Salvation, theology and organizational practices

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Humankind has a long history of seeking to be saved from suffering, although the understanding of just how to achieve this salvation has changed over time. Regardless of how it has been understood, throughout history the dominant understanding of salvation has been associated with how social structures and systems are organized. This paper provides an historical review of the relationship between salvation and organizational practices, paying particular attention to various views of salvation within the Western Christian tradition over the past two millennia. Using a three dimensional analytical framework—the modality of salvation, the instantiation of salvation, and the locus of ethical activity—we describe key changes in the meaning of salvation over time, and describe hallmark organizational practices associated with each meaning. We conclude by discussing implications of our analysis for examining relationships between organizational practices and salvation in other religious traditions, for developing a more nuanced understanding of emancipation, for developing counter-cultural approaches to management, and for strengthening a “theological turn” in organization and management theory.

Keywords: Max Weber, Protestant ethic, salvation, emancipation, Christian history, organizational history, archetype, myths, theology, suffering, Luther, Church fathers, Islam, world religions, theological turn

*Dyck, B., and E. Wiebe (2012). “Salvation, theology and organization theory across the centuries.” Organization, 19(3): 299-324.

According to Max Weber, the pursuit of salvation has for millennia played a central part in the history of humankind, even as the understanding of salvation has changed over the course of history. Of special interest in organization studies is Weber’s widely-accepted argument that the particular understanding of salvation associated with the Protestant ethic has had a great influence on the development of modern organization and management theory and practice (Weber, 1958 [original 1904]: 115ff). Somewhat ironically, Weber argues that the Protestant Reformation’s ideas of salvation have themselves given rise to a materialistic-individualistic “iron cage” from which modern people now seek to be saved (Weber, 1958; Dyck and Schroeder, 2005).

While the Protestant ethic underpinnings of modern management have long since been thoroughly secularized, which even Weber recognized by the turn of the 20th century (Weber, 1958: 72), we suggest that humanity’s age-old pursuit of salvation is still present and pervades contemporary organization and management theory literature (e.g., Ackers and Preston, 1997), though today it is rarely referred to in religious terms, nor typically called salvation. Rather, this idea—or perhaps better, this archetype—in our contemporary culture is more likely to be called by its secular expression emancipation (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992; Baum, 1989: 739; Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005: 433; Greisman and Ritzer, 1981: 43, 47; Ratzinger and Habermas, 2006: 44-45; Laclau, 1996: 8). It may also be expressed more generally as the need to replace problematic mainstream organization and management theory with a qualitatively different approach (e.g., Ghoshal, 2005; Giacalone, 2004; Hamel, 2009; Podolny, 2009).

Given the persistent striving for salvation in human history, including its current secular manifestation, and given its acknowledged impact on modern organizing, we sought to understand how a more nuanced view of salvation may indeed offer a deeper understanding of emancipation which could be applied to current problematic organizational practices. In this endeavor, we follow Weber who suggested that salvation might come via the “rebirth of old ideas and ideals” (Weber, 1958: 182; see also Lee, 2010). Adopting a focus, then, on the Western Christian tradition, out of which the Protestant ethic and modern organizational practices developed, the purpose of this paper is to describe how (a) varying interpretations of the notion of salvation across different eras in the history of the Western Christian tradition are linked to (b) varying organizational practices in those eras. In making the link between organizational practice and the interpreted-meaning of salvation, we hope to alert readers not only the historical importance of this relationship, but also to sensitize them to the importance of this linkage going forward. In particular, we describe how our three-dimensional understanding of salvation may prove fruitful for developing a more nuanced understanding of emancipation, and how our study provides further support for the “theological turn” taking place in organization studies.

The structure of our paper is threefold. First, we briefly review the meanings of salvation across a variety of world religions, and develop a three-dimensional conceptual framework based on Weber’s analysis of how the meaning of salvation has changed through history. Second, we use this framework to explore changes in the meaning of salvation within the Western Christian tradition over the past two millennia, and how these changes are associated with changes in organizational practices. Third, we discuss the implications of our analysis for organization studies.


According to Max Weber, the question of suffering, and thus the relief of that suffering, has been central to the origin and development of religion (i.e., how people order their relationship to the transcendent realm; see also Durkheim, 2001 [original 1912]) throughout history. For Weber, salvation refers to transcendent ways for humankind to be liberated from suffering, and indeed many understandings of salvation are evident across world religions. The breadth and depth of the idea of salvation, glimpsed in Table 1, points to the universality of the human experience of suffering and the desire for its relief (see also the field of soteriology). In other words, these varied expressions of salvation may be instances of specific cultural myths based on a more foundational archetype fundamental to humanity. By myth, we do not mean the pejorative sense of that which appears “fantastical or uncertifiable” from the perspective of rationalism, but rather an expression of a culture’s experience of a much deeper phenomenon undergirding all humanity (Hatch, Kostera, and Koźmiński, 2005: 72). Myth in this sense connects us to our ancestral past and to the core elements of our common humanity (Hatch, Kostera, and Koźmiński, 2005: 75-76). ELDEN: Nice addition. However, now that we’ve established the meaning of myth, it seems like it would be a good idea to use it in the next paragraph. Is one of my three insertions below appropriate, or can you find a better fit, or is it okay to leave it out?

As the [a mythical] expression of the suffering/relief archetype, we can expect salvation [myth] in its many [mythical] understandings to be manifest within each culture through various practices (Hatch, Kostera, and Koźmiński, 2005). This is the particular interest of this study. Weber argues that (1) how people understand salvation often has an influence on and coincides with changes in social and organizational structures and systems, and (2) the understanding of salvation, and hence its manifestation in social and organizational structures and systems, may change over time within religions (Kalberg, 2001). We will look at each in turn.


insert Table 1 about here


Link between salvation and organization practice

Weber argues that there is a link between beliefs about salvation and organizational practices, as we would suspect from the perspective of archetypes expressed in myths. His analysis, however, is much more nuanced than to suggest a simple cause-effect relationship between them (Kalberg, 2001). On the one hand he famously argues that

religious ideas themselves simply cannot be deduced from economic circumstances. They are in themselves, that is beyond doubt, the most powerful plastic elements of national character, and contain a law of development and a compelling force entirely their own. (Weber, 1958: 277-78; emphasis added here)
On the other hand, he also points to the importance of “economic development on the fate of religious ideas” (p. 277). Taken together, for Weber the relationship between salvation and organization practice may best be characterized as a “process of mutual adaptation” (p. 277).

Although there has not been much research on this topic, previous studies examining the effect of differing religious beliefs on organizational practices generally supports Weber’s views. For example, a study among a variety of world religions finds a relationship between organizational practice and creeds among religious organizations, suggesting that religions do in fact practice what they preach (or vice versa) (Dyck, Starke, Harder and Hecht, 2005). Other research on world religions shows that the religious beliefs which have the greatest affect on increasing economic growth are those related to an after-life (McCleary, 2007: 50; Barro and McCleary, 2003; see also Graafland, Kapstein, and van der Duijn Schouten, 2007; Albertson, 2009). A country-specific study in France examines changes in the meaning of salvation from 1540-1630 and their effect on performativity (see Ramsey, 1999, for whom performativity refers to acts of religious ritual and symbolism that confirm the presence of the spiritual within the physical world, such as the ringing of church bells, providing for banquets, and the presence of the poor in conjunction with funerals), and another study in France examines changes in the meaning of the spirit of capitalism in the past century (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005). Finally, a study among self-professing Christian managers shows that difference in their religious beliefs are related to organizational structures and systems (Dyck and Weber, 2006).

A study that lends strong support to Weber’s argument that is of particular relevance for our research examines changes in religious beliefs within Western Christianity over the past two millennia, finding a strong relationship to organizational practices (Bay, McKeage and McKeage, 2010: 673). Given that religious values should be stable and not change over time, Bay et al argue that the fact they did change suggests the overall changes are caused more by economic forces than by religious beliefs. That is, over its history Western Christianity has served as a legitimating handmaiden of business:

There is no evidence … that religious precepts (or any other personal or societal set of values) can stand against the economic pressures of business with any success over the long term. … Over time, business evolved from being an absolute bar to this goal [i.e. salvation], to being an obstacle, to being an actual praxis for said salvation. Other sets of principles from other domains, such as philosophy, seem likely to fare equally poorly in evangelizing the business domain. … As long as a good business is defined as one with a strong bottom line, the most convincing principle to be applied in most business decisions will relate to that bottom line, rather than to any religious principles or the good of society. (Bay et al., 2010: 673)

However, elsewhere Bay et al (2010: 658) also acknowledge how an alternative understanding of salvation can be a compelling force to challenge the status quo:

From time to time over the centuries, splinter groups of Christians have attempted to return to the radically communitarian principals of the earliest Christians. Some have adapted and practiced manufacture and trade (Shakers) or nonsubsistence farming (Mennonites). However, these groups, when they have survived, still tend to be very small and marginalized, and are forced to practice a degree of withdrawal from the world, and devote a great deal of energy to group identity. (p. 658)

Taken together, their findings support the idea that there is a relationship between the meaning of salvation and organizational practices. While they seem to suggest that economic activity has tended to cause religious beliefs to change over time, they also provide support for Weber’s contention that religious beliefs can provide the impetus to adopt organizational practices that are counter-cultural.

As with any longstanding influential work, other details of Weber’s analysis have also been examined and questioned, such as whether Weber accurately reflects the teachings of Protestants during the Reformation (e.g., Tawney, 1926; Walzer, 1965) and whether Protestants actually perform better economically than other faith groups (de Jong, 2008). While important, these criticisms do not detract from our present study. Weber’s overarching argument of a relationship between the meaning of salvation and organizational practices still persists.

Christian meaning(s) of salvation: A three-dimensional conceptual framework

In light of Weber’s widely-accepted argument that contemporary organization theory and practice has been greatly influenced by the understanding of salvation as interpreted within the Reformation’s Protestant ethic, our study will focus on examining various meanings of salvation throughout the history of Western Christianity (Haight, 1994). Our analysis will describe how views of salvation have changed over the past two millennia, and how these changes are associated with variations in organizational practices.

Even though salvation is a core concept within Christianity, scholars agree that there is no universally accepted understanding of what salvation means within Christianity.

The concept of salvation is central to Christianity. From a historical perspective, the experience of Jesus as savior is the basis from which the Christian movement sprang…. Yet despite this centrality and importance, the Church has never formulated a conciliar definition of salvation nor provided a universally accepted conception. This is not necessarily something negative, but it still leaves us with a pluralism in the domain of the theology of salvation, the meaning of which remains open and fluid. (Haight, 1994: 225, emphasis added here; see also Borovoy, 1972: 38)

This is not to say that there is not a general definition of salvation that would get widespread agreement. For example, although scholars agree that it is impossible to find in the New Testament “a fully consistent synthesis” (Schillebeeckx, 1980: 463, quoted in Haight, 1994: 229) regarding the meaning of salvation, one review suggests it can be reduced to “Jesus makes God present in a saving way” (Haight, 1994: 229). However, this relatively simple understanding has little to say about how salvation is achieved, where and when it is evident, and for whom it is available. Similar ambiguities are evident in the Christian definition of salvation provided in Table 1, which links salvation to other concepts—such as grace of God, eternal life, and forgiveness of sin—that themselves have been understood differently over time and across denominations.

Towards a Weberian conceptual framework for understanding salvation. In order to provide a more nuanced understanding of salvation, and to begin to differentiate between differing views of salvation, we develop a conceptual framework based on Weber’s analysis of the changing understanding of salvation across a variety world religions over time, summarized in Table 2 (see especially Weber 1946a [original 1920]: 324-328, 354; 1946b: 271-287; 1968: 399-451; 518-529; 577-78; 1179; our review draws heavily from the excellent analysis found in Kalberg, 2001). We note that Weber’s analysis exhibits both a historical-empirical and a metaphysical approach to the development of the archetype of suffering/relief over time (Hatch, et al., 2005: 74). The delineation of salvation from rather simple concepts and corresponding structures to more complex ones suggests an evolutionary development of the concept. Its on-going, richly varied expression among religions worldwide (Table 1), and its differentiation within Christianity over time (Table 3), suggests the recognition of the universality of the archetype and its meaningfulness: “Because of the universality of their archetypal symbolism, myths transcend time—time may pass, but the human condition remains the same” (Hatch, et al., 2005: 75-76).


insert Tables 2 and 3 about here


Weber’s analysis gives rise to a three-dimensional conceptual framework that we will use to examine changes in the relative meaning of salvation over the past 2,000 years within the Western Christian tradition, and how these changes coincides with changes in organizational practices (see Table 3). The first dimension, the modality of salvation, denotes the primary channel or means by which salvation is achieved. Weber suggests two basic modalities: (a) a prophet may provide an example for living (e.g., salvation comes to those who follow a prophet as a role model), or (b) a prophet may provide a sacrificial death which serves to redeem or to act as a ransom for humankind (e.g., Jesus provides salvation for believers by dying on the cross on their behalf so that their sins could be forgiven). The second dimension, the instantiation of salvation, denotes the primary realm where salvation is said to be evident. Although religious salvation is at its core transcendent, Weber points to two basic realms where the relative emphasis of salvation being evident can be placed: (a) the physical/natural realm (e.g., the relative emphasis is on salvation being evident in people’s actions in this world) or (b) a transcendent ethical/spiritual realm (e.g., the relative emphasis is on salvation being assured in the after-life). Finally, the third dimension, the locus of ethical activity, denotes whether salvation is primarily at the level of (a) individuals (e.g., a focus on personal salvation) or (b) groups (e.g., a focus on social salvation).

Western Christian understandings of salvation through history, and implications for organization practice

In order to operationalize the Western Christian understandings of salvation, we follow Weber’s use of ideal-types, noting that the only way to examine something like the spirit of capitalism is via “an historical individual, i.e. a complex of elements associated in historical reality which we unite into a conceptual whole from the standpoint of their cultural significance” (Weber, 1958: 47). For example, in developing his idea of the Protestant ethic, Weber uses Richard Baxter as his exemplar (though he also draws on others like Martin Luther and John Calvin). Following this method, we examine a series of exemplary understandings of salvation from the time of Jesus to the present and, as shown in Table 2, we identify four basic historical eras—demarcated by junctures (Mills, 2010)—that are helpful for our study: 1) biblical and early church; 2) post-Constantine and Middle Ages; 3) Reformation, and 4) contemporary Faith at Work movement.

The exemplars we draw upon to develop these four ideal-type eras include: (a) the biblical writings of Luke, whose biblical gospel is considered the one that places the most emphasis on salvation (e.g., Fitzmyer, 1970: 223; Ehrman, 2008; e.g., Luke refers to salvation more than any other gospel); (b) nine theologians (Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Anselm, Abelard, Luther and Calvin) known for their exemplary contribution to the meaning of salvation up to and including the Reformation (identified and summarized by Haight, 1994), and (c) a description of the past century of the Faith at Work movement in the United States (especially Miller, 2007). After describing the beliefs about salvation characterizing each era, we also provide a description and ideal-type examples of how these beliefs are operationalized in organizational practices in each era.

Of course, following Weber, we do not purport to suggest that the four ideal-types subsumed in the four eras always hold, nor that they fully represent the views of even the exemplars we highlight. Rather we offer them as coherent conceptual configurations to help grasp basic differences in the understanding of salvation over time in Christianity. Put differently, we fully recognize that there will be important exceptions to these categories, that the exemplars may not match the categories exactly in all of their teachings, and that the shifts across the three Weberian dimensions of salvation are not changes from one “extreme” to the other but rather as shifts in relative emphasis. We now describe each era in turn.

ERA 1: Biblical times and early church

Modality of salvation. Luke and early theologians emphasize that the modality through which Jesus provides salvation is via following his example as role model, rather than via his sacrificial death on the cross. For example, Luke never indicates that Jesus’ death itself is what brings salvation from sin (Ehrman, 2008: 166; though other Christian writings by Paul or John may suggest otherwise). This emphasis on the importance of Jesus as role model is also evident in our exemplar theologians writing in the second and early third century. For example, Irenaeus (?-202) draws on Pauline writings to argue that Jesus offers salvation insofar as Jesus serves as a new-and-improved Adam to exemplify how humankind was intended to live:

Jesus repeats the role of Adam; the incarnate Word [i.e., Jesus] takes up and reenacts the entire pattern of human existence but this time “gets it right.” He thus sets things back in their original created order. (Haight, 1994: 236)

Jesus’ role as the second Adam is described as being a servant (e.g. Luke 22:27; Philippians 2:7). Service to others is a central characterization of Jesus’ life and work during this era. Similarly, for Irenaeus, salvation comes via Jesus’ incarnation (by imitating Jesus as an exemplary role model, followers also can overcome death and suffering), not via Jesus’ crucifixion (though taking up one’s cross is an important part of living as the second Adam). This emphasis on Jesus as a role model is also evident in Origen (185-254), who saw Jesus as sort of a miniaturized replica of God in order to reveal the incomprehensible God to humankind, thereby leading humankind back to God: “Jesus is savior by revealing God and being an exemplar of human existence” (Haight, 1994: 236).

Instantiation of salvation. In this era, the relative emphasis is on salvation being already evident in the physical world, versus only in the after-life. For example, the only instance in Luke where Jesus himself uses the word salvation occurs when he says “salvation has come” to the house (i.e. the goods and service producing organization) of a tax collector named Zacchaeus, who has promised to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded (Luke 19: 8-9). A similar emphasis on a this-world instantiation of salvation is also evident in Jesus’ teachings of the kingdom of God (the topic he taught about most often), which he grounds in the present world and describes as being evident when people gather and share together from all walks of life, especially the marginalized (i.e., the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind; see Dyck and Sawatzky, 2010). Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven, and he emphasizes sharing financial resources in this world in sayings like: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18: 25). Finally, the emphasis on a this-worldly instantiation of salvation is also evident in Ireneaus and Origin, who emphasize that Jesus is a role model for living in this world (Haight, 1994). According to Ireneaus, the salvation is evident when the people’s economic actions are consistent with God’s spirit: “In the economy, man reconciles in his body the two extremes of flesh and spirit which God brings together through his plan of salvation” (Osborn, 2001: 131).

Locus of ethical activity. During this era there is great emphasis on salvation being concerned with challenging unjust social systems and structures, rather than exclusively on individual piety. Yoder (1972:97) emphasizes the social nature of Jesus’ servanthood when he notes the cross that followers are called to take up does not refer to individualized things like “an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin.” Rather, the cross of salvation in Luke reflects “the social character of Jesus’ cross … the price of his social nonconformity … it is the social reality of representing to an unwilling world the Order to come.”

In order to better understand this social dimension of salvation, it is helpful to note the meaning of salvation in its larger historical socio-political context in first-century Palestine. While today we identify terms like Savior and Son of God as primarily religious in nature, in first-century Palestine those terms are regularly used to refer to the Roman emperor, who also serves as the figurehead for the Imperial cult of the Empire. Virtually every coin ever minted in the Roman Empire refers to the emperor as the Son of God, and he is also often called a Savior, Father and Lord (Neyrey, 2005; Reed, 2007). Thus, use of such language by Jesus and to describe Jesus would have had clear political connotations in situ, with Jesus seen as a subversive threat to the political elite (in addition to being a threat to the leading Jewish teachers of his day). This is also the case for Ireneaus and Origen, as they were writing in a time when the Christian church is a minority and often persecuted by Imperial Rome.

Implications for organizational practice. Management is evident in two key socio-economic institutions in first-century Palestine: the management of the household, and patron-client relations (Dyck, Starke and Weimer, forthcoming). The word for household management--oikonomia—is where we get the modern word economics. However, to translate oikos as house is misleading because (1) oikos is the primary goods and services producing organization in the first century (unlike today, where house refers to a consumptive that does not produce goods and services), and (2) an oikos can encompass many different biological families (e.g., it includes a husband and wife, their children, their slaves, and their slave children; indeed the Roman empire is called the oikos of the emperor). Due to high taxation rates, in first-century Palestine bankruptcy is a problem for many oikos, contributing to increased numbers of large absentee landowners and thus increased numbers of managers. About ten percent of the population lack the security of an oikos to care for them (i.e., they are homeless). First century Palestine is also associated with increase in what Aristotle called unnatural chrematistics, characterized by profit-maximizing behavior (which Aristotle condemns, encouraging instead natural chrematistics, which involves using money to trade for everyday needs, but not to use money to make money).

The second main arena for management in the first century Roman empire—patron-client relations—describes the relation of indebtedness between the rich and the poor. In those days even something as simple as loaning money (e.g., to pay the high taxes) is not a one-time event; rather it demands entering a long-term relationship with a patron, to whom the client then owes honor in addition to financial debt.

The organizational forms of the early church undermine and provide an alternative to both of these social institutions (instantiation). The early Christians develop new forms of organizations, ones that followed Jesus’ example by welcoming people who are outcasts/marginalized/homeless (modality). And they subvert traditional patron-client relationships; instead, the rich act as benefactors and provide financial resources for the poor and for the benefit the larger community without any further obligations or indebtedness (locus of ethicality). This is illustrated in Acts, the New Testament book that describes life in the early church immediately after the time of Jesus, where the meaning of salvation is clearly connected with the socio-economic oikos of Jesus’ earliest followers:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 44-47, emphasis added here, Bible, New Revised Standard Version; see also Acts 4: 32-37; note that Acts was written by same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke)
Further indication that the early church’s understanding of salvation influences how it organizes itself in this world and the nature of their economic activity is evident the Epistle of James, a New Testament book that pre-dates the Pauline churches of Asia Minor (Gotsis and Drakopoulou-Dodd, 2004: 32). This book describes how Jesus’ earliest followers organized themselves according to what has been called the Jerusalem Love Community. A central teaching in James’ Epistle—and the one which would eventually irk Martin Luther so much as to move the book of James towards the back of the New Testament—was the idea that faith without works is dead:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? … For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14-26, Bible, New Revised Standard Version)

James criticizes the dominant conventional social and organizational practices in first-century Palestine (e.g., unnatural chrematistics, the widening gap between rich and poor, indebtedness, exclusive oikos that do not accept the unclean, sick, and foreigners), and promotes the hallmarks of the Jerusalem Love Community (rich sharing with the poor without obligation, people treating one another with dignity, inclusiveness that goes beyond kinship groups) (Gotsis and Drakopoulou-Dodd, 2004). The Jerusalem Love Community is known for welcoming the ten percent of society in the first-century who are outcasts (i.e., the poor, the dispossessed, and others who did not have the security of belonging to an oikos).

Evidence of these alternative ways of organizing is also found in non-biblical writings of the time, including those of the early Church Fathers. For example, Origen noted how the Gospel challenged traditional organizational practices. Early Christians established “extraordinary” organizations that closed the gap between rich and poor (“aristocrats and their slaves shared in one and the same eucharist”) and were characterized by “service to the community” (rather than the traditional emphasis on “self-respect and honour”) (Chadwick, 2002: 68-69).

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