A New Spirituality at Work
A New Spirituality at Work

A New Spirituality at Work

One thing is certain. Something spiritual is creeping into the workplace, and it seems to be gearing up to be more than a trend. This may be the birth of a business revolution based on centuries-old concepts, revised to fit today's workforce.

—Jennifer J. Laabs, "Balancing Spirituality and Work"

There' s a spiritual revival happening. Most news and business magazines have featured it through cover stories. The sale of religious books in the United States increased by 62 per cent in 1995, with titles like Reclaiming the Higher Ground and James Redfield's "spiritual thriller" The Celestine Prophesy leading the way. The New York Times Magazine devoted an extensive cover story to the influence of books like Stephen Carter's The Culture of Disbelief on thinking in the White House. In Canada, acclaimed author Peter Newman uses considerable space in his book, The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance, documenting the spiritual quest and his own New Age conversion experience.

There are several reasons usually offered to explain these phenomena. It's a combination of demographics, economic realities, and a rejection of religious traditions. The baby boomers are coming to an age in life where the deepest questions of life beg for answers. According to the Toronto Star's religion columnist, Tom Harpur, "The baby boomers are being taken by the scruff of the neck and forced to face reality." Neither the free love and drugs experimentation of the sixties, nor the materialism of the eighties provided the answers. As they pass the midpoint of their life expectancies, boomers feel forced to come to grips with what life really means. With traditional religion discredited in many minds, it is to this new spirituality that they are turning.

Generalizations, of course, fail to capture the nuances and complexity of this trend. So do statistics. However, one cannot ignore samples showing that as many as 55 per cent of respondents from 18 countries experienced a "personal transformation" between the years 1985-1990, or 14,000 persons a year visiting a Toronto "ashram and holistic health centre, dispensing a sophisticated mix of Eastern mysticism and Western psychotherapy techniques."

These trends also affect the workplace. There seems to be an increasing emphasis on personal devotional exercises as many employees use their lunch breaks to participate in boardroom Bible studies, or to attend services scheduled at 12:10 with them particularly in mind. But much of this boom in spirituality and personal devotion veers markedly from the Christian practices or jargon one might expect. At the People's Bank in Bridgeport, Connecticut, several employees meet together in silence after work each evening to watch and meditate on the sun in the traditions of an ancient earth magic known as Wicca. Japanese executives at Sony, Matsushita, Honda, and NEC are studying and practising astrology and the occult in the workplace.

Spiritual exercises at work are relatively straightforward to analyze and deal with. Frankly, given the evident decline of the influence of "traditional" orthodox Christianity throughout North America, we should not be surprised that various forms of religious practices would fill the vacuum. And once these practices reach a certain critical mass and gain a public acceptability as an alternative to traditional North American religious practices, it follows naturally that they will become more aggressive in proselytizing and promoting themselves in public ways.

This alternative, very public expression of spirituality might seem to be a welcome relief. For at least fifty years, there has been an ongoing struggle between those who believed that one's faith inevitably affected all of life and room ought to be made in the public square for explicit religious expression and practice, and those who advocated a strict secularism wherein religion is entirely a personal, private exercise and ought in no way, even to be mentioned in a public or business environment.

This new spirituality is not exactly the harbinger of openness and tolerance one might hope for. In fact, its influence on the predominant thinking in the political and business worlds is a challenge to our fundamental assumptions about the nature of truth. We once assumed that the basic departure point for religious and philosophic differences stemmed from our answer to the question "What is truth?" Today, however, many dismiss any notion of truth as heretical. The notion of absolute truth is seen as potentially threatening the tolerant and pluralistic society. The question "What is truth?" should neither be asked nor acted on. If one insists, the replacement question "What is true for you?" is permissable; however, it is most preferable not to ask such troublesome questions at all.

Spiritualism and business

The distinction is not an obscure philosophical one, but is actively being incorporated into business-world thinking. In a Harvard Business Review article, Martha Nichols examined how several prominent companies are incorporating a New Age spiritual philosophy into their corporate mission and structure. The common thread seems to be "an introspective vision of work that allows for both individual and organizational growth." After all, in the words of Susie Tompkins of Esprit, "The 1990s are about soul-searching."

The story of Tom Chappell, CEO of the toothpaste and soap company Tom's of Maine, may not be entirely typical, but it is instructive. In spite of his company's relative success in niche markets, Chappell found himself in a type of mid-life crisis. His company and work had lost their focus and he found it all an "unfulfilling exercise." He decided to enroll in Harvard Divinity School and came to believe that "common values, a shared sense of purpose, can turn a company into a community where daily work takes on a deeper meaning and satisfaction." This led him to initiate an empowerment program and delegate responsibility in an attempt to allow his employees to find meaning and purpose in their work and life. Chappell's divinity school learned lessons not only made ethical and spiritual sense, they made economic sense as well. In the first year applying this new business philosophy, his company's sales increased 31 per cent and profits over 40 per cent.

It is clear that many executives who have embraced spiritual philosophies of this sort see their mission as much more than placing a personal stamp on their company. They speak as if these philosophies have world-transforming potential. In the late eighties, Paul Hawken's business philosophies were publicized through a PBS television series and his book Growing a Business. In a subsequent book, Hawken writes about the applicability of ideas through the entire economy. "We need to imagine a prosperous commercial culture that is so intelligently designed and constructed that it mimics nature's at every step, a symbiosis of company and customer and ecology."

If Tom Chappell and Paul Hawken are among the "heroes of the faith" of the new spiritualists—those who have taken their spirituality and applied it to their own businesses—then Martin Rutte is a new spirituality prophet. The 47-year-old Canadian has been described as a "vision guru who preaches the bottom-line benefits of spirituality."

In addition to advising clients such as Sony, Labbatts, Esso Canada, and Apple Computers, Rutte has been the four-time speaker at the Harvard Business School corporate leadership and ethics forum and is also busy working with executives at the World Bank. Rutte suggests that there is a spiritual dimension underlying creativity, the attribute so craved by today' s business world. However, cultivating creativity requires a reshaped understanding of spirituality. "People react negatively because spirituality is seen as dogma, as an answer or truth you must accommodate . . . But if you can get past that and give yourself, and others, permission to explore spirituality and what a connection to the divine means individually, and what it can mean at work, the spinoff benefits can be exceptional."

Many companies have turned to prophets of Rutte's ilk in order to train, not only their management team, but their entire workforce. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent sending entire workforces to a retreat where a series of lectures, games, and sharing exercises are intended to help workers find the key to their spiritual dimensions. For many workers, these sessions have dramatic consequences. Says one foreman: "I found myself standing up in front of 40 or 50 people, crying and describing the most private details of my marriage. That wasn't me. I was a totally changed person." Rob Tucker, Director of the Toronto Council on Mind Abuse Inc., suggests that there may be a fine line between the training methods employed at some of these seminars, and the strategy of cults. "Ten years ago, I used to get calls from parents because their kids had joined the Hare Krishna movement or the Moonies . . . Now I get calls from kids who say dad has come back from a training seminar and is acting strange."

Recycling and mixing philosophies

It is not that the practical initiatives advocated by most of the new spiritualists are revolutionary concepts. They talk about developing a higher purpose through one's work with language that is not that different from the concept of vocation and calling that was developed explicitly by John Calvin and forms an essential part of Max Weber's famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).

Similarly, the talk about cultivating work community through delegating responsibility and developing work teams sounds similar to what Total Quality Management (TQM) advocates have been popularizing for decades. Psychologist Abraham Maslow's seminal 1968 work Toward a Psychology of Being, with its theories of self-actualization, is being replicated through today' s talk of reaching one's creative potential and finding meaning. There is little in the specific business practices advocated by the new spiritualities that would be termed innovative.

What the new spirituality has done, however, is take a particular combination of business practices and tie it to a particular philosophy.

As Martha Nicholls points out in her Harvard Business Review analysis, any expectation that a social transformation can occur from the application of this new spirituality not only denies social reality, it also shows the internal inconsistency of the philosophy.

On the one hand, the new spirituality emphasizes that each individual must follow their own path in finding fulfilment. As Martin Rutte said, we must get past the notion of spirituality as containing any dogma but allow each individual to find their own answers. But does that mean all answers are equally acceptable? Is Ivan Boesky's stock scandal and declaration that "greed is good" an equally valid answer to the noble-sounding objectives found in Tom Chappell's book? Rarely do the new spiritualists directly address this question; however, it appears self-evident from their writing that not all conclusions have equal moral value. In fact, most of their writings are contextualized as an answer to the morally bankrupt society. But if all that matters is to find one's spiritual dimension, regardless of where or what that dimension is, how can any moral distinctions be made?

Humanist parallels?

In a speech to the Canadian Federation for the Humanities in 1994, Meriel Bradford, an executive with Teleglobe Canada Inc., commented on the malaise which he sensed throughout modem society. In the face of this malaise, however, Bradford suggested that "utopias are not only possible, they are essential to inspire us in re-creating our institutions for the information age." It is worthwhile to carefully look at the list of six characteristics that Bradford identified as important for people in this context. He said:

We need people who
  • question the status quo in all things especially in their own field of special knowledge;
  • are imbued with endless curiosity;
  • have a child-like innocence, together with a capacity for abstraction;
  • understand through analogy and metaphor;
  • empathize with human needs; and
  • can commit passionately to what may or may not be concrete.

I don't want to make more of this list than is intended, but it is worth reflecting on the sort of philosophy of life and business it suggests. Consider points one and two. The utility of an "endless curiosity" is self-evident. Curious people want to know all of the whys and wherefores, and thereby acquire the information necessary to understand the thing being studied. But why add "to question the status quo in all things"? This seems to point to something more than a desire to understand and evaluate the assumptions that undergird our practices. Is the suggestion being made that the "status quo" of Christian morality and western civilization needs to be overturned for the utopia to be created?

Consider what is missing from the list. There is no mention of anything that resembles a search for truth or wisdom. It is entirely a human-centred, utilitarian philosophy, based on the presumption of the childlike innocence of every person. Dealing with and overcoming evil isn't an issue. If the purpose is to create the utopia that Bradford talked about earlier, is not the absence of any moral virtues such as honesty and integrity, loyalty, and commitment conspicuous by their absence? Do they rank lower than empathy or passion in creating a utopian society?

On the one hand, it may seem ironic to compare the comments made at a Humanist Awards banquet with the theology of the new spiritualists, but it reveals where this spirituality is at. The new spirituality is about uncovering spiritual feelings without any reference to an absolute God or absolute truth. Peter Newman says it "transcends established religious dogma." Spirituality is about experiences and special feelings. Bradford talks about it in terms of "committing passionately to what mayor may not be concrete"; Newman describes sailing in the Pacific, under the sky "cathedral where I worship," feeling "the exhilaration of life's sufficiency and the joy of opening oneself up to new experiences." So as to remove any doubts from the sceptic's mind, Newman boldly adds: "This is the same sense of renewal that the mainstream religions once offered."

Redefining language

Understanding this new spirituality can be confusing. It uses religious language—soul, spiritual dimension, religious experience, sense of renewal—but intends no reference to a transcendent God. It is an attempt to redefine religion and contain it within the boundaries of time or space. Issues of eternity—an afterlife, an absolute truth, even the divine—these are not discussed. It may seem self-contradictory, but no attempt is made to explain it.

A stark example of the use of language to communicate things that seem to contradict the very words used is contained in a May 1995 Financial Times of London article regarding Professor Paul Davies winning the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Davies is a mathematical physicist with an international reputation who has used the prize money to endow his own academic chair.

In communicating his ideas, Davies uses language that sounds remarkably similar to that associated with traditional, orthodox Christianity. "Having spent half a lifetime working at the forefront of fundamental physics, I have found the use of words like 'design, meaning and purpose' irresistible. How can one accept a scheme of things so cleverly arranged, so subtle and felicitous, simply as a package of properties that just happens to be? Of course, science cannot prove the existence of a design or a designer, but it can reveal the sheer depth of ingenuity that goes to make up this marvellous universe, our home." Two of the twenty books Davies has authored even use "God" in their titles. However, when pressed to explain his understanding of the divine, he makes some revealing remarks. "I'd rather get away from using the words 'God' and 'religion'. By God I meant the purposeful foundation of the universe. The truths on which the universe is founded must be timeless; you cannot have a God inside time or matter. But a timeless God is inevitably abstract. The general public hankers after a temporal God." In response to the reporters queries about the promise of an afterlife, "Davies is—for the only time in our interview—almost lost for words. 'The idea of a guardian-angel God is very comforting but I can't find any room in my philosophy for it'."

Progress: God in man's image

It is telling, I suppose, that the prize for progress in religion is awarded to a scientist who must admit that his ideas about God are determined by what room he can find in his philosophy for them. To be sure, Davies has a different concept of God than does Meriel Bradford. In fact, Bradford who describes himself as a Renaissance man, a humanist, has an altar-call with decidedly secular overtones. "Do you use all the tools and knowledge of the 20th century educational and research network to which you have the privilege of belonging for your own personal intellectual growth and for the development of your society, however you wish to define it?" We could go on to point out the differences that are evidenced by the philosophies of Tom Chappell, Peter Newman, or Paul Hawken. Clearly the differences between these philosophies are as significant as their commonalities. Yet stripped to their most fundamental basis, they reflect a common faith.

Ultimately, the faith undergirding the new spirituality is a faith in man. That sounds starker than it really is, for the man believed in by the new spiritualists is something other than the physical, social, and rational man that is the product of Darwin's natural selection and survival of the fittest. There is a spiritual dimension to life which is ignored at one's peril. And, it is recognized, that dimension is not a matter of private mythology or satisfaction but radically affects how we live together in society, how business can be most efficiently conducted, and how science ought to be pursued.

This spirituality stops with man and his experience. The ultimate pursuit is understanding man and his place in the universe. Paul Davies reports that his topics for future research are time, consciousness, and the possibility of extraterrestrial species. Why? "To appreciate fully who we human beings are and what our place may be, we need to know whether or not we are alone. Is life unique to planet Earth or is it a widespread phenomena?"

It is no surprise that the evidence shows the new spirituality has a disproportionate following among the entrepreneurial and professional ranks. The highest ideal it offers is man himself. The possibility of a personal utopia may even seem realistic for creative, joyful people, who have a philosophic framework of reference to explain the problems of the world and provide them with a sense of "good." This new spirituality allows individuals to contemplate the throne to which they would aspire. They can make their throne whatever height they prefer; it's a personal journey and whatever you feel comfortable with is fine. As to comparing their thrones with others, they have the words of Michael de Montaigne to comfort them: "On the loftiest throne in the world, we are still only sitting on our backsides."

This new spirituality does not provide an adequate basis for a new philosophy of business. That, of course, is not to say that many of the progressive things being done in the name of this philosophy are all bad and should be ignored. But, as pointed out earlier, much of this is recycled philosophy, hardly unique to the new spirituality. Furthermore, in many cases it seems that the motivation is as much traditional entrepreneurialism as it is anything else. Consider, for example, the book Hard Drive by Bill Gates. An analysis shows Gates's philosophy contains a similar emphasis on creativity, work as play, the power of individual purpose, and the cultivation of community. Gates, however, does not justify his "methods with the noble-sounding objectives of the new spiritualists. "I'm going to make my first million by the time I'm 25," he boasted in college. And what created the motivation for the hard work and productivity by the Microsoft team? "Work hard, make better products, and win."

There is little doubt that the new spiritualists are responding to a crying need in our day: a need to develop a philosophy of life, and business that provides a sense of meaning and purpose. It is not a challenge unique to our day; it has been the challenge of every generation. The desire and search for meaning is basic to the human heart.

Professor David Wells, in his recent book No Place for Truth, accurately diagnoses the inadequacies of philosophies like the new spiritualism.

The bottom line for our modernized world is that there is no truth; the bottom line for Christian consciousness is precisely the opposite. The Christian predisposition to believe in the kind of truth that is objective and public and that reflects ultimate reality cuts across the grain of what modernity considers plausible.

Today, reality is so privatized and relativized that truth is often understood only in terms of what it means to each person. A pragmatic culture will see truth as whatever works for any given person. Such a culture will interpret the statement that Christianity is true to mean simply that Christianity is one way of life that has worked for someone, but that would not be to say that any other way of life might not work just as well for someone else.

There is little to hope for if the only answers to the troubling political, social, and economic problems of our day must come from within ourselves. A god made in man's image offers little hope of salvation. The comfort of the Christian faith is that we can start with God and his revealed truth. It shows that man has been made in God's image, and that the ultimate questions of life have answers that hold firm and are not dependent on our experiences or the room that can be found in our philosophies for them.

Although there may be considerable similarity in the language used to discuss these issues, or even in some of the remedies proposed in given situations, there is a world of difference between these two approaches.

Ray Pennings
Ray Pennings

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.


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