Monday, July 23, 2012

Jeff VanDuzer, Ross Douthat, and Daniel Pink: Toward a Liberal Christian Conception of Business


In a recent article in the NYT, Ross Douthat asks can liberal Christianity be saved?  The vibrant mega-churches are politically conservative but theologically shallow, teaching a message of health and wealth, he notes.   But on the liberal end of the spectrum, the Episcopal Church has suffered precipitous drops in membership and Sunday worship as it has become more and more liberal. 

“But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.”
What should be wished for, says Douthat, is that liberal Christianity should recover a religious reason for its existence, one deeply rooted in Bible study and the traditions of the faith. 
“Today …the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”
Jeff VanDuzer, a high school class-mate of Bobbi’s, offers one such vision.  He is Dean of the School of Business at Seattle Pacific University, a small Christian College.  In an inspiring lecture at the Redeemer Community’s CFW Gospel & Culture lectures in New York City, on May 18, 2012, he turns on its head the dominant business paradigm that the mission of business is to maximize return on investment for shareholders:  the mission of business is to serve all stakeholders in an enriching and sustainable manner.   Generating profits are a necessary tool to serve that end, but he freely acknowledges that the profit maximizing goal and the sustainable enrichment goal of business won’t always lead to the same place. 

VanDuzer roots his view in a close liberal reading of the bible.  But, as Douthat suggests, one can surely root such a view of sustainable and meaningful and enriching business in purely secular liberalism.  We don’t need God to tell us that meaningful work, and business that is creative and sustainable across a broad spectrum of modern secular values, is a positive thing.  We can root the idea that business should promote the opportunities for rewarding and sustaining work in self-interest and notions of justice rooted in the social contract.  It takes a village.  These values are not more noble if rooted in the glory of God than in liberal secularism, as Douthat seems to suggest; and they are not less noble for being rooted in a liberal conception of Christianity. 

Daniel Pink, failed lawyer and ex-speech writer has a TED lecture with 3.7 million hits on the “Surprising Science of Motivation.”   The hits are a story in themselves:  VanDuzer’s talk, is far deeper, more profound, more inspirational; it has 30 hits.  Go figure!  Anyway, Pink shares the good observation that studies show (it’s TED, it must be true) that incentivizing workers to solve cognitive tasks is counterproductive.  If you give a bonus for faster performance, you’ll get slower problem solving.  The reason is that cognitive problems require workers to have a broad view, to look for solutions in surprising ways and places.  It turns out incentivizing for speed causes workers to focus in close, thus missing the big picture, missing the innovative, surprising solution.  

Pink suggests that what workers want from work is three things:  1) autonomy, 2) mastery, and 3) purpose.  Purpose … that is the same message that VanDuzer has for business.  The purpose of business is to offer rewarding work to all stakeholders in a sustainable way, says VanDuzer.  In order for workers to find work rewarding, work must have a purpose, and workers must be allowed to pursue this purpose in an autonomous way.  The bottom line counts, but it’s not about the bottom line.  It’s about purpose, and the journey… and sustainability.

If Christianity can find it’s way back from the current view that equates Adam Smith’s invisible hand with the hand of God, to a liberal Christian view that business, in order to serve the Kingdom of God, must serve all stakeholders (broadly defined) in a sustainable manner, this will be a good thing.  If that means Christianity shrinks, and we base a concept of rewarding sustainable work on the “merely secular,” that will be o.k. too.  

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