Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Bonhoeffer’s Critique of American Protestantism

I just posted this review on Amazon and Goodreads. The book is Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation, by Joel Looper.

After earning his doctorate in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent the 1930-31 school year at Union Theological Seminary in New York as an “exchange student,” taking classes with Reinhold Niebuhr and others. He did not have good things to say about his experience afterwards, but it wasn’t just the seminary that disappointed him. Having observed American Protestantism (both liberal and conservative), he called us “a land without reformation.”

Joel Looper’s book offers a detailed analysis of this critique. Using Bonhoeffer’s course schedule, he reconstructs, in a general way, the kinds of things Bonhoeffer probably heard from his professors, although the responses from the seminary students were also quite significant (their laughter at some of Luther’s writings, for example, and their distaste for biblical preaching). We learn how his professors reacted to the papers he wrote for their courses. We see how Bonhoeffer attempted a kind of Foucauldian genealogy of American Protestantism, first tracing its roots back to John Wycliffe and the Lollards in England in the late fourteenth century (every man becoming a priest unto himself), then describing America as a refuge for religious dissenters who no longer wanted to fight over religion. The result, on Bonhoeffer’s account, is a land in which political freedom is recognized as the true religion, and the citizens believe more strongly in their democratic rights than they do in any established religion.

The first hundred pages of Joel Looper’s book are the most important, if your aim is to understand Bonhoeffer’s point of view. The second half of the book responds to objections and qualifications (Did Bonhoeffer change his mind later? What about his experience at the African American church he attended regularly? How can we reconcile his earlier remarks the letters he wrote from prison? and so on).

The best thing about this book is the fact that it challenges us to include ourselves in Bonhoeffer’s critique. Looper doesn’t let us off easy by allowing us to say that these criticisms are only relevant for a certain segment of American Christians (in other words, not including me and my group). The author holds up a mirror to all of us, inviting us to see ourselves as Bonhoeffer saw us. Are we, in essence, pagan devotees of American Civil Religion? Have we elevated Democracy to a religion? And are we unable to see this because we’ve reinterpreted the scriptures to suit our brand of American Individualism?

These are questions we dare not dodge. If Bonhoeffer is right, and we Americans have secularized both the Christian message and the church as an institution, then we are actually taking our cues from secular culture and projecting them onto our reading of the scriptures. Our God turns out to be nothing more than an anthropomorphic reification of American Culture. Our political commitments become indistinguishable from our religious ones, rendering our faith no more powerful than our current degree of political clout. And this is true of both conservatives and liberals. If this analysis troubles us, then there may be hope. Looper’s book is supposed to prompt discussion. We should read it, first of all: pastors and lay leaders of all Protestant denominations should put it at the top of their reading list. Then we should have honest, soul-searching discussions about it. And together, we should bring the matter before God – not “God” in quotes, as Bonhoeffer would say, but the real God, the one to whom we must all one day render an account (Hebrews 4:13). This book is that important.

Smashwords Interview

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my life and work on the Smashwords website (click here to go to that site). Here is the text of that interview.

We’re talking with Dr. Ron Johnson from Spring Arbor University, and we’re asking him how he started writing about finding God in the workplace.

When I was in high school, I was surprised to discover that God was interested in more than just religion. I prayed about my homework, and God helped me in concrete ways. I prayed about my extracurricular activities and ended up flourishing in them. At first I didn’t want to talk about it because I was afraid of being branded “religious,” but some of my experiences were so extraordinary, I just had to tell people. “Listen!” I said, “Did you know that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life wondering whether God exists? You can find out. Pray about everything… and watch what happens!”

I went to a state college (Grand Valley State University) and was quite vocal about it there. I know I turned some people off, but I couldn’t keep quiet about it. Day after day I found God guiding me in my studies and leading me to people I could help in some way. It was an amazing experience.

After graduation, my denomination sent me out to the Pacific Northwest, and I spent two years telling my stories to congregations in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia. Although I was mostly appealing to high school and college students, I also reached out to adults. I said that God could be found not only in the classroom but also in our factories, our high-rise office complexes, our government agencies, and anyplace where people worked. People of all ages found that message compelling. A number of them reported that they tried the experiment and received concrete answers to their prayers. But some adults told me they had tried to pray about their jobs but had not had as much success as I had had. “What am I doing wrong?” they asked. “How can I find what you’ve found?”

I didn’t know how to answer their questions. I prayed for them, and I told them things that should have been obvious (make Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, don’t ask for anything that contradicts scripture, watch carefully for unexpected answers), but I found I was unequipped to help most of them. It took me years to figure out why.
What did you discover?

I already knew that this was not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Each individual had his or her own obstacles to overcome in their approach to God in secular life. I also knew that these obstacles could vary greatly. Some people might have to change their attitudes, while others might have to change the way they think. I realized right from the start that I would have to know a lot more about each person in order to help them.

But over the years, I became convinced that there are also some general obstacles that we all face. Contemporary life is structured in certain ways that make it very difficult for people to see what God is doing from day to day. Our upbringing trains us to view the world in certain ways that rarely intersect with religious or theological concerns.

Can you give an example?
Certainly. As I scanned the literature on workplace spirituality, I found that a lot of it talked about how to win our coworkers to Christ. Now, while sharing our witness is part of being a Christian, this approach to workplace spirituality filters out the most important questions. What is God doing in my place of employment? How is God seeking to make the world better through me as I perform the job I’ve been hired to do? Those are the questions that will help people to have a vital experience of the Living God in their workplace. And yes, part of the answer will be to share our witness with our coworkers. But that’s only a small part.
In the mid-1980s, you were a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, studying to become a minister in the United Church of Christ. Why did you leave seminary?
I realized that I was never going to find the answers to the questions my people were asking unless I went out into the work world and experienced God there for myself. So I left the path to pastoral ministry and did a number of other things instead. I was a platemaker in a printing company, acting as the middleman between the people in the darkroom and those out in the pressroom. I worked in the produce department of a supermarket. I was a professional storyteller. I joined a writers’ group. I was a substitute teacher. I sold advertising for a suburban newspaper. I was a computer software trainer. I worked for Western Union, first as an operator (taking telegrams and money transfer orders over the phone), then working my way up to Operations Manager.

In each of these places, I had vivid experiences of the presence of God, teaching me and helping others through me.

During these years, I also earned a masters degree in Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I began to believe that God was guiding me in a certain direction — that, as a professor, I would share the things I had learned in both academic and popular writing.

But things didn’t work out quite like you expected…
No, they didn’t. I was unable to obtain a tenure track position in Philosophy. In order to support my family, I went back to the field I had been in before graduate school: I took an entry-level position in a customer service call center. It was the lowest point of my life. But as I prayed and tried to make sense out of it all, I found God even there — even in this nightmare job. And then I began to see a larger plan. I wrote about my experiences as a call center representative, and that became my book, CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST.
Is that book just for Customer Service representatives?
No, it’s for working people in all walks of life. A number of readers have told me that they found it deeply meaningful even though they aren’t CSRs (Customer Service Representatives). Here’s what I was trying to do. Through all those years, I had never forgotten the people in the Pacific Northwest who had tried unsuccessfully to experience God in their workplaces. I wrote CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST as just one detailed example of how I had found God in my place of employment. Although I intended it to be useful for CSRs, I also hoped that people in a wide variety of jobs could use it as a springboard for their own spiritual lives in the workplace.
Why did you write WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5?

As I said earlier, those of us who live in the contemporary world, at least here in the West, are trained to view the world around us in certain ways. Most of us are quite unreflective about it. We do it without even knowing we’re doing it. But those ways of thinking act like blinders, keeping us from seeing how God is active in our lives… or is at least trying to be.

In WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5? I encourage the reader to view daily life as a vast web of interrelated stories. Both as individuals and as social groups, we are who we are because of all the things we’ve said and done in all the stories we’ve lived through so far. But the truth is, we don’t think about most of those episodes even while we’re living through them. In this book, I ask you to step back and look at what we’re doing, and to locate the ways in which God is trying to get us to grow and develop through those stories. And God is doing that everywhere and always, both while we’re working and when we’re doing other things. I hope this book will help readers think differently about their daily lives so that they can begin to see how God is already trying to interact with them right now.

Although this is a philosophical book, there are some great concrete examples in it, too.
Yes. The entire last chapter presents a number of cases in which people pray about their jobs and get concrete answers like the ones I’ve received over the years. A badly-divided department comes together when a woman is led to write a clear set of procedures, in answer to prayer. A salesman learns how to listen to his customers. A bill collector widens his repertoire of strategies. A manager finds ways to get along with union representatives.
None of your examples are about people getting rich or being promoted. You don’t preach a Gospel of Success, do you?
No. After all these years, I still work in a call center by day and teach college courses at night. I think my own career path speaks for itself. You can find out to your own satisfaction that God is real, and you can discover God actively engaged in your daily life even if you’re stuck in a dead-end job. But don’t base all your hopes on a promotion or on a path to riches. God wants to give you an adventure right where you are, by working through you to make the world a better place. You may not get all that you want in life, but you can have HIM for the asking, if you’re willing to turn over the wheel. What’s stopping you?
Published 2016-08-20.

Why It’s So Hard to Make a Career Choice

A university student is trying to choose a major. She doesn’t feel strongly about any particular kind of employment, so she must make a deliberate choice. She has imagined herself in various work settings and has thought about what she would most enjoy doing. She has not only researched different fields but has also interviewed people and pictured herself in the roles they occupy. It’s hard work choosing a career, because so much is at stake. She wants to make a choice that she’ll be happy with years from now.

She may not be able to put her dilemma into words, but deep in her heart she senses that she is something more than any job will ever allow her to express. Suppose she leans in the direction of becoming a Personnel Manager. You are more than this, her heart tells her. You are more than just a Personnel Manager.

But she doesn’t know how to act on this feeling. She doesn’t know how to take on the role of a Personnel Manager and still, at the same time, be a person who is MORE THAN THIS.

The nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel was a smart guy. He recognized that young people in modern times have trouble committing themselves to a particular line of work because they believe that, by so doing, they’re giving up their freedom and becoming less than they were before. Even in the early 1800s, Hegel already put his finger on the problem.

It seemed to him, though, that young people were mistaken. They weren’t losing anything by taking on a job. On the contrary, it was only by choosing a particular role in life that a person could become somebody. Young people believed themselves to be free only because they had no limitations, but precisely because of their lack of commitment to the larger social sphere, they were also powerless to do anything really important in society. Only by choosing a particular role and embodying it could they become participating members of society, and only in that way could they ever become someone of consequence.

(He said these things, by the way, in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Allen W. Wood, ed., H. B. Nisbet, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), § 207.)

In certain respects, Hegel was right. His diagnosis was correct, for even in the twenty-first century, young people often feel a strange constricting of life’s possibilities when they have to choose a career. He was right, also, in saying that the choice must be made in spite of this feeling, and that, if it is not made, then we risk doing nothing of consequence in our world.

But Hegel failed to appreciate the depth and persistence of the problem. Even when people do choose their place in society, they often do not lose the nagging awareness that they are more than the sum total of their social roles. Hegel believed that a well-formed society would allow people full expression of themselves and full recognition from others, but this seems to imply that people truly are nothing more than the roles they play in society. The gospel invites us to believe otherwise.

Christ taught that we are always “more than this” — more than the sum total of the tasks we perform in our daily work. We are not just what we do; we express who we are through the things we do, but there is far more substance to us than a single lifetime will ever give us opportunities to express.

For young people who are trying to decide on a career, it might be useful to think about it this way:

You are more than any one job will allow you to demonstrate, but you’re called to make a difference in this world. In order to do that, you’ll have to commit yourself to some line of work, at least for this period of your life. But no matter what kind of job you undertake, always remember that the job itself cannot define you. Use it to express certain aspects of your personality, but also remain on the lookout for new career directions — new parts of yourself that can be brought into the public sphere, for the good of others. But above all, remember that you’re still somebody even if you’re unemployed or underemployed, or if you’re retired. You’re more than any of these things. You’re made in the image of God — and God is not defined by what He does. Indeed, He cannot be defined at all. But He is known, insofar as He can be known, by Who He Is.


…What Does God Do from 9 to 5?

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“What role does God play in our lives while we’re working?”

That’s the question that two young professionals, Dayton and Savannah, set out to answer. With the help of a unique discussion group led by Dr. Grizzled Mane, Philosopher-in-Residence at the Cathedral of Our Lord (C.O.O.L.), they begin to view the work world as a web of stories, with God acting as both observer and participant. Along the way, they consider other questions:

*Is God interested in science, accounting, education, law, and other secular pursuits?

*Are we the product of our environment or of our genetic inheritance?

*Does God micromanage our lives?

This book will prompt you to think in new ways about your job and your life.

For more information, click the link below to visit my Author Page on Amazon.com:



Different Approaches to Faith in the Workplace

There are a number of ways that we can approach the subject of God’s involvement in the workplace.

The Proselytizer’s Approach: God just wants to convert people. The secular world is important only as a setting for proselytizing. God doesn’t care about secular activities in and of themselves.

The Ecclesiastical Approach: God’s work is done exclusively through the church. God is interested in the secular world to some extent, but what God does in the world is mediated through organized religion. Secular activity outside the church is meaningless to God.

The Social Justice Approach: God is on the side of the powerless and disenfranchised.  To that extent, God is interested in the secular world, but only to that extent.  God doesn’t care about secular life in general. In fact, the larger culture disgusts God, because it favors the powerful and dulls the senses of the masses.

The Ethical Approach: God’s interest in secular life is largely ethical. The secular world matters to God because that is where we live out our faith, making choices that affect others. God calls us to do good and to help others within the larger culture.  Apart from ethical considerations, however, God does not care about secular life.

The Spiritual Practices Approach: We must always engage in spiritual practices wherever we are, to stay in touch with God and to behave virtuously. As we do so, God is with us even in the most secular situations. The focus here, however, is on our union with God in each moment. Nothing is implied about God’s interest in the secular world itself.

The Deistic Approach: God created the world and gave us the freewill and intelligence to live within it. What we do with those gifts is up to us. God is not personally involved in our daily lives. 

The Impersonal God Approach: There is no personal God. Christian religion is about being kind to others and making good decisions. It’s not about believing in a meddling Old Person who looks down on us from the heavens. There is no such Person.

There are many other possible approaches to the issue of God’s involvement in secular life, but these are the main responses I’ve gotten from people over the years, as I’ve discussed this question with them. In my upcoming book, What Does God Do from 9 to 5? I explain why I’m not satisfied with any of these approaches, and I outline my philosophy of God in the workplace.

For today, though, I invite you to consider the following question. Do you see yourself anywhere in this list?

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