Volume 2015, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 2218-7480
  • EISSN:


Religious cultures tend to understand work both as a blessing and as a curse; at times a divine gift, at times a chastising toil. Although work is first of all a distant human reflection of the Divine work of creation, it is also, in the Bible, a divine punishment for human disobedience: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;” (Genesis 3:19). This two-faced reality manifests as well in our contemporary age, one in which global economic exploitation is no less obvious than exponential creativity and activity. What is certain is that work concerns have probably never been as high on the human agenda as they are today. This is so much so that it has sometimes been claimed that work is indeed the new religion of our times, at least in the largely secularized sections of the world. In the absence of a clear focus on transcendence and a consensus on religious values, professional activity has tended to fill a vacuum in giving meaning to one's life, as well as in connecting one to others in a network of collaborative tasks. The tremendous, sometimes indeed vertiginous, commitment, ingenuity and energy that come into play in the ever increasingly complex web of human work throughout the globe, bear witness to this. Notwithstanding this transfer of quasi-religious fervor onto professional endeavors, there is a sense in which much of contemporary work has lost its immediate intelligibility, when it has not been turned into a source of inequity and exploitation. This is no doubt a result of the mechanization, automatization and, in a sense, depersonalization and informatization of many professional endeavors in the age of globalization. Thus, work may often be equated with a mere economic imperative of survival disconnected from vital and ethical concerns, or even a tyrannical necessity squarely at odds with moral values and spiritual well-being. In one way or another, the investment of work with religious meaning has been, throughout human history, the rule rather than the exception. In all pre-modern civilizations the sacralization of work was a common place phenomenon. For homo religiosus, work is action or production, doing or making, and it involves, in both cases, a sort of consecration; it has to be performed "in the name of God," not only formally and perfunctorily, but qualitatively and spiritually. Furthermore, when spiritually integrated, it entails a transformation of one's being, as was amply demonstrated by the deep and widespread connection between crafts and spirituality. This held true for individuals as well as for groups, like guilds, tribes or castes. Work is associated with identity, and a people who does not work, or does not know how to work anymore, or does not bring to work a sense of care, cannot but lose its dignity, and ultimately its true identity. This is not a matter of national pride or mere formal heritage, but one of cultural and indeed religious survival. Gandhi was quite aware of this profound connection between the spiritual identity of a nation and the quality of its work, when he chose the spinning wheel as a symbol of his campaign of cultural restoration. Even though work may be integrated within religious values, it is rarely considered in and of itself a religious act or a religious production. Religious action lies primarily in rites, prayers and moral behaviour. How do those relate to work? First prayer and meditation is in a sense a type of "work," since it is in all religions not only an obligation for all, but also a special vocation for some. Even those traditions which do not accept monasticism recognize this, as testified by the status of the ahlal-suffa in early Islam. Those were members of the early Muslim community who spent most of their time in devotional practices. This demonstrates that humanity is diverse, and this diversity manifests in the plurality of vocations (vocatio means “calling” in latin). The multiplicity of professional callings, which has been a result of social and family contexts or individual qualifications and interests, is very broad, from farming to the crafts, from contemplative life to social service, from military and administrative functions to teaching and healing. Secondly, there is something factitious and suspect about the often alleged opposition between contemplation and action. The Quran states that there are “men whom neither trade nor sale diverts them from the remembrance of God" (24:37), thereby rejecting the superficial contemporary view that prayer would be incompatible with work, or that the latter should substitute for the former, or be "counted" as it. Thirdly, the quality of religious practices, and the religious consciousness they foster or express, is evidently incompatible with professional dishonesty and an unethical way of life. Religion is, in that sense, a school of moral education that informs professional activity as well as other domains of life. By contrast, a lack of consistent connection and integration between religious practice and professional ethics cannot but be the sign of a gravely flawed understanding or treatment of the former. Beyond such foundational considerations, any comprehensive professional ethics would recognize both that work has something "consecrating" about it, and that it is not an absolute. Work ethics takes work as seriously as it deserves to be, as one of the most significant dimensions of our life, but it still subordinates it to higher spiritual and moral principles and values, thereby affirming both its power of self-realization and the limits of its rights and demands. It ensures that work feeds the soul, but does not feed on it. Patrick Laude


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  • Article Type: Editorial
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