L. Gregory Jones: Yearning for soul

Illustration of a person's head and a butterfly made out of gears

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In a culture where technology is starving our souls, Christian institutions ought to be ready to focus on human flourishing, writes the theologian.

The best leaders engage with the deep trends shaping cultures and our broader world rather than reacting to fads and symptoms. Nathan Jones and I wrote about seven of those trends several years ago, and we still believe they are crucially important for Christian institutions. Each of them requires and invites Christian leaders to engage in serious adaptive work rooted in practices of traditioned innovation in order to respond to and, ideally, even get ahead of them.

More recently, though, we have identified another deep trend, one that resonates profoundly with the convictions and practices that Christian leaders and Christian institutions (ought to) treasure: a hunger to rediscover wisdom about human nature and what cultivates human flourishing. In the wake of accelerating technologies, people are yearning for “soul.”

Geoff Colvin argues in his recent book “Humans Are Underrated” that we are “starving our souls” in our preoccupation with what technology can do, with what will displace humans in the workplace. Colvin isn’t a critic of technology; much of his analysis extols the stunning advances of technology and robotics.

For too long, Colvin suggests, we have argued from the current limitations of technology to say what it can’t do, thus preserving a role for humans. But as advances astonish us, we have become more and more depressed about whether technology and robotics will dominate our lives and make us increasingly (completely?) irrelevant. Driverless cars, story-writing computers -- Watson (the personified IBM computer and “Jeopardy!”champion) is even designing new dishes now as a chef. What next?

It doesn’t matter what’s next, Colvin suggests. For there are irreducibly significant human capacities that are integral to flourishing human life. Among the most central are empathy, relationships, teamwork, storytelling and collaborative innovation on “wicked” problems.

The heart of Colvin’s argument is encouraging, as he notes that these are capacities that can be trained and developed.

The 21st century will be marked less by Peter Drucker’s “knowledge workers” and more by what Colvin calls “relationship workers.” Knowledge workers are being displaced by technological capacities; for example, one computer can now do the legal research that once required 500 lawyers or paralegals (and it can do the work more quickly).

Relationships are crucial for 21st-century leadership. Colvin points to the military and medicine, two arenas where reliance on technology is perhaps strongest, to show just how critical are capacities such as empathy and teamwork. The greater the technological advances, the more acutely we realize the importance of human capacities.

A focus on profoundly human capacities, and the importance of cultivating and nourishing people’s souls rather than just their minds or their behaviors, ought to come as welcome news to Christian leaders and Christian institutions. Such a focus sits in our wheelhouse.

The digital revolution, a multimodal world, economic stresses on institutions, the lure of cities -- all of these trends require daunting shifts of mindsets for many Christian institutions and their leaders. But now we have a deep trend that resonates with our primary purpose: nourishing capacities for people to lead from and to and with the souls of others.

Or at least what our purpose should be. We ought to have wonderful nourishment available in a culture where souls have been starved. Yet too many Christian institutions have developed habits so focused on fear and survival that we have diminished our own capacities for nourishing the soul. In so doing, we have forgotten key insights that could lead others, and other institutions, to focus on human flourishing.

Four insights in particular are key, two of which build on Colvin’s analysis and two of which Colvin’s otherwise helpful book ignores (at his, and his readers’, peril).

The first is the centrality of educational formation that focuses on our whole selves: our thinking as well as our feeling, our perceptions as well as our actions. We need a rediscovery of the importance of “learning wisdom.” Just conveying information isn’t enough; a focus on wisdom rooted in patterns of thinking, feeling, perceiving and living well, woven throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures, should lead us to rediscover lifelong learning, and a new imagination for our formal schools as well as our informal patterns of study.

Second, Colvin’s emphasis on “relationships” points to the central role of friendships and communities in shaping who we are. We need ways of learning and living that emphasize the moral significance of friendships, especially holy friendships, that develop in us the capacities for empathy, teamwork, storytelling and collaborative approaches to discovering innovative solutions to "wicked" problems. We need 21st-century versions of what Marc J. Dunkelman calls “middle-ring relationships.”

Yet Colvin’s analysis focuses too much on training and skills in an optimistic vein. Christians offer two additional, fundamental insights about human flourishing.

The third is that we need to attend to both human capacities and human sinfulness. Colvin notes at varying points in passing our human propensity for narcissism and other destructive behaviors, and he emphasizes that there is an essential human nature. But his overall narrative tends to be optimistic rather than hopeful. If we are to nurture people with capacities for empathy and teamwork, we will need to account for the always-already realities of human brokenness -- the darkness of our lives as well as the light. The virtue of hope enables us to hold both together fruitfully in creative tension.

Fourth, while Colvin is right that the human capacities can be cultivated through training, we need more than just skills. We need to focus on how training shapes habits, and how those habits are integral to the formation and sustenance of character marked by virtues rather than vices. When we imagine those people who lead from the soul, who lead in ways that nurture others’ souls, we are in the realm of character. Training matters, and it is about far more than sets of skills; it is about the nourishment that feeds our souls and nurtures wisdom.

Christian institutions can and should resonate with the yearnings of the deep trend in our world to rediscover that human beings matter -- with the profound yearning for “soul.” We will be able to rediscover and embody the fundamental insights for which Colvin (and others) are yearning insofar as we reconnect to our own fundamental purposes.

And this points us to one further yearning. As we recapture the importance of storytelling, a practice Colvin thinks essential, we ought also to remember that our purposes, as people and institutions, are set within the context of the most amazing and life-giving story imaginable: the truth that, regardless of new technologies, and despite the pain and suffering that mar our lives and the world as a result of sin and evil, the end (of the story of this world) is good news. And in that end is our beginning, again and again and again.