Why a Reflection on Workplace Conversations?
Prior to leaving for seminary, I worked for a good company in Post Falls, ID that manufactured office furniture. While I found satisfaction in my work and enjoyed the people I worked with, there was a particular expectation that was deeply frustrating: while you’re at work, there are two things that you don’t talk about – politics and religion. This is one of the core expectations that exist in a secular workplace. While I found these expectations regarding politics and religion to be at least partially intelligible, I always found it bewildering and exasperating that we were expected to expunge religious discussions from our public life.
This frustration was further heightened by the loss of a delightful co-worker named Brian (not real name) who shot himself in the head in front of his home after receiving news that he had terminal cancer. Sadly, Brian left his wife, three young children, and scores of co-workers behind to make sense of what had happened.
After losing Brian, one of my deepest frustrations with secular expectations came into sharper focus: How is it that we can spend so much of our lives together at work without being given the freedom, dignity, and trust of being able to talk about the relationship of God to our lives? Even if the secular expectations of our companies ostensibly keep them from getting sued, why not encourage the value of bearing with one another’s quirks even though our political and religious differences run deep?
Sadly, if these secular expectations don’t get challenged in a way that is winsome, inviting, and thoughtful, people will avoid having conversations around matters of real consequence. Along these same lines, Sharon Daloz Parks once said:
“I remember talking with a young man who graduated from a prestigious university and was embarking on a master’s degree in business. I asked him if he could tell me when, if ever, he had significant encounters with people different from himself. He felt he had not, but hoped it would happen in the school in which he was now enrolled, where there was an obvious diversity of American ethnic and international students. He recalled, ‘At the university where I was an undergraduate, there were a lot of different people, but we all sat in our own section of the dining hall.’ This experience is common, as all of us tend to seek out our own comfort zone, our own tribe. In a related fashion, some faculty report that increasing numbers of young adults, even the bright and the informed, are reluctant to disagree openly with one another, whether in informal or classroom contexts, because the terms of belonging (increasingly fragile in our society as a whole) appear to be set too much at risk by the free exploration of ideas around matters of real consequence.” (emphasis mine)
Things Can Be Different
Happily, over time I began to discover that there were a significant number of people in my workplace who didn’t mind talking about religion – even though they had no explicitly religious affiliation. Indeed, a number of those who’ve opened up over the years entered into courageous conversations while having no initial intention of going to church. Meeting these people has been refreshing, as their courage in conversation has extended me the dignity of knowing that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to talk about things that deeply matter.
In the following section, I’ve outlined seven gifts that I extend to my co-workers that will often encourage them to break “the secular sound barrier:” As you’re reading these gifts, please keep in mind that each of these gifts can be communicated with varying degrees of clarity. Some of these gifts I explicitly communicate and others only implicitly:
The Gift of a Strange Kindness
One of the things that I have consistently discovered; is that co-workers will rarely enter into conversations about God or things that deeply matter to them apart from being able to witness some expression of kindness that they don’t typically witness in the workplace. To discover what these kindnesses are in your own workplace, simply note the places in your workplace experience that are lacking tangible acts of kindness and thoughtfully embody an alternative.
The Gift of Freedom from Retributive Power
Another gift that is helpful to give is the freedom from retributive power. The freedom from retributive power is the freedom that my coworkers have to express honest disagreement or scorn about the things that I believe without fearing that I will cop an attitude in the workplace, subvert a relationship of mutual respect, or nark them off to HR for offending me. Although HR can be quite helpful in dealing with gross workplace offenses (such as sexual harassment or violence), I don’t particularly want their help in silencing someone who has the courage to honestly and publically disagree with me.
One of the primary reasons that I have for extending this freedom is this: When I commend a particular belief of mine to someone who doesn’t hold it, I want them to enjoy the freedom of considering (or rejecting) the idea on its own merits alone. Creating workplace communities in which a person fears speaking their mind (because of the unstated threat of retributive power) also ends up creating communities and conversations that are fluffy and shallow.
When I extend this gift to others, I will frequently note that while retributive power can be used to suppress dissenting viewpoints, I have no intention of using such power to suppress, crush, or punish them for their views.
The Gift of the Public Imperative
This is quite possibly the most feisty of the gifts, and perhaps the best way of explaining it is to narrate an interaction that I had with a truly delightful and thoughtful atheist called Lee:
Although Lee was quiet and introverted when I first met him, he eventually began to express his thoughts on the various ways in which life, religion, politics and “god” intersected. As he explained his thoughts on these matters, he paused for a moment; and with a sense of genuine sincerity he assured me that he wasn’t trying to convince me that what he was saying was true. In his willingness to say this, Lee had simply screwed up enough courage to publicly state what many privately believe: It’s not really necessary to persuade others what is true, I’ll simply make sure that what I believe is true.
My response was simply, “Why?” Isn’t it true that simply letting me flop around the fog of my own mental errors is to content yourself with my ongoing frustration, sorrow, and loss? One of the fascinating things about truth is that it always benefits in some tangible way, the one who genuinely believes it.
After expressing this, I went on to narrate a whole cluster of losses that my family, myself, and others had experienced – precisely because we had failed to believe what was true about reality and God. As a matter of fact, I’m still haunted by these losses – and in my present, experience real and ongoing losses for what I presently believe about God.
The point of saying all this was to extend Lee the gift of the public imperative: If what you believe is true, don’t be afraid to commend it for the sake of those who don’t presently know it! Please don’t pretend that what is real doesn’t publicly matter and is only privately relevant. To withhold truth or reality (theological or otherwise) from someone who don’t presently possess it, is to content yourself with their ongoing frustration, sorrow, and loss. Conversely, to sincerely commend even the faintest truths to another person is to seek their own good.
By insisting on the inherently public nature of truth here, I’m not trying to be smug or triumphant. I’m simply trying to concretely illustrate how helpful it can be when truths that deeply matter are commended and received by someone who would genuinely benefit.
While a community might studiously avoid having conversations about God and truth, those who play by the rules of the game end up fashioning a “polite society” that becomes painfully shallow. In his book, How Not to Be Secular, James K. A. Smith says
“What emerges from this is what [Charles] Taylor describes as “polite society,” a new mode of self-sufficient sociality that becomes an end in itself. Polite civilization, and the moral order it entrenches, can easily become lived as a self-sufficient framework within which to find the standards of our social, moral and political life; the only transcendent references admitted being those which underpin the order and do not justify infringing it.”
Give others the gift of the public imperative.
The Gift of Time
The freedom to take time is the relational space that you offer someone else to carefully reflect on your discussion without preemptively announcing the poverty of their overall position. If you or anyone else in the conversation has their finger on something that is beautiful and true, it will have to be lived with for the rest of one’s life. Consequently, allowing a person time to carefully reflect on your claims before making a decision can be a way of dignifying the nature of the claims that are being made.
One of the helpful things about this gift, is that you can ask others to extend it to you as well. This is particularly helpful when you sense that you’re being rushed through a conversation at a pace that is faster than you can keep up with. One of the ways that you can ask for this gift is to simply say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. What you’re saying is important to me; and I haven’t thought very carefully about what you’re saying. Can you give me some more time to reflect on this? Then, when I’ve got a good grip on what you’re seeking to communicate, we can pick this discussion up again.” If the person you’re talking with cares about you as a person and isn’t simply trying to score a point on you, they should be more than willing to give you the space and time that you need.
The Gift of Disagreement & Scorn
The freedom to express disagreement and scorn is the right to state that my belief(s) are ridiculous. When extending this gift to others, I will often tell them that I’m giving them a “blank check” that allows them to say whatever they want without the fear that what they say will offend me. People often find this helpful, because they want to discover what sincere Christians are like without having to slog through the fear of being relationally pegged for expressing sincere disagreement.
The Gift of Civilized Contention
The freedom to engage in civilized contention is the acknowledgment that there is no subject that has ever been taken up that has not involved disagreement, contention, or controversy. Consequently, I won’t despise them for engaging controversial subjects in a civilized way.
The Gift of My Own Personal Need
The gift of my own personal need is a conviction that because I don’t know everything that there is to know, I can be genuinely enriched – even by those with whom I deeply disagree. One of the ways that this gift can be expressed is by locating and commending the good that you see in the lives of those whom you are conversing with.
While this is only an introductory glance at the relationship between the workplace and religious engagement, I’ve found that to varying degrees, many of those whom you work with need to know that conversations about God can actually be enriching and safe. Hopefully you’ll find that these gifts can be a helpful way of encouraging others to talk about things that matter.
 Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 141.
 When I speak of “breaking the secular sound barrier,” I am referring to the way in which co-workers will often refuse to completely banish conversations about God from their public interactions. Whenever someone does this in the workplace, find some way to tangibly commend them – even if their first attempts at breaking through this barrier are actually attempts to critique your own beliefs.
 James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 54.