When Saint Paul enters the blogosphere

Michael Jensen ghostwrites a blog for the leader of a tech company who invited a special biblical guest to stir up his staff.

LIFE & WORK BLOG, by Matt Carmody, Co-CEO of Alterian

When Sam and I founded Alterian 15 years ago, we committed ourselves to being a future-focussed company. Technological change has been a constant throughout the history of industrial civilisation. Nothing is different today.

So how are we going to respond? We can ignore change; we can fight it; we can try to slow it down; we can stand by and “hope” it goes well. Or we can embrace it. And that’s what we’re determined to do. Our range of software products have transformed the way people think about and do their work.

And you know what we say: it’s a spiritual thing. If you want to work with us on the cutting edge, it’s because you understand that the mission of this company is about the future of the planet. We don’t work together because we want to take; we have come together at Alterian because we all want to give – to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Last week I invited a very unusual but remarkable guest to visit us at Alterian HQ in Sydney: Paul the Apostle. His tour to Australia has caused quite a lot of conversation, if not controversy.

It was actually overhearing one of those conversations between two of our engineers at the table tennis table here at HQ when I decided that he would make a great guest at our “From the Left Field” series.

Watch the session if you didn’t see it live, and see what you think. Love to have your thoughts!

In the Alterian Cafe

Myrtle Cheong looked up from her mobile phone as Lucy Tremain approached her table, holding the number 38, which was the number of her coffee order.

“I’m having a beetroot latte,” Lucy said.

“Oh,” said Myrtle, placing her phone on the small disc that passed for a table. “Everyone in London is drinking them at the moment.

“So – what just happened in that session? These sessions are getting more and more out there, and I just know I’m going to get a bunch of complaints to the HR department after that.”

“I didn’t see it,” said Myrtle. “Tell me.”

“You know it was Paul, the Apostle. Matt met him at some media thing, and thought ‘hmm, that might work,’ and just went with his gut.”

“Oh, the famous gut, So… ?”

“See, this is so typical of religions. It’s the gap between the founder and the people who follow after.”

Lucy’s coffee arrived. It was faintly purple.

“I was sceptical about getting an ancient person in to talk about work, technology and the future. That seemed weird. And also, a guy who’s got associations with the church. I get the theme of ancient wisdom for the modern world, and the idea that left-field connections make for creative futures, but this seemed to stretch the friendship. And that was why the first part of it seemed to be about asking Paul who he is. What would he put on his business card? Self-help guru? Philosopher? Academic? Rabbi? Spiritual leader? What’s his niche? Matt kind of pressed him to identify one of those. But Paul didn’t really like the question, you could tell.”

“Did he come down to an answer in the end?”

“He said, ‘Look, I’m really a messenger. Or an ambassador. That’s what apostle means.’ So, he sees himself as speaking for Jesus Christ. But see, I’d prefer it if he just said ‘these are my ideas I’ve thought about’ rather than ‘I’m the megaphone for Christ.’

“He’s no idiot, but he hasn’t got a research degree or a background in academia that qualifies him. He’s gone deep into ancient texts, like a guru, but it’s not so much reflection that he does. He doesn’t simply ask questions all the time, like the ancient Greeks used to do, either. It’s hard to put him in a box.

“See, this is so typical of religions. It’s the gap between the founder and the people who follow after. Did Jesus really want to start a church? Can you really imagine Jesus building the Vatican? It’s an institution. It’s got wealth. It has power over people.

“Well Paul’s kind of realistic about that, to be fair. You don’t hear him idealising the church. He couldn’t do that, given what he’s been through. Actually, that’s the place where it made sense to have him, because Matt was asking him about human groups and organisations how they can do relationships better, not be dysfunctional, and simply cause gridlocks.”

“What’d he say?”

Myrtle casually licked the back of her teaspoon, then stirred her chai.

“Well Paul said that it was funny how we use the word ‘corporation’ to speak about an organisation like ours, because it means ‘body’. And it’s a very ancient way to talk about groups of people. The Chinese and the Indians used it. Plato used it and the Romans used it. And he made use of it, too, but with his own twist – like, the usual reason to use the body metaphor for a group of people is to emphasise diversity of functions, and to prioritise the group over the individual, you see. The body’s the thing, you are just an arm or an eye or whatever, and your function is to serve the body.”

“Yeah, and it’s a bit cheesy, don’t you think? ‘We are one but we are many’, blah, blah, blah. That’s the sort of thing we get told. Then you get the impression that you are really just a toenail. I don’t get it.”

“You can’t get humans to be like machines or parts of a machine. We’re not machines.”

“Yes, and there’s a whole history of talking about ‘the body politic’ which has been pretty toxic through the years. But when Paul uses the body as an image for the group, he’s got his take on it. In the first place, it’s organic, right? And here’s the thing: we think so much about our company in terms of the machine. All the time. The company is governed by systems that make us function with greater efficiency, the parts all whirring around and never getting tired because they are pieces of silicon or plastic.”

“I guess we do.”

“But it’s not a machine. You can’t get humans to be like machines or parts of a machine. We’re not machines. We hate being governed by the system. Its rigidity. Its grind. It’s like a factory in the industrial revolution or a sweat shop. But we’re an organism made up of organisms. Love and hate drive us, and food and sex, and pride and shame. So, the body idea is only going to work if we see it more like a coral reef.”

“Wait, now I am confused. You are changing pictures on me.”

“Sorry! What I mean is: the way the Paul talked about the body it wasn’t that the whole dominated the parts or that the parts were independent of the whole. The belonging together he talked about meant a mutual interdependence. Not that he denied that there were weaker or stronger members in any community or society. It was just that, according to the vision of it that Paul has, the strong need the weak, so they compensate for and care for the weak. And the benefit that comes is to each individual. If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. There’s a common nerve centre.”

“OK, but isn’t he talking about a spiritual community? The church?”

“This way of doing community is shaped by the way power and authority comes from Jesus.”

“Totally, he is. And the problem is that that thing we call church today is very often nothing like that. It’s become institutional and mechanical. But if you go back to Paul, it’s a way of doing community that is totally different. It’s got a radical vision of equality in it.”

“Sounds like communism – and we all know where that leads.”

“No, but here’s the thing. This way of doing community is shaped by the way power and authority comes from Jesus. It matters who the head of the body is.”

“Huh?”

“He’s the ultimate picture of the leader who is a servant. The king who freely dies as a sacrifice. He’s not just in it for the Christmas bonus!”

“Ha! I like that!”

“Yes, this is what Paul calls ‘grace’, or ‘the gift’. When a group of people gather around a gift like Jesus and understand themselves not as deserving but blessed, it changes the whole nature of relationships. If I think of myself as blessed, I can be kind and generous and not defensive. I can try to be a blessing to others, instead of seeking to screw them over – which is the usual way in business, right?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“And Paul was actually able to talk about the way that some corporations in the past had tried to be like this. The Christians who started Cadbury’s chocolate did this back in the 1800s. They tried to follow the example of Jesus in building a business by treating their workers as members of the family.”

“So, what about here at Alterian?”

“Well, are we here for making a profit or to do some good on the earth? That’s a great question. Anyhow, gotta go back to it. See you tomorrow.”

Lucy strode off, leaving Myrtle gazing into her chai thoughtfully.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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