This is a book about the theology of work, though in fact it is as much about philosophers and their views of labour, capitalism and the economy of the modern world. Its strength lies in its illuminating discussions of a fairly wide range of writers.
First John Hughes considers four theologians - Barth, Chenu, John Paul II and Volf - showing how they conceive work in a number of different ways, from grim necessity to the transformation of nature, from obedience to divine command to co-creation with God. He examines Max Weber's thesis of the elective affinity between capitalism and the Protestant ethic, and Karl Marx's paradoxical affirmation of both materialism and humanistic personalism.
One chapter considers John Ruskin and William Morris as proponents of a sort of Romantic-aesthetic view of work as the free creation of beauty (preferably, it can seem, in mock-medieval forms). Another expounds the work of Horkheimer and Adorno as protesters against modern capitalism and its roots in what is allegedly a decadent offshoot of the Kantian Enlightenment tradition. Then Catholic writers Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, Eric Gill and the poet David Jones are surveyed. And finally Hughes propounds his own theory of work as, at least ideally, a theological-aesthetic activity that reflects or even participates in the work of God as primary creator or "worker".
This is a very wide area to survey, but Hughes does it remarkably well, making illuminating, if sometimes provocative, comments on all these very varied writers. He succeeds in showing that this is indeed a topic of great interest and social relevance, on which many views have been expressed. Hughes knows that readers will be surprised - and I was - by the inclusion of rather idiosyncratic figures such as Morris and Gill alongside Weber and Marx. But he does this in pursuit of a particular thesis of his own. He thinks that modern capitalism is based on a principle of utility that has lost contact with any sense of transcendent value that might give work meaning and dignity. And he wants to see work as a quasi-liturgical activity of creating beauty for its own sake, and in a "useless" but most significant praise of God. The "Romantics" with whom he deals have, he thinks, preserved something of such a sense, in face of the general reduction of the worker to a mere means to produce more profit, without due consideration of the ultimate "end" of work and human productive activity.
The book is well worth reading precisely for its consideration of such a wide range of authors. Theologians should think about such matters, and theology has something to say about them. This is a good guide to such thinking, for social theorists as well as for theologians. Yet I was not wholly convinced that "the vision of emancipated labour as art ... can only make sense as ultimately God's labour". It is surely possible to have a vision of labour as free creativity without religion. Indeed, as this book makes clear, some theologians have been deeply suspicious of any talk of work as some sort of co-creation with God. And it may be that the idea of God as a freely creative artist is itself a projection of an ideal of human creativity that originated in Renaissance humanism.
However, one of the things that makes the book enjoyable to read is its slightly idiosyncratic perspective on modern intellectual history. Such idiosyncrasy does not mar the book, for it invites the reader to respond in what may be an equally idiosyncratic way.
Keith Ward is professor of divinity at Gresham College, London
The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism
By John Hughes
£50.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9781405158923 and 58930
Published 1 September 2007