According to the World Economic Forum, by next year, around 50% of human jobs across industries will be subject to automation. Cloud computing, 3D printing and other leading-edge technologies share some responsibility for this, but the lion’s share is tied to AI, especially machine learning. Some industries will experience more automation than others, especially work involving data and logistics, but every industry, from construction to agriculture to mining and shipping is expected to experience some reduction in human work.
Of course, whenever automation is brought up, the conversation becomes difficult. On the one hand, there is a very real problem of people becoming unemployed due to new technologies. On the other hand, this is a tale as old as Jethro Tull’s seed scatterer or the water loom: new technologies inevitably give rise to new forms of labor. But what marks AI apart from older forms of automation is how truly automatic it is. Factories may have replaced workshops and cottage industries, but an AI-supervised factory outfitted with robots could remove nearly all human labor from manufacturing.
The promises of AI, and its application across industries, raise an important question: what if we were able to truly eliminate human drudgery? If AI can grow our food, build our houses, govern our cities, manufacture and transport our goods, there will be little to no inherent need for human labor. For the first time in human history, human survival will be truly decoupled from human labor. And while this may sound nice, it is by no means unambiguously good. Christian theology has offered different views on the nature of work in human life, not all of which consider automation a good thing.
Theologies of work
One might roughly categorize theologies of work into three basic groups.
The first group, shaped strongly by the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, holds that labor is an essential punishment from God for the sin of Adam. The classical economist and Anglican priest Thomas Malthus explicates this view in his Question Concerning the Principle of Population. For Malthus, the inherent connection between work and survival functions as a corrective to the temptation of laziness. Work, in this view, has a sanctifying effect, preventing us from indulging in wantonness or debauchery. Thought of this way, automation only invites more vice.
The second group, characteristic of Catholic social teaching, holds that labor is an inherently dignified pursuit in which we fulfill our function as imago Dei, the image of God. Work is not punishment; it is rather the way by which we glorify God through supporting our communities, taking care of our families, and creating something we can take pride in. Just as God’s work in Genesis 1 is “very good,” our work in the world is Godly action. Thought of this way, automation is troubling because it forecloses opportunities for human beings to glorify God and serve our neighbors.
A final group, most characteristic of utopian thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, sees labor as an unfortunate vestige we are to overcome to be more like God. In Teilhard’s view, a part of the reason why humanity has seen so many scientific and technological breakthroughs in recent centuries is because technologies have freed up more minds to do mental rather than manual labor. The eschatological vision of Teilhard is one where humanity uses its scientific and technological prowess to expand up and out into the universe, not to remain bound by drudgery and suffering. Thought of this way, automation is a great opportunity for humanity to authentically live out our eschatological call to become “Cosmic Christ.”
The first group of thinkers, which may bring to mind Max Weber’s Spirit of Capitalism, has no use for automation in a good Christian life. Automation is only one more vice of the modern world and will only result in greater godlessness. For the second group of thinkers, automation is also a problem but mainly because it robs humans of the dignity of work. Nonetheless, a new avenue opens: other forms of work that are not drudgery may be pursued and dignify humanity. After all, the artist’s labor is also dignified, though not strictly necessary. The final group, of course, finds automation to be a great liberator, letting humanity become what they are called to be. Necessary labor has been historically a great inhibitor to human ingenuity and creativity, so its eradication can only be a good thing.
In the concluding section, I straddle these last two positions to suggest Christians can and should make peace with the possibility of an end to drudgery.
Teilhard and the Kingdom of God
A Teilhardian-Catholic position is inherently eschatological; it sees human beings as co-laborers with God in building the Kingdom of God. This is part of why labor itself is dignified. With this view, however, the direction of work is to serve God and neighbor. The Gospel narrative contrasts with Genesis 3; instead of work as one of the survival conditions of a fallen world, it is an invitation to minister to others. Jesus draws an explicit comparison in Matthew 9:37 between evangelizing and agriculture: “The harvest is ready but the laborers are few.” In other pericopes, Jesus compares discipleship to labor, as in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Mat. 20:1-16), the parable of the two sons (Mat. 21:28-32), or the Great Commission (Mat. 28:16-20).
I see here an opening for a balance between the utopianism of Teilhard and the dignity of the Catholic social tradition. Teilhard sees the need for labor to free up hands and minds to help us in our pursuit of the eschaton. Building the Kingdom of God, for Teilhard, means opening up new avenues for human beings to excel and contribute to this effort beyond their mere survival. The Catholic social tradition emphasizes labor for the common good, for the benefit of humanity writ large. That task involves many other forms of labor not strictly necessary for individual survival, such as care, education, ministry, art or prayer. The early church recognized this with ordained callings to proselytizing ministry in the apostolate and material assistance in the deaconate in Acts 6. Many Catholic saints lived lives dedicated to carrying out the “Works of Mercy,” such as feeding the hungry, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned or burying the dead. Regardless of the possibility of an end to drudgery, there is work to be done for the Christian, as long as the eschatological fullness of God’s reign is not yet realized.
In other words, there is work to be done until that eschatological moment when God invites all to come and rest. Revelation 21 promises a world where all pain and sorrow is removed. This is the task of God, ultimately, but per Teilhard and the broader Catholic social tradition, the Christian is to be involved in whatever labor she is called to in creating a just, loving and peaceful social order. Labor automation thus invites us to imagine what work we ought to take up in the service of God and neighbor rather than merely in the service of ourselves: our opportunities here are no longer limited by material conditions but by our creative spirit and the depth of our love. As Teilhard himself most famously wrote, “Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”