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Vol. LXIII, No. 32
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
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New Princeton University Initiative Examines the Role Faith Can Play in the Workplace

Ellen Gilbert

In the age of Bernie Madoff, putting the words “faith” and “ethics” in the same sentence as the word “workplace” seems pretty paradoxical. To David W. Miller, the Director of the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative, it is the stuff of everyday life.

“Someone asked me whether it was possible to be holy and be an investment banker,” said Mr. Miller. Where others might laugh or admit to being stumped by such a question, Mr. Miller is in his element. He addresses questions of just this sort in his research, with his students, with the business people who consult him in his private practice, and with the audiences who come to hear him at his public speaking engagements.

A former businessman and divinity student, Mr. Miller came to Princeton two years ago after establishing a similar institute at Yale. He described the Princeton undergraduate class he recently taught in business ethics as “oversubscribed — and I was a new game.” Saying that he was “thrilled” with the reception he has received at Princeton, he noted that “My student appraisals were almost perfect, but it wasn’t because of me.” Students, he believes, are “hungry to talk in intellectually sensitive and mature ways. They want to know how they can work for companies, and not sell their souls in the process.”

By having them read many of the classics, Mr. Miller asked students to think about “what contribution religious thought can make to the workplace.” His class included sophomores, juniors, and seniors majoring in finance and economics, religion, philosophy, and molecular biology. It also included atheists and agnostics, an equal number of men and women, and was split among several ethnic groups. The point, Mr. Miller said, is to be “faith friendly,” something he described as a kind of anthropological point of view in which everyone agrees that “we all have some sort of faith — it could just as well be in science.”

“These are not Kumbaya sessions,” said Mr. Miller stressing the “rigor and scholarly standards” that characterize his classes.

Asked about this country’s tradition of separating church and state, Mr. Miller, whose academic appointment is Associate Research Scholar in the Center for the Study of Religion, and Lecturer in the Department of Religion, observed that that concept usually refers to government employees. “Teaching is all about exploring ideas,” he observed, and “as a research university, it is appropriate for Princeton to be teaching classical disciplines as well as new studies. It would be educational malpractice to not let students think about great ideas. Part of that is training students to be ethical by using a variety of resources.”

Mr. Miller sees a generational difference in people’s notions about faith and religion. “Baby boomers were taught ‘don’t mix this stuff,’ but as baby boomers hit midlife they’re asking existential questions. A lot of people who are thrown by their success call me up for help, and the younger generation isn’t satisfied with the contract that older people might have made; they don’t believe the two worlds have to be separate in their lives.”

“Being gay, black, wearing an earring, leaving early for the Sabbath — everyone has to come to their own conclusions about how to handle these things. Thirty years ago they were squelched. In research and writing, I’m trying to help companies think through this brave new world. There are pitfalls, for sure, but thinking holistically really creates opportunities,” he said.

Mr. Miller notes the “bilingual” perspective he brings to his work as a result of spending 16 years in senior executive positions in international business and finance before entering academia and receiving his Master of Divinity degree and Ph.D. in social ethics. His book, God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement, was published by Oxford University Press in 2007. He plans to start a blog soon. “We’ll see who chimes in,” he said, suggesting a hypothetical discussion on “looking at the Wall Street Journal and various faith communities. It will be interesting to see the topics and various intersections that come up.”

Faith and work is “a bona fide social movement; it has legs,” according to Mr. Miller. “It is entering public discourse, and within the next 15 to 20 years most leading schools will have programs in it. Enlightened, smart companies will also recognize that it is important, and the winners will be the companies that have embraced it.”

To learn more about Princeton’s Faith and Work Initiative, see Mr. Miller is available to speak through the Avodah Institute:

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