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The opening chapters of the Bible relate a foundational truth about the purpose for human beings. As we read in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Human beings were created to work. All of human history is implicit in that one simple truth. The development of technologies, cultural institutions, forms of art, and economies all depend on and derive from human work. It is natural to focus on the variety and velocity of development, understood as the observable and external consequences of human work. 

There is a deeper reality in God’s mandate to Adam and Eve to be stewards of the garden, however. The Bible describes the Garden of Eden as an actual garden, a place where flowers, trees, and animals live in harmony. Adam and Eve are also called to tend to what we might call “the gardens of their souls.” This time between creation and fall, when Adam and Eve failed in their duties, is sometimes described by theologians as a probationary period. There was a job to do and a right way to do it. But in being good stewards of the garden, the first couple were also called to develop their own character and mature in faithfulness. This pattern holds for all of humanity that was to come as well. As important as being honest, diligent, and conscientious in our work is in external terms, the influence that our faithfulness in work has for the formation of our souls is equally—if not in some sense more—significant.

Adam and Eve were called to steward the garden of Eden and the garden of their own souls.

The Objective and Subjective Dimensions of Work

In his important encyclical letter on human labor, Laborem Exercens (1981), Pope John Paul II identified work as “a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.” Laborem Exercens picks up this focus on the social question that was introduced into modern Roman Catholic social teaching in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s letter Rerum Novarum. That letter detailed the situation and solutions for the proper relationships between labor, capital, management, and ownership in the wake of industrial revolutions. Laborem outlines a theology of work, beginning with the biblical account of creation and the divine mandate to work in Genesis, as well as a resulting anthropology of work.

In Laborem, John Paul II makes a critical distinction between work in its objective and subjective senses. Regarding the cultural mandate, God’s command to “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28), John Paul writes that “man’s dominion over the earth is achieved in and by means of work. There thus emerges the meaning of work in an objective sense, which finds expression in the various epochs of culture and civilization.” The objective sense of work has to do with the things that are produced through human labor: growing grain to make bread, or mining bronze and iron to craft tools (Gen. 4:22), or refining silicon to create microchip processors. 

But for John Paul, work also involves a subjective dimension as it relates to the human worker. Here John Paul connects the cultural mandate to “subdue” the earth related in Genesis 1:28 to the previous verses in which human beings are created in “the image of God” (Gen. 1:26). An aspect of bearing God’s image is that the human person is “a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself, and with a tendency to self-realization.” In the objective sense of work, we might say that human beings are at work in and on the world. But in the subjective sense, we might also say that human beings are at work in and on themselves. Human beings were created to work both in the sense of making new things as well as in the sense of expressing themselves in that effort and thereby developing in the process. 

The result of work on the formation of the human person in its ethical dimensions is of ultimately greater or more primary significance than the achievement of objective progress.

Given the relative valuation of human beings in the order of creation, there is a priority in the subjective sense of work over whatever the objective or material outputs of that work might be. That is to say, the result of work on the formation of the human person in its ethical dimensions is of ultimately greater or more primary significance than the achievement of objective progress. Thus, writes John Paul, “the primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject.” This means that we must affirm “the pre-eminence of the subjective meaning of work over the objective one.” 

Work and Development

From the objective and subjective dimensions of work it follows that there is a call to develop the creation in both of these senses. In the objective sense we can trace out the history of human progress and development, as new technologies are discovered, new cultural artifacts and customs are introduced, and new social institutions are formed. This kind of development can be measured in at least some ways, for example, by the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) over time or standards of living and consumption patterns. 

If the general trend over time for human society is increasing technical knowledge and material growth, the same is not the case for human development in a subjective sense. We may be born in an era where the only reliable source of heat is coal or firewood and horses are the main means of transportation. Or we may live in a time when natural gas has been discovered and is used to heat homes while combustion engines power automobiles. The difference in lived experience is radical between these in an observable, objective sense, and human work looks quite different in different eras of technological progress. But whether we live in 1800 or 2024, the human person as a moral and intellectual agent remains essentially and fundamentally unchanged. 

We are called to cultivate ourselves and our souls in the same way that we are called to cultivate the earth. But whereas we can enjoy the benefits of work in its objective sense as it has been done by previous generations, each generation and each individual person begins from the same starting point when it comes to moral and spiritual development. We are all born into sin and begin life as radically dependent infants. Even apart from sin it is natural for human beings to grow and mature, physically as well as morally and intellectually. We even read about Jesus that he “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

There are certainly historically contingent elements that influence our individual development. If we are born in a slave-holding society, for instance, this will greatly influence our sense of morality as it relates to such practices. Our moral sense is developed in large part by our cultural conditions, the mentors and models we are exposed to, and the books we read and sermons we hear. But our moral sense and spiritual growth are also impacted by the kinds of work we do.

As the Reformed writers Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef describe it, work is the basic form of Christian stewardship, both as we are stewards of the external world and as we are called to steward our souls. “Merely to rise to one’s daily tasks requires an act of will, a decision to serve the community, however reluctantly, however unaware the worker may be that such is the case,” they write. “Such willed acts of service not only make and sustain the fabric of civilization and culture, but also develop the soul. And, while the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.”

This is a radically liberating perspective on work, in large part because it affirms the dignity and significance of the individual human person, even as a worker and even in such settings where our work is not easily distinguishable by external observation. It may be that a worker on an assembly line can be replaced without any loss of productivity, for example. The same number of goods might well be produced in the same amount of time. But for the worker, showing up to work on time and laboring diligently matters greatly. “One’s job may be done by another,” write Berghoef and DeKoster. “But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else.” Here again we see the priority of the subjective sense of work. 

Implications for Investors

If it is true that human work has an invisible, internal dimension as well as an observable, external dimension, then it is also the case that the moral and spiritual aspects of work are much more easily missed and worthy of greater attention. Not all work is equally fulfilling, for instance, and the kind of work that is uplifting and dignifying for one person might well be spiritually deadening and morally deforming for another. 

The key is to keep both perspectives in view and properly related and balanced. When the external aspects of work dominate, we can lose a sense of how our souls are formed and inform that work. But an exaggerated focus on the interior, personal dimensions can keep us from fully, efficiently, and effectively serving others. This dual reality underlies all human work, from the factory floor to the factoring of profit margins. 

When we consider the work of investing, we must do justice to this comprehensive sense of human work. Enterprises that provide true goods and real services will have some external, observable signals, just as a good tree bears good fruit (Matt 7:17). Profit can certainly be an observable characteristic of a healthy business, but it is not the only important signal. It is entirely possible to generate profit from harmful products (e.g., pornography). There are also business practices that tend to promote vice rather than virtue, encouraging us simply to consume more and more rather than to do so in a better way. We need a sense of what is good and true in an objective sense to judge whether what we enjoy and desire is coherent with that standard, and what efforts are worth investing in and expanding.

When we consider the work of investing, we must do justice to this comprehensive sense of human work.

In addition to examining the goods and services that a company provides, we should also ask what kinds of people the work to produce those things helps create and form. Observers from Adam Smith to John Paul II have worried about dehumanizing and stultifying working conditions and practices that industries sometimes pursue. 

In short, faithful investors must consider the good of our neighbors, in the objective as well as the subjective sense, keeping proper perspective as we put our money to work. We will be rightly concerned to play our role in supporting businesses that contribute to the creation of wealth and economic development that advances human flourishing. But we will also prioritize the deep, enduring, internal value of work, remembering—as John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus—that  “besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself.” 

As we enter an era of unprecedented development of new tools, technologies, automation, and computation, we can keep the subjective dimension of work—the soul of work—in focus as we wonder with the Psalmist, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Ps. 8:4).


Category: Cultural Mandate, Love of Neighbor, Stakeholders
  • This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.

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