A Comment on Tim Keller on Rethinking Work

Readers of TRL beware: a flurry of posts on Tim Keller is on the horizon. He is the epitome, the representative, of the new “conservative” evangelical move to the social/political left. It’s difficult to even say that; after all, the response is: actually we are neither right nor left, we are seeking to be biblical. This is part and parcel of the deeply-rooted obfuscation that makes interacting with them so difficult. We are all seeking to be biblical; some of us fail and others succeed. The debate is not over who is seeking to be biblical. The debate is over what exactly is biblical. Anyways, on a related note is the quote I just came across in my reading over Keller’s Every Good Endeavor. He writes:

Christians should be aware of this revolutionary understanding of the purpose of their work in the world. We are not to choose jobs and conduct our work to fulfill ourselves and accrue power, for being called by God to do something is empowering enough. We are to see work as a way of service to God and our neighbor, and so we should both choose and conduct our work in accordance with that purpose. The question regarding our choice of work is no longer, “What will make me the most money and give me the most status?” The question must now be “How with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and of human need?”

This is a good opportunity to provide an example of what I previously wrote as a solution in answer to a non-existent problem. Think about this for a second. Besides a handful of politicians (politicians are actually a minority class in the world) and a few others here and there, are we to believe that there are a vast many people who choose jobs merely to accrue power? Most people are just trying to enjoy life– and I realize that the implications of Keller’s criticism of “fulfilling ourselves” is that seeking out a job as a means to enjoy life is not to be done (of course, Keller would disagree with such implications, which merely shows the logical tension in the position of anti-self satisfaction theories)*. In any case, since very few people actually choose jobs as a power play, how is this a “revolutionary understanding?”

Now, again, because Keller has a very poor understanding of rudimentary economics, he does not realize that, literally speaking, the capitalist system is such that all jobs fulfill both our own needs and the needs of our neighbors. This division between our individual needs and the needs of society is… well, we are not allowed to call it Marxist, but we can call it profoundly ignorant of the nature of society under the division of labor.

Very, very few people operate on the idea that we should find work in order to make the most money or gain the highest status (though perhaps Keller had in mind Big Government Republican and Democrat political professionals?– doubt it). First of all, as economics (there’s that word again) teaches us, men make decisions on the margin— this is the doctrine advanced by the Marginalist Revolution (Walras, Jevons, Menger) and therefore men don’t solely pursue money. They weigh salary/wage opportunities with lifestyle choices, taxes, geographical preferences, family concerns, their skill sets, their schedules, their non-financial benefits, their work environment, their passions, their moral standards, their bosses, their coworkers, their spouses/children, and on and on and on. This is a realistic rendering of man in accordance with the implications of the proposition that man acts always to pursue the various ends that happen to be important to him.

If Keller is offering a new perspective on “how we view work,” he is doing a remarkably poor job at understanding the “current way” we view work. His question that he asks the reader to abandon is completely irrelevant.

And the second question that he proposes is therefore not at all a juxtaposition of the first question. In fact, I should explain it in light of capitalism: Under a system dependent on the division of labor, where men focus their participation in the economy in specific lines of production, man’s unique (and quite unequal) skills, backgrounds, education, knowledge, interests, gifts, talents, “abilities and opportunities,” must be employed toward the fulfillment of some human need else no one will pay them for their work. Keller can try his best to separate making a living with serving others, but ultimately, either you serve others or you do not make a living under a capitalistic social arrangement. And how, pray tell, can we discover what humans need and what the greatest service is?!

Why, the price system of course! Many Kellerites mock the “invisible hand” of the market, but they do not realize that, since the contribution of the post-Adam Smith Austrian economists, the invisible hand is no longer invisible! Great Scott!– the price system itself, dependent on the market process, is the means by which man knows how to serve his fellow man!


*The great conservative Christian philosopher Gordon H. Clark once noted:

“Christ… did not think it immoral to seek one’s good. If you judge that Hebrews xii.2, ‘who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,’ does not warrant any conclusion as the nature of Christ’s motives in undertaking the work of redemption, still we think we can insist that both Christ and the Apostles made abundant use of hope and fear in appealing for converts.  So if anyone reproach Christianity as being egoistic and based on fear, partially, ask the objector if fear and self-interest are or are not worthy motives for preferring orange juice to carbolic acid for breakfast.

The Bible appeals directly to… self-interest; it teaches that although the Christian may have temporary tribulation, he ultimately loses nothing but gains everything in accepting Christ.”