Work, Economy, and Theology



I’m working on my final-year research project, looking at a theology of work. It’s been a fun little exercise in bringing together the theological and exegetical skills that have been developed throughout college, with some of my own interests in Christian theological ethics and political economy.

The first full-length draft (15,000w) is due this Friday (yikes!), and the looming deadline has given me a little more clarity about the logic of my argument. Here are two short paragraphs describing what (I think) the project is about (today).

The experience of work is intrinsically connected to our conception of the economy.A theological account of work must therefore engage the concept of economy; that is, in order to give us practical purchase on the lived experience of work in our world as a significant sphere of Christian living, we need to give an account of how work and economy are related. Such an account, if it is to be properly evangelical, will resist the temptation to be founded in a single doctrine—such as creation or new creation—but will instead be shaped by the whole sweep of salvation history as it coheres in the good news of the redemption of creation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Such an account is suggested by the interplay of economy (οἰκονομία)  and good works (ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς) in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. There we find an account of God’s economy of redemption, fulfilled in his Messiah-Economist and displayed in the redeemed humanity of the church. Within this economy, the experience of work in a fallen world—work cut off from its social function, exemplified by the extremes of thievery and slavery—is redeemed and reoriented as a gift received from God. Thievery and slavery provide categories for Christian practical reason in the sphere of work as experienced in our late-Capitalist  context, and a basis for engaging contemporary economic thinking about labour, motivation, and identity.

Along the way we’ll touch on some political economic theories about work/labour (Smith, Marx, Polanyi, maybe Keynes), interrogate three contemporary theologies of work (Karl Barth in Ethics, Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit, and Oliver O’Donovan in Entering Into Rest), outline some precedents for a theology of economy (via M. Douglas Meeks’ God the Economist, Sergei Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy, and Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory). Then — finally! — we’ll get to some bible stuff in Ephesians, before rounding it all out in a theological engagement with some recent works in economics (George Akerlof & Rachel Kranton’s Identity Economics and Samuel Bowles’ The Moral Economy.)

I don’t know about you—I’m excited. But that really might just be me.


2 thoughts on “Work, Economy, and Theology

  1. At some point, I came to define work as: a thing that a person does for pay, that the same person probably would not do if he or she were not being paid.

    Among other things, this explains why sex work is work, but if a prostitute has a significant other (in which case, I mean a true SO, and not a pimp), her interactions with her SO do not constitute work, but her clientele does constitute work.

    • In the scheme I’m working with, sex “work” wouldn’t be classed as work; it would be labour, but not work. Or, at best, it would be bad work — work characterised either as thievery or slavery (almost certainly the latter).

      I’ve been roughly working with Oliver O’Donovan’s definition of work: ‘a core set of material engagements with the world that determine our presence in society over the longer term.’ This includes more than what you do for pay; and allows you to say that what one does for work might not be true work at all. Importantly, it highlights the social aspect of work — and, negatively, that bad work/work that isn’t truly work/mere labour is what it is precisely because it isn’t properly socially oriented.

      In saying all of that, in the context of sex work it’s very important to say that calling sex work *not* work or *bad* work says nothing about the dignity of the sex worker herself.

      What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s