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The work of a preposition

Cross-posted from my blog at Seminary of the Southwest


Over the last couple of decades a proliferation of theologies of this or that object, be that object the environment, orphans, or wild donkeys, has left me a little dizzy.  In fact, I’d come to a place where I’d completely lost track of that titular preposition, like happens when you say the word “whimsy” so many time that you forget what it means.  Or if it’s even a word.  What is “of,” and why is it populating the titles (wait for it…) of so many theology texts?

Linguistically disoriented thus, I stumbled upon a book published a few years back that I’d missed out on, and that I suspect many others did as well.  I say “stumbled upon”—in fact I had it shoved into my hand by a student at Seminary of the Southwest, who then waited (mostly) patiently for, oh, a year-and-a-half or so, for me to decide I could get around to reading it.  Armand Larive’s After Sunday is a theology of work, as his subtitle bears witness, and I was only a few pages in when I realized with a burst of glee that the author had not only written a really fine book, but had saved the preposition for me.  “Today’s Christians—,” he says in his introduction, “who are homemakers, sell insurance, service automobiles, work on assembly lines, devise computer programs, find themselves in the middle of the echelons of middle management or at some other station in the weekday working world—have little idea or guidance as to whether their work constitutes a genuine Christian ministry.”  The problem, he argues, is that with the exception of those of us whose vocations are explicitly linked to the mission of the churches of the world, most everyone else is left with the assumption that laboring through the week is a way of getting by, of paying rent, of supporting a family, of meeting goals, of nearly anything except participating in the work of God in the world. (And this perhaps adds to the common assumption that the work of the priest or pastor or chaplain is somehow less than “real” work.)

Now, when pressed, most of us can come up with a Sunday School list of the traits one should exhibit when at school, work, or play, and these we usually assume are, in some ambiguous way, fulfilling the calling to go into the world and be Christ’s witnesses.  Be honest, reliable, cheerful, limit practical jokes to the harmless, which is to say that Baristas should not (for instance) send customers away thinking that Starbucks will be serving free samples of Koala flavored lattes at 5AM next Thursday.

But this list of virtues makes a suggestion that Larive uses as the launch pad of his book:  participating in the redemptive work of Christ is, in this case, about everything except the actual work that most people spend the bulk of their lives doing.  It’s about the way that we talk to our co-workers or boss when we on break from laying pavement or servicing snow machines, not about laying pavement or servicing snow machines.   This doesn’t sit well with Larive, and by the end of the book I think it won’t sit well with you either.

A key part of addressing this problem for the author involves revising our understanding of redemption itself, so that rather than a spiritual and individual work that Christ does alone, it is a spiritual/bodily work, both individual and communal, that we share in.  The care for objects and tools, the attention to order in organizations, the alignment of goals and procedures, all become part of a broader view of redeeming a disordered creation.

And that, in the end, is why we need a theology of work.  The hours humans spend hovered over machines, desks, and laptops must themselves be redeemed, which is to say brought into the framework of the liturgical mythos, the “story” that Christians tell with their faith and worship.  The collection of garbage and the filing of papers cannot be outside of that story, because the message of the gospel is that nothing is outside of that story.  Larive gives us an account of labor that links it into the gears and belts and combustion of the evangelical proclamation.

This is not to say, as the evangelicals in the early centuries of capitalism were wont to say, that humans simply have a duty to be productive, to earn all they can, and accept the means of sustenance available to them.  Linking human labor to God’s redemptive labor allows us a critical platform:  a place from which to see, if we carry out the engine metaphor, which components fit, which are unnecessary, and which actually work against the whirlings of God’s work.  Larive spends a good bit of time discussing the vice that Medieval Christians called acrasia, meaning the “skill” of becoming really good at something really bad.  This is one of the places where a sound theology of work can challenge those early capitalist sermons and treatises, since the predatorial lending institution might be very productive, quite “good” at what it does, but at exact cross-purposes with God’s work in Christ.

This raises an interesting question about what laborers in the current work force can do to avoid acrasia.  The board of Apple, Inc, to take a recent news item, could, if they so chose, stop making excuses about the complexities of a global economy, and do something about the unsafe working conditions in their overseas factories.  But what about the factory workers themselves? Can they do “good work?”  Or what about the Mexican farmers who grow Yuban coffee, or one of the other over-roasted, mass-produced, ecologically devastating supermarket brands?

I suspect that the answer here may have something to do with what I’d call subtle insurrections.  I used to work with an illiterate alcoholic plumber, a man whose life seemed to me pretty much hopeless, as he went from job to job trying to earn the paycheck that would get him through his next binge—which would also, of course, get him fired.  His alcoholism hovered over him like a ghost who would haunt him for a time, only to materialize later as a kind of physical nightmare.  The series of broken relationships that populated his life acted in much the same way.  And so he found himself working for a short time, alongside me, on the janitorial staff of a university church.

Strangely though, even as he punched in and out in service of the coming fog of alcohol, Jerry loved his work. He knew the tricks and techniques of the handyman that gave the tasks a kind of appeal for me as we worked together, as if the busted pipe and I were part of a pencil sketch that he was about to put his signature on.   Once I reached to pull an extension cord off its hook on the wall, and found it in an unusual state:  neat.  A tightly wound figure-eight, with the ends knotted securely around it in the middle like a garter belt.  I’ve tried ever since to get a cord looking like that, but mine generally end up like grandma’s knitting yarn after the kitten discovers it in the basket.  When Jerry saw me pull it down, he said casually, “Looks like my work.”

There is a trace of redemption in that, isn’t there?  A man so desperate and damaged that his purpose in life was reset after the first of every month, still finding a beauty, a pride, in carefully winding a cord, and calling that little piece of work “his.”  Granted, attention to beauty and precision like that may serve the broader purposes of capitalist productivity, in that neat work places allow more work to be done.  Then again it may not, since the time he took to make it look just so could have been spent on another project. But Jerry didn’t bother about this calculation, since he was, I think, attending to a different ledger entirely.  Winding the cord had brought order to chaos, had made a small orange rope of disarray into something . . . well, beautiful.  It was subtle, but still a kind of revolt against the hovering powers of productivity.  Not to mention the monkey on his own back.

The workers at the Foxconn factories in China cannot, of course, put their signatures on the iPads they make (although that’s an idea…).   But are there other ways that they could place their jobs on a different grid than the one controlled by supply and demand?  The way they organize their station, the particular grip on a lever, the angle at which they hold the components as they perfect them?  These little rituals and habits might become ways of resisting the call of global labor forces to produce for production’s sake.  They might allow the worker to hear in the work itself a higher, deeper, more ancient call to be a creator, laboring alongside our Creator for the redemption of the world.  With more subtle insurrections like Jerry’s in the factories or coffee fields around the world, perhaps the call of the Creator might be sounded a bit more clearly overtop of the voices that currently seem to be hogging all the volume.

There are, I should add, some points at which I think Larive’s case could be improved. To take one instance, I found the attention to “maintenance” as one of the most creative and promising elements of the book, suggesting that alongside the novelty of labor (invention, creation) there is also the necessary element, usually in greater quantity, of maintaining the work (cleaning, oiling, reporting, checking).  This too, he says persuasively, is theological work.  But Larive has drunk deeply from the wells of Miroslav Volf, and thus relies on a Trinitarian scheme according to which each Person of the Godhead underwrites a particular aspect of human labor:  maintaining is the Father’s domain, making new is the Son’s, and building community around the work is the Spirit’s.  This sort of thing always feels rather to random to me, as if we feel we’re stuck with three divine Persons, so we go round looking for three worldly activities to coordinate them too (usually it’s in the exhausted “Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer” formula).  Rather, following the rule of the classical tradition that God’s work in the world is indivisible by Person, I would prefer saying that in our labors as a whole, from planting and harvesting to hosing off our trowels, we share in the work of a Father who sends redemption to us in the form of a Spirit who gathers us into the life, death, and resurrection of the Son.

I also should add that while I understand Larive’s displeasure with “perfectionism,” an anxiety that kills the freedom and pleasure of so many of our projects, I am not so ready as he to give up on the term perfection itself.  Part of what I tried to argue in my own book is that perfectionism is about stasis, about stopping because our projects (and, by extension, ourselves) can get no better.  But true Christian perfection, as described by the New Testament and the Fathers, is about a constant exchange of grace, about being creatures living in an ever-new abundance, and so resists any sort of stasis at all.  In fact, Maximus says that ultimate perfection is an endless sharing in the never-ceasing movements of the Trinity.

I don’t, though, think that Larive would disagree with that.  His point, after all, is that our movements, our planning, our projects, our sweat, all have an ultimate place to live, and that place is nested within God’s own labor.  He has given us, that is, just what he promised:  a theology of our work.



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