Miroslav Volf: “Work in the Spirit” - an impressive theological foundation for the faith and work agenda.
Miroslav Volf’s “Work in the Spirit” offers an impressive theological foundation for anyone pursuing the faith and work agenda.
Work “has been and will continue to be a fundamental condition and dimension of human existence”, and in recent years many books have been published which offer guidance to Christians in their working lives. Many of them quote from this book by Miroslav Volf, and, in doing so, they fulfil the author’s expectation that his theological framework and “implicit ethical principles” will be “translated into concrete policies.”
As one would expect from a theologian of his standing, the book is well structured and carefully argued from a clear scriptural basis. Volf begins by defining work, and setting it in the context of crises and problems which are as relevant today as when the book was published in 1991. Behind them are advances in technology, something to which he returns throughout the book and which have intensified since then.
Most writers who take up the theme of faith in the working world assert that the good work we do in this life will, in some way, have significance in the new creation. Some make it a key point in their discussion, but don’t explain why it should be so. Volf provides a clear justification for this, and, as he does do, this book becomes a valuable foundation which would usefully be referenced by future, more practical, books on the subject.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is central to the book and guides the author to make another valuable point. The gifts of the Spirit are not, he contends, limited to Christians and are not to be exercised only within the gathered church, but are equally to be expressed in their work. Indeed, he goes as far as to write, “All Christians have several gifts of the Spirit. Since most of these gifts can be exercised only through work, work must be considered a central aspect of Christian living.” He could have brought even more scriptural support to this. In Romans 12, for example, Paul lists gifts of serving, encouraging, giving and leading, activities which very much belong in the workplace.
Here and elsewhere the book addresses the sacred-secular divide, which Volf expresses as the way in which the “vita activa” has been subordinated to the “vita contemplativa”. “The cradle of the corpus Christianorum is becoming its grave: in the western world a clear and irretrievable separation between church and society is taking place.” This divide and separation must be overcome if our churches are to bring a relevant and challenging gospel message to today’s world, and this book makes an important contribution to that cause.
The book includes a detailed examination of Marx’s concept of alienation in work, and with a historical summary which draws on Adam Smith, discusses how work can and should be made humane. The point that human beings should always be regarded as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end, is well made and sustains much of the argument throughout the book.
The book also offers a scriptural discussion on the way in which work can use or abuse the environment. Again this would form a valuable foundation for anyone writing on the subject.
It isn't an easy book to read if you are out of the habit of reading academic theology. It might have benefited from more practical examples, but a reader immersed in the working world will be able to supply them as they relate the book to their experience. There are some references to work which is morally questionable, but little detailed consideration of whether a Christian can bring their spiritual charisms to, for example, armaments manufacture.
The book would form a valuable foundation for anyone who wants to find value in their own work as a Christian or to improve the working lives of others. It certainly should be read by anyone adding another book to the many on the place of faith in the working world.