Work: The New Religion

Dec 2nd, 2008 | By John Waller | Category: Essay

Work. Religion. At first glance, these two might seem diametrically opposed—unless, of course, you’re a member of the clergy. Work belongs to the realm of the material world; religion to the spiritual. Sam Keen, however, in his book, “Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man,” attempts to bridge these two worlds by proposing an interesting theory: work IS the newest religion. With its highly evolved subcultures practiced by zealous devotees, its increasingly sanctified position in society and its ability to provide the real meaning in our lives, it would seem that he may be onto something. Is it possible that upon examining his arguments, we may discover that a large segment of the population are unknowing practitioners of the newest religious phenomenon?

Keen likens today’s business world to religion in several respects. He observes, “The workplace is rapidly becoming its own culture that defines who we are. Like minisocieties, professions and corporations create their own ritual and mythology[…] As economic organizations have grown larger than governments, employees render them a type of loyalty previously reserved for God” (58). Many professions, in fact, have evolved a specific lexicon and ritualistic activities associated with their work that can seem as unfamiliar to an outsider as a Latin mass is to most people. Have you ever heard truckers talking on their CB radios—if not in person, then at least on TV—or seen the frenzied gesticulations and outlandish outfits on a commodities trading floor? The corporate cultures that companies such as General Electric, Pfizer and IBM have created are legendary for the loyalty they have inspired in their employees. Long-serving workers faithfully adhere to their Corporate Commandments, such as “Thou shall speak no evil of the company,” “Thou shall arriveth each day at the appointed time” and “Thou shall assign proper deference to upper management;” trangressors are cast out from the body of the faithful. Tales of Dot-Com’ers practically living at work to meet near impossible deadlines are common place. Work places equipped with foosball tables, exercise equipment, gourmet cafeterias and masseuses are designed to render the outside world no more than a distraction to the dedicated corporate disciple. It would seem that for certain members of our society, Keen’s comparisons are valid.

The Greeks, Keen notes, believed that only slaves and women should work, and until the Protestant Reformation, the world was divided between the secular and the sacred; Martin Luther changed all that by declaring that every person had a sacred duty to perform their God-approved work (54). This gradual acceptance of the integral part work plays in our materially focused society is so ingrained, that, Keen declares, “Work has replaced God as the source from whom all blessings flow[…] The industrious, especially entrepreneurs with capital, are God’s chosen people, but even laborers are sanctified because they participate in the productive economy” (55). How many times have you heard of a hot-shot CEO being lauded for having performed a “miracle” in turning around the fortunes of a dying company? This divine approval is so complete that some of those formerly referred to as venture capitalists are now bestowed with the more beneficent title of “Angel Investor.” And you don’t have to be powerful or have lots of money to enjoy the fruits of heaven in your labor. No matter how trivial or “low” one’s occupation, there’s always a patron saint available to help you do your job better. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker have Luke, Nicholas and Eligius, respectively, to intercede on their behalf when the job is difficult or schedule tight. None of this would be possible were it not for the sanctity of the workplace.

Where religion once was the sole domain for finding meaning in life, now, Keen asserts, “We don’t work just to make a living. Increasingly, the world of work provides meaning for our lives. It becomes an end in itself rather than the means” (55). A “calling” used to refer exclusively to a person’s decision to renounce the material world and follow God as a minister, missionary, monk or nun. Today we understand a person’s calling to be the work that, after much contemplation and soul-searching, has been found to provide an individual with an extra-ordinary amount of satisfaction and fulfillment. People are called not only to be artists, teachers, social workers and doctors, but also to be pastry chefs, real estate agents, personal trainers and aroma therapists. Where once we had to give up the world to find ourselves and God, now we can find God all around us in the workplace. We can see Him (or Her or Them or Whomsoever) in the contented, though often harried, smile of the small business owner who has renounced the corporate world and struck out on his own. Or in the hugely successful lawyer who graciously donates of her time to defend the downtrodden and oppressed. Or in the poor, misconstrued general who leads his Christian warriors into battle against the forces of evil. There is ample evidence to suggest that we can find our purpose in life through our work.

Keen sums up his feelings about his work as a writer this way, “I don’t know who I would be without the satisfaction of providing for my family, the occasional intoxication of creativity, the warm companionship of colleagues, the pride of a job well done and the knowledge that my work has been useful to others” (67). While this might not seem to be such a devout statement, in the eyes of an ancient Greek citizen, a pre-Luther peasant, or even a modern aristocrat, this opinion of one’s occupation would seem preposterous. Imagine, not only having to work for a living, but actually enjoying it? And finding your life’s purpose in work? Heresy!

By John M. Waller

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