Where do we begin to understand our work in the light of our faith? Building a foundation for economic wisdom

the whole world in his handsWork as a graced activity benefiting all

I do think that the best place to start in talking about a theology of work is with the fact that economic work is the primary way human beings promote the flourishing of other human beings. An appropriate category for this is the idea of common grace. That is, the understanding that God bestows a measure of grace on all people, whether or not they are Christians. Although most often mentioned by Reformed theologians, common grace is rooted in the first chapters of Genesis: God creates everything from nothing. Made in God’s image, mankind also creates — not from nothing, but things of greater value out of things of lesser value.

Much of this value creation takes place through business. “Business is the primary institution in our society that creates economic value,” says Jeff Van Duzer, author of Why Business Matters to God: And What Still Needs to be Fixed. “Many other institutions create mainly social, intellectual, spiritual capital — and business draws on those. But as it relates to economic capital, business is the only institution focused on creating that. Everyone else draws down on the value created by businesses: churches, universities, arts organizations, and so forth.”

Examining the fruit of economic systems and activities

This role comes into focus in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, which describes Christians laboring together with God as God metaphorically cultivates his grain and builds his temple. Consider what it might mean for us to be a “field” – Christians are to meet the needs of others and help the world flourish and prosper. Or to be a building – we are to be a place of dwelling, peace, security; or family, growth, storage for future use, for difficult times.

Here is a theological principle of some power. We can see it in mirror image – that is, through negative example: The God-ordained use of work to create better things out of lesser things means that if a workplace is organized to extract rather than create value — and in the process actually destroys resources or harms human relationships or undermines the good of society — then that can be for the Christian something of a litmus test of whether a given organization is truly serving the common good. Such a workplace is not operating according to the principle of value creation through work – it is not fulfilling the God-given purpose of work. Can we work wholeheartedly in such an organization as it is? Or must we seek its reform and renewal, for the love of neighbor?

In short, there are better and worse ways of organizing work, and it is possible to assess them theologically. To build and safeguard the flourishing of people on earth, Christians must think of work and the economic sphere in light of God’s purposes to flourish all people.

Business and economics as social constructs – and an excellent “beginner’s resource”

This is not an easy task. Many work-related situations are gray areas that call for judgment. In some cases, a line of business might increase value only incrementally while also very slightly and indirectly harming other human beings. Many work-related decisions are mitigated by government regulations, competition, and personal factors. The thing not to do, Van Duzer says, is to “talk about an arena of work such as business as if it was an immutable thing like gravity, and all we can do is bring our best selves to it.” That is not true, he insists, because business is a social construct. “God cares about how it is constructed. And some of the paradigms, themes, value systems for business are in fact open to be reevaluated with Christian lenses.” An excellent place for Christians to begin such a reevaluation is the Oikonomia Network’s Economic Wisdom Project document.

Imagine what might happen in the marketplace if all the Christians in it learned about these things, becoming equipped to face these matters head-on, gaining theological and at the same time eminently practical tools to think with, about the ways we do our work and the institutional and social contexts in which we do it. Imagine what could happen if we just learned that the ways we impact our workplaces, our industries, and thus the whole economy – to the degree our varying positions allow – can either promote or impede God’s purposes in the common grace he bestows on all?

To be continued . . .

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