Work & Human Flourishing

Book Review: Turning Back the Clock on the Theology of Work

by Ann Heekin

Patricia Ranft, Professor of History, emerita, at Central Michigan University, deepens our modern understanding of work by taking us back to its medieval origins in The Theology of Work: Peter Damian and the Medieval Religious Renewal Movement. Historians have traditionally located an emerging theory of work in the 19th and 20th centuries, but Ranft’s engaging study turns back the time clock to show that medieval society established the framework from which modern ideas on work have grown.

Ranft regards the religion and labor debate begins in the 11th century world of Peter Damian and his social theology of work. A reverence for work takes root early in Christianity. According to the fourth-century Rule of St. Basil, God’s command to Adam to work and cultivate the land began in paradise, not after his expulsion. Eastern ascetic literature, commencing with Anthony the Great, also extoled the natural rhythm of unceasing work and prayer and the idea of work and prayer as compatible ways to God. Western monasticism follows. Benedict’s Rule raised a positive view of labor in relation to God and other to new spiritual and economic heights. Ranft identifies the Rule of Benedict as a decisive turning point when the work ethic becomes the foundation of the monastic economic enterprise that turns the monastery into an economic hub in service to the town.

Damian’s owns theology of work is dominated by the centrality of work in religious life. Ranft observes the most remarkable emphasis in Damian’s teaching was the intrinsic relationship between good works and contemplation. Rather than work as an impediment to the spiritual life, he taught contemplation leads us to good works. Damian considered work the vehicle by which humans act as co-creators with God. This theological justification of work becomes the cornerstone of the two central principles in Damian’s theology: eschatology and witness. According to Ranft, Damien’s theology helped to fuse the ideas of witness and eschatology in the active life, “Eschatology mandates that one builds a future that resembles the eschaton, and witness serves as a guide for all to accomplish this” (77). Damian saw work as the instrument for fulfilling creation and considered all work intrinsically equal in value:

“Work is not the sole domain of one class, but an obligation of every human person. The specific task of each individual varies, but not its intrinsic value, for it is only when the work of each person is united with the work of every other person that creation is complete “(77).

In Professor Ranft’s analysis of Damian’s influence on medieval religious reformers, we see in intricate detail how the strands of Damian’s theology are woven into their social theologies. For example, the Cistercians undertaking of large-scale manual labor in agriculture, milling, mining and the medieval market, helped to liberate the peasant who became a paid laborer. Work’s social utility was both existential and economic.

Reflecting on Damian’s influence on the later orders, she notes the theological shift in the church when “the transcendent, resurrectional god of the early Middle Ages was gradually replaced with an immanent incarnational god” (146). Ranft cites the fist woman theologian of work, Hildegard of Bingen, who viewed work as the source of humanity’s sense of agency over the capriciousness of nature made possible by the Incarnation. The utility of work was the empowerment it affords the worker to reform the goodness of creation through one’s labor. With the emergence of the mendicant orders, both the Franciscans and the Dominicans developed an explicit theology of work. For Dominicans, preaching was the form of working in the world and salvation of the world rested on that work. While theology of work of St. Francis is more complex, Ranft says Francis’ obligation to bear witness by going into the world defined his legacy of work as the imitation of Christ and the witness to others, which is work’s reward.

Prof Ranft’s study on a Christian theology of work brings us back to its monastic origins and the influence of Peter Damian and forward to its influence on the church in the modern world. The inherent dignity of the worker expressed in Rerum novarum (1891), the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, lays the cornerstone for the modern social justice teachings of the church and in particular, worker justice. Nearly one hundred years later, Laborens exercens (1981) of Pope John Paul II, brings forth a modern theology of work. He affirms the dignity of work for helping reach the fullness of our humanity. We can hear the echoes of Damian’s theology of work in the words of John Paul II, “ Work is a good thing for man–a good thing for his humanity–because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as human being and indeed in a sense becomes “more of a human being” (3).

The Theology of Work:Peter Damian and the Medieval Religious Renewal Movement

by Patricia Ranft

Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

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