Sunday, September 17, 2006

Holy Work by Aidan Nichols, O.P.

Aidan Nichols, Holy Work

Fr. Nichols responds to Adriano Tilgher, an Italian cultural historian.

What, however, interests the New Testament writers is not everyday human work such as Jesus may have done in Joseph's workshop but rather the unique redeeming work of Christ, and although they are conscious of a range of virtues needing to be brought into play in Christian living and a variety of good works (roughly speaking, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy of later catechesis) that give flesh to the new life of grace, the main human work in which they are interested is the proclamation of the Good News about the Word incarnate and him crucified and risen, redeeming and reconciling, to the rest of the world. St Paul thought it important that an apostle should give good example by not being an economical parasite if he could possibly help it - which is why, so he tells us, he chose to keep up his trade.

Again, the Church of the Word incarnate, as we see her fully formed, with the main lines of her life set forth, in the writings of the Fathers of the post-apostolic age, happened to be, at least in the East, mainly an urban phenomenon (that is why, despite 'East Anglia' and 'Argyll and the Isles', it is so unusual to find bishops named after regions not cities). But like Dorchester in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, the Church's strongholds were towns that were not only surrounded by the countryside but positively permeated by it through a network of not only close economic ties but actual green spaces for tilling and husbandry, what the Romans called rus in urbe, the 'country in the city'. The Church's liturgical celebration of the great saving events of the Word incarnate's life, death and Resurrection followed a pattern which readily blended with the rhythm of rural work - the cycle of the seasons, and the cycle of the day, from Lauds when the farmer goes out at first light, to Vespers when the lamps are lit for dusk as he returns.
The question then arises, Taking as given the fact that this literature (the books of the biblical Canon) and the particular human community they brought into being in the sub-apostolic period (the Church) are pre-modern in their assumptions about work (as about everything else on which modernity has or had a view of its own), is this fact in and of itself of doctrinal importance? In other words, is this assumption about traditional styles of work of any intrinsic importance for the understanding of Christian revelation and the life which should flow from that understanding for ourselves who as Catholic Christians are privileged to be its recipients?

There could of course be an argument which had it that the linking of biblical revelation and its continuation in Christian tradition to agricultural work and handcrafts is a providential dispensation. That is, I take it, the view of the Christian sect called the Amish who, for precisely this reason, maintain exclusively rural communities of believers. But I think we can say with assurance that Catholics have only ever drawn on such considerations in a prudential way, not a doctrinal one. One can perfectly well maintain that living close to cosmic nature and working collaboratively with that nature through crop-growing, animal husbandry and the like, is a way of life which should be adopted by far more people than presently do so, since it would greatly reduce the stress and sense of artificiality many people find in the distinctively modern workplace, with its severe time-constraints and such physical inconveniences as gazing all day long at a computer screen. One can also perfectly well propose that craftsmen working with their hands in a fashion which requires skill, that is practical reason in the mode adapted to making things, and doing so by inheriting and perpetuating a tradition of fine work, possess a peculiarly paradeigmatic quality as exemplars of what it is to be a worker. But one does not for all that have to 'buy' the argument that there is something innately rebarbative to the Judaeo-Christian revelation and its ethos in forms of work that do not fall under either of these descriptions. As St Thomas, speaking as a philosopher, makes plain, when we talk of the 'matter' with which the labourer co-operates so as to educe from it a form - whether on his or her own, as with the potter or sculptor, or in collaboration with nature as with the market gardener or the grower of grain - we are not using a univocal expression, a word that has only one meaning. We are, rather, using an analogical notion, a word that has a variety of related meanings. What 'matter' means, and, so far as that goes, what 'form' means too is very much context-dependent. A nurse's 'matter' is her patient; a lawyer's is human behaviour; a playwright's is human life itself, and so on. There is no reason why this range of examples cannot be extended so as to take in every legitimate type of human labour.

In his brilliant study The Theology of Work, Father Richard O'Connor points out that there is no philosophical reason why the matter on which the worker works cannot be so extended and every theological reason why it should be. Such clues as we have from the Fathers of the Church, the principal sources, with Scripture, of an evangelical and catholic theology, betray no evidence of Tilgher's assumption that the only work valued in the Christian tradition was manual work in the strict sense. St John Chrysostom, for example, speaks of the value to be found in the complementarity of human skills. Origen remarks that God created man with various needs so that we might exercise our intelligence in providing for them. For St Augustine, through work man co-operates with God in completing the creation. For St Maximus the Confessor, man is a 'living workshop' since through his labour he synthesizes matter with spirit.

It is true that the ascetic tradition, as represented in, for example, the Rule of St Benedict, or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, concentrates on hard manual toil, but this is, after all, in the context of specifically monastic life, where a rather different set of criteria from the usual may be thought to apply.

In reality, there is nothing in the nature of Christian doctrine which could make us treat as inevitable the development described by Tilgher (assuming it to be correctly described) whereby Renaissance and post-Renaissance forms of work led ineluctably to the desacralisation of the cosmos and the secularisation of the European mind.

So far he is only talking about types of work and attitudes towards work, and now the moral questions of the distribution of property, social justice, and such. The next part I copy with all of the emphases of the original.
The question then arises, If that is so, what needs to be done? How can we put in place new imaginative patterns which allow people and indeed invite them to experience their work, when it is genuinely human - humane - work, work fit for man, in the same way as once was done in the best agrarian commonwealths known to the Church in the past or the present? I add the rider 'when it is genuinely human - humane - work, work fit for man' because that has been, of course, a preoccupation of the moral magisterium of the Papacy in the last hundred and more years. I am not concerned with those ethical aspects of work which need to be attended to for work to be deemed fit for human beings in the first place, but rather with the doctrinal in the sense of dogmatic interpretation of authentically human work in a modern mode. How can we proceed in trying to suggest for non-traditional kinds of work the sort of imaginative theological space in which traditional work modes have been deployed in Christendom?

Following - in large part - O'Connor's analysis: we can say that such traditional ways of work have been given theological sense in three ways. First, they were regarded as enjoying a relation to the divine creative activity. Second, they had a bearing on the divine redemptive activity. And thirdly, they carried implications for the divine transfiguring or consummating activity at the end of time. However their theological meaning was construed, whether on the basis of the original creation, or on that of the act of Incarnation and its redemptive consequences, or on that of the ultimate glorious Parousia, what was in question was some kind of analogy between divine and human working.

St Thomas has no treatise on labour (the issue was not for him the problem it was to become later). Nevertheless, human work, considered as the activity of what he called, after Aristotle, the 'practical intellect', was for him our principal analogue for God's activity in regard to the world. God's understanding, the divine mind, is engaged in action which both makes things and transforms them. That is why Thomas can use the model of artisanal labour to expound the divine mysteries of both creation and salvation. This is for him a true analogy, and not just a metaphor, which means that when we speak of human beings 'making' things or 'salvaging' or 'transforming' them by their labour we should be aware that the principal maker, salvager and transformer - the 'prime analogate' as the Scholastics say of our language in these respects - is God himself. And what that means for us is that our work - whether it be making, repairing or transforming by acting in any of these ways on 'matter' variously understood, is nothing less than a sign of the divine activity itself, the divine action in creation and redemption, Incarnation and salvation.

Fr. Nichols maintains that production is a work imitative of God's own work of creation, and hence is a form of participation in the Divine activity: "Production, in the sense in which we use that word when discussing human work, is a sign of the Trinitarian causal action in making the world."He acknowledges that "Of course no human work is absolutely creative in the way that God?s is. God creates from nothing; that means, his creative activity has no other principle than itself. When we are creative, whether in humble ways by making a plum pudding or grandiose ways like producing a development plan for a third world country or writing an opera, we are only relatively creative, since we depend for our action on many factors beyond ourselves.".

It is also, I suggested, a sign of the mystery of the Incarnation. As we have seen, 'crafting' things in matter is an analogous reality which can be carried out in many ways. As Eric Gill liked to say, every man is a special kind of artist. [13] But in every case a craftsman wants to embody his ideas, to let his idea take on flesh. In work something goes out from us to what is outside us, just as in God, the archteype of human working, the Word took on flesh through union with human nature, which was infinitely 'outside' it, in our Lady's womb. And just as, in the humanity assumed from Mary, the Word had at his disposal an instrument perfectly suited for his purpose in becoming incarnate, so the worker has at the service of his own 'incarnations' extensions of his own powers in the shape of tools which now range from rudimentary implements still in use like brushes and saws, to mechanical instruments that extend the arm, visio instruments like microscopes that extend the eye, audio instruments like transmitters that extend the ear, and finally instruments which extend the brain - computers - and have within them the power to devise more sophisticated computers still. Some would ask whether technology remains an instrument when it reaches this level of independence, but in the Incarnation the fully human mind and will of Christ, as defined at the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople III respectively, were what guaranteed the perfect suitability of his humanity for the task given it by the Word. That does not mean that all advanced technology of an innovatory kind must be embraced simply because it exists: for the question always remains open, Does this or that new tool allow us to devote greater time and energy to our spiritual, intellectual, family, social lives without damage to the fabric either of human community or the natural environment in which our lives are set? The human mind and will of the Word worked to realise the Father's plan of love - so how things fit with the total context here can hardly be irrelevant.
A theology of work. Perhaps one that Opus Dei would endorse. While that is all good, I wonder if the question of social justice is not a greater one and whether it is enough to be able to justify some sort of work theologically without a reference to the concrete common good. Is all work really creative? (With form being imposed on matter?) Should this be used to justify modern bureaucratic techniques, centralization, and the economic [and political] dominance of corporations? What can be said of work that dehumanizes? Is acting as a cog in an assembly line really that satisfying? I don't think Fr. Nichols would say so. But is his treatment sufficiently nuanced to prevent it from being exploited by Henry Ford, for example, to defend his economic and production practices? The problem is, given the way the economy is structured, what forms of work are really free from being criticized when the "larger picture" is taken into account? What work does not perpetuate somewhere else further exploitation and degradation, whether it be of human beings or of the environment? Only those who strive to be economically free might be able to defend themselves from this criticism, but they are few, I suspect, since many at the very least are still dependent upon the consumption of fossil fuels and the like for electricity, and so on. Should charity and the host of virtues be exercised in the workplace, and one's labors raised up through prayer? Undoubtedly. But whether much of the work [of modern industrialized societies] itself can be said to participate that much in God's own good creative act, that is what I question. Looking at the natural being of the act from thew viewpoint of metaphysics or theology is not enough--one must also look at the moral component and the activity's consequences to give a full assessment.

A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation (Paternoster Theological Monographs) (Paperback)
Working Your Way into Heaven: How to Make Work, Stress, and Drudgery a Means to Your Sanctity by Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski
The Theology of Work: An Exploration by M.D. Chenu
On the Theology of Work: Aspects of the Teaching of the Founder of Opus Dei
by Michael Adams (Translator), Josbe Luis Illanes (Author), Jose L. Illanes (Author)
Sanctification of work