Vocation vs work

The Ellul Forum is a bi-annual journal whose goal is to apply Jacques Ellul’s thought to the contemporary world. The latest issue is on “Ellul, Capitalism and the Workplace”, and includes an article by Virginia Landgraf setting out “eight theses” on Ellul’s attitude towards capitalism.

One of the theses concerns the role of work. Landgraf writes:

Ellul thinks that the Bible justifies no ideology of work as virtue or freedom … Before the fall, human beings’ interactions with creation resembled play more than work. Our relation with creation became toilsome as a result of the fall, and we aggravate our burden by trying to save ourselves through our work. Work is simply one of the necessities of life and should not be sacralized.

This makes me wonder: how does this fit with the Lutheran understanding of vocation? Doesn’t that represent an “ideology of work”? A “sacralizing” of work? Do we have to choose between Ellul and Luther on this question?

Thinking about it, I think this leads us instead to a distinction between vocation and “work”. There are a number of aspects to this:

  • The purpose of the doctrine of vocation was not to sacralize work, but to desacralize supposedly “holy” ways of life by affirming that the everyday roles of ordinary people were as valid – indeed, more valid – than monasticism or other “sacred” ways of life.
  • Our “work” (as in paid employment) does not exhaust the meaning of our “vocation”. We have multiple vocations: not only as employees or workers, but as spouses, parents, children, church members and so on. Hence vocation leads us not to an elevating of “work” alone, but to what we’d call a “work/life balance”.
  • Most important of all: an “ideology of work” tends to be concerned with either “sanctification” or self-fulfilment, depending on whether it comes from a Christian or secular point of view. We can see this in Ellul’s observation about how we try “to save ourselves through our work”. But the essence of vocation is that it is not about “improving” ourselves, but about God serving others through us; God milking the cow through the milkmaid, as Luther puts it. This makes vocation the precise opposite of an “ideology of work” in Ellul’s sense.

The lesson to draw from this would seem to be this: in a society which elevates paid employment above other areas of life, it’s easy for the doctrine of vocation to be misdirected into an affirmation and support of an ideology of work. Ellul’s scepticism about this ideology should not lead us to reject the concept of vocation, but instead should broaden our conception of vocation to cover all the ways in which God works through us in service of others, regardless of whether this involves economically productive activities.

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5 Responses to Vocation vs work

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Ah, and if only my pastor had read this before the series on work he did about a year ago…

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    Important insights there. I think the distinction between employment and vocation needs to be hammered again and again. And I think that you’re right that Ellul’s observations are compatible with what Luther said on the subject. He corrects our reading of Luther rather than Luther himself.

    The concept of “play” is interesting as well. A serious definition would suggest that in play we discover how the world really works. Simulation is a form of play. Think of how the military uses war games. When people do none of this, they end up working harder, because they don’t really understand what they’re working with. Certain forms of “seriousness” are counterproductive.

  3. John D says:

    Have you read A Critique of the New Commonplaces, where Ellul devotes a chapter to this? I think he so vigorously argues against work that he ends up misrepresenting and denigrating it.

  4. John H says:

    John: No, I hadn’t seen that. It wouldn’t be the first time that Ellul overstated his case!

    The article I was quoting had some interesting criticisms of Ellul’s analysis of capitalism, such as his reliance on a Marxist labour theory of value (in which profit is ipso facto theft from underpaid workers) and his strict dichotomy between love and power. Another criticism which I’d add is that at times Ellul’s critique of technology does make him sound like one of the backwards-looking “feudal socialists” criticised by Marx for looking at agrarian societies through rose-tinted spectacles.

  5. Pingback: Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e91v4

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