To be clear it isn’t just atheists who struggle with idols. Christians are just as prone to letting an idol into their hearts as atheists are. The idols may or may not be different for Christians than they are for atheists, but they are still there, they are still a temptation. With that in mind fleshing out how to keep work in its proper place isn’t just something we say to atheists with a told-you-so tone while we wag our fingers. When it comes to work, Christians need to honestly assess if their desks have become their altars too.
On February 24th, in an article titled Workism Is Making Americans Miserable, Derek Thompson made a compelling case that for many college-educated men and women, work has become a religion. Thompson writes,
The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.
Thompson, an astute observer of both America’s religious landscape and workplace culture continues,
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
According to Thompson this devotion to work isn’t necessarily about greed but rather these men and women choose to go to work for the same reason Christians go to church, “its where they feel the most themselves.” By making the case that this is a spiritual matter, Thompson raises the stakes on a bewildering issue. Throughout the article he continues to use religious and spiritual imagery to emphasize his point. “The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—,” writes Thompson, “is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion.”
As the title of the article suggests, Thompson sees this decades-long development as troubling, with far-reaching negative consequences. He states, “…a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” He even goes so far as to suggest that this worship of work might offer an explanation to America’s increased depression and anxiety rates.
It was encouraging to see Thompson’s article address this topic seriously and in a way that so clearly paints it as a spiritual issue. At times it felt like reading the transcript of a Timothy Keller sermon more than an article from The Atlantic. The words already mentioned above, “everybody worships something,” deserve a hearty “Amen” and have been echoed in Christian literature and pulpits across the country for years. And Thompson’s conclusion that, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight,” make him sound like a gospel wingman out on the streets getting people ready for a presentation on the four spiritual laws.
On the one hand we can read Thompson’s article and these developments in America’s workplace culture and see them as the logical conclusion of a culture divorcing itself from the rich theology of work and vocation its former faith espoused. This robust evangelical tradition and theology of work of course finds its roots in the reformation when Martin Luther rescued the concept of vocation from over a millennium of misuse.