Called to work

Called to work

Hier ein weiterer Auszug aus „Blessings of Scarcity, Hope of Abundance“, einer längeren Arbeit für das Lithuanian Free Market Institute (Lietuvos laisvos rinkos institutas) und dessen Forschungsprojekt zum Thema Knappheit („Scarcity, Morality and Public Policy“). Ein litauisch-englischer Sammelband mit den von zahlreiche Experten verfassten Beiträgen wird diesen Herbst veröffentlicht werden.

God‘s co-workers

God himself is a worker or craftsman. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing” (Gen 2:2). God is said to be resting after the six days of creation, but this is certainly not to be conceived as a cessation of all activities: “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps 121:4); “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all…” (Ps 104:24). Numerous verses in the Bible make it clear that the Lord is controlling the forces of nature and events of history; he is actively involved in the life of human beings, especially his chosen people. All this involves work. It is no coincidence that the incarnated Son of God was by profession not a philosopher, not a poet, not even a priest, but a carpenter (Mk 6:3) or construction worker as we could translate the Greek tekton.  

Being made in God‘s image human beings too are called to work. The command to subdue the earth and rule over it in Gen 1:28 clearly implies work, and in Gen 2:15 it is stated unequivocally, “The Lord took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (See also Ex 20:9–10.) The earth is given to human beings (Ps 115:16); they are taken or made from the ground, that is material stuff (Gen 3:19), and therefore they are also to work or cultivate the ground (Gen 2:5.15).

A concrete work is mentioned in Gen 2:19–20, the naming of the animals. In this way humans exercise dominion on earth (Gen 1:26) which, of course, is under the sovereign dominion of God. David VanDrunen says, “the first Adam was made in the divine image as the royal son of God, commissioned to exercise wise, righteous, and holy dominion over this world.” (Living in God‘s Two Kingdoms) We were created for creative production, being vice-regents of God in this world. Hence work and culture are not a curse but a gift and invitation to continue God‘s own creative activity. Through work we participate in God‘s ongoing providence for the human race. Lee Hardy writes, “by working we affirm our uniquely human position as God‘s representatives on this earth, as cultivators and stewards of the good gifts of his creation.” (The Fabric of This World)

The whole Bible speaks very highly of work. If somebody is able to work, he or she has to work. It is interesting that in the future vision of the new heavens and a new earth Isaiah says that people “will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit”, “they will not toil in vain” (Isa 65:21.23) – toil or work will then be fully satisfying, but work, nevertheless. And even if we admit that this is just figurative language, the ethos behind these expressions is clear. Similarly, when in the vision of edenic prosperity in Amos 9:13 wine will “flow from all the hills”, this is no Cockaigne; the reaper and the plowman, the planter “and the one treading grapes” are mentioned – all workers. Wine will flow, but due to their work.

Thus the so-called Creation or Cultural Mandate (Gen 1:28; 9:1), comprising the whole range of activities in work and culture, is a divine and universal command, and it is in itself not less spiritual or less pleasing to God than the other Great Commission, the spreading of the Gospel (Mt 28:18–20). John Calvin even stressed that “we become most Godlike not when we turn away from action, but when we engage in it”.

Working with dirt

It is necessary to keep in mind that the ancient Greeks and Romans had another conception of their gods and so of human work. “The gods, as we conceive them, enjoy supreme felicity and happiness,” says Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, and this “activity of God, which is transcendent in blessedness, is the activity of contemplation” (1178b). The highest occupation of the gods is reasoning and meditating. Therefore we humans are also called to “prefer the activity of the part [of the soul] which is in its nature the higher” states the philosopher in Politics (VII.xiv.13). Roman orator and philosopher Cicero openly despised manual work in his ethics On Duties:

“Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill… And all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades; for no workshop can have anything liberal about it. Least respectable of all are those trades which cater for sensual pleasures: Fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and poulterers, And fishermen…(I, 150)

Certainly not coincidentally Jesus first called fishermen to follow him and become his disciples (Mt 4:18; Mk 1:16). We must never forget that manual labour has its own high dignity. John Murray, referring to Gen 2:15, underlines that here we are informed “that it was highly worthy of man‘s dignity as created after the divine image to be employed in so a mundane a task. This is eloquent warning against the impiety of despising and judging unworthy of our dignity the tasks which we call menial.” (Principles of Conduct) The lowest kind of labour is of as much value as the intellectual. Jay W. Richards gets right to the point:

“We aren‘t ethereal angels or wispy spirits. We‘re made of dirt, and we‘re made to work with dirt – and yet we have in us the very breath of God. We‘re drawn from the ground but still transcend it. Dirt, as God created it, isn‘t dirty. And working with dirt, as God created it, doesn‘t make us dirty. Work itself is part of God‘s original blessing, not his curse after the fall. The way in which we work, then, should reflect the fact that we are a unity of matter and spirit, of heaven and earth, neither pack animals nor angels.” (Money, Greed, and God)

No need to economize?

We now turn to the important question of what this work in Eden was like and what this means for our subject scarcity. “Since he came down from the trees, man has faced the problem of survival”, Robert Heilbroner starts the second chapter of his bestselling The Worldly Philosophers. This picture just makes sense in the Grand Evolutionary Myth as philosopher Alvin Plantinga once coined this nowadays dominating paradigm. Yet the history of humanity did not start in misery or a fierce struggle for survival. The Garden of Eden was a place of joy, satisfaction, and harmony.

However, we must not stretch this picture too far. It is often assumed that life in pre-fall Eden, in Paradise, was characterized by a blissful, easy-going laziness of a sort; work, perhaps, but not really. And here comes in abundance. Even acknowledged economist Thomas Sowell writes in Basic Economics: “The Garden of Eden was a system for the production and distribution of goods and services, but it was not an economy, because everything was available in unlimited abundance. Without scarcity, there is no need to economize – and therefore no economics.”

There is truth in Sowell‘s sentences, no doubt. There was and is abundance, but was really everything available for Adam? Undoubtedly Adam was not hindered by any evil obstruction; he could freely implement his ideas and plans; in principle he had access to everything he desired. But let us go back to Sowell‘s term “production”. Inherent to production is the initial situation of non-being. Productive labour is about transforming things into something more useful. In this way something really new comes to existence. Every work of this kind creates new things that have not been there before. This fact alone presupposes scarcity; and if abundance would mean the total and instant presence of everything, there would be no work at all. All we wish for would be right at hand. Therefore scarcity is directly connected to work. And since work is our calling and good, scarcity is good and God-pleasing too. Samuel Gregg makes this point better than Sowell:Humans do not find that nature automatically provides us with the things that we desire or need. Work is required to harness this potential. Hence, everything that is produced by humans costs us some of our time and labor.” (Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded) This was true before the fall and is true today.

Work and enjoyment

How to imagine daily life in the Garden? Did Adam and Eve just keep going around, picking up fruits here and there? Pannenberg explains very well that inherent to work is the tension between work and enjoyment, and although he has in view post-fall conditions the main principle is also true in a sinless and fully harmonious world:

“The distinction of work and enjoyment is constitutive for the concept of work. Consequently, when human beings nourish themselves on the fruits of nature that are at hand […], they do not perform work. On the other hand, the gathering of these fruits for subsequent use, and especially in order to lay in a supply for the winter or other times of shortage, is to be considered work. Like the preparation of meals, which are only to be eaten after the preparation, the process of collection and storage postpones enjoyment and thus shows itself to be a behaviour that has been cultivated. Work provides food not only for the moment but for an anticipated future […]. Through such postponement of enjoyment work creates property which to a large extent frees humans from the immediate pressure of their primary needs, since the products of their work are now at their disposition for future use.” (Anthropology in Theological Perspective)

In the Garden there was no life-threatening shortage. Nevertheless, Adam still had to think about ways to work and cultivate the ground. He faced the challenge to design and construct tools. It is hard to imagine that God would have given all these necessary and helpful instruments of work to him. There was an abundance of copper, iron and tin in the ground, as there was an abundance of plants and fruits and water and soil. Nature does present to us a real abundance of resources, before and after the fall. No doubt God is the great giver. But we must not jump too easily to the conclusion that he generously gives us everything in pre-packaged form. He almost never does! There always had and has to be productive effort on the part of human beings. Therefore even in Paradise abundance, scarcity and production went together to form a peaceful balance. There is more than getting and sharing, there is also producing. Otherwise we are easily trapped, as so many theologians, in the dichotomy of either taking (evil) or giving (good). Production leads a way out of this, combining taking and giving. A great summary by economist Michael Kruse:

“It is true that God created and placed us in a world of abundant resources. But very few resources exist in a state usable by human beings. Energy, technology, and intelligence must be applied to resources to transform them from less useful states into more useful states […]. This is part and parcel of the biblical notion of stewardship as God placed Adam in the garden to work it so that if might produce abundance.” (“Economic Fallacies: ‘No Scarcity‘”) 

(Bild o.: G. Caillebotte, „Die Parkettschleifer“, 1875)