In a recent post on the New York Times’ Opinionator blog entitled “The Gospel According to Me,” Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster deconstruct an egocentric distortion of the Gospel, which they describe as a contemporary version of the American dream manifested as “the search for authenticity.” As Critchley and Webster write, “many citizens in rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another - abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness.”
Critchley and Webster rightly excoriate what has been called by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The quest for individual “authenticity” has taken a particularly psychological turn, according to Critchley and Webster: “The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being.” In fact, this shift represents a turn from the objective to the subjective. As Critchley and Webster contend, this new ideology of the American dream has become “one of pure psychological transformation.”
This shift has occurred over decades and has certainly been noticed by Christian commentators. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Once the concerns of the Left shifted from material, empirical issues - hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, disease - to psychological categories, the door was opened for everyone to become a victim and for anyone with a lobby group to make his or her issue the Big One for this generation,” he concludes.
Bereft of transcendent foundations, work can become just one more idol in which we seek our own self-fulfillment, self-aggrandizement and self-sufficiency.
So Critchley and Webster have identified a significant aspect of what characterizes modern secularism. They turn their attention particularly to how views of work have shifted along with the psychological turn inward: “Work is no longer a series of obligations to be fulfilled for the sake of sustenance: it is the expression of one’s authentic self.” Certainly the dangers Critchley and Webster identify with the conflation of work and self can be seen as the result of the secularizing of the sacred and Christian notion of calling or vocation. Bereft of transcendent foundations, work can become just one more idol in which we seek our own self-fulfillment, self-aggrandizement and self-sufficiency.
But the critique that Critchley and Webster level also runs the risk of de-valuing work. For Christians, work is not simply a necessary evil, something to be done merely “for the sake of sustenance.” Christians recognize that the mandate to work, to cultivate and care for the earth, comes before the fall into sin, and thus that work and toil are not simply identical, and that the grinding and depressing aspects of much of our work today are deformations and defects that point to, albeit often indirectly and haltingly, the divinely created order of work as good. The identification of work from a Christian perspective as other-directed, defined as service of others, provides a needed corrective to the errors of viewing work either simply “as a curse or an obligation for which we received payment,” as Critchley and Webster put it, or as the pinnacle of human self-expression.
Lester DeKoster goes so far as to identify work as “the meaning” of the Christian life, but only after work has been properly defined and contextualized as “the form in which we make ourselves useful to man and thus to God.” God has ordained our work as the primary means by which we address the material needs of ourselves and others, and by which we acts as stewards in God’s creation, simultaneously forming our character and our civilization. This perspective, which includes the fallen aspects of human work without reducing it to such defects, is an authentically Christian view of work, rooting our subjective experiences of work within God’s objective and transcendent providence.