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16 May 2022

In the past two decades, a number of important books on the nature and meaning of work from the Christian perspective have been published. These books have been enormously helpful in clarifying the Christian understanding of human work in relation to calling, vocation and stewardship.

However, the habits of mind formed in some Christians who take a particular perspective of reality, believing that it is consistent with Scripture, continue to linger stubbornly. And this purportedly Christian view of the way things are (or should be) has either introduced or continued to perpetuate distortions about the significance of daily work.

The habits of mind that I am referring to is a form of metaphysical dualism that is imposed upon all of reality which in turn results in different valuations of aspects of human life, activity and experience. Theologians such as T. F. Torrance have long argued that metaphysical dualism is the central problem of the West; it is, so to speak, a ‘Latin Heresy’.

Simply put, dualism separates things that belong together. It fails to see the difference between distinction and separation, and mistakenly thinks that the former is identical to or requires the latter. It invariably creates false dichotomies.

In the field of philosophy, such dualisms are manifest in – for example – the distinction that Plato famously makes between the world of ideas and the world of flux. This in turn has spawned a whole array of dualisms such as the empirical and theoretical, the physical and the spiritual and the temporal and the eternal.

In the philosophy of the European Enlightenment’s most eminent thinker, Immanuel Kant, we witness this same predilection as a sharp wedge is driven between the noumenal and phenomenal realms. This has resulted in the problem in Kantian epistemology which limits what can be known and creates an epistemic ‘distance’ between human knowledge and its object.

At first glance, Christianity appears to have perpetuated this dualistic mindset with the distinctions it makes between faith and reason, body and soul, temporal and eternal. However, more rigorous reflection would quickly correct this misperception (more on this later).

Be that as it may, many Christians have embraced this dualistic outlook which in turn has forced them to make false either / or choices. This has shaped and coloured the way in which some Christians look at politics, the environment, and, the meaning and significance of daily work.

Before looking at some of the distorting dualisms, it is important to clarify that the Christian faith does present a fundamental metaphysical dualism that must be maintained, namely, the ontological difference between God and creation. Christianity therefore can never embrace pantheism which removes the gulf between the Creator and the creature, making them one and the same reality.

But within the created order, however, some of the dualisms that our culture has created cannot be legitimised by the Christian faith. And if these misconstrued dualisms are allowed to guide our perspectives and outlook, the result will be distortion and confusion, not clarity.

In relation daily work, the body-soul dualism, for example, which dominates some Christian accounts of the nature of the human being, but whose real origins can be traced to Platonism, has often coloured some Christians’ understanding of work.

It is not difficult to see why this is so. In the body-soul dualism, that which is incorporeal, namely, the soul, is often seen as more important than the body. The valuations that this dualism brings about is so entrenched in the consciousness of some Christians that for them salvation often relates only to the soul, not the body.

But if the soul is more important than the body, then the mundane things that we do like our daily lives for material gain such as our work, are deemed to have less significance than the so-called spiritual activities. This dualism has the consequence of demeaning ordinary work, thereby distorting our understanding of work itself.

Closely related to this is the dualism of the eternal and the temporal. Some Christians are of the view that the eternal is more important than the temporal, and therefore dismisses or deprecates the value of temporal life and all its occupations and concerns.

This distortion has important ramifications on the way in which Christians who hold this view look at activities such as politics, public engagement, humanitarian efforts for the common good, etc. It certainly has serious implications on the way in which the significance of work as we know it – which is surely a temporal activity – is understood.

The third dichotomy is between the sacred and the secular. The wedge that is driven between the two is sometimes so deep that some Christians tend to think that they are two non-overlapping realms.

Although this may sound cliché but some Christians have created a gulf between Sunday and the rest of the week. Sunday is for ‘sacred’ activities such as worship and prayer, while the activities that one is engaged in in rest of the week is decidedly ‘secular’. Daily work, which includes everything from that of a janitor, a CEO or a business person, is secular activity.

Examples of such ‘Christian’ dualisms and their distorting consequences can be easily multiplied. But they are inimical to biblical account of reality which urges us to embrace what may be described as a holistic view (advocated by theologians like Torrance) which is grounded in the Christian doctrine of creation.

Once this holism is embraced, a proper understanding of distinction and separation, which dualism has somewhat confused, may be achieved.

Body and soul are indeed distinct. But they are not separated from one another but are in fact essential aspects of the human being. Eternity and time are distinct but they are both real and therefore they (especially time and the temporal) must both be taken seriously.

And, if as Christians we understand that everything that we do should be an act of worship and service to God (Colossians 3:23), then the daily activity of work, however mundane, can never be seen as purely secular, as devoid of the sacred.

Daily work, however humble, should always be dedicated to God and energised by the sole desire to honour and glorify him.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.