Teaching Ethics: Faith in Business

Seminary Curriculum / Produced by TOW Project
Teaching ethics

How can theological educators help the business world overcome the division between faith and business? Chuck Conniry is vice president and dean of George Fox Evangelical Seminary and professor of theology on the George Fox faculty. Among his duties, he teaches a course on Faith and Spirituality in Business to doctoral students in George Fox University’s School of Business. The catalog course description reads as follows:

This course enhances understanding of the relationship between Christian faith, spirituality and the study and teaching of business disciplines. It focuses on the integration of faith and learning, the relationship between religion and spirituality, vocation, and the application of theological and spiritual principles and practices in the workplace and classroom. It furthers the mission of the School of Business by fostering development of the spiritual dimension in conjunction with intellectual growth, and by encouraging students to explore appropriate responses to the communities of which they are a part.

I spoke with him about the background and setup of the course.

Q: What is the overall purpose of the Faith and Spirituality in Business course?

A: This course occurs at the beginning of the Doctor of Business Administration curriculum. It’s designed to help the students think their worlds together. Many business students, even if they are devout Christians, tend to think of their practice as business professionals and their devotional life as existing in two separate domains. At the outset of the course we make explicit the students’ assumptions about work and the practice of work and faith. Then we begin dissecting assumptions.

Q: What are some of those assumptions?

A: The biggest assumption is simply the overarching dualistic paradigm of Western civilization. Dualisms themselves are not necessarily bad or unhelpful. But what Kant did as he tried to unpack and discredit Descartes was to basically say that there are two spheres of knowledge, pure reason and practical reason. Pure has to do with those aspects we can weigh, measure and quantify. That leaves a whole other sphere of human reason that can’t be accounted for in experimental ways: things having to do with aesthetics and the moral oughts. We can’t put that under a microscope. Whether or not one is a fan of Kant, his proposal trickled out through Western culture in a variety of different ways, and became the water in which we’re swimming, bifurcating the “real world” of facts and empirical entities over against taste, opinion, beliefs, likes, unlikes.

Q: What difficulties are there in challenging this assumption?

A: One of the challenges is cognitive dissonance resulting from a certain professional culture that is at odds with the students’ values as people of faith. The students find themselves unwittingly adapting to that, and then they say “This” – whatever “this” is – “is business; I keep who I am as a person in faith in private.” They try to quarantine faith off from the rest of their lives. Now it’s true that you can be a person who’s very quiet about their faith and yet have your faith make a robust influence. But for that to happen there has to be some deconstructive work first on those assumptions.

One of the most gratifying things I do is to orchestrate a series of gestalts to which they are awakened by new possibilities to engage their faith to the glory of God. It doesn’t necesserarily mean they are putting sacred posters on their cubicle wall, but at the end of the day they learn to integrate faith and work into a holistic spirituality.

Q: How do you go about doing this?

A: I use Romans 12 as one of the cornerstone texts for this. Paul talks about offering our bodies as living, reasonable sacrifices. He uses the term λογικὴν λατρείαν (logikēn latreian): logic, reason, intentionality, thoughtfulness, reflection. In the Septuagint, latreian (service/worship) is used to describe the daily behavior of priests, using sacerdotal imagery. We become priests. We’re doing this for ourselves and to ourselves.

There’s a unique marriage of Athens and Jerusalem in this phrase. Latreia was the mundane routines of the priests: offering the morning and evening sacrifices, trimming the lamps and replacing the showbread, settling civil disputes, the education of children. So much is wrapped up in this: concentrating on the stuff of daily life, consciously appropriating everything that we do and think to the glory of God.

Q: How do you specifically structure the course?

A: I take a Socratic dialogical approach: let’s lay things out and chew on them and talk about them and start connecting the dots in your own lives. The course is hybrid: four weeks of an online component and four days of intensive.

During the first four weeks, they read and interact online with works that in some way will soften the soil. [Course readings include John Beckett, Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul; Richard Chewning, John Eby and Shirley Roels, Business Through the Eyes of Faith; Larry Julian, God is My Coach: A Business Leader’s Guide to Finding Clarity in an Uncertain World; Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership; Gregory Pierce, Spirituality at Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life on the Job; Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak; and Miroslav Volf, Work In The Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work.]

I also tell them that I use a constructivist learning paradigm. I’m not a sage on the stage or guide on the side; rather I’m a curator of their learning, working alongside them as they engage in exploration with each other. In the in-class portion, we have some lecture and Q&A in the morning and conversation in the afternoon.

I have them write an initial paper on the integration of faith and work, due on the first day of the intensive, and I grade it right away so they get it back. I assure them I’m not testing theology or orthodoxy; what I really want to know is how you see your faith and spirituality influencing your work. If it doesn’t at all, no harm, no foul. That’s what I want you to tell me.

This becomes the basis for a more extensive final paper that they do at the end. I talk to them about the value of praxis. Praxis is a theory-laden process in which you look at a given moment of practice and tease out the theory that informs it and determine the validity of the theory in terms of its telos, its purpose. At the end they also create an annotated bibliography with 20 sources. It helps them learn how to cull through the material. They use some of that material in their final essay.

Q: Are all your students Christians?

One student was an out-and-out atheist and he actually did well in the class and enjoyed it and found some of the contacts useful. I have also had some Hindu and Muslim students, though not many. It’s fun to help them interact with their perceptions of spirituality and where they’re at, but I do so explicitly as a Christian.