Bringing Spirituality into the Workplace at the University of Arkansas: Saving Souls and the World through the Free Market

James Dennis LoRusso, Emory University

Work is love made visible.  And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. –Khalil Gibran

Self-proclaimed “corporate mystic,” Lynne Sedgemore, read the above passage by Khalil Gibran during her keynote address at the International Faith and Spirit at Work Conference recently held at the University of Arkansas.  The conference, sponsored by the Tyson Center of Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace, itself a part of the University’s Sam Walton College of Business, gathered together an eclectic mixture of business leaders, academics, religious authorities, and spiritual teachers in hopes of generating momentum for an idea that has been gaining traction over the last few decades: that there is a place, indeed a vital need, in today’s global economy, for spirituality in one’s work. 

From corporate chaplaincy initiatives to “quiet rooms” in the office for reflection, prayer, or meditation, a smattering of businesses have begun to make room for employees to exercise their religious and spiritual commitments on the job.  The results, these advocates claim, produce greater satisfaction, a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life, and, not surprisingly, a more efficient and productive workforce, thereby improving the bottom-line and ensuring future success. 

While workplace spirituality, as the movement is known among the faithful, does hold profitability and respect for the diversity of faiths as principle aims, it also embodies a broader vision that is particularly relevant to the current global economic crisis.  The organizer of the conference and long-time supporter of spirituality at work, Judith Neal, stated concisely this larger goal.  Workplace spirituality, she maintains, can potentially change our world by transforming human consciousness across the world.  According to Neal, since the most powerful institutions in today’s world are businesses, they are the carriers of vast social change, and therefore it is within the scope of spiritually driven businesses that some of our most challenging socio-economic problems might be overcome. 

In other words, it is business that is positioned to solve the world’s problems. 

This faith in the capacity of business, when guided by spiritual principles, to reform the world elucidates an uncanny confluence of liberal social agendas and neo-conservative ideologies.  On its surface, workplace spirituality appears as an eclectic mix of religiously liberal and New Age perspectives of human beings.  An inclusive movement, participants cling to a belief in the validity of multiple spiritual paths and the dignity of every person, regardless of their lifestyle.  Moreover, leading figures of the movement often voice a worldview reminiscent of the New Age.  Judith Neal, for example, claims in her book, Edgewalkers (2006),

…that a new kind of human being is emerging on the planet and that this has major implications for business, governments, religion, education, and all of our social institutions.  These Edgewalkers are people who walk between the worlds… In ancient cultures, each tribe or village has a shaman or medicine man.  This was the person who walked into the invisible world to get information, guidance, and healing for members of the tribe. 

The Edgewalker, according to Neal, represents the twenty-first century shaman, the individual equipped with abilities uniquely suited to lead humankind through the difficulties of contemporary life. 

Neal attributes the appearance of these Edgewalkers to the socio-economic context of globalization, high technology, and the increasing speed and unpredictability of life.  Edgewalkers hold the tools to navigate these tenuous conditions, and to teach the rest of us to follow in their footsteps.  Neal cites particular business leaders as the exemplars of Edgewalking, including figures like the founder of PeopleSoft, David Duffield, and Richard Barrett, founder of the World Bank’s Spiritual Unfoldment Society, who have dedicated their careers to creating models of socially responsible organizations and spiritually sensitive workplace cultures. 

What is needed, according to such views, is nothing less than a new understanding of work: work represents a sacred act, enlightened executives and managers become servant leaders and the shepherds to the spiritual needs of their flocks, and the workplaces serve as the primary space where profound individual transformation can occur.

Given this picture, the conference on spirituality in the workplace represents more than a goal to make room for religious practice at work.  It constitutes an entirely new religious movement in its own right, conveying a world led by the benevolence of the private sector, freed from government restraints and allowed to compete openly for resources and customers.  In this world, according to this logic, those organizations best suited to meet the spiritual needs of their stakeholders will naturally obtain an advantage over their competitors because workers will be drawn to work for these firms and as customers choose their goods and services over less conscientious brands. 

It is these underlying assumptions of the movement that reveal its intimate relationship with what thinkers like Ayn Rand refer to as “radical capitalism.”  Rand and the advocates of spirituality in the workplace agree on a picture of humanity in which certain individuals, be they Rand’s people of superior intelligence or corporate mystics like Lynne Sedgemore endowed with the intuitive charisma of an Edgewalker, should be allowed to rise to positions of leadership.  This state of affairs, of course, is only feasible when the market is unfettered and society understands the role of business as dominant in human affairs. 

Even though most of the participants at the conference would take issue with Rand’s devout atheism, they nonetheless possess a worldview curiously committed to laissez-faire principles.  In fact, the marriage of a libertarian portrait of the world with notions of transcendence where workers find ultimate meaning and purpose for their lives through business activity, I would argue, actually strengthens loyalty to a radical capitalism.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, most explicitly illustrates this confluence of spirituality and free markets with his involvement with “Conscious Capitalism,” an organization closely associated with the workplace spirituality movement.  “Accelerating the Integration of Consciousness and Capitalism,” its members stake their claim as “enthusiastic advocates for free markets, entrepreneurship, and competition” but with a twist: by “liberating each person’s entrepreneurial spirit and helping that entrepreneurial spirit creatively flow toward the collective good of all humankind.” 

As he admits in his book, Be the Solution (2009) , Mackey enjoins a philosophy of “personal empowerment,” built through years of engagement with spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation, and A Course in Miracles, to his professional decision-making.  When he spoke out against President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2009, Mackey’s resolve stemmed from a belief that business has a higher purpose for which government intervention can only serve as an impediment. 

This broader relationship between neo-conservatism and workplace spirituality seemed lost on the participants at the International Conference for Faith and Spirit at Work.  What was missing was vigorous critique of the movement’s implications: that if work is the source both for material and immaterial well-being, and this source is anchored to particular organizational goals, little room is left for any fundamental critique of the supremacy of the market.  Instead, the conference proceeded under one assumption: that the integration of spirituality to the workplace was a good and even vital goal for the future of business and human life in the twenty-first century.  Such worldviews potentially mute democratic forms of action, replacing it with a benign faith in big business as the saving grace for us all.


James Dennis LoRusso is current PhD student of American Religious Cultures at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  His work focuses broadly on the Religious Origins of American Capitalism, specifically on Spirituality in the Workplace and the intersection of advertising theory and the study of myth. 


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