Gelassenheit. The word struck my soul as soon as I saw it. I was early in my PhD program in religion and theology, pouring through the history of early Anabaptism. My research focused on the relationship between Christian and business ethics and I knew I had just stumbled on something profound—little did I know where it would take me.
My interest was more than academic. Over the past several years, deep tensions were forming in my own faith. Ever since I can remember, I was passionate about theology. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian home with loving parents that encouraged me to explore God. I recall as a young teenager driving to Denver Nuggets basketball games engaged in deep theological conversations with my Dad.
After undergraduate and graduate degrees in theology, I intended to go straight into a PhD program. But as life happens, the path changed. My soon-to-be wife and I decided that I should return to help lead my family’s large business.
By this time, the “faith and work” movement was entrenched in American evangelical sub-culture. For those unfamiliar, the movement emphasizes the integration of Christian faith with professional work. Its history is complex, though a central thesis has remained constant: Christianity and capitalism are completely complementary. Fit for each other like peanut butter and jelly.
You would think my passion for and training in theology would make integrating faith and work easy. It wasn’t. A big reason was my job. A few years after returning to the business, we were approached by a company interested in buying us. As a seventy-year old family enterprise, this was not an easy decision. But we decided to sell, a process that I helped lead.
This set-off a series of dramatic changes for me professionally. I soon took over as CEO of a spin-off company. We had just been awarded a large government contract and got off to a strong start. But then disaster hit from all sides. Sales plummeted as a government budget crisis unfolded. Our warehouse subcontractor faltered, causing us severe delivery issues. We were bleeding cash. High-ranking government officials were calling me threatening to pull the contract. All the stress was exacting a serious tool on my young family.
Crisis has a way of surfacing the complexities of faith and this was the case for me. I began wondering how exactly my Christian faith integrated with this polarizing nature of capitalism I was experiencing. The sale of our family business had brought significant financial blessing, part of which was used for poverty relief in Africa. But other business failures resulted in lost jobs and damaged relationship. What was really startling to me were the internal effects. In a world of entrepreneurial self-making, I noticed more fragmentation and loneliness in my own soul than ever before. The line between my professional vocation and my spiritual identity had become unhealthily blurred. Professional success and failures were being equated with spiritual growth and stagnation. It’s almost as if I needed a little a little less integration of faith and work!
The faith at work movement puts a high value on completely integrated belief systems. But I wonder if, in our effort to make everything fit together, we gloss over some important tensions inherent to practicing Christian faith in a world permeated by consumer-oriented capitalism?
Today, we grapple with these tensions perhaps like never before. COVID-19 has crippled the global consumer capitalistic economy, leaving a wake of destruction. Lost jobs, shuttered businesses, empty churches. In so doing, it has laid bare a fundamental reality of modern life–market capitalism is more than an economic system. It’s a cultural system that powerfully shapes human valuing, relationship, and meaning making. Like religious faith, consumer capitalism often evinces deeper and more profound longings. Consumerism itself is a spiritual disposition in that it is a way of looking at the world that shapes desire. While often associated with greed or an inordinate attachment to material things, consumerism is in fact “characterized by detachment from production, producers, and products. Consumerism is a restless spirit that is never content with any particular material thing” (Cavanaugh, 2008, p. 7). All of which we are aware of as our participation as consumers has largely been shut down.
I believe we will look back on this crisis as a major inflection point in the faith and work movement. For most of its history (especially within evangelical circles), it has tended to portray the relationship between Christian and capitalism as one directional—Christians can use capitalism as a vehicle to advance economic and spiritual good without being affected by its excesses and polarities. At the time, that made relative sense: capitalism’s growth was relatively stable and predictable, and Christianity maintained a position of social and political majority.
Times have dramatically changed. Christianity no longer exercises a position of social majority and the explosive and uneven growth of consumer capitalism has pulled into its orbit nearly every sphere of society. If we are not paying attention to the consumeristic habits and practices we all daily engage (especially in the digital world), we can easily fall into the idea that human flourishing is achieved and sustained by the ever-greater consumption of goods and services for individual and material gain. Conversely, what we find in the Christian Scriptures is that human flourishing is a deeply relational and gradual endeavor that often involves the surrendering of individual and material interests for a greater good.
During this time of economic and social crisis, I believe we have a unique opportunity in the faith and work movement to re-discover this unique vision of human flourishing. Which brings us back to gelassenheit.
In the early 1500s in southern Germany, a small community of Anabaptists were banding together under economic and religious crises. Capitalism wouldn’t be invented for another 300 years, but these Anabaptist had a prescient insight. They believed that because human being haves an innate inclination towards self, our loves need to be regularly re-wired. To accomplish this, they drew on a middle-age German mystic named Meister Eckhart and his concept of gelassenheit. Eckhart taught that we can easily lose sight of God as the Ultimate when we place ultimate value on finite realities such as possessions and social status. A regular practice of gelassenheit or detachment can help us reconnect with the presence of God that is inside of us. When we yield to God’s mysterious and often uncomfortable work of detachment, we allow God to realign the affections of the heart and soul so that they can make their way back to God and be re-deployed for love of neighbor.
Like it or not, we all find ourselves in a sort of forced gelassenheit. This is not to spiritualize away the real damage being felt. Quite the opposite, to redeem it. How can we use the COVID crisis to renew our integration of faith and work? How can Christian business leaders leverage this forced detachment from consumerism to re-align our loves and build new organizational habits so that we can re-engage more thoughtfully and robustly as we transition to a “new normal”?
In the New Testament, we see Jesus focusing on three attachments that need regular rewiring and are subject to re-ordering in the kingdom of God, and I believe they serve as a blueprint for us.
First are relational bonds. It is human nature to form our deepest connections with those most like us. Jesus and his earliest followers pushed back against this. Social distancing has provided a unique opportunity to be attentive to the people we live with and around. Might it do the same for our businesses? I have often wondered if Christian business leaders should substitute “stakeholder” for “neighbor” when they think about applying Jesus’ great commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” COVID has forced us to come to terms with the fact that a business is a highly relational organism in a living ecosystem of stakeholders: customers, suppliers, employees, etc. These stakeholders are our neighbors, to be loved and served.
Second, are physical possessions. To be a follower of Jesus is to relinquish individual claims over any material goods for the higher calling of stewarding God’s provisions for the care and joy of others. If you are like me, you have tended to read NT accounts of communitarian ethics a bit dismissively and individualistically. From the standpoint of modern Western society, the sharing of “all things in common” in Acts 4 or the collection for the poor church in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8-9) can strike as archaic. But maybe, a gelassenheit detachment from our routine material consumption helps us see that we are the exception, not the norm. For centuries, the Body of Christ survived, grew, and thrived by taking a radical approach to the stewardship of physical possession. Many Christian business leaders, recognizing that they are in a position to leverage not just personal possessions but organizational assets for the greater common good, have made incredible acts of sacrifice. May that continue well beyond COVID!
Third is status. Jesus was quite clear—in the Kingdom of God, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). COVID has forced many leaders to confront how far they are willing to go here. Over the past several weeks, as I have talked to Christian executives, I have been amazed of the stories of leaders being the first in line to go without pay (for some, indefinitely) so that they can retain as many front line employees as possible. What an incredible testimony to the ordering of their loves.
Jesus was once asked by one of his followers, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which he responded, “I am the way.” COVID has challenged many of the certainties of the faith and work movement, but perhaps it has also provided us a unique moment to realign with the One who remains at the center.