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Looking for more than more money


The cover story of the July 9 issue of Fortune magazine was titled “God and Business” and predictably had a picture of the sun breaking through clouds. (How else would you have God depicted in the workplace?) Written by Marc Gunther, the article avoided two of the major pitfalls of any discussion of the spirituality of work. First, Mr. Gunther did not get caught in the trap of the “displays of piety in the workplace” debate. This argument is about whether or not it is appropriate (legal, sensitive, a good idea) to allow Bible study, prayer groups, meditation chapels, industrial chaplains, and so on, in secular businesses and other organizations.

There is no universal solution to the question of how much piety to allow in the workplace. People of goodwill just have to work in each individual situation, perhaps using Jesus’ and other religious leaders’ admonitions against using religious practices to divide or exclude people as a guideline. And probably we have to err on the side of keeping our prayer and piety at work “behind closed doors” as Jesus also recommended.

Gunther also captured the idea that there is a cutting edge -- he actually used the word subversive -- to the practice of the spirituality of work. Much of what passes for spirituality in the workplace is really “spirituality lite” -- a watered down spirituality, one without any bite or challenge, a spirituality of the status quo, a “feel good” spirituality that blesses what we are currently doing as if we had already brought about the reign of God. But Gunther recognized that a true spirituality of work could -- and indeed will -- shake up the workplace in ways no management techniques ever could.

“People who want to mix God and business are rebels on several fronts,” Gunther writes. “They reject the centuries-old American conviction that spirituality is a private matter. They challenge religious thinkers who disdain business as an inherently impure pursuit. … They disagree with business people who say that religion is unavoidably divisive. Most of all, they refuse to bow to the all-too-common notion that much of the work done in corporate America must be routine, dull and meaningless; they want and expect more.”

The idea of Fortune magazine speaking approvingly of anything spiritual is, of course, heresy to many religious believers. They are certain that corporate America will co-opt any serious spiritual movement, much as it has done other cultural change -- from rock and roll to environmentalism. I have been conducting a dialogue about this issue for several weeks with an e-mail group I conduct on the Internet. (If you’d like to join in, just send me an e-mail at spiritualitywork@aol.com. There is no charge or obligation, and your e-mail address is never given out to anyone. If you are still wedded to regular mail, send me a letter in care of NCR.)

So far, the response falls into two categories. Some people are sure that business will at least attempt to co-opt any effort to practice spirituality at work. Leo Bistak, the director of evangelization and deacon formation in the Toledo diocese, says, “Have we not already seen workplace spirituality co-opted in the prosperity gospel preaching of people like Creflo Dollar? Isn’t there a significant underlying sense of ‘I am blessed by God by having so much!’? I think we are at a point of having to reclaim a spirituality of work that sees other outcomes than having more prosperity or goods.”

Others feel that authentic spirituality cannot and will not be co-opted by anyone or anything. Bob Bayer, a former Defense Department official and congressional staffer from Northern Virginia, says, “As for the question of business co-opting faith, I have to laugh at the question. A true spiritual path is so radically countercultural and counter business that co-opting is the last thing we have to fear! The greater danger is simply that it will be dulled by the torrent of cultural messages. Despite all the management mumbo jumbo, I find few companies that really embrace the vision of justice that Jesus laid out. I think Jesus was quite explicit in telling us that discipleship means running against the grain of society ... then and now. That doesn’t mean we can’t be successful and faithful simultaneously. But the truth is that ‘the system’ merely tolerates believers. It may want the disciplined and moral qualities of people of faith, but has very little interest in the radical rule of love. Our vulnerability to being co-opted is directly related to the narrowness of our faith.”

As for me, I agree with both sides! If we practice spirituality in the workplace, we will almost certainly face incredible pressure to water it down, to make it acceptable, not to offend anyone. This, by the way, is not entirely bad. We live and work in a pluralistic society, and the idea of shoving our religious beliefs and practices down the throats of our co-workers is not what spirituality is all about. On the other hand, if our spirituality remains true to its roots -- in the case of Christians, to Jesus’ view of the nature of God and his vision of God’s reign -- then our spirituality will almost by definition “subvert” the prevailing values and practices in the workplace. This, too, is not entirely bad.

Gregory F. Pierce is co-publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago and the author of Spirituality @ Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life On-the-Job (Loyola Press, 2001). His e-mail address is SpiritualityWork@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001