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RE-THINKING MONEY, RELIGION & POLITICS

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The Nature of Work in a Virtuous Capitalism

This is the 5th in a series introducing the book Redeeming Capitalism by Ken Barnes. You can pick up the start of this series here. See the chart here for the context of NATURE OF WORK in the major historic forms of capitalism.


"As we saw previously, for most of human history one's social class or station determined where and how one worked. It was not until the modern period that the Reformation concept of calling gained credence. This higher notion of work being related to divine providence soon gave way, though, to an emphasis on technical excellence or professionalism. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with professionalism, there are limits to its usefulness.

 

Image Credit: Canva


Professionalism tends toward utilitarianism. The more proficient one is at his or her job the better. Still, it is quite possible for a person to be extremely proficient, but in a malevolent manner. If professionalism in the medical sciences, for instance, leads one down the path of eugenics, that particular expression of professionalism clearly poses a threat to society and is wicked. If one is proficient in biology, or chemistry, or physics, and that person develops a technology that may be used as a weapon capable of posing an existential threat to humanity, that expression of professionalism is corrupt and dangerous. In fact, when anyone in any profession puts the purity of craft before the welfare of neighbor, that expression of professionalism becomes potentially dangerous and can also lead to the elevation of work to the status of an idol.

 

As Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf note: 'Work is not all there is to life.... [I]f you make any work the purpose of your life ... you create an idol that rivals God.' Yet any work, done for a noble purpose, no matter how modest, is by definition good work.

 

I recently visited an art museum in Melbourne, Australia. Its collection of Baroque masters was truly exceptional, and many of the scenes depicted stories from the Bible. Whether or not the artists themselves were believers matters little to onlookers three hundred years later, but their work was divine nonetheless, and it no doubt stirred the hearts and souls of everyone who had the privilege of seeing it. I must confess that I get a similar feeling whenever I view great architecture, whether it is a Gothic cathedral, the Great Wall of China, or a Roman aqueduct. There is something deeply moving about the work itself, especially when one considers the limits of ancient technology.

 

The question is, why shouldn't we be similarly moved when we see a perfectly polished floor or a beautifully mown lawn or eat a delicious pizza? The answer is, we should feel that way about any work that is done beautifully with a virtuous purpose, because in the overall scheme of things, what matters most to God is not what we do, but how we do it.


That is the essence of work as worship, and if capitalism is to become truly virtuous, work must become worship for all of us. For people of faith, that means God-directed work, whether creative or mundane, sacred or secular, but even for nonbelievers, work can and should be inspiring and uplifting, if the fruits of our labor are going to be more than just a means to an end and if our work is going to be for the common good." (Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism, p. 193-4)(Emphasis throughout is ours)

 

We at BetterCapitalism.org are fond of the phrase, “Questions are the engines of thought and action.” From that posture, we invite you to give thought to a few of our questions.

  • Do you view your work as part of your spiritual journey, enabling your work to be part of a noble or virtuous purpose? If not, why not? 

  • Do you think the way you earn your living can’t be done with or connected to a noble or virtuous purpose? Is so, why? 

  • If you have a traditional faith tradition (e.g., you consider yourself Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.,) in what way is your work integral to a faith-driven noble or virtuous purpose?

  • Do you think there is the possibility that, with enough people seeking virtue in their business dealing, we could collectively reframe capitalism as a noble or virtuous system? If not, why not?


How might these questions prod you to re-think your perspective of capitalism? How might these questions prod you to make different marketplace decisions? We'd love to hear your answers and so invite you to share them with us.

Stay tuned for future excerpts of Redeeming Capitalism. Or. Why wait for us? Buy and read a copy for yourself now.


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"This book merits close, sustained attention as a compelling move beyond both careless thinking and easy ideology."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary


"Better Capitalism is a sincere search for a better world."—Cato Institute

 

 

 

 

 

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