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By Fr Aidan Nichols


The Italian historian of culture Adriano Tilgher, writing in the 1920s, advanced the thesis that Western society's increasing secularisation was the result of a change in attitudes to work. [1] Ever since the Renaissance, so Tilgher argued, work and secularisation have gone hand in hand. Or to be more precise, secularisation and distinctively modern styles of work have gone hand in hand. As technology develops, it gives man an increasing mastery of matter. He pushes back the frontiers of matter, making the material world ever more pliable, ever more under the domination of the human spirit, the human mind. Man begins to claim the kind of prerogative rights in regard to creation which in mediaeval society had been ascribed to God alone. As a result, so Tilgher thought, God 'disappeared' - not of course in a literal sense, for the truth or falsehood of theism hardly depends on human attitudes to the idea of God. God began to 'disappear' in a metaphorical sense, to withdraw, namely, from the imaginative space of the world as humanly occupied. And to all intents and purposes that was tantamount to 'real' disappearance since, adapting the English proverb, what the mental eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve for. Renaissance attitudes to mastery of the world by technological man produced a 'Promethean' concept of the human being. Like Prometheus, the figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from heaven so as to make possible the art of smelting and thus in embryo all succeeding technical development, humankind must by its own resolute action take over the central place in the scheme of things once reserved to God alone. The Tilgher thesis has a certain plausibility, in that in the inter-war years and indeed after the Second World War and indeed for much of Europe today, wherever traditional agricultural society and its typical rhythms of work survive, Catholicism or other historic forms of Christianity tend to retain their importance in the lives of communities and individuals. Let us note this thesis, then, but leave it for now, with a memo to return to Tilgher in due course.

Tilgher's idea that the secularisation of a Christendom society originated in the devising of distinctively modern ways of working in or, better, on the world in roughly the Renaissance period, can be combined with the better known claim of the German sociologist Max Weber that the Protestant Reformation underlay the rise of industrial capitalism, with its characteristic attitude to labour, to work. [2] Reformation man, obsessed with the problem of his own justification - How can I know myself to be in the right with God? - lived in a society still publicly Christian but denuded of the monasteries which had kept the dimension of contemplation alive, and deprived too of the traditional ceremonies which enabled ordinary people to access the mystical element in religion. Instead, Reformation man found his assurance in the activity of working. Indeed, as the abrogation of the once numerous holydays, suggests - apart from Sunday, which Sabbatarianism guarded all the more rigorously by way of reaction - he found that assurance in incessant work. That is still today the model of the entrepreneurial businessman: someone who stops planning only when asleep. The expectation that meaning, purpose, or what later generations would call 'fulfilment' or 'identity' is discovered not through the contemplative enjoyment of God as a redeemed creature but by work, lent itself readily enough to the process of secularisation.

Weber's thesis has been much more discussed than Tilgher's, probably because for the simple reason that it is better known. Insofar as it is plausible, its field of application has ceased to be restricted to Protestant countries. The once religiously motivated Protestant work ethic has over the course of time made common cause with the Promethean emphasis of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. The two together have come to produce, especially in that Anglo-Saxon form which American hegemony - political, economic, cultural - has done so much to export around the world, the basis for a global civilisation of work whose ultimate victory is presumed to be (even in Ethiopia!) only a matter of time.


But let us return to the Tilgher thesis, and this time by beginning to offer some theological commentary. It will come as no surprise to hear that Tilgher was not a theologian. He appears to be a conservative moralist, a lover of the ancient world, both pagan and Christian, but probably not a believer. Consequently he never asks himself about the Christian and theological rationale of his primary affirmation, namely, that while the agricultural work performed by a peasantry could readily be sacralised by the Church in an evangelically congruent way, the forms of work which eventually succeeded agricultural labour - artisanal, mercantile, industrial and post-industrial - were incapable of receiving a religious interpretation that would be plausible and satisfying to those who made a living by them. It does not occur to Tilgher that from within her own intellectual and spiritual resources the Church might have been able to persuade those whose occupations were most distinctively modern - who were at the cutting-edge of technical and commercial advance - not to abandon the imaginatively God-centred world of work of their peasant contemporaries or forebears.

Tilgher's oversight is not simply bizarre. One can see that there is a peculiar affinity between the world of the Scriptures and that of the peasant. Most of what the Bible has to say about work is found in the Old Testament, and the society which produced the Hebrew Bible was overwhelmingly a peasant society engaged in agricultural work, as the great images and metaphors of Scripture bear witness. The God of Israel is a Vine-dresser, not a bank manager or computer programmer. In the post-War years various Belgian and French theologians tried to produce what they called une theologié des réalités terrestres, a 'theology of earthly realities' meaning by that phrase precisely such an enterprise as is found in this essay. [3] But despite the importance of their influence on the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council On the Church in the Modern World it has to be said that the basis of their work lies in a combination of Old Testament exegesis with what I can only call theological free-wheeling. The New Testament was written, by and large, or at least this is an arguable case, for far more urbanised communities than was its predecessor. And yet it has precious little to say about forms of work that constituted important social facts in the period of its composition. Those would range from the industrial-type production of common objects, through the work of professional bureaucrats, much needed in the Roman imperial administration, to the slave labour, whether domestic or set to use in the mining industry and in transport, which so unfortunately disfigured the pax romana. It is true that St Mark's Gospel calls our Lord a techtôn, usually translated 'carpenter', and some beautiful Christian poetry and art has taken its rise from there. [4] But in St Matthew's Gospel, to which the Church has always given a primacy among the Synoptics, he is not 'the carpenter' but 'the carpenter's son', [5] while in St Luke and St John nothing is said of his work in the hidden years at all. Perhaps we could find a semi-concealed reference to our Lord's activity as a labourer when the hymn embedded in the text of the letter to the Philippians says that he took on 'the form of a slave', for 'slave', doulos, was the ordinary word for 'worker' in the hellenistic world.[6] What, however, interests the New Testament writers is not everyday human work such as Jesus may have done in Joseph's workshop but rather the unique redeeming work of Christ, and although they are conscious of a range of virtues needing to be brought into play in Christian living and a variety of good works (roughly speaking, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy of later catechesis) that give flesh to the new life of grace, the main human work in which they are interested is the proclamation of the Good News about the Word incarnate and him crucified and risen, redeeming and reconciling, to the rest of the world. St Paul thought it important that an apostle should give good example by not being an economical parasite if he could possibly help it - which is why, so he tells us, he chose to keep up his trade

Again, the Church of the Word incarnate, as we see her fully formed, with the main lines of her life set forth, in the writings of the Fathers of the post-apostolic age, happened to be, at least in the East, mainly an urban phenomenon (that is why, despite 'East Anglia' and 'Argyll and the Isles', it is so unusual to find bishops named after regions not cities). But like Dorchester in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, the Church's strongholds were towns that were not only surrounded by the countryside but positively permeated by it through a network of not only close economic ties but actual green spaces for tilling and husbandry, what the Romans called rus in urbe, the 'country in the city'. The Church's liturgical celebration of the great saving events of the Word incarnate's life, death and Resurrection followed a pattern which readily blended with the rhythm of rural work - the cycle of the seasons, and the cycle of the day, from Lauds when the farmer goes out at first light, to Vespers when the lamps are lit for dusk as he returns.

There is a whole poetic here which does not fit so easily a non-agrarian or predominantly non-agrarian world, and it lent itself to elaboration in a hundred cultural ways that sealed the union of the peasant labour with the Church's life. One need only think of the folk song tradition with its blending of work motifs with religious ones. Part of the humour in G.K.Chesterton' s tongue-in-cheek suggestions of work songs for modern trades and professions comes from our tacit awareness of this difference. To compare the sardonic 'modern work song' composed for a contemporary post office worker, who is asked to praise

the news that will marry a maiden in Sark
or kill an old lady in Finsbury Park

with Chesterton's serious and beautiful songs For five guilds each of which has either a connexion with church-building and furnishing (glass-stainers, stone-masons, bell-ringers) or a link with biblical and liturgical symbolism (bridge-builders, ship-wrights) is to see at once, I think, the imaginative problem. Since Chesterton was to be found among the (mainly but by no means exclusively) Catholic supporters of Distributivism and the Back-to-the-Land movement (those two distinct but inter-related impulses in the early twentieth century English Catholic church), we shall not be surprised to find that his criticism of modern work-situations includes a strong neo-agrarian component, with the insinuation that technical 'progress' is frequently a misnomer for class exploitation and the regrettable human propensity to replace things of undoubted worth with those of none. [8]

The people they left the land, the land,
But they went on working hard;
And the village green that had got mislaid
Turned up in the squire's backyard;
But twenty men of us all got work
On a bit of his motor car;
And we all became, with the world's acclaim,
The marvellous mugs we are.

I do not remember reading, however, that the notoriously corpulent Chesterton ever refused to be conveyed from place to place in such a vehicle.

There is much, then, in the circumstances of the making of Scripture and the happenstance of the Church's later Tradition which explains why the technologies that have led to the gradual replacement of labour-intensive agriculture as the principal form of human work in the West do not appear - imaginatively speaking - to sit comfortably with Christianity, especially Catholic (and it may be added, Orthodox) Christianity. The question then arises, Taking as given the fact that this literature (the books of the biblical Canon) and the particular human community they brought into being in the sub-apostolic period (the Church) are pre-modern in their assumptions about work (as about everything else on which modernity has or had a view of its own), is this fact in and of itself of doctrinal importance? In other words, is this assumption about traditional styles of work of any intrinsic importance for the understanding of Christian revelation and the life which should flow from that understanding for ourselves who as Catholic Christians are privileged to be its recipients?

There could of course be an argument which had it that the linking of biblical revelation and its continuation in Christian tradition to agricultural work and handcrafts is a providential dispensation. That is, I take it, the view of the Christian sect called the Amish who, for precisely this reason, maintain exclusively rural communities of believers. But I think we can say with assurance that Catholics have only ever drawn on such considerations in a prudential way, not a doctrinal one. One can perfectly well maintain that living close to cosmic nature and working collaboratively with that nature through crop-growing, animal husbandry and the like, is a way of life which should be adopted by far more people than presently do so, since it would greatly reduce the stress and sense of artificiality many people find in the distinctively modern workplace, with its severe time-constraints and such physical inconveniences as gazing all day long at a computer screen. One can also perfectly well propose that craftsmen working with their hands in a fashion which requires skill, that is practical reason in the mode adapted to making things, and doing so by inheriting and perpetuating a tradition of fine work, possess a peculiarly paradeigmatic quality as exemplars of what it is to be a worker. But one does not for all that have to 'buy' the argument that there is something innately rebarbative to the Judaeo-Christian revelation and its ethos in forms of work that do not fall under either of these descriptions. As St Thomas, speaking as a philosopher, makes plain, when we talk of the 'matter' with which the labourer co-operates so as to educe from it a form - whether on his or her own, as with the potter or sculptor, or in collaboration with nature as with the market gardener or the grower of grain - we are not using a univocal expression, a word that has only one meaning. We are, rather, using an analogical notion, a word that has a variety of related meanings. What 'matter' means, and, so far as that goes, what 'form' means too is very much context-dependent. A nurse's 'matter' is her patient; a lawyer's is human behaviour; a playwright's is human life itself, and so on. There is no reason why this range of examples cannot be extended so as to take in every legitimate type of human labour.

In his brilliant study The Theology of Work, Father Richard O'Connor points out that there is no philosophical reason why the matter on which the worker works cannot be so extended and every theological reason why it should be. Such clues as we have from the Fathers of the Church, the principal sources, with Scripture, of an evangelical and catholic theology, betray no evidence of Tilgher's assumption that the only work valued in the Christian tradition was manual work in the strict sense. St John Chrysostom, for example, speaks of the value to be found in the complementarity of human skills. Origen remarks that God created man with various needs so that we might exercise our intelligence in providing for them. For St Augustine, through work man co-operates with God in completing the creation. For St Maximus the Confessor, man is a 'living workshop' since through his labour he synthesizes matter with spirit.

It is true that the ascetic tradition, as represented in, for example, the Rule of St Benedict, or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, concentrates on hard manual toil, but this is, after all, in the context of specifically monastic life, where a rather different set of criteria from the usual may be thought to apply.

In reality, there is nothing in the nature of Christian doctrine which could make us treat as inevitable the development described by Tilgher (assuming it to be correctly described) whereby Renaissance and post-Renaissance forms of work led ineluctably to the desacralisation of the cosmos and the secularisation of the European mind.

The question then arises, If that is so, what needs to be done? How can we put in place new imaginative patterns which allow people and indeed invite them to experience their work, when it is genuinely human - humane - work, work fit for man, in the same way as once was done in the best agrarian commonwealths known to the Church in the past or the present? I add the rider 'when it is genuinely human - humane - work, work fit for man' because that has been, of course, a preoccupation of the moral magisterium of the Papacy in the last hundred and more years. I am not concerned with those ethical aspects of work which need to be attended to for work to be deemed fit for human beings in the first place, but rather with the doctrinal in the sense of dogmatic interpretation of authentically human work in a modern mode. How can we proceed in trying to suggest for non-traditional kinds of work the sort of imaginative theological space in which traditional work modes have been deployed in Christendom?

Following - in large part - O'Connor's analysis: we can say that such traditional ways of work have been given theological sense in three ways. First, they were regarded as enjoying a relation to the divine creative activity. Second, they had a bearing on the divine redemptive activity. And thirdly, they carried implications for the divine transfiguring or consummating activity at the end of time. However their theological meaning was construed, whether on the basis of the original creation, or on that of the act of Incarnation and its redemptive consequences, or on that of the ultimate glorious Parousia, what was in question was some kind of analogy between divine and human working.

St Thomas has no treatise on labour (the issue was not for him the problem it was to become later). Nevertheless, human work, considered as the activity of what he called, after Aristotle, the 'practical intellect', was for him our principal analogue for God's activity in regard to the world. God's understanding, the divine mind, is engaged in action which both makes things and transforms them. That is why Thomas can use the model of artisanal labour to expound the divine mysteries of both creation and salvation. This is for him a true analogy, and not just a metaphor, which means that when we speak of human beings 'making' things or 'salvaging' or 'transforming' them by their labour we should be aware that the principal maker, salvager and transformer - the 'prime analogate' as the Scholastics say of our language in these respects - is God himself. And what that means for us is that our work - whether it be making, repairing or transforming by acting in any of these ways on 'matter' variously understood, is nothing less than a sign of the divine activity itself, the divine action in creation and redemption, Incarnation and salvation.

Take for instance human making as a sign of the making of all things by the triune Creator. St Thomas writes:

God is the cause of things through his mind
and his will, like an artist of works of art.
An artist works through an idea conceived in
his mind and through love in his will bent on
something. In like manner God the Father
wrought the creature through his Word, the
Son, and through his Love, the Holy Spirit.
And from this point of view, keeping in mind
the essential attributes of knowing and willing,
the comings forth of the divine Persons can be
seen as types for the comings forth of creatures.

Correspondingly, then, production, in the sense in which we use that word when discussing human work, is a sign of the Trinitarian causal action in making the world. That was the starting point of the Anglo-Catholic lay theologian, detective story writer and translator of Dante Dorothy Sayers in her marvellous book, recently reprinted, The Mind of the Maker. [12] Of course no human work is absolutely creative in the way that God?s is. God creates from nothing; that means, his creative activity has no other principle than itself. When we are creative, whether in humble ways by making a plum pudding or grandiose ways like producing a development plan for a third world country or writing an opera, we are only relatively creative, since we depend for our action on many factors beyond ourselves. And yet toutes proportions gardees, as the French say, the analogy holds. Work is a sign of the mystery of creation.

It is also, I suggested, a sign of the mystery of the Incarnation. As we have seen, 'crafting' things in matter is an analogous reality which can be carried out in many ways. As Eric Gill liked to say, every man is a special kind of artist. [13] But in every case a craftsman wants to embody his ideas, to let his idea take on flesh. In work something goes out from us to what is outside us, just as in God, the archteype of human working, the Word took on flesh through union with human nature, which was infinitely 'outside' it, in our Lady's womb. And just as, in the humanity assumed from Mary, the Word had at his disposal an instrument perfectly suited for his purpose in becoming incarnate, so the worker has at the service of his own 'incarnations' extensions of his own powers in the shape of tools which now range from rudimentary implements still in use like brushes and saws, to mechanical instruments that extend the arm, visio instruments like microscopes that extend the eye, audio instruments like transmitters that extend the ear, and finally instruments which extend the brain - computers - and have within them the power to devise more sophisticated computers still. Some would ask whether technology remains an instrument when it reaches this level of independence, but in the Incarnation the fully human mind and will of Christ, as defined at the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople III respectively, were what guaranteed the perfect suitability of his humanity for the task given it by the Word. That does not mean that all advanced technology of an innovatory kind must be embraced simply because it exists: for the question always remains open, Does this or that new tool allow us to devote greater time and energy to our spiritual, intellectual, family, social lives without damage to the fabric either of human community or the natural environment in which our lives are set? The human mind and will of the Word worked to realise the Father's plan of love - so how things fit with the total context here can hardly be irrelevant.

If, then, work is or should be a sign of the Incarnation, can it also be called a sign of the redemption which is the Incarnation's goal? After the Fall, work has taken on a penal character, an aspect of suffering, which was not native to it at the beginning but which human ingenuity finds ever new ways of underlining from sweatshops to assembly line alienation. In his Literal Commentary on Genesis St Augustine notes how nonetheless work retains enough of its original delight to make us realise how wonderful it must have been in Paradise.

Is it credible [he asks] that work
before the fall could have been a
form of condemnation? Indeed we
might be tempted to think so if
we did not see some men in the fields
working with such fulness of heart
that it would have been a punishment
to call them away from their work.

In his redeeming work, Christ suffered, as the mediaeval Franciscan theologians liked to say, non ex corruptione sed ex caritate, 'not out of corruption but out of charity' - he suffered because he willed it - and in his toil for our salvation he made the redeemed world sweet for us through those very actions - his Passion and Death - whereby we made life burdensome for him. When the damaged world of work is repaired by the removal from it of needless suffering but not of sacrifice, it becomes a sign of the redemptive action of God himself.

Lastly, there is the question of the relation of work to the mystery of the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ, and the consummation of all things. It is intelligible that we should raise this question because it is of the nature of work to be future oriented, to have the character of a project, and for a Christian the future is ultimately our Lord's reign as universal King. If redeemed humanity is to be transfigured in glory, this must surely have an extension not only in our natural environment, the cosmos, but also in the environment we have made for ourselves by our work. We do not know in concrete terms in what respect God will allow human achievements to become constituent elements of his Kingdom. But it coheres with the account of Kingdom existence given by classical theology on the basis of the images found in Scripture and Tradition to find a foretaste of the life of the Kingdom in work that has become playlike - thanks among other things to developing technology (always provided that such work is performed for good ends, in a morally upright way). Play in work, the play of work, is an anticipatory sign of the Kingdom of God, because the Kingdom of God means human beings corporatedly sharing the life of God insofar as rational creatures may, and the life of God, as St Augustine bids us recognise in the Confessions is simultaneous work and rest, it is work that is rest and rest that is work, because all that God does, whether working or resting, he accomplishes 'with the majestic ease of play'. [15]


1. A. Tilgher,
Work. What It has Meant to Men through the Ages (Et London 1931). For Tilgher's classical bent, see his Filosofi antichi (Todi 1921).

2. The most celebrated English statement of the Weber thesis is the High Anglican R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harmondsworth 1922). See also S. S. Acquaviva, The Decline of the Sacred in Industrial Society (Oxford 1979).

3. The stage was set by Gustave Thils in his Theologié des Réalités terrestres (Paris 1946).

4. Mark 6: 3.

5. Matthew 13: 55.

6. Philippians 2: 7.

7. See A. Richardson, The Biblical Doctrine of Work (London 1952).

8. A. Cunningham, 'Primary things: Land, Work, and Sign', Chesterton Review XXII. 1-2 (1996), pp. 73-88.

9. G. K. Chesterton, 'Songs of Education: 1. History', in The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (London 1937, Sixth Edition), p. 99.

10. R. O'Connor, The Theology of Work. Analogies between the principal Mysteries of the Faith and the operation of the Practical Intellect using Thomistic Principles (Castleisland, Co. Kerry, 1995).

11. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia., q. 45, a. 6, corpus.

12. D. L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (London 1941).

13. See A Holy Tradition of Working. Passages from the Writings of Eric Gill. Introductory Essay by Brian Keeble. Foreword by Walter Shewring (Ipswich 1983).

14. Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteram, VIII. 8, 8.

15. R. O'Connor, The Theology of Work, op. cit., p. 201.

Section Contents Copyright ©: Mark Alder & Fr Aidan Nichols 1998-2000

Version: 18th July 2009

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