Christian Sensibilities in Christian Organizations
Responding to a review by Matthew Hall, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/institutional-intelligence/
Hall makes this observation in response to one of the points made in the chapter on organizational culture:
. . . when considering what makes a Christian institutional culture actually Christian, Smith seems to take a step back. While acknowledging some institutions will engage in “God-talk,” he seems skeptical that “the language of God” should be pervasive and overt in the rhythms of institutional life. More specifically, when considering the question for a Christian university, he suggests that commonly assumed practices of professors praying in class, relating disciplines to “religious implications,” or opening trustee meetings with prayer may actually be unhelpful. Instead, he proposes that “a religious ethos that is subtle, perhaps implied in the way that the class is taught or the committee is moderated, ultimately alters and shapes our way of being” (128).
While Smith’s vision is surely well-meaning, it seems naïve. To be blunt, in a secular age, it’s hard to imagine that institutions marked by a “thin” Christianity or confessional identity will remain Christian for long. If anything, the spirit of the age will require more robust and regular “God-talk,” the sort of “thick” Christian commitment and discourse—found only in historic confessional identity—that stands increasingly contra mundum.
In response, consider the following. If we share the conviction that Christian sensibilities need to pervade an institution that self-identifies as Christian and that this is essential to the capacity of such an institution to engage its social context – notably a context that is secular, then the question follows: how do we do this most effectively. In response, I am struck by the power of such writers as Flannery O’Connor and I wonder if she might be an example of what it means to engage our social context in a manner that is genuinely powerful and transformative. Because the genius of her impact is that she spoke truth “on a slant”, to reference a line that I believe originates with T.S.Eliot, another such master. Perhaps we learn from Christian poets and fiction writers and come to see that “thick” Christian commitment and discourse does not necessarily mean being overtly Christian. O’Connor spoke of her work of writing fiction by saying: “Your beliefs will be a light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” (quoted by Nick Ripatraone in Christian Century, “Gentle, Man Epiphanies: the Christian world of three southern writers,” (Nov 22, 2017, pp 30-33). This captures precisely what I am trying to speak to in this regard. The Christian impact might actually be greater, ironically, and the religious identity and culture “thicker”, when the Christian part of our religious identity is not so much pervasive as rather so ingrained in our institutional culture that it shapes our way of being and seeing and responding. And it becomes ingrained because we let it be more subtle .. .more a matter of what is implied rather than what is explicitly stated.