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Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work Paperback – 27 Apr 2001
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Before making his case for a new theology of work, Dr. Volf lays a foundation based on the significance and historical transformation of work.
Importance of Work
Work as a basic necessity provides sustenance, but human work goes far beyond that. Our work plays a significant role in how we understand ourselves anthropologically and sociologically. Indeed Volf states, "work is indispensable for the survival and the well being of both individual human beings and the societies they live in, and it conditions their individual and social identity. As such, it is the basis of individual human life and of all human history."
Transformation of Work
Throughout most of human history, "The wisdom of a trade was passed virtually unchanged from generation to generation." Changes in the nature and character of work were subtle and spread of centuries. After industrialization, and further accelerated by the discovery of computer technology, work has been "revolutionized by increasing rapid technological development." Volf roughly divides the history of human work in industrialized nations into three consecutive eras; the agricultural era, the industrial era, and the information and service era. Dr. Volf shows how the nature of our work has significantly changed through these stages. Importantly, Dr. Volf shows how in preindustrial times, prior to machine production, the production of goods was the result of skilled crafts people. Volf creates a picture of workers using their own "skill, taste and judgment" in their work and finding satisfaction in being able to observe the results of their work. This is in stark contrast to the age of machine production in which the skilled craftsman is replaced by a machine operator. The worker's skill and judgment were no longer required and work was reduced to mechanically enforced monotonous activity.
In the current information and service era "human work is ceasing to be material activity and is increasingly becoming mental activity. This is a radical change from past centuries, in which the predominant form of work was physical labor." As opposed to traditional societies where an individual's role and function with regard to their work was relatively static, Volf notes that in modern information societies our work is characterized by a high degree of vocational mobility. This feature in particular is significant in Volf's reasoning with regard for the need for a new understanding of work and calling.
Toward a Theology of Work
Theologians have contributed little in recent years to the understanding of work. However, it is precisely the fact that humans spend so much of their time working that dictates the need for theological reflection. God's purposes extend to all of life (not simply "sacred" activities.)
Volf cites the contribution of early church fathers in recognizing and affirming the nobility of work and the "obligation to work diligently and not be idle." In addition, they stressed that the Christian's responsibility does not end with satisfying ones own needs, but also having something to share with needy fellow human beings. The early church fathers also saw an influence of work on character. Their view was that diligent work helped to keep evil desires and temptations in check. Volf writes that a contemporary theology of work must add to this negative notion of work "the positive idea that human beings achieve fulfillment through work."
Volf's theology of work is primarily eschatological and pneumatalogical. Eschatologically, Volf develops a deep and involved understanding of new creation that looks toward the consummation of the present age. "New creation is the end of all God's purposes with the universe" (see 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1-4). According to Volf's broad application of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, all work that survives the test of God's judgment has eternal significance. All work that is in keeping with God's purposes is therefore done in cooperation with God. In Volf's understanding, "the noble products of human ingenuity will be cleansed from impurity, perfected and transfigured, to become part of God's new creation." It is easy to see the profound effect this view could have on our daily work. The belief that one's work can have eternal significance in its contribution to humankind and God's creation is transformative.
Pneumatalogically, Volf seeks to liberate us from the idea that the work of God's Spirit in and through human beings is limited to the religious life. The Spirit of God inspires and empowers our work. As such, God's Spirit is the source of our creativity and our ability.
It is at this point that Volf addresses the inadequacy of the traditional Christian view of vocation as developed principally by Martin Luther. Volf is quick to credit Luther with the idea that all noble work is sacred, not just that of priests or ministers. Yet the traditional view has limitations. In Luther's day an individual was called to a vocation or station in life; a blacksmith, a composer, a baker or a cleric. This calling was for life. Volf sees this identification of calling with occupation as far too static and limiting especially for our time.
Volf formulates an understanding of work and calling that is rooted in charisms (gifts). God "through the spirit calls and equips a worker for a particular task in the world." The calling therefore is centered around the use of one's gifts rather than one's occupation. A person, therefore, could change occupations or have more than one job at a time, and stay true to their calling as they effectively use their God-given abilities for the benefit of humankind in the world.
Miroslav Volf has given us the foundation for a fresh view of human work that is needed in our time. Inspired, empowered workers doing eternally relevant work; that's a robust vision many will eagerly share.
What, if not work, is today's society gravitational center? It has become either an idol before whom many vow in search of meaning and self-value, or an unavoidable necessary evil that sets itself merely as a means to leisure. In a better scenario--whether in its Protestant or secularized outlook--work is understood as a `vocation' to fulfill. In critical discussion with Luther, Smith, and Marx whose views on work have survived well into our day, Miroslav Volf, back then Professor of Systematics at the Croatian Evangelical-Theological Faculty, challenges such understandings. The six chapters of his book published in 1991 lead him to uphold work as an enjoyable, good, and God-intended humanizing task which both advances creation and anticipates its final consummation.
Influenced by his former mentor Jürgen Moltmann's `hope-centered' theology, it is not surprising to find Volf proposing a `charismatic' theology of work grounded in the `new creation.' Because work is integral to life and living the Christian life means for Christ to live in a person through his Spirit, work is to be done in the Spirit (cf. 141; Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:16ff). Thus the thrust of the book is marked by spelling out the implications of an inaugurated eschatology heavily drenched in the Spirit's ever-new activity--in his view, two aspects overlooked in previous scholarship which until then had been mostly focused on work ethics. In Volf's perception, furthermore, his book is needed because the narrow `vocational' paradigm for understanding work in Protestant theology is outdated for today's society, and flawed as it elevates the mundane to the level of gospel making it immune to prophetic critique. In response, in light of a reading of the Bible as a whole Volf explores the `new creation' as the broader `theological framework' within which the few relevant biblical statements and additional ethical reflection can properly function in interpreting the meaning and in evaluating and facilitating the transformation of human work (cf. 7, 77).
Volf's programme is subdivided into two sections. Part I evaluates contemporary understandings of work. By analyzing the shift from the agricultural to the information societies, Volf suggests that the present `crisis' of work--manifested, among others, in exploitation and ecological calamities--is the product of sinful personal behaviour, structural reasons like profit maximization, and inappropriate use of technology. He ends with a depiction of Smithian and Marxian views on work: the former marked by work as a mere instrument for profit, by efficiency, and by the unavoidable `alienation' of workers associated with the pursuit of personal and socioeconomic progress; the latter characterized by viewing work both as a means to secure human existence and to develop people's own potentials, by the praise of technological advancement, and by the critique of the dominance of capital over creativity, the common good, and labour.
In contrast to both, and counteracting prevailing negativism, Part II proceeds with developing a `pneumatological' theology of work in an `eschatological' framework. In contrast both with the subjugation of the `vita activa' to the `vita contemplativa' (eg. Aquinas) and with the modern reversal, Volf sees such ways as two alternating dimensions of the Christian life that should form an `inseparable unity' (70). For him, both leisure and work have inherent value--a proposal which also transcends the view of work as mere sanctification. Further, in order to avoid turning itself into a `tyrannical ideology,' such theology is to be realistically suited for a pluralistic world by acknowledging the Spirit of God as also operative outside the church--a realm guided by `ethical minimums' such as justice (82). That does not keep Volf from offering a comprehensive, `global' theology that understands all of present reality as heading towards its future `shalomic' destiny (85).
More specifically, in arguing against the indifference of the annihilatio mundi and by questioning Luther's split-level anthropology that viewed work as `vocation,' in Chapters 4 & 5 Volf lays and builds upon his foundations: first, work is significant because it transcends into the new creation by providing the building materials with which God alone will make a glorified world. Second, work is meaningful because it cooperates with God both in preserving creation and also in liberating it in the present in anticipation of the kingdom's final coming to earth. Such cooperation is possible because of the charisma--the Spirit's `enablings': a `diachronic plurality' of gifts which stand in service of the eschatological transformation of the world in terms of a) supplying for human needs, and b) of aiding self-development, the common good, and environmental sustainability. Simultaneously, rest, leisure, and worship serve as the limiting counterparts which protect us from idolatry by allowing them to find our humanity in communing with nature, with one another, and--above all--with the liberating God of `holy love' from whose Spirit we are called to `drink' (137).
Concluding with Chapter 6, Volf develops all these implications by contrasting today's principal forms of `alienating' work against the goal toward which Christians should strive: a `humanized' work marked by `joyful willingness', justice, service, and love (125). In juxtaposition to a vocational view of work as `duty,' he understands work both as a means to earn a living and to socialize, as well as an end in itself which provides enjoyment and self-realization that come by employing the dynamic and multiple charismata one has received (189-199) in the context of the new creation.
Even after 19 years of its publication--and perhaps even more so today in our ultra-high-paced workplace--the book blows a whistle to many. In a society increasingly marked by a pervasive narcissistic pursuit of instant gratification, most Christians are not the exception in yielding to a compartmentalized and disintegrated worldview where they vow to God Sundays, but to Mammon on Mondays and to Bacchus on Fridays. In exposing modern work ethics and values which prioritize efficiency and productivity over and above rest, leisure, and worship, Volf's emphatic insistence of coming to terms with the inaugurated new creation certainly challenges the `buy, consume, discard,' `easy-come, easy-go' consumerist understanding of reality. It is to be greatly welcome. Volf's biblical anthropology and integrative eschatological worldview seeks to embed humans back in the realm of the bodily and the material, calling them to abandon the modern disconnectedness between each other, their environment, and their Creator. Additionally, his high emphasis on not living by/for oneself but living the life enabled by the Spirit rightly calls into question the `Father, Son, and Holy Book' lifestyle characteristic of much Protestant would-be `trinitarianism.'
Furthermore, as a valuable contrast to current understandings, the recognition of both work and rest as a) simultaneously being gifts and responsibilities given and ordained by God; and b) as rooted in and enabled by his Spirit for the transformation of the world for the common good should keep Christians a) either from comfortably fleeing to the desert or from individualistically building their way to heaven, or b) from viewing work either as a means or as a curse. Volf's outlook provides corrective and healthy boundaries, as well as the true source of humanization, enjoyment, and motivation so needed in today's wild workplace. Good work is that for which a person is gifted, paralleled to the experience of joy in benefiting oneself and one's community.
In terms of shortcomings, a lesser one is the book's structure. One is left wanting an all-encompassing abridgment, conclusion, and further inspiration. Concrete life cases, as well, are lacking throughout.
Secondly, perhaps in over-reaction against the evident breakdowns of modern capitalism, Volf's anti-Lutheranism and relative favour of Marxism are evident--a possible pathway for misjudging him. However, one is to be mindful that liberalism has done its best in demonizing leftist agendas to the point of pagan heresy--agendas which, in some respects, might be closer to the Judeo-Christian worldview than their counterparts. That said, his bias remains manifest. In regards to Luther, one wonders what space Volf leaves for God to call someone to a specific task, as he clearly does in different occasions in scripture.
Thirdly, conceivably in search of a more positive estimation of the work of non-Christians, Volf's understanding of `gifts' is expanded not only beyond those presented in eg. Rom. 12, or Eph. 4, but also beyond the Christian community: all gifts are spiritual gifts. Yet, as a critic commented, to connect any work to the work of the Spirit, and thus, as a critic commented, "to the work of the Creator God of the Old Testament, thereby making all gifts spiritual, is to drain the New Testament concept of spiritual gifts of its specific redemptive-historical meaning."
As a side note, finally, given the `tech-Gnostic' character of `global' hyperspace, an updated edition could contemplate more recent discussions on theologies of place. Farther than our embodied nature being seriously challenged, the hyper-exposure to the virtual morass leads one to a practical numbness in regards to responding even to one's immediate context.
That said, Volf's developments are consistent and adequate for contemporary mobile societies. I was highly encouraged by upholding work and rest as good, God-appointed activities that should limit and enhance one another, always in the service of humanizing our existence.