The Indomitable Human spirit. The Perversity of ‘Work’ and the ‘The American Dream’

I have been slowly reading through Herman Bavinck’s book The ubermenschPhilosophy of Revelation, and I am currently nearing its end. As I start to round the corner of the last that this wonderful book has to offer, Bavinck hits on something in regard to modern man and woman that resonates deeply with me; resonates in such a way that is not merely an academic abstraction, but a concrete and lived reality and experience that I observe everyday–it is something that we all experience on a daily basis as we live and work in this modern Western world of ours. The rest of this post will engage with Bavinck on this kind of common reality that you and I both experience, in particular, as we continue to live out the implications of the modern industrialized and informationized world.

Yes, this is something that I have noticed for quite some time, maybe you have too; I have mostly worked in bluecollar contexts in my working life, and as such the reality I am going to engage with, with Bavinck’s help, has to do with the absolutization of ‘work’ (and for me this gets exemplified in spades in the bluecollar context). In my experience and observation it has become readily apparent that people, whether it be bluecollar, whitecollar, or no-collar, find most of their identity from their work life; indeed, people will sacrifice almost everything to advance their careers, and their status within that kingdom, whatever expression that takes in the various types of career paths available. Work becomes a place, for many, where said person can pour all of their energy and strength into what they are doing, and be rewarded for it, materially. Indeed, having a strong work ethic is not a bad thing; it can be a virtuous thing, something through which God in Jesus Christ is glorified. But like with anything, when work and work ethic becomes the most virtuous thing, the greatest good, the ultimate expression of what it means to live well, then there is a problem (an idol-making problem). I would submit that we live in a society and culture[s] that have systemically taken shape by absolutizing work as an ultimate end for what it means to “live” life; that this view of ‘work’ assigns to humans what it means to be human (so an issue of anthropology, for one thing) on a completely horizontal level abstracted from any sense of the transcendent and vertical reality that life really finds its ultimate telos or purpose from. Herman Bavinck seems to agree with me:

In the measure in which self-confidence grew, confidence in God, belief in miracles, consciousness of misery, the urgency of prayer, and longing for redemption decreased, at least in many circles. Kant had boldly spoken the word–du sollst, also du kannst,–and the humanity which trod the stage of the nineteenth century adopted this motto. It is perceived in itself a necessity, a will, a power, and an obligation to reform the world; and with this pressure it felt its strength awaken, and an irresistible desire to set to work. The modern man no longer feels himself a miserable creature, who has fallen from his original destiny, and no longer regards the earth as a vale of tears, which has taken the place of the original paradise. He can conceive nothing more wonderful than this beautiful world, which has evolved itself from the, smallest beginnings and has reached its highest point of development in grand and mighty man. He is in his own estimation no mere creature, but a creator and redeemer of himself and society. More and more he becomes his own providence. And he is so, and becomes so through his work, for labor is creation. By labor men are divine, and become continually more godlike. Labor must therefore be the foundation of religion and morality, and also of the entirety of modern society….[1]

Further,

… But among such men as Ihering, Wundt, Höding, Paulsen, Spencer, and Sidgwick, we see ethics becoming more and more a section of sociology, which perceives in labor for himself and for others the calling and destiny of man. For labor reconciles the egoistic and social instincts and takes into captivity the whole human life. Labor is “the meaning of our existence.”[2]

We might start a conversation about Karl Marx right now, but let’s not. What Bavinck articulates quite presciently does not escape me and my experience; I can’t imagine that this seems very far away from your experience in day to day life either.

We live in a world that is saturated with living by sight; in a world that lives into its most immediate offering, into what is considered the societal good: into a world that takes what is fleeting and vanishing away (I Cor. 7) and makes it its ultimate purpose and end. We exert and glean our identities from our own personal kingdoms that we create for ourselves at work, and as a result through the fruits of our labor by earning money to further prop ourselves up in our personal kingdoms by way of home ownership (the “American dream”), financial independence, etc. We get caught up in this mode of immediacy even as Christians; our love grows cold.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

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12 comments

  1. Bobby, if some cheery, food-loving materialist works very hard on the farm singing “we plow the fields and scatter/ the good seeds on the land/ but it is fed and watered/ by God’s almighty hand,” where does he err?

    Bavinck was wallowing. Jeremiah could deliver a good jeremiad, but downhill preaching has been downhill ever since 😉 Seriously, my tolerance for theology and preaching not clearly distinct from depressogenic attribution schemas is shrinking fast.* Where is the gospel?

    On EC. Christus Victor atonement and premil eschatology both appear against a background of cosmic combat and moral evil (things perverted against their created natures), while participative soteriology and postmil eschatology can both presuppose an incarnation ontology and often…. privative evil (scarcity and death allow bad things to happen). Prima facie, it seems that EC integrates both positions. Does it?

    _______________

    * Abramson, L. Y., Metalsky, G. I., & Alloy, L. B. (1989). Hopelessness depression: a theory-based subtype of depression. Psychological Review, 96, 358–372.

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  2. Bowman,

    I already said where he errs in my post; he or she errs when that cherry picking becomes an end in itself. And yes, it actually is depressionistic when people work in a way that it itself provides their identity in the world as an end in itself. How do you avoid being depressed by living in a world that has absolutized the horizontal? So no, Bavinck was spot on!

    I don’t follow you on your postmil point? I see what you’re saying, but I don’t see why it a necessary corollary to EC, Christus victor etc, in your view; or even a necessarily possible outcome. I am historic premil, but not because of my theological commitments in regard to an ontological theory of the atonement but because I believe the exegesis requires it.

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  3. On mils and evils, my question was exploratory. Yes, I agree, “necessary” is too strong a word for a resonance, and a history-blind exegesis would ignore it on principle. But a theology in which the resurrection does something with human nature speaks to privative evil. Interesting.

    Where discussions of biblical eschatology start exegetically and end in overtime with the exegetes appealing to history to justify their positions, the debaters often seem to be pointing to the two different sorts of evil– moral and privative– in arriving at different evaluations of history since the resurrection. However, we would want to account for both in any eschatology in which Christ defeats all evil.

    Premil without an effective resurrection tends to ignore privative evil. But premil with an effective resurrection appears to be able to account for both.

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  4. You and I evaluate cherry-picking alienated from God in the same way. In the quote, Bavinck seems to be complaining that just because cherry-pickers are good at picking lots of cherries they have become alienated from God. Since the necessary counterfactual– incompetent cherry-picking enabling intimacy with God– is absurd, the causal assertion is not plausible. It sounds like sour grapes.

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  5. Bowman,

    I think if you had Bavincks fuller context on his discussion of modernity you might concluded differently.

    Bowman, what do you mean when you opine about premil w/o an effective resurrection? Do you mean prior to the realization of the millennium?

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  6. “I think if you had Bavincks fuller context on his discussion of modernity you might concluded differently.”

    Maybe.

    “what do you mean when you opine about premil w/o an effective resurrection?”

    premil w/o an effective resurrection = premil + resurrection doing nothing for the atonement.

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  7. Still unclear, Bowman. I’m not totally sure how you are understanding the function of premil within premil theology, but it almost seems like you are misunderstanding it if I am understanding your understanding correctly :-).

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  8. Last year, Michael Bird’s systematic theology gave generous attention to the mils as a must-have locus of any ‘Evangelical Theology’ whatsoever, and took a premil position in that locus. Although he may have shown premil to be “gospelizing,” as his method requires, his book did not make connections to the other loci explicit. Anything that is really all the important should have several such connections. Therefore, I have since been testing hypothetical connections from his ‘premil’ position– which may not be yours, of course– to the other loci. At several points, EC appears to be similar to, but tighter than, the system that he proposed. Hence my curiosity about how premil software runs on an EC operating system.

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  9. Okay, that helps me understand better. I read Bird’s section of the millennial views, but i wouldnt say what he wrote in there is definitive ir exhaustive on the subject. Most historic premils place heavy emphasis upon the now and not yet aspect of the kingdom; which i would think would answer your concern about the effective resurrection. Problems come in for dispensational premillers per your concern, i think, but not for historic premillers.

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