It’s hard to move past the title of this Rick Warren devotional: “The Work That Makes You Happiest is For God’s Kingdom.” The line raises so many questions: is it the work of the Kingdom which is supposed to make me happy? The proof-text from 1 Peter suggests so, enjoining the Church to “use [our talents] to help each other.” Yet, Warren’s sermonette seems to suggest that if your work makes you happy, then that is evidence it’s for the Kingdom.
This is a key aporia of many “theologies of work” today: is pleasure an essence of work, or is it derived? In his book, The Operation of Grace, Gregory Wolfe suggests the former. “Vocation is a mysterious thing,” he writes. “It seems to come to us both from without—as a call from someone or something—and from within, as an inexplicable compulsion. It is at once a burden and a release, a responsibility and a wild, secret joy. It cannot be willed into existence and yet it demands strenuous acts of will to live out.”
Yet Wolfe’s powerful description of vocation, specifically that of the writer’s calling, is offset by more harrowing scenes, those “strenuous acts of will” by which Wolfe first attempted to get Image Journal off the ground. “Having to make the case year in and year out takes its toll,” he says, describing his run-ins with would-be donors. “As I’ve sat in living rooms and corporate and foundation offices, straining to argue for the relevance and culture-transforming mission of [Image], I’ve found myself becoming…someone I did not always recognize.”
I thought back on these scenes as I sat in a university board room, discovering like Wolfe that “my jaw was doing funny things” as graduate programs in Theology and “Elizabethan Literature” were specifically called out by administrators questioning the ethical stakes of providing degrees not leading to gainful employment. Gainful employment, of course, categorically excludes things like sitting on a living room couch asking for donations to an upstart journal on art, faith, and mystery.
Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of calling or vocation has likely seen the little motivational graphic where Vocation is defined as the cross-section between “The World Needs It” and “You Are Paid For It.” Oddly enough, talent and desire aren’t even part of that equation, but once added they all intersect on something nebulously called “Purpose.” In the Western tradition, we might call this our raison d’etre, but in Okinawan culture, where the concept of Ikigai originates, it translates to “a reason to get up in the morning.”
But this idea obscures the complicated little space along which “Vocation” gets defined. Not all the options are on the table here, and you may have noticed it already: What happens if you love something, you’re good at it, and the world needs it… But the world doesn’t want it?
I think this is why theologies of work don’t usually work. The work of the Kingdom rarely, if ever, lines up with the logics of supply and demand. Warren can insist that “meaning matters more than money” but the unspoken assumption of so much Christian vocational thinking is that the holy trinity of divine calling, personal desire, and vocational labor will ultimately include money at the center of it.
Love of work may somehow affirm its divine calling, but it is also tacitly assumed that divine calling would never lead anyone into the sort of work which rarely sees gainful compensation; fields, for instance, such as pastoral theology, or a professorship in Early Modern literature and culture—or, if the sheer volume of variations on the question “What Will You Do With That?” is any indication, any career branching off an English degree. Who wants to pay a thinker to undermine our ideologies? Who wants to pay for art which complicates our lives through faith and mystery, when we can easily pay for entertainment? Even entertainment is increasingly viewed as a right rather than a privilege, so what place does art even have as a form of work?
Throughout his corpus, philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called for a shift in attention away from categories of action or existence—what is, or is expected—and towards the potential to do or not to do. In works of art, for instance, pure activity leads to exhaustion; creativity expends itself. True art, on the other hand, emerges when the potential to not is exercised, leaving the work incomplete in crucial ways.
For Agamben, this potential not to is precisely what defines human beings: we, like Bartleby the Scrivener, have the capacity to not, or the capacity to do otherwise. We are, uniquely among creatures, deactivated beings in the sense that we do not exist for any one, pre-determinate purpose. The ancients recognized this, Agamben says, and for this reason they did not imagine leisure to be a respite from labor, but rather they saw labor as a necessary interruption of the true work of living, the “care of the self.”
With this in mind, Jonathan Malesic says that a proper theology of work must recognize that the human destiny is one of leisure, not primarily as rest from work but as an eternal “celebration of existence.” The Christian puts spiritual stakes in what Agamben calls zoe aionios, an “eternal life” which is freed up for all sorts of uses. Again, though, why would the world want this? It certainly reads like a recipe for the market to fall apart as its various actors slowly decide that cost efficiency can’t hold a candle to the care of the self.
But the religious view of work is towards such care. The logic of gainful employment becomes an investive logic, the hope to sustain oneself and give help to others while providing the world with something it needs but does not want, and doing so ambitiously and with joy.
It sounds, in fact, very much like a work of art.
Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where he looks to poetry for answers to problems in political theology. He has written on art, culture, and philosophy for a number of venues including Christ & Pop-Culture, Homebrewed Christianity, Relief, Renascence, and Rock & Sling.
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