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Revising the Concept of Vocation for the Industrial Age

by Robert G. Middleton

Mr. Middleton is interim pastor of Central Baptist Church, Hartford, Connecticut. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 29, 1986, pp. 943-945. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community of Scotland, customarily took on the community’s least attractive job, that of cleaning the latrines. He did this, he said, so "I will not be tempted to preach irrelevant sermons on the dignity of all labor" (quoted in Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism [Oxford University Press, 1961], p. 116). A similar discipline on the part of Protestant thinkers might rescue the concept of vocation from a morass of sentimentality. As it is usually formulated, the doctrine of vocation is unrealistic especially for people who work in the industrial plants of our nation.

Not that the dignity of work is threatened only in the industrial sector. To some degree, work is problematic everywhere, including the burgeoning service sectors of the economy, an area that needs special consideration. Attention is concentrated here on the industrial sector because it has been largely ignored by Protestant thought—an oversight that needs correcting—and because the problematic nature of work, particularly its repetitive and boring quality, can be most clearly seen in the modern assembly line. All work may have occasional stretches of boredom and dullness, but assembly-line work is pervaded by these qualities. If the meaning of vocation can be articulated in this context, surely it can be done in other contexts. And the assembly line may illustrate for us what work is going to be like for an increasing number of persons. If this is so, Protestant churches need to be aware of it; and theologians and social scientists need to give sustained attention to formulating a new and coherent doctrine of vocation.

This is not to suggest that a mere restatement of the concept of vocation will enable Protestantism to deal constructively with industrialism. But such a restatement would at least indicate that churches have some rudimentary understanding of the situation. Toward this end, I want to examine some classic and modern statements on vocation, compare them to the actual situation of workers on the assembly line, and then suggest how the idea of vocation might be reformulated so as to be more applicable to contemporary life.

The idea of vocation that developed in the Reformation was originally a powerful one, and it remains a meaningful guide to Christian existence for a sizable group in modern society. The Reformers invested secular labor with a new dignity, and thus opened up a whole new world of spiritual significance. Laity who had not thought that what they did in home, field or shop had any religious significance were told that their everyday work was as much a calling of God as was the praying of the monk in a cloister. "What you do in your house," said Luther. "is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God. For what we do in our calling here on earth in accordance with His word and command He counts as if it were done in heaven for Him" (Works [Erlanger edition], vol. 5, p.102). Luther’s language is as usual, exceedingly bold. It looks, he says, like a great thing when a monk renounces the world and pursues a life of asceticism, fasting, prayers and vigils in the cloister. "On the other hand," he goes on. "it looks like a small thing when a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework. But because God’s command is there, even such small work must be praised as a service of God far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns" (p.100).

Calvin’s stress on station and calling gave a similar significance to work. "Every man’s mode of life, therefore, is a kind of station assigned him by the Lord, that he may not always be driven about at random. . . . Again, in all our cares, toils, annoyances, and other burdens, it will be no small alleviation to know that all these are under the superintendence of God. . . . This, too, will afford admirable consolation, that in following your proper calling, no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendor and value in the eye of God" (Institutes, bk. 3, chap. 10, sec. 6).

A brief look at some modern statements on vocation renews our appreciation of this aspect of our Reformation heritage. But they also enable us to see what happens when the conventional Protestant emphasis on work is put in the context of the industrial world.

For example, Dorothy Sayers, the gifted mystery writer and theologian, wrote a spirited essay, "Why work?" which reflects her own work with words. For Sayers, "work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God." In Sayer’s view, "we should no longer think of work as something that we hastened to get through in order to enjoy our leisure; we should look on our leisure as the period of changed rhythm that refreshed us for the delightful purpose of getting on with our work" (Creed or Chaos [Harcourt, Brace], 1949, pp. 54-55). If work is so "delightful," concerns about rates of pay or working hours are somewhat irrelevant. Thus, though these sentiments may reflect the admirable devotion to work of an artist like Sayers, I suspect that they would not be wildly popular among workers on modern assembly lines.

It should be stated with all possible emphasis that these and other affirmations of work are solid and helpful. They fill an important niche, and it would be churlish not to grant this fact. But between such assertions and the world of the assembly-line worker, there is, quite simply, an enormous gap.

Workers do not find in their work anything remotely resembling the affirmations that Sayers describes or the significance ascribed to it by Luther and Calvin. The detestation felt by workers for the conditions under which they labor is fierce and widespread; if their complaints are listened to with sympathy, it is possible to hear in them a cry for elemental rights.

One of the major privations of modern industrial work is the absence of any sense of craftmanship. The finished product is something that workers rarely see. Technological efficiency dictates that a worker perform a single operation and do it over and over again, knowing that tomorrow he or she will again perform the same simple operation countless times. It is an old story, by now, to contrast this situation with that of the craftsman of an earlier time. To a real degree, the craftsman was in control of production; production was not something imposed on him. Work provided the chance to learn, to change, to adapt, and so it did not become monotonous. As a result, work could be illuminated by the traditional concepts of vocation. But that possibility has disappeared under the conditions of modern industrial life.

What alarms many observers of workers’ dissatisfaction today is the depth of workers’ anger. In their anger, they lash out at times, sabotaging the system on which their livelihood depends. This anger can be abundantly documented in such books as Studs Terkel’s Working (Pantheon, 1972) and Robert Schrag’s Ten Thousand Working Days (MIT Press, 1978). While workers’ expressions vary, their message is the same: they detest the monotonous and boring quality of modern work. Robert Linhart, reflecting on his experience on an assembly line in a French auto factory, puts the matter vividly: . "Through the gaps in this gray, gliding line I can glimpse a war of attrition, death versus life and life versus death. Death: being caught up in the line, the imperturbable gliding of the cars, the repetition of identical gesture, the work that’s never finished. If one car’s done, the next one isn’t, and it’s already there, unsoldered at the precise spot that’s just been done, rough at the precise spot that’s just been polished" (Robert Linhart, The Assembly Line [University of Massachusetts Press, 1981], p.16).

It is in the light of such conditions, and such distress, that the concept of vocation must be reconceived. Before sketching what a revised concept would be like, however, two preliminary convictions need to be stated. One is that work, even if dull, boring and debasing, is nevertheless very important in giving persons a sense of meaningful existence. To have no work is to be in a situation where one’s worth, in one’s own eyes as well as the eyes of others, is diminished. Any observer of the unemployed can corroborate this observation. Though the significance of work may need to be rethought, work will always occupy an important role in human existence. A second conviction is that technological developments cannot be undone, and we cannot return to an age of handicraft. The assembly line, whatever its problems, is a fact of modern existence.

How can vocation be reinterpreted to address the condition of the modern industrial worker?

An essential first step is to recover the core meaning of the doctrine. Vocation, as Reformation thought conceived it, was the calling of a life—the whole being of the person offered in the service of God. Daily work, formerly ignored, was lifted up and emphasized; but it was regarded as only one arena of obedient service, not the only important one. In our time, especially in middle-class Protestantism, work has been exalted to such an extent that vocation is confined almost entirely to the sphere of work. This interpretation needs to be repudiated. The work ethic, if it is not balanced by other emphases, can become demonic.

A more balanced view of the place of daily work would be wholesome and liberating. For one thing, it would permit the recognition that work is far less important now than it used to be, simply in terms of the number of hours given to it. And all indications are that work is going to be less and less a major activity in the future. Herman Kahn and Anthony I. Weinter in The Year 2000 (Macmillan, 1967) project that by that time people will work 7.5 hours a day, four days a week, 39 weeks per year, with 13 weeks left for vacation. Even if we allow for some margin of error in this prediction, we should expect a radical change in the social significance of work. To stress the centrality of daily work in that future society is bound to be unrealistic.

Realizing the limited scope of daily work also makes it possible to accord a new legitimacy to leisure and play. I am not necessarily referring only to leisure devoted to the laudable enterprises of self-improvement or social betterment, but to play as a God-approved activity.

At the same time, a doctrine of vocation that claims all of existence will summon workers to attend to the concerns of the common life. This means, specifically, strengthening home and family life, taking a responsible role in politics and participating in the union movement as it strives to recover its role as an ethical force in modern society.

A second step in stating a contemporary doctrine of vocation is to shift our focus from the product of work to the quality of the workplace. The crying need of workers is to have some say in the conditions of their work. They are demanding autonomy on the job. Speaking at the 1985 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sociologist Jeylan T. Mortimer said that the most important determinant of job satisfaction—more important than wages—is the degree to which workers feel they can make their own decisions and have an influence on what happens on the job.

An example of what is being sought by workers is the New Technology Bill of Rights issued by the International Association of Machinists, representing some 650,000 workers in the machine-tool, metal-working, aerospace and airline industries. The document calls for workers to participate in all decisions "that lead to the introduction of new technology or the changing of the workplace systems design, work processes, and procedures of doing work, including the shutdown or transfer of work, capital, and equipment." Technology should "improve the condition of work" and training should be provided for workers displaced by technological developments.

Such a Bill of Rights, even if adopted as part of labor law, would not solve all the problems created by the impact of technology, but it would give workers the sense that they have a role in determining the conditions under which they work and would moderate much of the tension now experienced by industrial workers. Greater worker autonomy would enhance the dignity of work, a crucial factor in any Christian statement on vocation.

Management and labor alike are beginning to recognize that innovations are needed in the workplace. A number of American firms-including AT&T, General Foods, Polaroid, Proctor & Gamble, Chrysler and General. Motors— are experimenting with giving workers a greater voice in determining working conditions, and they are rotating jobs to reduce monotony. Other U.S. companies are following Japan’s example in involving workers in management and production decisions. In the Volvo plant in Gutenberg, Sweden, a special noise-proof retreat is provided for persons who work where the noise level is exceedingly high. Several European firms have reduced work hours, shifted from piece work to hourly or monthly rates, and improved bonuses.

These developments simply indicate that the conditions of work are fluid, and creative possibilities are before us. They further underscore the need for Protestant thought to articulate a vision of vocation that is both realistic about the nature of the workplace and sensitive to the needs of workers. It was Albert Camus who reminded us that life goes rotten without work. He also said that life stifles and dies when work is soulless.

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