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faith & spirituality | labor

Self-Redemption Through Work

"A strange mania rules the working class of all lands where capitalist civilization prevails - the love of work, the work mania exhausting individuals and their descendents. Instead of fighting this spiritual confusion, priests, economists and moralists canonize work."

Religious Moments in the Modern Understanding of Work (1)

By Ansgar Kreutzer, Linz

[This essay published October 9, 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.grundeinkommen.de.]


Beside the many economic and socio-political facets of the discussion about a basic income discussed at this congress, there is also a cultural or mental dimension that decides whether an "unconditional basic security from the cradle to the grave" is plausible and politically enforceable or not. As I see it, there is a crucial blockade against the idea of basic income, a normative charging of paid work that is deeply rooted in the value structure. This bias refuses monetary payments of the state to persons who do not "earn money" within the corset of paid work, the prefabricated model of performance and return favor.

This mechanism of gift and return gift inherent in paid work with its medium of acquiring money is like a religious dogma in its sheer inexorability. Making the distribution of life chances and money dependent almost exclusively on paid work (disregarding alms) has religious roots. The secular society has sacralized paid work, declared it a fetish and taboo and canonized it.


Paid work is still obviously rated highly despite increasing unemployment, irrevocable technical rationalization and workaholism. Its lasting esteem is emphasized regularly in political debates. For example, the demand for a higher pension age washes up again and again in the media along with the proposal of securing pensions by lengthening our working time. Given the present unemployment, there are weighty political reasons against an extension of paid work. Such an approach would ultimately burden combating unemployment. "Why force the 65 year old grandfather to work more and longer when his 45 year old son or 20 year old granddaughter are jobless?" (2) Obviously there is a habitualized behavior in reacting to structural problems of the work society with the categorical imperative "More Work!" even when there isn't enough work for everybody willing to work. The effect of the same high work ethos may be assumed in political stigmatizations of the unemployed who are often exposed in public perception to a collective suspicion of laziness. (3) Such political statements feed the suspicion that the high social-political rank of paid work is based on political rationality and preliminary value decisions.

Another area where the culturally central position of paid work is blatant is the disappearing line between work and life, work time and leisure time, work place and privacy, vacation and private entertainment can hardly be distinguished in the models of several new worlds of work. (4) Paid work should be a joy, not a burden. (5) The relation to a job is described in categories that actually seem reserved to the intimacy of interpersonal relations. Thus two economic journalists of Suddeutschen Zeitung characterize work in the New Economy as follows: "We prefer to join love with romanticism or private affection. But a growing number of brainworkers define love as the measure of their devotion to a task, identification with an activity, a business or team." (6)

To explain this continuing cultural significance of paid work that clearly appears on the scale of values, personal debates and expansion of paid work into the private sphere, its quasi-religious significance is underscored again and again. In a critical argument with the virtually sacred rank of paid work in modern society marked by hardened mass unemployment, S. Geisel describes work as the "only remaining deity" and cites the Hungarian Nobel Prize winner for literature Imre Kertesz: "Work is the only functioning and effective god worshipped by humanity secretly or openly." (7) Such a functioning parallelization of religion and work is not new. In the 19th century, Paul Lafargue, the stepson of Karl Marx, set work in a religious framework: "A strange mania rules the working class of all lands where capitalist civilization prevails, the love for work, the work mania continuing at breakneck speed to the exhaustion of individuals and their descendents. Instead of fighting this spiritual confusion, the priests, economists and moralists canonize work." (8)

Such interpretations rouse theological interest. What is the religious substance of work? What theological motive has taken hold in the modern work ethos? How should this be judged from the theological side? To answer these questions, a digression to the sociology of religion is helpful for making a theological judgment on the (quasi-) religious significance of work. In the modern work ethos, a theological impulse is both present and perverted.


Paid work is so central in our society that it represents one of the most important mechanisms for defining personal identity. "We are what we produce" as D. Giarini and P.M. Liedke summarized this identity-giving function of paid work in their exploration of the future of the work society. (9) One can read what work really means for the self-definition of the modern individual from persons excluded from paid work, the unemployed. In their celebrated 1933 study "The Unemployed of Marienthal," M. Jabhoda and P. Lazarsfeld brought to light for the first time what is still true today (10): Unemployment robs people of their material foundation and torpedoes social respect, self-esteem and inner meaning, in short it threatens the whole human existence. "Unemployment is a shameful and frustrating experience. Unemployment in our society is a synonym for failure, ineffectiveness and undesirability." (11)

What sociological mechanism is in the background when this kind of existential meaning is ascribed to paid work, that important dimensions of inner meaning are assigned to work and conversely that the feeling of a right to exist is threatened with exclusion from work? The Frankfurt sociologist Ulrich Oevermann sees the value of paid work as so central that he presumes a religious structure of meaning. (12) Paid work, to summarize Oevermann's thesis, has assumed the old religious function of a doctrine of redemption for the secularized society. Oevermann cites first a sociology of religion argument and finally an historical argument.

1. From a sociology of religion perspective, Oevermann sees the practical relevance of redemption doctrines anchored in the structure of human conduct. (13) Because the person is a self-reflective being who has to make decisions according to certain criteria, e.g. whether meaning ultimately results from his action or - beyond the individual action decision - how he can anchor his life praxis altogether in a structure of meaning. "For every life praxis, the basic threshold question must be answered: Where did I come from, where am I going and who am I?" (14) Religious interpretations of the world provide meaning structures or answers to the above three questions. The answer to the question of "origin" is "creation myths." The answer to the question of "goal" appears in so-called "redemption myths." This probation problem of the action structure exists in modern societies where the religious reference has lost its self-evidence.

Actions and life praxis must always pass the test and prove true. As a result, secularization, the loss of meaning and plausibility of the religious interpretation of the world, replaces the religious redemption myth with another secular probation myth. Oevermann explains the significance of paid work in that it assumes this function of redemption or probation of life praxis for the secular society. For modern society, this means the person gains his meaning and right to exist through his paid work and no longer through a religiously anchored doctrine of redemption.

2. With an historical argument, Oevermann tries to explain why modern society develops paid work as a religion-substitute or - in Oevermann's words - as a "probation myth" in the inheritance of the Christian redemption doctrine. In the center of the Christian doctrine of redemption is redemption by Jesus Christ "in which a redeeming hereafter was concrete through the crucifixion death and the resurrection." (15) This theological foundation is not only a confession but has an effect on Christian life praxis. Christianity's history is full of specific forms of conduct and life models in which faith is expressed through life praxis. In the Middle Ages, Oevermann sees a division of forms of Christian life, namely "between the elevated virtuosos of religion, for example the religious orders on one side and the profane laity on the other side who are charged with "mastering life's distresses." (16)

Oevermann makes the critical transition from a Christian doctrine of salvation to a modern work ethos - very similar to Max Weber before him (17) - in the figure of Martin Luther. In his theology of office, Luther abolished the division of the people of the church and the different theological and ethical valuation of the way of life of clerics and laity. With the introduction of the German word "Beruf" (vocation) for the Latin "vocatio" (literally "calling"), Luther made clear the theological acknowledgment of the religious significance of vocational work. The worldly calling is put on an equal level with the spiritual calling. "In one regard, we are all equal before God. Wherever God has called and placed us, we all have the same possibility of fulfilling this calling as best we can through effort and ethical readiness to overcome resistance." (18)

The paid work fixation of modern society that cannot be explained politically lies in this process of a nascent secularization of the Christian redemption doctrine and its merging in the middle class work ethos according to Oevermann's theory. "The central probation myth of the middle class society is based on the religiously rooted calling before and through God self-evident for Luther and from the beginning with the possibility of the complete worldliness of this calling in a modern performance ethic." (19)

Even if one does not agree entirely with Oevermann's sociology of religion theses and his historical reconstruction of Luther's understanding of calling and its wide appeal, his analysis is convincing. The fascination of paid work is based on its socially acknowledged mechanism of providing identity and meaning. "We are what we produce" is the most important equation of the work society. (20) This modern discovery of identity radically opposes the autonomy ideal of the modern society marked by enlightenment and liberalism. The trace of this modern self-assurance is found in the term "identity work." Functioning parallels can be identified between the modern work ethos and the Christian doctrine of redemption. According to Oevermann (and Weber before him), elements of the theological tradition advanced the development of the modern work ethic. A theological classification seems necessary here.


If one follows the basic tendency of Oevermann's sociology of religion theory, the work ethos of modern society becomes theologically problematic. Are meaning and the right to exist acquired or bestowed?

The secular work society has developed its own answer to this question that was originally raised in a religious context. Self-probation in the performance ethic of work gives a person the right to exist, no longer belief in an ultimate redemption by God. In the terminology of Christian theology, the person is no longer justified before God and by God. Rather he passes the test without God in his efficiency. To contrast this "secular doctrine of redemption" with the theological proclamation of grace, it is meaningful to begin where Oevermann sees the critical transition to the modern work ethos. (21)

Against the medieval mentality of a works righteousness that appeared in excessive forms of piety to earn God's salvific acts, Luther emphasized God's precedent acts that precede all human works righteousness. The person receives his right to be (before God) - as a pure gift - from God. Ottmar Fuchs describes very graphically the existential significance of this basic insight of the Reformer: "In studying Paul's letters, scales fell from his eyes. God's love cannot be earned because it was `earned' long ago by Jesus. Here Luther brings Good News to all of us.. I need not do anything so God loves me." (22)

The 1999 Joint Declaration of the Justification Doctrine by the Lutheran World Alliance and the Catholic Church underscores the central significance of this religious doctrine. "We are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit renewing our hearts and empowering us to good works only out of grace and faith in Christ's salvific act, not on account of our merit." (23)

A common interest and a central distinction appear when this basic theological insight is compared with the meaning structure of the modern work ethos. The motive of justification, the assurance of the right to exist and the constitution of life entered into the middle class work ethos as reconstructed by Oevermann. The work ethos appears as a profane form of self-righteousness, self-probation or - religiously interpreted - self-redemption. This is its theological moment of grace. However the basic idea of presented justification in the theology of grace is reversed in the performance ethic, the "heart" of the modern understanding of work. If the theological doctrine of justification promises persons their acknowledgment as unmerited and presented, the acknowledgment gained through work is an earned acknowledgment. The self-critical question to the catholic and protestant confessions arises here since a mentality of self-righteousness comes out of the doctrine of grace.


A political ethic cannot be immediately built on basic theological insights. Firstly, ethical imperatives for highly complex modern society cannot be derived directly from dogmas. Secondly, statements of Christian dogmatics have plausibility within the group that shares this meaning, within the particular special ethos of Christians.

Religious convictions, as the sociology of religion interpretation of the modern work ethos shows, influence social meaning structures and preliminary ethical decisions. Social-ethical inspirations gained from theological reflection on the core of the Christian understanding of grace can be formulated:

1. Although the logic of self-righteousness infused in the modern understanding of work conflicts with the Christian theology of grace with its right to exist presented by God, no fundamental theological criticism of the modern work ethos can be derived from this antithesis. Within the social and economic structure of modern societies, an understanding of work based on the reciprocity of performance and merit makes great sense. Paid work is the central mechanism of reciprocal acknowledgment through which - in the ideal case - social rights and duties are distributed justly. This inherent order of the economy and society has to be respected theologically. (24) Free access to work must be safeguarded because, from a social-ethical perspective, work is such a central authority of distribution of social acknowledgment and membership. In this sense, the right to work (and its political realization) is a command of justice. "If social identity belongs on the list of the conditions indispensable for a dignified life, then a right to paid work is morally demanded for work societies in which social acknowledgment is mediated through participation in work and in the monetary recognition that it enjoys." (25) Given scarce paid work, a just distribution is assumed. (26)

1. From the view of a Christian anthropology, the limit of the acknowledgment structure is obvious. This structure underlies the work ethos and has been described theologically as "self-righteousness" or "self-redemption." From a Christian perspective, the right to exist was presented and not left to the person. Insofar as the Christian ethos also has a critical stance toward an unlimited expansion of acknowledgment structures based on particular merit or the reciprocity of performance and return favor, R. Ochs describes an acknowledgment that comes near the basic idea of Christian justification. "The Christian perspective includes an expansion of understanding and realization of acknowledgment, acknowledgment for all people in their existence as humans, even when persons in the logic of the economy and reason are not yet or no longer worthy of recognition." (27)

This acknowledgment structure should be demanded in a political climate where the inclination to privatize social benefits increases. Acknowledgment should not be subjected any more to the principle of particular merit, performance and quid pro quo. A change of values stimulated by this ethic could help remove the mental barriers opposing a basic income socio-politically. Translating these Christian-inspired guiding principles into political plausibility is vital in the modern public where theological arguments cannot claim any immediate political authority.

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