On 28 August, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “God Is Dead. So Is the Office. These People Want to Save Both.” Correspondent Nellie Bowles writes about “ritual consultants” whose “business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America.” One such consultant discusses designing “rituals for small firms for events like the successful completion of a project—or, if one fails, a funeral.” Other rituals include “a ritual for purchasing your domain name (aka your little plot of virtual land up in the clouds)” and a ritual “for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.”
As I see it, the world of work already has many such rituals whether one has in mind the retirement party with the presentation of a gold watch, the presentation of certificates honoring five or ten or twenty years with the same organization, or going out for dinner or drinks after a major accomplishment. Designing new rituals is, in and of itself, rather innocuous and it may even be helpful.
Where things take a darker turn for me is when rituals are commodified. Bowles writes:
Evan Sharp, the co-founder of Pinterest, hired [ritual consultants] to categorize all major religious practices and think of ways to apply them to the office. They made him a spreadsheet.
“We pulled together hundreds of practices from all these different religions and cultural practices and put them in a spreadsheet and just tried to categorize them by emotional state: which ones are relevant when you’re happy, which are relevant when you’re angry, and a couple other pieces of metadata.”
. . .
“Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility,” he said.
Perhaps anticipating the response of readers like me, Bowles turns to Tara Isabella Burton to provide a critical perspective. Bowles writes about how Burton describes
the unbundling of rituals—a reference to how cable TV packages split apart after the advent of streaming services. In the unbundled world, people pick what they want from different faiths and incorporate it into their lives—a little Buddhism here, a little kabbalah there. It is consumer-driven religiosity.
“The idea is that what we want, what feels good to us, what we desire, that all of this is constitutive of who we are, rather than community,” Ms. Burton said. “We risk seeing spirituality as something we can consume, something for us, something for our brand.”
Religious rituals have effects—including emotional effects—on those who participate in them, but to pillage religious traditions for rituals that have the right emotional utility is to cast aside the finally non-utilitarian nature of worship. This error is compounded when religious rituals (or the shells of such rituals) are enacted without reference to the praise and glory of God or to the wide context of salvation history.
Rituals do not merely meet us when we are happy or angry or sad. In and through rituals, it is the God of Jesus Christ whom we encounter (often in the company of fellow believers) when we are happy or angry or sad.
Many employees in this time of pandemic are working from home via Zoom, Skype, or similar software. (That many employees do not have this luxury is another question entirely!). In a workday experience that is now somewhat flattened, writes Bowles, “sacred consultants are helping to usher in new rituals for shapeless workdays, and trying to give employees routines that are imbued with meaning.” When such consultants draw on rituals intended to orient people to ultimate meaning (in the sense of Paul Tillich) in order to supply “meaning” for one’s employment, problems can easily ensue.