Is man fundamentally a contemplative being or one whose fulfillment is found in work? Perhaps the answer lies in how we understand the term ‘work’.
A long standing argument in Christian and philosophic circles grapples with anthropology, the goodness of work, and the nature of happiness in general. In some sense, this issue touches even upon the Divine nature. Is God fundamentally a working being or a resting being?
For instance, a few months ago, Peter Leithart posted a snippet on this subject in his blog on First Things. In his post, he takes issue with Joseph Pieper and other Aristotelian for what he considers the Hellenized conception of work. According to Leithart and John Milbank whom he quotes, Aristotle and his Christian successors have construed work as a necessary evil. Such thinkers have instead championed the contemplative life as the goal and fulfillment of human nature.
He goes on to argue that a truly Christian conception of work is one which recognizes its fundamental goodness. He quotes Milbank, who claims that work is “pleasureable because it is the creative tending of God’s universe.” Milbank goes further and claims that “God himself is fundamentally and primordially a worker.”
I will not be able to bring this old and complex argument to a conclusion, but perhaps I can make a distinction in our use of the term ‘work’ which will shed light on this tension.
Work has two fundamental meanings. One of them refers to an activity whose goal is other than the work itself: I go to work in order to get paid. I lift weights to get strong. I cook that I might eat.
If we take the last of these first, we can see immediately that cooking without the intent of someone eating has a certain emptiness and absurdity. In this sense, God is not “fundamentally and primordially a worker.”
God in eternity and in his very nature is complete, satisfied, without need, and wholly himself. From eternity, God is not busy about things. Rather, God is simply being God.
To talk about God as fundamentally at work, we must first consider a second meaning of the word work, a meaning which borders on something undefinable. Indeed it is Aristotle himself who spills much ink trying to communicate this idea of work.
There is a kind of work which is not other than its end. The work of looking is sometimes in order to perform some other act, such as safely driving. But there is also a looking which is simply for the sake of seeing. One looks into the eyes of a friend or lover to behold them and so the looking is itself the goal and end of looking.
In this sense, the work of looking is fully at rest in itself. It is more properly an activity rather than work, which can be thought of as a job or a means to some end.
The work of love is not a job. Love is fulfilled in loving. Just as sight is complete in seeing. It is a kind of work which is ever complete in itself and in a sense, ever at rest.
This is of course how God exists in himself. He is not busy out there doing stuff, fulfilling Himself, providing for His needs, earning a salary. God is ever at work in the blessed existence which is being God.
We may now note that there seems to be a funny result to this restfulness, this happy fullness. The lover who is in love, he who is at rest in his very being is yet somehow moved perhaps from the very fact of this completeness and happiness, to take up a new kind of work.
The lover yet desires to make his love known, God desires to share his blessed state with others, to magnify his Glory. Thus the creation is a work which is the result of God’s rest. And so too is all true Christian work.
Only those who have known love and found their being in that love can take up work in the service and spirit of love and transform (or create) whole spheres of existence that they might shine with this light. Love overflows into new and manifold activities which are not themselves love, but which come to be caught up in the act and communicate something more complete than they are in themselves.
When deciding whether work is itself a good, when deciding whether a Christian should find pleasure in work, when deciding whether God is fundamentally at work or not, we must first and foremost clarify whether we mean something like what Aristotle meant by Energeia, the activity which is the inner nature and life of a being–that which is ever complete–, or whether we mean by work ergon, the jobs which we take up and put down as the occasions suit and which may or may not have much to do with who we are, or who and what we love.
Whether these two forms of work can ever or often meet, whether this ought to be a goal of ours is one thing. But that we recognize these two kinds of work as distinct is perhaps essential to thinking clearly and correctly as Christians, and indeed to living well.
In an age of burnout and exhaustion, I wonder whether the idea of a “work-life balance” has misconstrued the fundamental construct of human nature. Is it perhaps that there is no such thing. That work does not balance life, but that all true work, if it is pleasing to God and a blessing to man must precede from that which is truly first, and as Jesus himself said, is truly good and needful (Luke 10:42)? I will not belabor the point. Others have already explored this question with greater precision than I. I will conclude with a paradoxical and challenging quotation from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get
neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in
other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one
of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there
is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you
want other things more — food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way,
we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We
must learn to want something else even more.
We must learn to discover that this “something more” must not only be our desire, but even somewhat our possession before we set about doing God’s or anybody else’s work.