Americans define ourselves by what we do. Your job determines your place in society. It’s not just about how much money you make. We expect our careers to fulfill us. Our identities are wrapped up in our jobs, which is why losing them is so painful. Many professional athletes struggle with retirement because they don’t know who they are outside of their sport. Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, died less than a year after he stopped coaching. Joe Paterno didn’t even make it that long. Their jobs were keeping them alive. People who lose their jobs are more likely to kill themselves. On a societal level, mass unemployment can have even uglier consequences. Hitler doesn’t come to power without the Great Depression. The rise of artificial intelligence has many thinking a “world without work” is coming. That should terrify us.
The modern-day Luddites may end up being wrong. People have been blaming machines for killing jobs since the Industrial Revolution, and new ones have always sprung up in their place. “Creative destruction” is an essential part of capitalism. The problem are the people who slip through the cracks, and that number may grow in the years ahead. What happens to truck drivers when driverless cars are everywhere? We need to figure out a new way to relate to work, and how we can value people outside of their contribution to GDP. In Every Good Endeavor, Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf provide an answer, one which isn’t new at all. Keller, one of the most popular modern Christian writers, has a gift for showing how the first principles of the gospel can impact our thinking in ways that are not immediately obvious.
Christianity sees our obsession with work as an idol, something which we have convinced ourselves will bring us contentment. We generally think of idols as figurines and statues, but they can be intangible as well. An idol is anything that gives your life meaning and makes you feel important. Even good things, like work and family, become idols when we build our identity on them. Anything you feel like you can’t live without has control over your life. That’s why Buddhism teaches the importance of detaching yourself from the world and living without desire. For Christians, it’s not just about detachment. It’s about attaching yourself to something else - Jesus. There is a deep yearning in the human soul for significance because we are made for a relationship with the creator of the universe. We will always search for things to fill that void, but nothing else will do. That’s why our secular culture treats work as a sacrament. Productivity has become our attempt at redemption.
The Christian view is that Jesus paid for our redemption at the cross, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. We cannot save ourselves. All our striving is for nothing because it is all going away one day. We are all going to die, and the sun will eventually go supernova, erasing the Earth as if it never existed. Even if we leave the solar system, we will not outrun entropy. Nihilism is at the center of any materialistic understanding of the universe, because nothing we do matters if this life is all that there is. We are all Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill. However, if there is something more, some true reality underlying our own, than everything we do matters. Not because of what it will accomplish in this life, but because of what it means for eternity.
Christians see work as a reflection of God’s plan for the universe. Genesis tells us God created the world in six days (although what constitutes a day before the sun is left up to our imagination), and that He created us to be stewards of His creation. Work is necessary because the world needs to be cultivated to flourish. We aren’t park rangers who preserve without interfering, or construction workers who pave nature over. We are gardeners, meant to work hand-in-hand with the natural world so that it can mature into God’s design for it. Adam and Eve partnered with God in the Garden of Eden. They weren’t just sitting around all day; they had stuff they had to do.
The problem with work began when humans rebelled from God, and decided they would do what they thought was best.
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and dust you shall return.”
- Genesis 3:16-19You don’t need to be a Christian to believe the world is a broken place full of evil. All you have to do is look around. Every belief system has to resolve why there is evil in the world, and what can be done about it. There are three parts to any diagnosis: 1) what life should be 2) what happened to make it bad and 3) how to fix it. Modern ideologies that stem from the Enlightenment believe man is fundamentally good, and that human flourishing is only a matter of tweaking some aspect of society. Communists believe the problem is capitalism, and utopia will come when we change our economic superstructure. Libertarians think government is the problem. Feminists point to misogyny and racism. Christianity believe that man is fundamentally bad, and that the solution to our problems cannot come from anything in this world. It’s simultaneously a pessimistic view of humanity and an optimistic view of our situation. Work cannot save us, but we can still do good through it.
When work becomes a way God uses us to serve others, instead of a way to justify our own existence, what we are doing becomes less important. Our self-image isn’t built on what we do but on what was done for us. And since salvation doesn’t come from our work, no one’s work is more important than anyone else’s. A preacher doesn’t have a higher calling than a salesman. A stockbroker isn’t more valuable than a janitor. Mother Teresa wasn’t a better person than you or me. The second you put her on a pedestal and think that she was, you miss the entire point of what she did. If human beings are all made in God’s image, we are all equally important. If we are nothing more than the endpoints of the evolutionary process locked in a Darwinian competition to pass on our genes, we aren’t. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because they were endowed to us by our Creator. You can’t have one without the other.