Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Loss of Purposeful Work in History

In his 1986 work Foolishness to the Greeks, Lesslie Newbigin speaks of the difference in the worldview from the person living in the middle ages versus someone who lives in our modern world. Newbigin makes the case for how the worldview of the average person living in the West today is quite different from the person living in medieval times. He says this:

"The medieval Christian, taught by the Bible, saw as the end to which all history moves, the second coming of Christ, the judgment of the living and the dead, and the holy city in which all that is pure and true in the pubic and private life of the nations is gathered up in eternal perfection. This vision of the end is, of course, part and parcel of the teleological view of creation and history, which has the will and purpose of God as its center. The eighteenth century transferred the holy city from another world to this. No longer would it be a gift of God from heaven; it would be the final triumph of science and skill of the enlightened peoples of the earth. The eighteenth century witnessed the birth of the doctrine of progress, a doctrine that was to rule- with fateful consequences- well into the twentieth century. The emancipation of the human spirit from pressure of dogma, tradition, and superstition, and the purposeful exercise of the newly liberated powers of human reason would lead to such a growing understanding and a growing mastery that all the evils that enslave men and women would be conquered," p. 28.

Newbigin's point is that the eighteenth century Enlightenment began as an optimistic vision of life on earth, a vision that was believed attainable without God, religion or dogma. Of course, as those who are essentially "religious" in nature, even embracing a worldview without God and the transcendent, nonetheless humanity placed its hope in the "doctrine of human progress": in a word, human reason was affirmed to be a messiah of sorts, holding forth the promise of liberation, happiness and the emancipation of the human spirit.

Unfortunately, one of the devastating consequences of worshipping the "doctrine of progress" was that "efficiency" in human work became the purpose for which man worked. The teleological view of creation and history, in other words, a vision of life as serving the larger cosmic purpose of a God and a story that might impart even the smallest action and expression of work dignity and significance was removed from our vista of understanding human work, activity and engagement. Efficiency became the goal and lost was the actual dignity and worth accorded to work according to a Biblical world and life view. Listen further to Newbigin's analysis here:

"The work of the traditional craftsman that spanned the whole process from raw material to finished product is analyzed into its smallest parts and then broken up into separate operations, each given over to a different workman. By this division of labor, it is possible to increase enormously the quantity of finished articles produced, but the individual worker no longer shares directly in the vision of the final product that governs the whole process. His work is assimilated more and more into the repetitive action of a machine rather than to the purposeful work of the craftsman, whose operations are all governed by a vision of the end. Craftsmanship is replaced by labor, and human work is assimilated into the pattern of the Newtonian universe, from which teleology is banished. The individual worker, for example, does not know whether his product is going to make a family car or a fighter plane," p. 29.

Newbigin's reference to a "Newtonian universe" speaks of the "achievement" of the Enlightenment scientists, especially Isaac Newton, who began to redefine the nature of ultimate reality by describing the "real world" as one built on natural laws of cause and effect. In essence, the sense of a purpose behind the universe that had governed medieval thought was now viewed as dispensable and unnecessary in describing the nature of ultimate reality. As Newbigin says, "Teleology (the understanding of purpose) had no place in physics and astronomy. All the movements of tangible bodies and changes in the visible world could be explained without reference to purpose and in terms of efficient cause," p. 24.

From this Enlightenment worldview flowed the basic dichotomy between "public truth" and "private values," the basic idea that if we want to speak about ultimate reality and "raw facts" about the universe, we can do so with the laws of nature, i.e. that of cause and effect; however, if we want to speak of things like faith, purpose, values and moral meaning, we must reserve such things to the individual private life where one is free to dabble in such ideas insofar as they are not proclaimed as "public and universal truth."

So perhaps the great challenge before the Church today is how Christians today integrate our vision of the world with a truly Biblical vision of the purpose for which we were created and for which we work. The Church has all-to-often acquiesced to this faulty Enlightenment ideal of separating "public fact" from "private values" by teaching an escapist theology that we ought remove ourselves from meaningful participation in "worldly engagement and activities"; we have shirked our responsibility by agreeing with the Enlightenment worldview saying to the world, "you keep to yourself and we the church will keep to ourselves." Yet is this faithfulness when Jesus asked us to be salt and light? As Richard Lovelace states, while we have "stayed away from the world" avoiding a kind of "destructive enculturation," nonetheless, we have participated in another kind of enculturation, as devastating, what we might call a "protective enculturation."

Nonetheless, the opportunity exists for the Church to once again teach a new world and life view (which is really an old world and life view) both for Herself as well as before the world of the God who is there and not silent, to use Schaeffer's terms. We must be thoughtful and intentional in engaging the world within the range of creational activities that are ours to take up, including activities in the world of public affairs, of politics, economics, art and culture to name a few, rather than simply shouting "repent and believe" without love or meaningful engagement in worldly affairs (like a bunch of clanging symbols). It is our task to participate in the redemptive work of Christ by bringing back to the public arena a vision of engagement in these various spheres with the hope of reunion between "telos" and public meaning. But we must also be careful to place our hope in the Lord and Redeemer of Creation as well (Col. 1:19.20), rather than in the hope of human progress and work in and of itself, lest we repeat the errors of the Enlightenment experiment all over again. It's a tricky tension we embrace, ... yet this is our call to take up as the Faithful.

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