Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Briefing

March 12, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, March 12, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Virtue signaling in the marketplace: Why businesses try to keep up with the changing opinions of the sexual revolution

It’s hard to come up with a more mainstream publication in America’s business culture than the Harvard Business Review. The HBR, as it is known, has traced many of the major management and economic shifts that have reshaped American corporate life. It is not a faddish magazine to say the least. It represents mainstream centrist American corporate culture. Thus, it should be of interest to us that the Harvard Business Review in recent days has run an article with the headline, Why Many Businesses Are Becoming More Vocal In Support of LGBTQ Rights.

Now, for some time, we have noted the involvement of major American corporations in feeding and fueling the moral revolution. But we have also noticed an interesting pattern. Most of these businesses didn’t join the bandwagon until they thought they had enough popular support behind them. What does that tell us? It tells us the corporations at a certain tipping point want to be seen as … Here’s the phrase we hear over and over again … on the right side of history.

They decide that they want to be seen, and thus they engage in virtue signaling because at some point, they have decided that these moral issues taking what they perceive to be the right side on these issues is essential to building their brand, to signaling to the culture that they are entirely cool and with it a part of the future, not simply mired in the past. Many of these corporations will go on to say that they have feared stakeholder or shareholder action. Others will say that they had acted in order to be able to recruit younger employees, in particular the Millennials.

When it comes to the claim that there is a threat of shareholder action, there’s something real to it. That again tells us something about how moral revolutions proceed. Shareholder meetings are an important part of American corporate culture. Those who hold shares and corporations or those who want to bring political pressure against shareholders can make those views known either inside or outside the room where a shareholder meeting is taking place.

And as you look at the activist community fueling the LGBTQ movement, they have understood the opportunity that was provided by these shareholder meetings. When it comes to Millennials and their younger brothers and sisters, Generation Z, it’s pretty well documented that they are the most pro LGBTQ generations in American history. And of course, given the recent nature of the moral revolution, that means human history.

But the article by Jessica Shortall entitled Why Many Businesses Are Becoming More Vocal In Support of LGBTQ Rights, it tells us a great deal about just how far along in the moral revolution we are now finding ourselves, and these corporations are intending to take the revolution even further. Shortall writes, “One of the clearer case studies on the intersection of business and social issues is how companies have handled the rise of LGBTQ rights.”

She continues, “For many years, businesses have been working to improve their brands and their internal practices on LGBTQ issues investing in culture, benefits and marketing to welcome LGBTQ workers and customers and to telegraph inclusion and openness.” Now, consider those last words most importantly, “to telegraph inclusion and openness”. Now, of course, no one uses a telegraph anymore but the verb still works in order to point to what is a matter of signaling, sending a message, a message that is defined here as inclusion and openness.

Shortall continues, “Political activism has been slower and coming. In recent years, however, something has shifted. More companies are speaking up on public policy impacting the LGBTQ community. And many are doing so in places where they face stiff headwinds putting their brands and political relationships on the line. Appointed action,” she says, “in a climate where legal and political debates continue over whether businesses can refuse to serve LGBTQ people.”

Well, another signal is sent there. The fact that once again anyone who doesn’t enthusiastically join and celebrate this moral revolution is served notice that time is running out. Shortall explains all of these as the result of “rapid opinion shifts” and we are told as we expect Millennials and Generation Z are often at the leading edge.

Now let’s look at this for just a moment. We’re talking about moral issues unquestionably. We’re talking about controversial moral issues so that raises a question. These corporations now so actively involved in virtue signaling and brand building on these issues, these companies that want to be seen at all costs on the right side of history, these companies that the Harvard Business Review tells us are now involved in political activism, well, they are acting on what kind of impulse?

Is it that they have had a moral conversion on these issues? Is it that they and their leadership believe that somehow there is a moral reality, an objective moral reality that they must bow to and acknowledge? No, it’s not that at all. Even in the article, it is explained as the result of “rapid opinion shifts”. That is extremely significant even as, of course, when it comes to the opinion shifts, it’s also true.

Shortall documents some of the impact by pointing to a 2016 poll in which nearly 50%, she tells us of American meeting planners said that they would avoid planning events in states that pass anti-LGBTQ legislation. “And the net approval of same sex relationships is emerging as a predictor of competitiveness and innovation in cities.”

Now, interestingly we saw that in the stage competition between metropolitan areas to land that HQ2, the second headquarters for Amazon. We saw city after city fall over itself in order to demonstrate or to claim just how LGBTQ-friendly the city is. But the interesting thing about this article in this paragraph is the use of the expression net approval of same sex relationships. She goes on to say that it’s emerging as a predictor of competitiveness and innovation in cities.

What exactly does that mean, net approval of same sex relationships? It points to the larger ambient culture. Is the culture seen as celebrating and affirming same sex relationships? If so, she argues, it’s going to be a place where innovation and competitiveness will take place in American corporate life. If not, well, the threat is made very clear.

Her argument also continues when she asserts, “LGBTQ inclusion is good for the economy.” Well, of course, this becomes something of a circular argument if you argue that American corporations are motivated by this issue and then you point the changes in the issues the explanation for corporate conduct. And then when you argue that it turns out to be good for the economy, it is a circular argument but it’s one that serves a very important political purpose in this case.

It’s also very important at Shortall’s point is that many of these corporations are turning to coalitions. They’re joining coalitions of like-minded businesses in order to gain data that they share together to make arguments that they make together and furthermore, to give one another cover especially in an area of the country where these LGBTQ issues might not be so popular. It’s a very interesting argument in that respect. Corporations are finding strength in numbers. They want to signal virtue. They want to be engaged in public relations and brand building, but they don’t want to do so at a risk they might be able to avoid by joining a coalition rather than standing alone.

But here again that’s a very important lesson for us to observe about this kind of corporate behavior. It is not based upon what could be described even remotely as courage. It’s not a business saying, “This is the right thing. We’re going to stand here. We want everyone to understand that this is our conviction and we’re going to pay the cost.” No, that is not what they’re saying.

They’re saying, “We want the benefits of building our brand in order to virtue signal but we don’t buy that signaling what to offend anyone who might be our customer.” Later in the article, Shortall points to legislation. She says that is discriminatory or fails to offer non-discrimination protections. She identifies some of this legislation as “focus on religious exemptions”. Clearly, it’s a call for American corporations to oppose those exemptions.

Jessica Shortall concludes her article with these words, “The work of equality requires many voices and the emergence of the business community is a major force for LGBTQ rights has changed the conversation. Business leaders and the coalitions that convene them,” she says, “will have a game-changing role to play in 2019 and beyond in the United States and around the world. Business competitiveness,” she concludes, “the economic strength of their operating environments and their commitment to inclusion and diversity demand that they stay the course.”

Well, at some point in this article, you notice that it’s not just a major article that deals with the moral issue in a mainstream American corporate publication. It’s not just that it has appeared in a magazine, a periodical as influential as the Harvard Business Review. At some point, the article shifts from giving management advice and dispassionate analysis to what can only be described as advocacy, even preaching for the moral revolution.

So how was that explained? That was explained in the author ID that comes at the end of the article, “Jessica Shortall leads the newly launched America Competes coalition, a project of Freedom for All Americans that is the “connective tissue” for businesses across the dynamic landscape of LGBTQ rights in the US. She has also led Texas Competes, we are told a coalition of 1,400 employers making the economic case for LGBTQ inclusion in the Lone Star State since 2015.”

So it turns out this really wasn’t a dispassionate analysis at all. It’s a piece of advocacy journalism but it is very significant when you consider where it appears, the argument that is made, and the relative absence of any controversy about it appearing in the Harvard Business Review. The fact that it has appeared when it has appeared, written by the author that is identified in this way, it tells us a great deal about the Harvard Business Review. It tells us a great deal about corporate America in 2019. It tells us a great deal about our world and how it is changing right before our eyes.

Part II

What do we do with our minds? Why many secular Americans are turning to Buddhist mindfulness

Meanwhile, as we consider our world and changes in American culture, one of the things that must be noted is the increased influence in recent decades of Eastern philosophies including Confucianism, and as we shall see, in a customized American version or mini versions of Buddhism. Olga Khazan writing at The Atlantic offers an article with the headline, Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism, the subhead, “This ancient Eastern religion is helping Westerners with very modern mental-health problems.”

Well, this would be a big story, of course. We’re talking about Buddhism. We’re talking about Americans with the headline telling us that so many Americans are turning to Buddhism. How many is so many? Well, the article makes clear that there is now a booming market in Buddhism in the United States and there is also a looming cultural norm here. There is an increased acceptance of Buddhism. Buddhism or what is identified as Buddhism, is often seen as cool by Millennials, Generation Z but perhaps even more importantly the baby boomers as they age. Cosmopolitan Americans who claim a generally secular worldview are finding a way for Eastern religion within their secularism.

Now, here Christians need to ask the question. Why would that be so, and if so, how would it be possible? Well, it’s possible because there is something of an oxymoron when you put the two words together Buddhism and theology. Judaism and Christianity are thick theological face. That is to say, there are very clear propositional truth claims. There is a claim to divine revelation in the Holy Scriptures. There is the foundational claim of biblical monotheism and even the first commandment that God says, we are to have no other gods before Him.

Christianity and Judaism are also based upon prescriptive revealed morality and so we have a thick theology and we have a very thick ethical tradition that isn’t based merely upon Christian or Jewish moral reasoning but upon again, divine revelation as it is claimed by Jews as you look at the Old Testament and as especially, we reference Christians looking to the entire Bible.

Now, there are liberal variants of Judaism and liberal variants of Christianity and what marks them in common is the denial of the authority of divine revelation, and also the fact that they have exchanged a thick theological tradition for a thin one. They have exchanged an objective moral system for a subjective moral understanding, and thus, they really point to the very same thing we’re looking at here with what we are told as the American acceptance of Buddhism, an increased acceptance with many, many adherents.

Now, as we consider this issue and even this particular article, one of the things we need to note is that the American eclectic syncretistic consumerist form of adopting Buddhism, well, it turns out to be both more and less theological than many of the devotees might recognize. But hold that for a moment. Let’s go to Khazan’s article where she begins, “Dressed in flowing gold robes, the bald female meditation teacher told us to do nothing. We were to sit silently in our plastic chairs, close our eyes and focus on our breath. I had never meditated,” she writes, “but I had gone to church so I instinctively bowed my head. Then I realized, given that this would last for 15 minutes, I should probably find a more comfortable neck position.”

She goes on to report that this was the first of two meditation sessions of the Kadampa Buddhism class that she had attended near her house in Northern Virginia. “And I did not reach nirvana. Because we’re in a major city, occasional sirens outside blasted through the quiet,” she writes, “and because this was a church basement, people were laughing and talking in the hallways. One guy wandered in to ask if this was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The more we focused on our breath, the teacher assured us, the more these distractions would fade away.”

This issue of mindfulness or meditation is of course very large in our cultural conversation these days. Khazan writes, “Americans everywhere seem to be asking themselves variations on this very question: What do we do with our minds?” Now that’s a very good question, what do we do with our minds? Christianity has an excellent answer for that but we’ll hold that for a moment and instead consider the answer that is being given by Buddhism as described in this article in The Atlantic. We are told that 4 in 10 Americans now say they meditate at least weekly.

She points to the fact that, “Though precise numbers on its popularity are hard to come by, Buddhism does seem to be emerging in the Western type-A universe.” She points to the journalist, Robert Wright’s book that was entitled Why Buddhism Is True, it was a best seller in 2017. By the way, if you are looking at Buddhism making truth claims, we need to note that true in the Buddhist sense does not mean what Christians mean when we say true.

She points out that Buddhist meditation centers have popped up in places as unlikely as Knoxville, Tennessee and Lakewood, Ohio. “There now dozens of Buddhist podcasts among many more apps and playlists geared specifically towards personal, non-Buddhist meditation.” And furthermore, we are told that Buddhism and meditation have blossomed in the past few years, that according to Hugh Byrne, director of the Center for Mindful Living in Washington DC.

But Khazan’s article turns even more interesting which she writes, “Buddhism has been popular in various forms among certain celebrities and tech elites, but the religion’s primary draw for many Americans now appears to be mental health. The ancient religion, some find, helps them manage the slings and arrows and subtweets of modern life. Many people are stressed out,” she says, “by the constant drama of the current administration, and work hours have overwhelmed the day.” Yes, you heard it right. Donald Trump is sending secular elites in the United States into meditation and Buddhism. She makes that argument, “There’s something newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit, be aware, and realize nothing lasts forever.”

But Khazan points to something that is even bigger than the current craze about Buddhism when she writes, “For decades, people have been attempting self-improvement through classes and seminars, many of which incorporated elements of Eastern religions. The Human Potential Movement of the 1960s influenced the work of the foundational psychologist Abraham Maslow and, perhaps less positively, the Rajneesh movement, documented in the Netflix show Wild Wild Country. In the 1970s, the organization Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, offered courses on how to ‘take responsibility for your life’ and in the words of EST, ‘get it.'”

But as I have observed in the past when you’re looking at the American embrace of Buddhism especially at this current moment, you’re really not looking at any intentional theological borrowing at all. Buddhism, at least in many of its variants isn’t even theistic. In her article, Khazan writes that the practice of secular Buddhism often differs dramatically from the religion itself.” Now here we see one of the limitations even of discussing religions as if all religions are even about the same thing, they are not.

But even in this article, it points out that Americans don’t even want the minimal theology that is found in some forms of Buddhism. What they want is the mindfulness, the meditation and we would say they also want the cultural cool that comes these days with the practice of mindfulness that is associated with Buddhism.

“All of the secular practitioners I spoke with for this piece,” says Khazan, “are reading different books, listening to different podcasts, and following different teachers and traditions. Their interpretations of Buddhist teachings aren’t necessarily consistent with one another or with traditional texts.” She means Buddhist texts. She means that this isn’t even real Buddhism.

Americans, secular Americans are deeply hungry spiritually and that hunger is taking a consumerist form. They are shopping for worldviews. They’re looking for spiritual practices, and in this case many of them are associating with Buddhism because as Khazan points out, many celebrities have done so and it seems cool. It seems high tech. It seems Silicon Valley. It seems so with it, get it?

Khazan, to her credit, really does recognize this. She says that just as there are cafeteria Catholics who ignore the parts of Catholicism they don’t like, she says there are buffets Buddhists. They might not agree with Buddhism’s view of reincarnation, its cyclical understanding of history or the worship of the Buddha, but these buffet Buddhists nonetheless consider themselves cool Buddhists because they practice mindfulness. But what exactly that is, is not at all made clear.

One of the sadder aspects of Khazan’s article is her argument that it is a deep psychological need. It is concerned about mental health that is leading many people to mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism, but this doesn’t particularly point to any hope that’s found in the midst of all of this. It’s just meditating that turns inward as if the answer can be found inside of us.

One of the persons cited in the article practices psychotherapy says that her favorite Buddhist statement made by a contemporary Buddhist author is “everything is workable”. What exactly does that mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. It means whatever you want it to mean, which is really the point. But it does sound cool and it does give you some words to repeat over and over again. But it’s really hard to imagine how that brings any true satisfaction.

Depressingly, I found this one sentence in the article both revealing and troubling, “It was remarkable that so many of us,” she writes, “were willing to stumble through the freezing dark,” that means going to this mindfulness class, “just to take in some basic wisdom about how to be less sad.” That’s a very powerful diagnosis of the contemporary moment and the spiritual vacuum at the heart of so many Americans and of American secular life. We are talking about a deep sadness. She’s talking about many people gathering together in order to learn mindfulness, to gather together in order to be instructed by some consumer form of Buddhism, basically in order to be less sad.

But Christians should really pay attention to that sentence because it should alert us to the fact that so many of the people we see who might appear to be so successful, they might appear to be so busy, so satisfied or even so cool. Many of them are living lives that are deeply sad. Many of them are actually so busy and they’re feeling their worlds with so many consumer goods and so many experiences because they want to avoid that sadness.

Christians also have a gospel understanding for why that sadness is there, why that longing exists, why human beings made in the image of God as spiritual beings crave the knowledge of the one true and living God. And as the Bible explains, we not only crave the knowledge of God, we also crave communion with God which can come not through mindfulness. It comes through the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now there is a meditation that is central to Christian devotional practice. But it’s not a mindfulness, it is the mind of Christ, which comes to us by meditating not on ourselves or on just some series of words but meditating upon the revealed Word of God and Holy Scripture. The classical Buddhist understanding of mindfulness as essentially emptying the mind is contrasted with the Christian understanding of what it means to commune with Christ, what it means to fill the mind with the knowledge of Christ, the knowledge of God, all that is revealed in the Scripture.

But as I said, many of these American devotees of Buddhism who think that their Buddhism isn’t doctrinal, it really turns out to be more doctrinal than they realize. Because as Christians also understand based upon a biblical worldview, there is no worldview that isn’t at base theological. The question is what’s the theology, not whether there is theology, but what’s the theology?

Part III

Mindful mayonnaise and yoga pants? The danger of critiquing the big business of the mindfulness culture

But finally even as we’ve discussed American corporate life and then we discussed mindfulness, let’s discuss them together in the context of an article that appeared in just yesterday’s edition of the Financial Times published in London. Pilita Clark writing the business life column offers a piece that is entitled Mindfulness at Work Isn’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be.

“Not that long ago, an almost unknown American academic named Andrew Hafenbrack was sitting in a Berlin hotel room, idly scrolling through his emails after a day at a leadership conference, when he got a horrible shock. A study he had just published had been denounced in an article jointly penned by Arianna Huffington and a leader in this field, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson. Worse, the New Age guru Deepak Chopra had urged his 3.28 million Twitter followers to read that piece.” And the piece critiquing the professor and his study was also encouraged to be read by Phil Jackson, the US basketball coach and his 864,000 Twitter followers got the message.

But then Clark tells us that Professor Hafenbrack got himself in this controversy by writing an academic article in which he pointed out that there is no real documentation that mindfulness helps at all at work. Clark writes, “Professor Hafenbrack’s research had nothing to do with race, IQ or any of the other topics that stir academic strife. Instead, it poked a hole in the idea that has been embraced with rising enthusiasm in the world of work: The benefits of mindfulness meditation.”

Clark tells us that Hafenbrack wrote a paper with another behavioral scientist in which they compared people who had meditated for up to 15 minutes with another bunch of study subjects who were asked to just read the news or left their thoughts roam. “When the two groups were asked to do typical work jobs such as write a business memo, the meditators performed the task just as well but did not feel like spending as much time or effort on them. In other words,” says Clark, “mindfulness seemed to be demotivating.”

But then she gets to the politics, “As the researchers wrote in the New York Times, this was bad news for workplace mindfulness proponents. It suggested that even if meditation improves mental focus, the benefits might be canceled by demotivation.” Clark also acknowledges that there is big business these days in the cultural and corporate embrace of all things mindful. She tells us that, “One can now buy mindful Airbnb tours, mindful mayonnaise, and can wear mindful yoga pants.”

Clark actually says in yesterday’s edition of the Financial Times that the meditation market in the United States alone in 2017 was estimated at $1.2 billion. Someone is paying a whole lot of money for what’s claimed to be a whole lot of mindfulness but then along comes Professor Hafenbrack to say there’s not that much to it when you actually try to document the effect of this so-called mindfulness.

Clark concludes her article by writing the point is we need more scholars like Professor Hafenbrack to shed light on the mindfulness juggernaut. “Slamming his work,” she says, “is unhelpful and I have to say, it does not seem very mindful at all.” But maybe the big lesson for Professor Hafenbrack is that we don’t live in the kind of so-called reality-based culture that many secular people want to claim. And if you wonder if that’s true or not, just get in the way of the people who are selling, or buying for that matter, mindfulness mayonnaise and mindfulness yoga pants. You critique that culture and you just might get yourself hurt.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to Boycecollege.com.

I’m speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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