push them out of control of practical affairs, and is usually contemptous and hostile at the very sound of their name. That these man and women have become, as it were, an enclosed community, cut off from the world, is bad for the world and bad for them. It is not that the working world does not see and hear plenty of them – as indeed it sees and hears and gossips about the animals in the Zoo; but always with the iron bars of misunderstanding set up between them. This odd, alien community is that of the men and women who live by and for the works of the creative imagination – the people whom we lump together under the general name of “artists”.

The great primary contrast between the artist and the ordinary worker is this: the worker works to make money, so that he may enjoy those things in life which are not his work and which his work can purchase for him; but the artist makes money by his work in order that he may go on working. The artist does not say: “I must work in order to live”; but “I must contrive to make money so that I may live to work.” For the artist there is no distinction between work and living. His work is his life, and the whole of his life – not merely the material world about him, or the colors and sounds and events that he perceives, but also all his own personality and emotions, the whole of his Life – is the actual material of his work.

Now of course there is the danger here of the sort of intellectual/manual division which Keller rightly rejects in Every Good Endeavor, and I dare say that Sayers leaves herself open to an uncharitable interpretation along those lines. But such a reading of  ‘Vocation in Work’ is not grounded in her essay as a whole, in which she draws her idea of work not from intellectual as opposed to manual endeavour, but from the idea of ‘making’ which spans both domains:

Man is a maker, who makes things because he wants to, because he cannot fulfill his true nature if he is prevented from making things for the love of the job. He is made in the image of the Maker, and he must himself create or become something less than a man.

So for Sayers (and Jensen seems convinced by her reasoning), Christians should challenge the notion that we work simply as a means of keeping ourselves alive. Work can, for certain people and in certain seasons, be predominantly a means to an extrinsic end (Paul’s tent-making, for example), but nevertheless the Christian idea of what work ought to be is grander than mere provision for subsistence.

Sayers’ analysis of our tendency to restrict work to paid employment, to minimise the amount of work we do, and then find new ways of coping with the extra leisure time created, is prescient and worth quoting at length:

I think we can measure the distance we have fallen from the idea that work is a vocation to which we are caDorothy L Sayerslled, by the extent to which we have come to substitute the word “employment” for “work” We say we must solve the “problem of unemployment” – we reckon up how many “hands” are “employed”; our social statistics are seldom based upon the work itself – whether the right people are doing it, or whether the work is worth doing. We have come to set a strange value on leisure for its own sake – not the leisure which enables a man to get on properly with his job, but the leisure which is a polite word for idleness. The commodities which it is easiest to advertise and sell are those which purport to “take the work out” of everything – the tinned foods that need no cooking – the clothes that wash themselves – the switches and gadgets that save time and make leisure. Which would be grand if we eagerly needed that extra time and leisure in order to make and do things. Alas, the commodities easiest to sell after the the labor-saving gadgets are the inventions for saving us from the intolerable leisure we have produced, and for painlessly killing the time we have saved. The entertainment to which we can passively listen, the game we can watch without taking part in it, the occupation, however meaningless, which can relieve us from the trouble of thinking.

There is more to work than life

The final inversion of Jensen’s that I will mention in this post is in relation to the adage that ‘there is more to life than work’. In its place, he argues that, in fact, ‘there is more to work than life’, or that in other words work, in a Christian frame, is not to be understood as something of this world alone, but always in relation to eternity. While the whole of life may be considered work (understood not as paid employment but directed endeavor), the whole of work does not fit within the confines of this life.

Keeping Sabbath as an act of subversive resistance

Allied to this notion of there being more to work than life, Jensen touches briefly on the importance of taking Sabbath rest as a way to signal that the imperatives of productivity is not the only element in which Christians live, move and have their being. Building on Jensen’s observation, it is but a short step to construe Sabbath keeping  as an act of passive resistance to a society some pockets of which (surely we would count academia as one of them) predispose those who work in them to a monochromatic appreciation of work that recognises only one limited value: produce more, faster, and more efficiently. To keep Sabbath is to subvert this single-value view of work; it is to join the Resistance, to join the chorus of those proclaiming that there is more to work than life.

I appreciate Jensen’s sermon above all for the way is causes us to return to commonplaces about the working life with fresh, more critical and more biblical eyes.

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Let’s read Pascal (34): “All people seek happiness” as a principle in apologetics and cultural engagement

Let's Read Pascal

Pascal, Aristotle and Augustine agree on two points: 1) all people seek happiness; 2) the means of seeking happiness are radically diverse.

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pascal, Pensées 425)

 

Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.4)

In the following passage from the Confessions, Augustine introduces a distinction between what we might call the subjective experience of seeking happiness and the objective truth of what is sought. Some people, in thinking they seek happiness, are in fact actively fleeing that which alone can give them the happiness they think they pursue:

It is not, then, certain that all men wish to be happy, since those who wish not to rejoice in You, which is the only happy life, do not verily desire the happy life. Or do all desire this, but because the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, so that they cannot do the things that they would, they fall upon that which they are able to do, and with that are content; because that which they are not able to do, they do not so will as to make them able? For I ask of every man, whether he would rather rejoice in truth or in falsehood. They will no more hesitate to say, in truth, than to say, that they wish to be happy. For a happy life is joy in the truth. For this is joy in You, who art the truth,  O God, my light, the health of my countenance, and my God. All wish for this happy life; this life do all wish for, which is the only happy one; joy in the truth do all wish for. I have had experience of many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived. Where, then, did they know this happy life, save where they knew also the truth? For they love it, too, since they would not be deceived. And when they love a happy life, which is naught else but joy in the truth, assuredly they love also the truth; which yet they would not love were there not some knowledge of it in the memory. Wherefore, then, do they not rejoice in it? Why are they not happy? Because they are more entirely occupied with other things which rather make them miserable, than that which would make them happy, which they remember so little of. For there is yet a little light in men; let them walk— let them walk, that the darkness seize them not. (Augustine, Confessions X.22.33)

Now of course Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Augustine’s beatus esse and Pascals “être heureux” do not describe identical notions, but that is precisely the point: there is no consensus about what true happiness is.

I offer five reflections on these quotations:

1) The tension that arises from humanity sharing a common goal yet employing radically diverse approaches to reaching it captures well the Christian condition of being “resident aliens” in our contemporary culture or “elect exiles” as the ESV of 1 Peter 1:1 has it. We are not utterly alienated form our culture (because we share the goal of seeking happiness) but we cannot feel completely at home in it (because we differ profoundly on the means of achieving that goal).

2) It is hard to overestimate the extent to which understandings of happiness can be radically divergent. Just because everyone seeks happiness, it doesn’t follow that we all recognise each other as being engaged in the same search that we are, as these reflections from Pascal illustrate:

And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature. (425)

True nature being lost, everything becomes its own nature; as the true good being lost, everything becomes its own true good. (426)

In seeking happiness the human race is united; in its understanding of the happiness it seeks, it is radically divided.

3) It is a good general principle, when engaging with ideologies, ideas or people with whom we disagree, to begin with the assumption that they are seeking happiness and, then to try to understand what happiness is being sought and how it is being pursued. Very rarely will a position make no sense to the person who holds it; if it doesn’t make sense to us it may well be that we haven’t understood what notion of happiness underlies it. This is a particularly valuable principle for Christian academics working in secular disciplines, when the assumptions under-girding those disciplines can be radically at odds with biblical truth: audi alteram partem. It is also a helpful principle in addressing personal conflict at the workplace, among friends or in family contexts. Those who disagree with us often have reasons that make perfect sense once we understand what happiness they are seeking and how they are seeking it, and until we comprehend and engage on that fundamental level, our attempts to scratch the surface of their position will most likely only cause irritation and entrenched opposition.

4) The common acknowledgment that all people seek happiness provides the sort of Anknüpfungspunkt (point of contact) that Paul discerns in 1 Corinthians 1, and offers a wonderful opening for apologetic conversations in our contemporary culture in which, as Aristotle somewhat awkwardly puts it, “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement” say that happiness is to be sought. If Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks seek wisdom, what does our society demand and yearn for? There could no doubt be many responses, but I think that “happiness” would be high on any list. To put this in terms of Tim Keller’s fourfold schema drawn from 1 Corinthians 1:

  • You seek happiness
  • But it is not to be found in the way you are seeking it now
  • Happiness is to be found only in Christ
  • Here is how you can find it in him

5) Something in Aristotle’s formulation caught my eye: “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness” we seek. That is not the same as saying that all people seek happiness. It is one thing to acknowledge that all seek happiness; it is quite another actively to seek it (just as it is one thing to say one believes in Christ, and quite another to live a life in step with that profession). So perhaps part of the way we might engage with non-Christian positions within the academy, and part of our apologetic strategy more broadly, can be to challenge the disconnect between people’s profession of seeking happiness and their actions. And of course, the challenge is also thrown out to Christians: how great a chasm is there between the happiness in God we may claim to pursue, and the actions of our daily lives?