Yesterday I presented the "spirit/mind versus material world" dualism that exists within Christianity. I showed how it impacts our understanding of the imago Dei, the image of God. This dualism is not a recent development. It extends back to the beginning of the Church. The Hebrew world knew little of these dualisms but once that church entered the Greco-Roman world it seems biblical anthropology become corrupted with Greek anthropology. The Greeks viewed work as something fitting only for slaves. Pursuits of the mind were the highest expression of humanity and could not be troubled with cares of daily work.
Early in the life of the Church, scholarship and administration of the sacraments were elevated as the highest forms of Christian service. Later the Enlightenment elevated reason (matters of the mind and spirit) above all else including God. Two competing forms of foundationalism emerged. They presumed that autonomous objective individuals could through reason comprehend universal truths. One approach sought to identify elemental and universal truths upon which all other truths are based. (We see this strongly evidenced in the meticulous systematic theologies of Conservative Christianity.) Another approach searched for universally shared experiences and sought to build unity around these common experiences (We have seen this well evidenced in much of Liberal Christianity). In both cases, work and human economic action have been peripheral concerns.
Yet work and economic action is precisely where most people spend their time. Because of the Church’s dualistic formulations, it has been unable to speak intelligibly to economic issues except in the most inane ways. When the Church does speak to such issues in the West today it tends to either assume the legitimacy of the present order without theological reflection or engage in “prophetic” critique that is framed more by Enlightenment/Modernist communitarianism than the biblical narrative. Miroslav Volf says it well in his book Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. I quote him at length (Ephasis is in the original.):
Given the paramount importance of work in both liberal and socialist economic and social theory, it is remarkable that in our world dominated by work a serious crisis in work had to strike before church bodies paid much attention to the problem of human work. Theologians are to blame for the former negligence. Amazingly little theological reflection has taken place in the past about an activity that takes up so much of our time. The number of pages theologians have devoted to the question of transubstantiation – which does or does not take place on Sunday – for instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to work that fills our live Monday through Saturday. My point is not to belittle the importance of correct understanding of the real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper but to stress that a proper perspective on human work is at least as important.
One might object that the most basic things in life are not necessarily the most important, and that is hence superfluous to spend much time reflecting on them. Breathing is rather basic to life, but we do it twenty-four hours a day without giving it a second thought – until air pollution forces us to do so. Working, one might say, is much like breathing: its point is to keep us alive, and we need not bother with it until its function is hindered.
The parallel between breathing and working makes sense, however, only in a theology that subordinates the vita activa completely to the vita contemplativa. As Thomas Aquinas’ reflection on work illustrates, in such a theology the only real reason to work is to make the contemplation of God possible, first by providing “for the necessities of the present life” without which contemplation could not take place, and second, by “quieting and directing the internal passions of the soul,” without which human beings would not be “apt [enough] for contemplation.” But apart from the fact that work is necessary to provide for the necessities of the body and to quiet the passions of the soul, work is detrimental to human beings, for “it is impossible for one to be busy with external action and at the same time give oneself to Divine contemplation.” When a person inspired by the love of God does the will of God in the world, she suffers separation from the sweetness of Divine contemplation. Where the vita activa is fully subservient to vita contemplativa, there is no need to reflect extensively on human work since, as a mere means to a much higher end, it is in the long run accidental to the real purpose of human life.
The complete subordination of vita activa to vita contemplativa that has been basic to much of Christian theology throughout the centuries betrays an illegitimate intrusion of Greek anthropology into Christian theology. Faithfulness to our Judeo-Christian biblical roots demands that we abandon it. I am not suggesting that we should follow the modern inversion of the traditional order between vita activa and vita contemplativa and subordinate vita contemplativa completely to vita activa. I am not even suggesting that we should place them on an equal footing. I do propose, however, that we treat them as two basic, alternating aspects of the Christian life that may differ in importance but that cannot be reduced one to another, and that form an inseparable unity.
As soon as we ascribe inherent and not simply instrumental value to the vita activa (and thereby also to human work) we have answered the question of whether theological reflection on work is fundamental or marginal to the task of theology. … (69-70)