Monday, January 26, 2009

Cultural Cocktails: Biblical Faith and Work with a Splash of Eastern and Western Philosophies

Rereading an earlier post (Is Your Work Less Valuable), I deliberated on how much of our faith is influenced by past cultures and other worldviews. I looked into my own upbringing that straddled Eastern and Western cultures. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when I was one year old and I grew up in suburban Chicago where Asian Americans where the second largest minority (approximately 5%) after the Jewish community (approximately 40%), and I attended a Korean American church from my junior high years through college.

The influences of Confucian and Buddhist philosophies led to subtle differences between mainstream U.S. and Korean American churches. One amusing feature was that morning prayer time in Korean American churches was flooded once each year with mothers praying for their children’s SAT exams (the same phenomenon occurs in South Korea during the national college entrance exams). I don’t suppose it was amusing to those mothers, some of whom would pray for hours the same repetitive prayer (which seemed to me to confuse the notion of grace and work). This fervent style of praying might leave outsiders thinking all Koreans are Pentecostal, but this style was distributed across the board, even within more subdued denominations like Korean Lutherans or Methodists. (Not that I’m anyone to talk. I’m a practical person and not very righteous, so when it comes to praying, I think it would be far more effective to ask one of my upright, godly friends to pray for me for a few minutes than for me to pray for 10 hours straight. But I digress.)

One influence of Confucianism in Korean culture was evident in the careers that first generation Korean American parents emphasized to their children. I call them the three P’s: physician, professor and pastor. The honored class in Confucianism is the “scholar” and all three P’s are generally considered scholarly. Physician was always number one and what parents obsessed about. Sandra Oh’s character in Grey’s Anatomy is not the only Korean American you’ll see at a hospital. I can think of at least 10 “Cristina Yangs” I know off the bat. The second tier of acceptable professions would be in academia and a reason why South Korea was typically number one or two in the number of PhDs per capita. The last of the top three was entering the ministry. While not universally welcomed by parents, it was an acceptable option in many families.

The Western influence — and the primary foundation of my thinking — expressed the ideals held by most Americans. One aspect of this is the foundational philosophy of dualism, which traces its roots to Plato through RenĂ© Descartes. Without going into the complexities, a basic influence of dualism is the separation of the spiritual or mental substances and physical substances, with no relationship between the two. You could picture a higher plane of life containing the spiritual substances and a lower plane housing the physical.

Dualism enabled many of us to grow up compartmentalizing our lives. This eased us into the role of “Sunday believers” since there is a “natural” separation between church and the rest of the week. This may be a reason why some “Christian” businessmen can be the most unscrupulous professionals you’ve met, since they can subdivide their conscience employing the “this is business” rationale.

Outside the church, dualism became evident to me through my involvement in two post-graduate programs at the intersection of the public and private sectors: the Public Policy program at Columbia University and the Coro Fellowship. The Coro Fellowship, a leadership development program for those interested in public service, sent about two-thirds of participants into the government and nonprofit sectors and one-third into the for-profit world. I saw a similar distribution in the Public Policy program at Columbia: 2/3 to government and nonprofit, 1/3 to business. What surprised me in these two programs at the confluence of human ideals and professional development was finding a measure of disdain for those of us who entered private industry. As if our choice repudiated of what we’d just experienced together by choosing to work on the lower plane.

I am no longer surprised to find evidence of this dualism in the world of believers. There is separation of church and work; Sunday and the rest of the week; faith and execution. Ambition for work is bad and sacrificing work is good. What happened to the stewardship of ALL that God gives us? Did Joseph choose to leave his day job as second in command only to the Pharaoh of Egypt and look for a less demanding “9 to 5″ job so he could volunteer more at church?

Joseph took his work to heart and glorified God in the best manner possible. The difference lay in his worldview which did not separate between his spiritual and physical worlds. Each was connected and united with the other. Even the word lev — the Hebrew word for heart — encompasses not only the heart and emotion but our intellect and mind. This biblical perspective doesn’t compartmentalize our worlds; it creates a holistic understanding of our lives.

I will acknowledge that taking such an approach might make life more complex and highlights tensions between the various circles of ours lives. But isn’t life about tension? Doesn’t this make things more exciting? To think about actually implementing our faith in our business decisions and professional relationships? To actually be salt and light outside of the salt mines and sunlit mountaintops?

Originally posted at InsideWork (no longer an active site).

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