What on earth are we here for?

What on earth are we here for? A Theology of Work for today’s world

Vice Chancellor, Colleagues, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a huge honour for me to given this inaugural lecture following the University of Huddersfield’s kind invitation to me to become Visiting Professor of Theology.  I am enormously grateful to Professor Cryan for the welcome he gave to me on my arrival in Huddersfield in 2014 and for the support he and his colleagues have given to me in my ministry since that time.  Being based on the University campus over the last two years has opened up all kinds of opportunities to interact and build relationships with people not only at the University but also in the wider civic and business communities, some of whom are represented here this evening.

One of the privileges of being a bishop in the Church of England is the chances it gives to bring people together to discuss issues of mutual concern and to contribute to those discussions from a Christian point of view.  That is part of what I hope we can do this evening – and that I will be able to do also as Visiting Professor of Theology here at the University.

The subject for this evening’s lecture is the Theology of Work.  We settled on this topic partly because it seemed to bring together well my own research interests and some of those of the School of Education and Professional Development.  My engagement with this theme goes back to my doctoral dissertation in the 1980s, which was on the subject of the Theology of Work.

And so you have my title: “What on earth are we here for? A theology of work for today’s world.”  But that title itself begs a number of questions, beginning with perhaps one of the most obvious: “What on earth is a theology of work?”  Well, hopefully by the end of this evening you will have some idea – but in essence a theology of work is a critical reflection on the activity of human work and a framework for the transformation of human work, offered from a theological perspective.  As such a theology of work is a contribution to a debate – the debate about the nature and form of human work in today’s world – and it is a contribution that is made with the intention of changing the way we think and act in respect of the activities we call “work”.  To paraphrase Marx – the purpose of theology is both to understand the world and to change it.

And that leads on to a second preliminary question: “Why bother to produce a theology of work?”  Well, to echo Socrates’ words, as reported by Plato, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  One of the purposes of theology, along with philosophy, is to encourage critical reflection on the way we live, both as individuals and as members of society.  Theology in this sense is not meant to be an abstruse and private discussion of matters that are only of concern to religious people or to those who are interested in that kind of thing.  No, the subject and the concern of theology is all things – every aspect of life and existence – in their relationship to God.  Theology therefore seeks to reflect on how we live and on what we do from the perspective of faith (in this case the Christian faith) and it also seeks to propose alternative ways of living and courses of action.

Now I guess some might ask: why on earth is theology getting mixed up in all of this?  And that question might come from one of two quite different perspectives.  The first is from certain Christians, who believe (erroneously in my view) that the only thing that really matters is for human beings to have a relationship with God, and who believe as a result that nothing to do with the life of this world has any lasting or eternal significance.  We should therefore not be concerned with the subject of human work, except in so far as that work provided believers with the resources to preach the gospel and bring people to Christian faith.

The second, and these days much more common view, is that theology has no business getting involved with life in what is called the “public square”.  Theology ought to be discussed only in private and among consenting adults.  From this perspective theology represents a religious ideology which has no place in the rational discussion of how we order our common life in today’s world.  Religion had a privileged place in our society for too long in the past, but now that time is over.

The problem with this kind of view – which is often quite stridently expressed – is that every conception of how our common life ought to be lived is based on some ideology or other – that is on a conception of what is appropriate and an underlying narrative about what is valuable and worthwhile in human existence.  The second paragraph of the United States’ Declaration of Independence opens with these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” but who says these truths are self-evident?  Because quite plainly both down the ages and even now across the world (most notably in North Korea, but elsewhere as well) not everyone would agree!  Every conception about how life should be ordered is based on a particular underlying narrative – a story that enshrines what the people concerned want to say about the world and their place within it.

What that means is that we cannot and should not exclude religious and theological perspectives from debates about the shape of our common life, whether in society or within the life of a University.  Excluding religious perspectives is an example of ill thought-out cultural, and in this case secular, imperialism which is both illegitimate and counter-productive.   Instead we need to allow contributions to debate from all perspectives, whether religious or not, and to encourage people to use their critical faculties to question and challenge what they see as erroneous, ill-founded or unhelpful perspectives, as Mark Thompson argues cogently in his recent book “Enough Said – What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?”  Incidentally, that book ought to be required reading for Faculty members and Students Union councils alike, because it makes such a powerful case for the importance of maintaining freedom of speech and academic discourse, which we neglect at our peril – but that’s to stray into another topic altogether (though one I did also think of proposing for the subject of this lecture)!

Theology has a contribution to make to public debate about issues such as the future shape of work in our society, not because it occupies a privileged position, but because it is rooted in a long tradition of reflection on human life and flourishing, and because within that tradition, certainly from the Judaeo-Christian perspective but elsewhere as well, there is often found a prophetic voice which stands outside and is prepared to challenge the dominant powers and the status quo; for all those reasons, religious tradition and the theology which embodies critical reflection within that tradition can often bring fresh and unexpected insight into the issues of the day.  And that is a consideration that many of those working in government at all levels, local and national, also need to take into account, as a counterbalance to their in-built tendency to see religion as part of the problem rather than as a potential source of solutions.  Religion and theology ought to be seen as part of the cultural capital that can help us address some of our shared problems, especially when prevailing secular ideologies have little left to offer in response to today’s issues.

And mention of today’s issues raises another relevant question: Why now?  Why focus on the issue of a theology of work here and now – what might be its relevance in our context today?  Part of the answer to this question would apply in any time and setting, and part relates to our current context in the early years of the twenty-first century.  Let’s begin with the general and then move on to the specific.

The more general answer relates to the question I mentioned earlier, concerning the “unexamined life”.  When I lived in Paris over thirty years ago, there was a catch-phrase used to describe the existence of many of the city’s commuters: “Metro, Boulo, Dodo” which basically (and slightly cynically) summed up life as a relentless cycle of travel on the crowded Tube (or the Metro – it sounds better, but it smelled worse!), long hours in the office, followed by crashing out in bed at the end of the day, before starting all over again.

A theology of work tries to help us understand our existence, to find meaning within it (where possible) and to offer a critique which might form the basis for trying to change what is going on.  It asks the question, what are we meant to be here for?, and how therefore should we approach our daily lives and maybe even try to change things for the better, both for ourselves and for others.  We will examine this in more detail a little later on, but the key thing to grasp is that a theology of work is intended to be a critical framework for helping us to live better as human beings, given the context in which we find ourselves, both locally and globally.

The more specific answer as to why we need to develop a theology of work in the here and now relates to that given context.  There are any number of issues that might warrant careful thought and reflection.  One might start with the question of personal meaning – how does the work that we do and the life that we live provide us with the things that we need?  That will include money for living, but it might also include a sense of purpose, to do with achieving something worthwhile and maybe even socially beneficial.  It might include social contact with others and a sense of being part of something bigger.  And on the negative side, we might want to consider how our work affects our physical and mental well-being.

Moving beyond ourselves, we might want to consider the impact of work and the way it is organised on our fellow human beings.  Let me suggest some examples:

  • Health and well-being or otherwise of individuals (both directly in the work place and through externalities such as pollution).
  • Wealth (in terms of a fair income for the workers themselves, as well as for suppliers of goods and services, and beyond that revenue from taxation for the promotion of the well-being of society as a whole).
  • Relationally in terms the promotion or disruption of healthy relationships, both at work and outside it (for instance through the impact of shift work, zero hours contracts and 24/7 trading).
  • And alongside all of these, there is the spectre of unemployment, where caused by economic policy or changing patterns of production, including the rise of automation and the loss of many unskilled jobs in the coming years.

Then of course there is the question of the impact of human work on the natural world.  How should we balance the need to make use of the earth’s resources to supply human needs and desires with the need to care for and conserve both those resources and the creatures with which we share this planet?  What framework do we have for helping us make such choices?  If that framework is entirely anthropocentric, then what value do we place on the natural world?  Or can that value only ever be instrumental, in terms of the needs of human beings?  Given what we are hearing at the moment about the impact of climate change on both natural ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef and on human well-being as in drought-affected East Africa and Australia, it is surely as important as it has ever been that we should develop a moral vision and framework that can help us resist the rapaciousness and folly of human beings who seem unable to see beyond the end of their car bonnet.

And finally there is the issue of how we find our identity and sense of value.  Is it primarily through the work that we do – in which case what happens when we are no longer engaged in that work for whatever reason?  There is no doubt that for a great many people their sense of worth is tied up with what we do – whether that is paid employment, voluntary activity or some other role such as parenthood.  In all of these cases, once the role is taken away, what is left?  In this context, as I hope we will see shortly, a theological approach offers an alternative, whereby our fundamental value rests in our being created, loved and called into relationship by God.  It is that prior identity which offers a secure foundation on which to build the shape of our lives, for our own good and for the good of our fellow human beings and creatures.  Having a sense of who we are and why we are here prior to our undertaking any particular role or activity can us to make better and more meaningful choices, and to retain a sense of dignity and worth, even where those choices are limited by our circumstances.

What I will be seeking to do in a few moments is to outline a theological framework that might help us to locate and address all of these issues in a coherent way, and in a way that might offer some kind of purchase as we try to make sense of life in today’s world and maybe even try to reshape that life for the better.  As I said at the start, the purpose of theology is not just to interpret the world but to try and change it.

There is however one more important preliminary question which I have not addressed, and it is to do with the term “work” itself.  When we talk about a theology of work, what exactly do we mean?  It is a term we use in a whole host of different ways, and in the end it may be help to think of the term “work” as being an umbrella for a host of different things that sit loosely together, as Wittgenstein suggested in his concept of “family resemblances”.  According to this idea, there is no one thing or set of characteristics that everything that we call work shares in common – but they overlap in their meanings and we can more or less agree (though not always) that certain things constitute work whereas others do not.

On the other hand of course, we might want to say that the very same activity (as it appears to the casual observer) might both be and not be work.  For a professional artist, for example, painting a landscape in the Dales is their way of earning their crust, whereas for someone else doing the same thing might very definitely not be work, but their means of relaxing and escaping from work.  The same might apply also to the professional footballer on a Saturday afternoon, who the next day goes along to coach their daughter’s team in the local park – one is work and the other may be leisure (though to see how seriously some parents take such things, you might well think otherwise!).

Having said that, it may be helpful to have some broad definition of what we mean by work in this context.  One that is narrow enough to help focus our thinking but wide enough to apply in different settings.  And so as a starting point, I would suggest the following:

Work is purposeful activity intended to achieve goals and to meet perceived needs.

Let me repeat that: Work is purposeful activity intended to achieve goals and to meet perceived needs.

There are three key elements to this approximate definition – purposeful activity, intended goals and perceived needs, and I would suggest that it is the combination of these three characteristics that defines what we generally think of as work.

Purposeful activity indicates something on the one hand that is neither simply about idling away the time nor on the other hand a state of rest or recuperation.  Intended goals speaks of the creation of some new state of affairs as a result of what is being done – something is meant to be different after the activity in question.  And perceived needs speaks of the results of work, in terms perhaps of a product ready for sale or a wage that has been earned.

But on the other hand, this definition also has the merit of flexibility.  It could refer equally well, for instance, to the parenting and nurture of children or to volunteering for a local charity.  It is not restricted to work as paid employment, which is how people often think of work – to the exclusion and detriment of a huge amount of unpaid activity which is of great importance to human well-being (and indeed that of the natural world) but which does not register within calculations of GDP and national wealth.

This is important for what I will be saying shortly about the theology of work, because from a theological perspective (as indeed from other philosophical points of view) human activity is not just to be valued economically, but on the basis of its contribution to human well-being and the care of creation.  A narrowly economic conception of the value of work can have perverse consequences for the self-esteem of those who do not earn a wage, for instance because they focus on the nurture of our children, but also for the building of human community and for our stewardship of the natural world. 

What this suggests to me is that we need to look for a framework for understanding the place of work in human life which is bigger than purely economic.  It needs to take account of the different elements of human work which I outlined earlier, namely the formation of the human person, its impact on the human community and on the natural world, as well as dealing with the question of the dignity and value of human persons both before and after they undertake any form of activity that we might call work.  That is something that is seen most sharply perhaps at both ends of human life.  Two particular experiences come to mind in this regard: firstly, having seen my father descend into dementia but still be loved and cherished as a human being (perhaps even the more so at times precisely because of his vulnerability) and secondly, having recently held our first grandchild in my arms.  In neither case could they contribute anything that might be called work but both had the capacity to elicit love and even to create relationships.  Their value and that of every human being goes far beyond anything economic and our failure to care for the vulnerable at all stages of life undermines both our own humanity and human community.

So what resources might there be within the Christian tradition when it comes to formulating a theology of work that might encompass the range of issues of which we have already spoken?  Well, the primary resource for Christian reflection must be the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures that we know as the Bible.  And of course the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis have a great deal to say about the place of human beings within the world under God, and the tasks that God gave to humankind in his original intention for their life within the world that he had made.

At this point I need to make short digression in order to deal with the question of the kind of literature we are dealing with in the opening chapters of Genesis.  These are not and were never intended to be a scientific textbook explaining the processes whereby and the timescale within which the world was made.  They are instead a profound and highly complex weaving together of at least two main strands of theological reflection, which repay careful analysis even today – and perhaps especially today as we consider the disastrous impact that we human beings are having on the world in which God has placed us.

Genesis chapter one, for instance, is a marvellous poetic reflection on the majesty both of the created universe and of the God who called it into being.  It also makes it clear that human beings have been given a special responsibility to exercise stewardship (the older and now more problematic term was “dominion”) within that universe.  Genesis chapter two, on the other hand, which represents an older and more primary tradition, indicates that the human (“Adam” in Hebrew) is made from the dust of the earth (“Adamah” in Hebrew), and that he/she is placed in the garden (in the words of Genesis 2:15) “to tend it and to care for it”.

Just in these two chapters, there is a great wealth of material for reflection on the place and role of human beings within creation – and we have not even begun to touch on the theme of “Sabbath” and its meaning in terms of the importance of resting from work and taking time to enjoy the glory of creation and of its Creator.  Too often we have no time to stop and wonder, because the demands of the economy and wealth production drive us on relentlessly.  But then in a later part of the Bible didn’t someone say something about our not being able to serve both God and Mammon?

There are any number of passages in the Bible that we could use to reflect on these themes, as well as in the writings of theologians down the centuries, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Luther and Calvin (think of the Protestant Work ethic and Weber’s thesis about the spirit of capitalism) and on to twentieth century writers such as Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann and Pope John Paul II.  All of these and more can contribute much to our thinking about human work in relation to the four key themes that I outlined earlier – the self, the human community, the natural world and the grace of God.

What I would like to do, rather than working through these different materials, is to outline a short theological framework that seeks to integrate each of these key themes and then to indicate how this might help us address some of the main challenges that we are facing in today’s world, whether as individuals, as parents, as educators, as employers or as public policy makers and those involved in government at one level or another:

  1. According to the Christian tradition, God exists as a community of love between three inter-dependent persons whom we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  2. God created the universe not out of need but as an expression of the love which is at the heart of his being and out of a desire to share himself with other beings who could enjoy and respond to that love.
  3. Human beings as created by God are called in a particular way to receive, enjoy and reflect that love; that is in essence what we read in the opening chapters of Genesis about human beings being made in the image of God.
  4. Human beings, however, have rejected that invitation and chosen instead to live for themselves, with the disastrous consequences we see all around us.  This is what the story in Genesis chapter three, traditionally known as the Fall, is essentially about.
  5. The remainder of what we call the Old Testament (or the “Hebrew Scriptures”) is about God’s plan to create a people who would serve him loyally and act as his ambassadors and agents in relation to the rest of humanity and the created world, culminating in the hope of the coming of the Messiah to act of God’s behalf.
  6. From the beginning, God had chosen to come into the world in the person of his Son as the Messiah in order to reconcile human beings to himself and to inaugurate his kingdom here on earth (which we might call “life as it is meant to be” and which Jesus also calls “life in all its fullness” in John 10.10).
  7. Jesus Christ calls human beings to participate in the life of God’s kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit; the fellowship of those who respond to his call is the Church or the Body of Christ.
  8. Through Jesus Christ, Christians learn to respond to God’s call on our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit.  They are called to live in the world as citizens of the kingdom of God – demonstrating and calling people to participate in “life as God intends it to be” or “life in all its fullness”. 
  9. This life as God intends it to be – life in all its fullness – consists of the following main elements:
    1. Putting to use the gifts that God has given us, not only to provide for our own needs but for the good of our fellow humanity and at the same time making responsible and sustainable use of the resources of the natural world.
    2. Helping people to experience life in all its fullness at every level of their existence, personal, social and ecological, which can and must include challenge unjust structures and harmful ways of working, as well as the Church’s task of evangelism, through which people may come to discover the love of God in Christ for themselves.

This outline suggests a framework for human life within which what we traditionally call “work” is clearly located but not determinative.  Within this framework, work in the sense of economic activity has an important place but it does not define human vocation or identity.  It begins to answer the question “Why are we here?” in a way that can helpfully shape a debate about the kind of world we are making for ourselves and about the kind of education we need to be offering to children and young people as we help them prepare for their future in a fast-changing world.  It suggests a focus on purpose which is bigger than simply helping people get a job, but which clearly includes the importance of economic activity. And it also clearly affirms the value of what we might call “economically inactive” human beings at whatever stage of life, in a way that a purely economic focus cannot do.

So, in the time that remains, let me try and sketch out some of the implications of this theological framework, in relation to the key themes that we identified earlier:

  • In regard to human identity and worth, this approach resolutely resists any notion that human beings are valuable only if they undertake some form of economically contributive activity.  Rather, human beings are valuable because they are made in the image of God and are loved by God.  And that applies to the young, the old, the unemployed, the differently-abled – and to every single human being on this earth.  This is a direct challenge to any philosophy or political ideology that suggests that a person’s value is related to what they do or what they earn.  We are created and we are loved by God before we even breathe our first breath - since before we were formed in our mother’s womb in the words of Psalm 139.  There is here a fundamental affirmation of the status and dignity of every human being, regardless of who or what they are, which needs to be heard by children and young people who face bullying on social media, being excluded from the crowd by their fellow students, or who feel put down and discouraged by their teachers at whatever stage of their education.  Our work – what we do – does not determine our value or whether we are loved.  Our value lies in our having been made in the image of God and our being loved by him.  That fundamental theological affirmation underlies the conceptions of human rights developed by Thomas Paine and others in the eighteenth century and enshrined in the Universal Declaration in the years following the Second World War, and it needs to be a core foundation for our thinking about the kind of society and world we want to shape for our shared future.
  • On the other hand, it is equally clear that human beings find dignity and meaning through being able to use whatever gifts and talents they have to make a contribution to supporting themselves and those close to them, and more generally to making a contribution to the well-being of society.  For many that will come in the form of some form of paid employment, and that is a good thing because it helps people have an appropriate sense of dignity and independence.  But that is not possible for all, for at least part if not all of their lives.  Those who give themselves to the raising of children or to caring for elderly relatives make a huge contribution to the well-being of society, and they need to be honoured and recognised for that.  Some will not be able to undertake economically productive work, either because of their being differently-abled in some way or other, or (and this will apply all the more in the future) because they do not have the skills currently required to obtain paid employment.  There have been for instance dire predictions about the numbers of people who will be out of work in the next twenty years because of the rise of automation and the advent of driverless vehicles.  Part of the answer will be to encourage retraining so that people can gain employment, but on the other hand might it not be that we need to think about the value of paying people to undertake tasks for the public good – which is essentially what we already do already when it comes to the provision of education in schools?  This is something that we choose to do because we believe it is right for the children we educate and not something we should leave to the vagaries of the marketplace.  We need a debate about the importance of people having something meaningful to do, not necessarily by way of paid employment, but enabling them to make a meaningful contribution to the well-being of others and the stewardship of our shared world.  That is the kind of “work” which every human being should have the opportunity to undertake in one way or another.
  • And that leads us to our third main theme, which is the importance of work as something that contributes to the well-being of others and the creation of healthy human society.  Work at its best helps bring people into contact with others and creates a sense of co-operation between human beings.  It provides the resources to feed people, buy their clothes, build homes and provide for education and health care.  Work for the most part helps create good (and goods) of one sort or another for the benefit of human beings.  But not all work is like that.  It can produce air pollution that kills millions of people prematurely, not just in the factories where people work but right across the face of the earth. We need to be willing to challenge exploitation and to do all we can to ensure that goods are fairly traded and sweat shops abolished, not just here but across the world.  What kind of a debate is going on about the kind of world we want to leave for our children?  And what kind of education should we be providing for our young people, that will equip them to make a meaningful contribution to society, not just economically but in a host of other ways?  Do we have the right models of education in place to achieve these goals, or should we be arguing for the importance of teaching people to “love our neighbours as ourselves” as someone once put it?
  • Finally, we need to remember the themes that the opening chapters of Genesis weave so artfully together, beginning with affirming the fundamental goodness of that which God has made (as Genesis chapter one puts it:  “And God saw all that he had made and it was very good”) and then recognising that human beings both have responsibility for the earth and that we are ourselves are made from that very earth.  In recent years, concern for the environment seems to have taken a bit of a back seat, in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent recession.  But to go on neglecting these imperatives is to live in a fool’s paradise and to neglect the longer term costs of failing to look after the natural world even as we demand so much from it.



Taken together in this kind of way, these themes, derived from the basic framework of a Christian theology, can help us both to present a compelling alternative vision for the future of society and to act as a critical friend to those who make decisions on our behalf, whether in education, business the third sector or in government at whatever level.

We (by which I mean not only Christians but all concerned people) need to be making the running in a debate across our society about what kind of world we are making and indeed why we are here in the first place.  For those of us who identify ourselves as Christians, our contribution to that debate can and should be couched in terms of what we find within the Christian Scriptures and Christian Tradition.  There is no need to be apologetic about this.  These resources are the origin of our faith and they can help us to navigate the challenges we will face in the future, just as they have done in the past.

A theology of work conceived on this basis can offer a way of looking at the world through fresh eyes – one which is potentially relevant to educators, employers, politicians and council officials.  This perspective may be rooted in the Christian faith, but for all the reasons I have suggested already, it resonates well with contemporary and long-standing concerns about work and issues like identity, dignity, human exploitation, and care of the environment.  In this context, I believe the Christian faith, and in particular the theology of work I have proposed, can serve as a useful dialogue partner in our shared search for better ways of living in our fast-changing and sometimes fragile world.  And it can therefore help us to think to think about that most basic of questions: “What on earth are we here for?”

Thank you very much.


The Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs

Bishop of Huddersfield

Visiting Professor of Theology, University of Huddersfield

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