The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Business and Theology

2013-11-18 The Marriage of Heaven and HellThe study of management—of human beings going about their ordinary business of making a living—is one of the richest and most profound venues for the study of theology. Once you’ve considered the idea, it seems obvious.

But of course, most of us don’t consider that idea. I never did, until very recently. What could be more antithetical to spiritual reality than the world of business? Even if I thought Hugh Nibley’s critiques on business were a disappointingly infantile digression from an otherwise heroic figure, the idea that the world of mammon could actually be a source of spiritual insight (other than as a temptation to be denied or a trial to be endured, of course) never entered my mind.

But why shouldn’t it? If we are to take seriously the theology of the mundane, and that is something I believe we should take seriously, and locate insight and meaning in pedestrian and everyday human activities, then why would we except the realm of business and commerce?

Management always lives, works, and practices in and for an institution, which is a human community held together by the bond that, next to the tie of family, is the most powerful human bond: the work bond. And precisely because the object of management is a human community held together by the work bond for a common purpose, management always deals with the Nature of Man, and (as all of us with any practical experience learned) with Good and Evil as well. I have learned more theology as a practicing management consultant than I did when I taught religion. – Peter Drucker

I was first introduced to the conflux of Drucker, Nibley, and theology in a post by MBA student Walker Wright critiquing Nibley’s (in)famous Leader to Managers. In it, Wright rejects Nibley’s leaders vs. managers dichotomy as a false choice. Quoting Harvard Kennedy School’s Barbara Kellerman, he notes:

Scholars should remind us that leadership is not a moral concept. Leaders are like the rest of us: trustworthy and deceitful, cowardly and brave, greedy and generous. To assume all good leaders are good people is to be willfully blind to the reality of the human condition.

Wright goes on to argue that the myth of the heroic leader, a grand visionary untrammeled by pesky minutia, functions for the most part as an excuse to avoid real work. In contrast, Wright argues that we must embrace the mundane in the pursuit of the lofty: “Zion as a vague, lofty abstraction sounds good on paper (or in scripture), but the steps that must be taken to transform it into a reality are something else entirely.” As a corollary, Wright also argues for a broadening of the term “intellectual” beyond the scope of “New-York-Times-reading-complexity-craving-literature-philosophy-and-history-reading-liberals-like-me-and-you,” using Joanna Brooks’ characterization. As Wright points out: “those who practice medicine, law, and business tend to be highly intelligent and (often out of professional necessity) curious.”

This is the context in which Wright introduced me to Peter Drucker as more than just a particularly influential management consultant. Peter Drucker saw himself, in contrast to progressive, scientific theorists of the previous generation, as a humanist. He was the consummate interdisciplinarian and never lost sight of the worker and manager as human beings rather than merely resources. He was, in simple terms, the ideal anti-Nibleyian manager.

2013-11-18 Drucker

Wright pushed this topic further in two subsequent posts coauthored with Allen Hansen, All Things Unto Me Are Spiritual and The Upward Path. The first is a fascinating historical comparison of worship through corporeality in Hasidism and Mormonism, centering especially on Enoch’s pursuit of holiness through his commercial trade as a shoemaker. According to R. Israel’s explanation of Enoch’s story:

This does not mean that when Enoch sewed together shoes he was cleaving to supernal thoughts. The law forbids it, for how can he be occupied with something else when he is employed on behalf of other people? Rather, the essence of his unifications was the concern that each and every stitch would be good and strong in order for people to benefit from the shoes. Thus he cleaved to the attribute of his maker who bestows his beneficence on all, and this is how he performed unifications, desiring nothing other than to cleave to the attributes of his maker.

If the first post touches glancingly on the connection between business and theology, the second delves in deeply. After all, one cannot engage in a study of the role of the mundane in spiritual life without doing so. As Wright and Hansen put it: “People do not spend the majority of their time in the act of deep contemplation. Instead, they are performing the seemingly menial tasks of daily life. This largely consists of one’s form of employment.”

Wright and Hansen subsequently weave together threads from Hasidism, positive psychology, and human resources literature to build a picture of eternal progression as  a practical, everyday activity. They conclude:

The Church is an organization. Human life is experienced within organizations, communities, and societies. By delving into the meaningful aspects of this life, we can begin to catch of glimpse of the next. By doing so, we can help bridge the gap between the secular and the religious, the Church and the Gospel, the temporal and the spiritual, knowing and doing, believing and belonging. By practicing “worship through corporeality” in all its forms (including in the workplace), we can perhaps become part of something bigger than ourselves, instill the hum-drum of daily life with greater meaning, and re-enchant “disenchanted Mormonism” (to borrow Rosalynde Welch’s wonderful term) while grounding “enchanted” Mormonism in reality.

2013-11-18 Moshidora_cover

Mormon theology, management theory, and Japanese anime… what’s not to love here?

Wright has already written additional pieces that demonstrate the exciting scope of this research agenda. In Spiritually Edifying and Psychologically Satisfying, Wright examines the integration of Gospel narratives into our life experiences while drawing on neuromarketing research. In The Sometimes Sandy Soil of Doubt & Uncertainty he reviews President Uchtdorf’s recent General Conference talk in light of the role of humility in effective business leadership. And in Moshidora and the Progress Principle he examines a popular Japanese anime with the premise of a high school baseball team manager who applies Peter Drucker’s principles to visit the idea of eternal progression once more.

Mormon doctrine holds that the Fall, rather than a tragic catastrophe, was a great and costly leap forward. We believe that our mortal bodies are a higher form of being rather than a fall from spiritual purity. Mormon monism collapses the distance between spiritual and physical, violating the ancient tenet of sacred distance and thereby threatening the spiritual realm (in the eyes of some) while ennobling the physical. And yet it seems the Mormons are still inheritors in many ways of the conventional Christian distrust of the temporal, the physical, and the earthly. If Zion is to be built on this Earth, however, that tradition of the fathers must be set aside. That is what strikes me as worthy of celebration in these posts: an opportunity to at long last lay down the burden of anti-biological self-loathing and more fully embrace the lessons to be learned from our ordinary lived experiences. I hope to see lots more in the future from Walker Wright, Allen Hansen and others.


Note: Largely because of how impressed I was with the posts discussed here, I subsequently asked Wright to join as a regular contributor to my personal blog. Allen Hansen suggested the title and illustration for this post.

20 comments for “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Business and Theology

  1. Fascinating. Thanks for this, Nathaniel.

    When I was studying for my own MBA 20 years ago, I took a class on management in literature in which we read things like Bartleby the Scrivner and Julius Ceasar, which led me to conclude that management doesn’t really have much to do with business at all, but with institutions, and it is present in every attempt that human beings make to work together. Cooperative efforts require management.

    This is not to say that management is free of ethical challenges and spiritual error. It has the same problems that Institutions have, and perhaps a few more. As a result, participating in institutions always requires that we lower our expectations to some degree.

    The ethical and moral problems in business (outside of the difficulties that arise from institutions) isn’t management itself, but rather the mentality that happens to have arisen in business and spread into our culture. Its the mentality that believes that success is and should be measured in money and the belief that unregulated and unlimited seeking for profit is the good which our society must seek. Its the same logic that says that if the principals discovered by Adam Smith are natural laws, then they somehow determine the morality of the ends they are used for–i.e., the laws of supply and demand are at work in prostitution, so prostitution shouldn’t be restricted.

    That philosophy, that belief that we should measure everything in terms of money, seems to me to be the real problem.

  2. Nice post, Nathaniel. I agree with many of the points made by you, Wright, and Drucker. However, as Kent suggests above, just because we’ve moved away from bureaucratic management doesn’t mean there aren’t several other very significant and thorny problems to wrestle with.

    In particular, I think broadly enacting Drucker’s vision requires surmounting significant obstacles related to economic globalization, labor-replacing technology, shareholder maximization, and the political challenges facing attempts to establish a just distribution of meaningful work. Managers attempting to link their work to a broader view of the common good are apt to face the kind of challenges that Nibley hints at (and I agree that he is often attacking strawmen, but he does nicely unearth a tension between what might be termed grace and economy that still needs to be reckoned with…).

    So, for example, empirical work indeed suggests that in blue ocean firms (creative industries), workers can be managed in ways that maximize worker engagement, potential, productivity, etc. However, in more competitive industries (e.g., manufacturing), this vision is much more difficult to realize (think: foxconn working conditions).

    Anyway, in order to get at some of these deeper issues I’m trying to hint at, I think Drucker needs to be linked to a broader political theory. My own view is that Alasdair MacIntyre has provided the most complete and useful picture for this purpose. If you, Wright, or anyone else is interested in wrestling with these kinds of problems related to business and religion, I strongly suggest searching for appropriations of MacIntyre in business ethics and org studies journals (viz., Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Philosophy of Management, and Organization Studies). Or, more directly related to your post, here is a paper critiquing Drucker from a MacIntyrean perspective (more specifically, the paper critiques a book chapter arguing for a simple rapprochement between the differing views of management offered by Drucker and MacIntyre).

    Anyway, I very much look forward to hearing more on this topic from you, Wright, and others.

  3. Kent-

    This is not to say that management is free of ethical challenges and spiritual error.

    Definitely not! The reason I’m fascinated is not because I think management offers us an ideal guide but rather because I think it offers us a fraught set of questions and problems. Business and management are deeply moral activities, I think. Or rather: they can and should be.

    I’m not sure exactly how to unify the sort of hard-nosed, business objectivity you get from finance and economics with moral considerations, but I don’t think that it’s an intractable problem. I think it’s a fruitful one.

  4. One of the things that was brought home to me during my time attending USAF Officers Traning School was the strong linkage between Leadership and Management. Just about everything we did was scored on the same problem solving grading sheet, which balenced leadership tasks (where are we going)with management tasks(how do we get there). You could never do just one without having to be aware of the other.

    On a related note I highly recomend reading Me myself and Bob, Phil Viscchers memoir of the rise and fall of Big Idea Studios (Veggietales). A fall that he attributes to a failure in managment which leed to failures in leadership. He makes explicit comparison to the success of Walt Disney (one of his heros) which was only succesfull long term because of Roy Disney being there and being able to say “Walt, we can’t afford it.”

  5. Some great comments!

    Robert C. –

    Thanks so much for the article. I need to state that although I quote Drucker a lot, he mainly offers a framework (I don’t endorse everything he says, nor have I read everything he has written). His views shifted over time as he moved from political scientist to management consultant. But I find them extremely valuable because they see businesses as communities full of flesh-and-blood people. As one article put it, “His management philosophy is based on a communitarian philosophy – grounded in the belief that even in our individualistic society people still seek connection, meaning and purpose.”

    From speaking of “management” as a “liberal art” to expounding on the purpose of business in society, I think he provides a paradigm in which the ethics you speak of can flourish (also allows for tweaking). MacIntyre embraced a kind of Aristotelian virtue ethics. I think one could find an Aristotelian approach in Drucker’s views as well (even though he wrote very little on ethics specifically). See Marcia Kurzynski, “Peter Drucker: Modern Day Aristotle for the Business Community,” Journal of Management History 15:4 (2009).

  6. *I’m not sure exactly how to unify the sort of hard-nosed, business objectivity you get from finance and economics with moral considerations, but I don’t think that it’s an intractable problem. I think it’s a fruitful one.*

    It’s also a necessary one. The Savior’s advice that we make friends with the Mammon of unrighteousness and, taken in context, the advice against tempting the Lord our God, both point to the faith not being a get-out-of-reality-free card. Which leaves us to do some fairly tricky negotiating of dilemmas.

  7. Regarding the tension between finance/economics and ethics, I think this is exactly the right question — and it’s a monstrous one….

    I think an answer can be best formulated in Aristotelian terms (following Walker’s comment #5). Not to be too obnoxious with citations, but it’s precisely this question that I think Charles Taylor is trying to tackle in his — equally celebrated and monstrous — book, A Secular Age. A more concise argument that is similar, though also quite academic (Brewer more directly engages modern ethical theory, whereas Taylor is more engaged with the political theory literature), can be found in Chapter 6 of Talbot Brewer’s book The Retrieval of Ethics. Taylor, Brewer, and MacIntyre all argue, basically, that the tension between economics and ethics that we tend to feel is a modern phenomenon — a phenomenon premoderns such as Aristotle didn’t feel. It is also a tension deeply entwined with the division between public vs. private goods, analogous to the division between public/secular vs. private/religious forms of reason. The trick, then, is to conceive of reason, desire, and the good in ways that do not lead to a Hobbesian kind of stark tension between the common good and private goods….

    Walker, I’d love a copy of the article you mention, if you have one handy. My email is [email protected], without the ZZZ.

  8. Um, the Enoch story left me shaking my head wondering if R. Israel had spent any time sewing anything. Because my experience is that you certainly can be thinking about other things while sewing, canning, baking, stripping wallpaper and all manner of work that requires hands but not all of one’s brains. And yes, sometimes I was listening to conference talks, BYU lectures, or inspirational books.

    Also, while I had previously read Wright’s piece on humility in leaders, I though about how that observation fit into the framework of Servant Leadership, a trend that was hot when I was in grad school and is still taught today, see for example “Servant leadership: A path to high performance,” By Edward D. Hess, April 28, 2013, WashPo Capital Business.

  9. R. Israel Salanter’s point is not that one cannot think of other things while sewing, but that one should not. The traditional Kabbalistic interpretation held that Enoch devoted himself to intense contemplation of permutations of the divine name. Enoch transcended his menial task. For R. Israel, however, this was unthinkable. His ethical system demanded “all of one’s brains,” when doing something for others. He didn’t look at a job thinking of what he could do to make time pass bearably. Rather, he considered that one should think of how to fulfil obligations to others to the best of one’s abilities, out of a desire to render unto them good, just like God does.

    Here is something Walker and I wrote in the original piece.

    “In the words of his modern biographer, “When there was a conflict between God-centered piety or kindness toward one’s fellowman, R. Israel preferred the latter, even when it meant sacrificing the former.” Enoch’s ascension came as the result of his intense devotion to benefiting and bettering his fellow man. This was the true essence of God’s own character, so doing even a menial task to the utmost of one’s ability in order to help others is, indeed, the highest form of imitatio Dei. Doing one’s job well even takes precedence over studying lofty theological matters.”

  10. I think there’s a danger in getting bogged down by a debate about diminishing returns to sewing quality after we’ve devoted the necessary minimum cognitive energy. Maybe it takes about 1/2 our attention to do a good job, and devoting our full attention won’t make the sock (or whatever) any better.

    That’s not the point.

    The point that R. Israel was making (and that Allen and Walker were citing) is that holiness is found through mundane activity and not depite mundane activity.

    The idea is that Enoch wasn’t a holy man because he spent all his time pondering divine imponderables instead of mending shoes. He was a holy man because he realized that in mending shoes he was serving his fellow man (“when you are in the service…”) and so he fulfilled the measure of his creation by doing something very ordinary (fixing / making shoes) in an extraordinary fashion.

    Whether or not Enoch could have put some portion of his brain towards other things while mending the shoes is kind of missing the point of the story.

  11. I understand that R. Israel is saying that we should not. And I think he is wrong. A mundane task is not more holy or done better because we choose to focus on it, and only it.

    I totally agree that mundane work in service of others is every bit as valuable and sanctifying as scripture study. I would agree that we need not be pondering or studying while we make the shoes, because the service itself has a sanctifying value.

    But it is not “doing one’s job well” to focus only on the menial task, if one does not need to in order to get the work done. That strikes me as a waste of stewardship.

    Just speaking as a mom, who spends a lot of time doing menial tasks in the service of others, but listening to various audio while doing so.

  12. Allen was simply pointing out the religious ethic informing R. Israel’s view. You captured the point beautifully with this:

    “I totally agree that mundane work in service of others is every bit as valuable and sanctifying as scripture study. I would agree that we need not be pondering or studying while we make the shoes, because the service itself has a sanctifying value.”

  13. “And in Moshidora and the Progress Principle he examines a popular Japanese anime with the premise of a high school baseball team manager who applies Peter Drucker’s principles to visit the idea of eternal progression once more.”

    I wouldn’t have believed it without the graphic, in which the Japanese is actually talking about a high school girls baseball team that is applying Drucker’s principles. But it looks like a manga (a cartoon book or graphic novel) rather than an ad for an anime (animated film). Was it a manga that became an anime?

    When you discuss the intersection of business management and theology, I wonder whether anyone has done a thorough study of the operations of the Church itself. I remember Henry Eyring, a professor of organizational management, relating how impressed he was by the decision style used by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve when he was first called as Church commissioner of education. How do restored gospel principles get played out in the Church bureaucracy, and related organizations like the Church farming operations around the country, Deseret Book, and the real property management organization that created City Creek Center? How has the business management expertise of people like Clay Christensen, Kim Clark and Stephen Covey been implemented in the Church’s paid business operations? To what extent is it incorporated into the work of mission presidents and their missionaries?

  14. wouldn’t have believed it without the graphic, in which the Japanese is actually talking about a high school girls baseball team that is applying Drucker’s principles. But it looks like a manga (a cartoon book or graphic novel) rather than an ad for an anime (animated film). Was it a manga that became an anime?

    I used “anime” ’cause it’s the more well-known term, and I was curious to see who would call me out on the fact that the illustration was actually of the manga. :-)

    It actually went:

    novel -> manga -> anime -> live-action film

  15. I think we would do well to study plantation economies to find out how the church economy works. It seems to be about how much you can get the church population to do voluntarily – costs to the people and profits for the few – the master and slave dynamic that was lauded in genesis when joseph showed pharaoh how to take advantage of the 7 years of famine.

  16. I think a more fruitful comparison would be the voluntary participation in medieval monasteries. Economist Nathan Smith has done some interesting work on this subject.

  17. The church is not a monastery and the analogy fails because all the voluntarism and tithing contributions allow the for profit arm – deseret management, intellectual reserve, ensign peak advisors, etc. – to exist. If the church did not have a for profit arm, then maybe the analogy holds. If the church did not have tithing, then the for profit arm would not be able to exist, period. This is why the plantation model fits better than the monastery model. But of course we will never know for sure what model they follow until the books are opened – which will never happen.

    Our country has been following the plantation model since its inception and we can easily see it today in the way corporate America has shipped jobs to the subsistence wage economies like Haiti and southeast Asia over the past 30 or so years. Our leadership comes from this way of thinking and is recruited out of corporate America like Elder Cook who came from Ford Motor Company, etc. So it is no surprise that the church would follow what corporate America does – top down military like control – a melding of business and government – or a melding of business, church and government all in one.

    You shouldn’t shy away from it. The model is very efficient in providing profits for the top and costs to the population at large. Just think of how much influence the church could have if it had 100 billion instead of just a measly 40 billion? In fact, Elder Oaks was lamenting how all the new missionaries had nothing to do when he was in Atlanta recently. Maybe the missionaries could be put to good use on the farm land recently purchased in Florida? This would be part time work of course and would certainly build the kingdom. It could be like how we all used to work on the church farms periodically in the past.

  18. I guess I should have connected the idea of Zion to my monastery comment. Nathan Smith finds that the motivation of monks and nuns to worship built “spiritual capital,” which allowed monasteries (i.e. small communities of central planning) to function for hundreds of years whereas secular forms of socialism have been prone to fail. The spiritual motivation is a major player in the voluntary actions of the participants.

    It was the voluntary action part that I latched on to.

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