Meilaender on the limits of work

The idea that human work is somehow a participation in God’s work is one that is given much attention in the theology of work, often expressed in terms humans being ‘co-creators’ with God. In the introduction to his book, Working: Its Meaning and its Limits, Gilbert C. Meilaender suggests that this vision of work is found appealing by many ‘because it responds to a desire…people have for work that is meaningful and productive’ (5). Meilaender notes that this idea finds clear expression in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem Exercens:

The Church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth… These truths are decisive for man from the very beginning, and at the same time they trace out the main lines of his earthly existence, both in the state of original justice and also after the breaking, caused by sin, of the creator’s original covenant with creation in man… Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the creator of the universe.

But Meilaender sees a number of problems with this vision of work. In the first place, it locates the inherent worth of work in the work itself, and thus would require that ‘no one should have to do work that cannot be done as humanly fulfilling activity’. This, he says, is simply not possible in a fallen world, especially in a capitalistic economy where ‘the person’s work becomes a commodity to be bought and sold’ (9). Secondly, when linked with the concept of vocation, which casts a ‘vision of work as a calling from God’, we see ‘an enhanced religious aura to the world of work – reinforcing and perhaps in part giving rise to the modern idea that work is integral to human identity and flourishing’ (12-13).

Important for Meilaender is that we do not allow the way we speak of work to ‘lead us to ignore the empirical realities of the work many people do’. Further, language such as ‘co-creation’ can lead us to ‘easily forget some of the ways in which work has and ought to have only limited significance’, and ‘may challenge us to devote the whole of our powers to work that lies before us’ (13, 18). In the end, ‘we live in relation to God…[and] our work…[cannot] divulge the ultimate significance of a human life’ (19).

As helpful as Meilaender’s word of caution on this particular paradigm of work is, I’m not entirely persuaded by his critique. Certainly his concern that our identity not be wholly wrapped up in our work is something that needs to be said loudly and clearly. But the fact that work is difficult and that many struggle to find meaning in it does not negate its original purpose and worth; it is simply a testament to the distorting effects of sin. Most proponents of the co-creation paradigm readily acknowledge these difficulties, moving beyond romantic notions of work. Yet Meilaender does not give adequate attention to this; he instead seeks a theology of work that begins with the reality of work as we know it. In the end, this seems to leave him unable to make space for any sort of transformation or redemption of work, and we are left with little more than an attempt to cope with the struggles of modern work.

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