In my last post (here), I talked about the search for a meaningful life. The argument I made is that together with marriage and family life, work is the natural context for meaning. Unfortunately many clergy frequently undervalue or dismiss work as valuable for the spiritual life and so many laypeople experience a schism between what they do Monday through Friday at work and what happens in the family or on Sunday in church. In this post I want to look at business and the meaningful life.
Recently there was an interesting essay by Greg Forster in which he looks at business as meaningful, and meaning making, institution. In his post (Business as Culture Making: Starbucks Comes Together) he observes that
…in modern society, we are developing the expectation that “normal” institutions don’t stand for moral values or a cultural agenda. If an institution does represent such values, it is abnormal in some way – not necessarily wrong, just an exception to the rules – and one that must be kept sequestered from the normal, ordinary process of business.
He goes on to say when we think like this we denigrate the human and Christian vocations to work. As a result,
People take a job because it pays the bills, not because they’re making the world a better place by doing their work. That’s exactly the cultural signal that’s destroying the working class by dehumanizing work as an activity.
“Dehumanizing” is I think the exact right word and it captures (at least in part) the struggles of not only the middle age men but of many of the people I speak to—women and men, those in midlife, the elderly and the young. All of us are seeking a meaningful life. And for the vast majority of us a life of meaning, if we are to have it at all, is something that happens after work. Meaning is for the weekend and vacation not Monday through Friday.
There is in all this, as Forster puts it, a
…seamless connection between a dehumanizing view of work and the militant secularization that threatens to destroy religious liberty. The most basic reason why businesses like Chick-Fil-A should be free to affirm marriage and Hobby Lobby should be free not to pay for employees’ contraceptives is because economic work is human action, and all human action is moral and cultural. Therefore businesses are moral and cultural institutions whether we like it or not.
Precisely because “business is and must be culture making” we need to make sure that businesses are “free to be culture makers rather than try to force them to conform to an impossible model of moral and cultural neutrality. ” As a practical matter this means “you can’t make the businesses’ moral/cultural identity hostage to any one employee who objects to something.” It also means that the Church, and especially the clergy, need to appreciate the human and theological value of not just work but of the social institutions that make work possible–the many small, medium and large businesses, publicly traded and privately held, that provide employment for
All that said it is also true that often “businesses don’t currently do a good job of stewarding their cultural role.” While some of this has to do with the moral failing of business owners, to repeat as I said above, a large share of this has to do with the failure of the Christian community to take seriously and value the goodness work and the vocation of business.
…to a large extent companies are bad at this because we have forced them to try to deny what they are. We’ve spent more than half a century trying to teach businesses to pretend they’re not moral and cultural. We’ve ruthlessly driven out every practice and principle that used to provide some structure and direction for this aspect of corporate life. Of course they do a lousy job of it!
Forster is right. We all, clergy and laity, Christian or not, “have a lot of relearning ahead of us” if we hope to see businesses fulfill their role as cultural stewards and as institutions within which men and women can find and create meaningful lives. If Forster is right “that Christian business leaders are going to be the key players in figuring out how to re-humanize companies” then it is incumbent upon the Christian community as whole and the clergy in particular, to re-evaluate our own attitudes toward work and to the businesses and business owners who help create the jobs that make work possible.