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The Smarmy Sacrilege of Corporate Divinity Consultants

Get thee behind me, Casper ter Kuile & Co.

“For as long as most of us can remember, the professional-managerial class (PMC) has been fighting a class war, not against capitalists or capitalism, but against the working classes,” writes Professor Catherine Liu in her delicious new broadside, Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class. First identified and described by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in 1977 as a class of “salaried mental workers” who reproduce the essentials of capitalism without owning the means of production, the PMC, argues Liu, has for decades “been happy to abandon mass politics to reproduce the social division of labor and the widening gulf between those who prosper under late capitalism and those who do not.” Ever-ingratiating themselves to the capitalist masters who reward them, the PMC has grown ever more rapacious around “virtue, grit, persistence, erudition, specialized knowledge, prestige, and pleasure, along with cultural and actual capital,” writes Liu. They are “shameless about hoarding all forms of secularized virtue,” she adds. Liu is right, but the PMC is equally shameless about hoarding forms of sacred virtue, too.

The clearest evidence of this came late last summer in an article published by journalist Nellie Bowles in the New York Times about “a new corporate clergy” of “divinity consultants” like Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Ezra Bookman, who “blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.” More than any particular services, however, what these chief priests for corporate America actually provide is an adjusted penitential system tailored for the PMC elite. This new system insidiously capitalizes on the historical authority that religious institutions once possessed in order to absolve (neo)liberalism of its sins and grant indulgences to its primary beneficiaries. The PMC elite are thus given quasi-spiritual permission to continue reveling in their meritocratic fantasy, to continue self-congratulating while the working and poor classes are condemned to austerity.

In the Beginning

“The sacred consultant trend might be led by the co-founders of Sacred Design Lab,” writes Bowles. Two of this design lab’s co-founders—millennials Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston—got their start as graduate students at the premiere finishing school for neoliberal pedagogy and credentialing, Harvard University. Before arriving at Harvard, ter Kuile, who was born and raised in England in a secular family, attended Anglican prep and boarding schools, and later co-founded the UK Youth Climate Coalition as well as Campaign Bootcamp. Thurston grew up in Boulder, CO, where she studied the Urantia Book before attending Brown University and later becoming a playwright in Brooklyn.

When ter Kuile and Thurston matriculated at Harvard in 2013, they arrived in Cambridge, MA, during an especially spirited cultural moment. Of his revelatory visit to Boston in the spring of 2015, author Thomas Frank discovered an entire metropolitan area “in the grip of a collective mania, an enthusiasm for innovation that I can only compare to a religious revival, to the kind of crowd-passion that would periodically sweep through New England back in the days when the purpose of Harvard was to produce clergyman, not startups.” On Harvard’s campus in particular, Frank noticed that “the dream of being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates” was “palpable.” (Although not to scale, Casper ter Kuile’s star is evidently on something of a rise.)

Harvard Divinity School (HDS), my alma mater and the place where ter Kuile and Thurston first made their shared splash, was no exception. The prevailing zeitgeist of the HDS brand at the time might be described as one of indiscriminate (self-)congratulations in a cosmic register. The giggles and titters of its premiere ambassadors—breezy aspirationals, with apparent Resting Taylor Face, hawking commercialized personalities—echoed what James Baldwin once described as “the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real.” There at HDS, everything was awesome. Everyone, everywhere was changing the world. Mostly, of course, through innovation.

The same year Thomas Frank explored Beantown, ter Kuile and Thurston became the new darlings of HDS with their 2015 co-authored study, “How We Gather.” Based on findings from the Pew Research Center’s 2012 report, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” which investigated trends related to religiously unaffiliated people (also known as “nones”), combined with interviews and research conducted throughout 2014 and 2015, ter Kuile and Thurston concluded that millennials were suddenly “flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.” Examining ten organizations using six different themes—including personal transformation, creativity, and accountability—they concluded that “millennials are changing the way we gather” altogether.

At once, ter Kuile and Thurston were featured prominently throughout the liberal media soundscape—the New York Times, Aspen Ideas Festival, NPR—establishing themselves as rising cultural seers, apparently unique in their ability to discern a sacred, real-time, generational phenomenon. What was it that millennials believed? How were millennials now gathering? And where? According to ter Kuile and Thurston, they were galloping away from traditional religious institutions toward the nearest CrossFit box or SoulCycle class. Silicon Valley yuppies with “a strong desire for childlike creativity, play, and fun” registered for summer camp at Camp Grounded—whose organizational “ancestor,” decided ter Kuile and Thurston, was Burning Man, whose “sibling” was Awesomeness Fest, and whose “corporate cousin” was Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend. The “innovators” leading these organizations, they attested, were ushering in “an exciting cultural shift” by providing for the “well-being and spiritual growth of the rising generation.” After promoting this initial study, publishing a few subsequent reports, and graduating from Harvard, ter Kuile and Thurston stayed on at HDS, becoming its inaugural “Ministry Innovation Fellows.” The virtues of liberalism, innovation, and religion all came together clearly in their work and each of these elements was celebrated. Another variable, however, was quietly downplayed.

“Innovation liberalism is a ‘liberalism of the rich,’” remarked local Massachusetts labor leader Harris Gruman to Thomas Frank. What ter Kuile and Thurston have demonstrated is that religious innovation liberalism is no different. What got lost in the media coverage of that 2015 report—which largely applauded the already self-applauding and glamorized the already self-glamorizing—is that it conflated the religious behavior of an entire generation with what was, in fact, a very small subset of it. Buried on the second-to-last page of their watershed report, ter Kuile and Thurston admit that the organizations they profiled “serve disproportionately affluent, urban, educated, and white populations.” After all, they acknowledge, “the religiously unaffiliated population skews affluent, urban, educated, and white.” Conveniently, this was never given the attention it deserved in the press. Instead, ter Kuile and Thurston cheerfully allowed themselves to be hallowed as the Oracles of Generation Millennial, even if their report might have more aptly been titled, “How Affluent, Urban, Educated, White Millennials Like Us Gather.” The cosmology of innovation liberals, after all, really only ever includes themselves.

Indulgences Then

The Instagram account for Ritualist, the “boutique consultancy transforming companies & communities through the art of ritual,” founded by artist and ritual designer Ezra Bookman, suggests that Bookman apprenticed in homiletics with Oprah. “YOU get a ritual, YOU get a ritual, YOU get a ritual, EVERYTHING gets a ritual!” the feed seems to cry with indiscriminate abandon. Bookman and I no doubt agree that ritual is a profoundly important aspect of human experience. Rituals help us transition from one identity or state of being to another. They allow us to mark time and make meaning. Through ritual we are able to imagine, build, and experiment with new worlds and new ways of relating and being community. Rituals can also be a powerful site of and vehicle for resistance. Rituals do these things and many more—symbolically and otherwise. Often rituals do several of these things all at once; other times rituals fail altogether.

The most inventive aspect of the religious innovation liberalism on offer by today’s divinity consultants has very little to do with actual rituals, however—with the funeral rites and grief support that they provide corporate clients after the failure of a project or the rituals designed (ironically) to help us “shift from a purely capitalist transactional relationship with our Instagram followers to one of genuine gratitude,” which, for Bookman, included “designing an $100 bill that replaced Benjamin Franklin with a piece of magical flying tofu” that he sent to his first 100 followers. No. As vital and urgent as that work is, what these spiritual consultants actually provide is a revised form of indulgences—a feature of medieval Christian sacraments that granted the remission of punishment for a penitent’s confessed sins.

Many familiar with the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century will remember the complicated German monk and professor Martin Luther and his ninety-five theses. Despite the famous story of Luther nailing this long list of propositions to the church door in Wittenberg in October of 1517, Luther actually submitted them in a letter to his local archbishop specifically as a way to call for an academic debate among fellow religious scholars on the sale of indulgences—an aspect of penance that had, at that point, become abusive. At the time, the sacrament of penance had three main parts: confession, absolution, and satisfaction. If I stole something from a friend and felt bad about it, I might confess this sin to my priest, after which he would grant me absolution, or forgiveness. This released me from the guilt of my sin and its consequences in the world to come (eternal damnation), but it did nothing for my friend in this world who was still without his missing stuff. Accordingly, the priest would assign “satisfaction” or compensatory works intended to make things right in this world. Perhaps I simply returned my friend’s stuff or prayed a certain number of prayers. Over time, though, these assigned works of satisfaction might really add up, and whatever I left unfinished at death then required my soul to suffer in purgatory until the balance was gone.

Indulgences provided an answer. In exchange for performing specific acts of piety—a pilgrimage, viewing church relics, joining a crusade, or, notably, a financial contribution to the church—my balance of works could be excused wholesale. Additionally, as of the late 15th century, indulgences could also be applied to souls that were already suffering in purgatory. In Luther’s day, the message that many received was that salvation itself—for you or your loved ones in purgatory—could be purchased without having to personally confess any sins at all.

This messaging was not an accident. First commissioned by an archbishop involved in his own dubious financial dealings, a group of priests, later known as “indulgence preachers,” traveled from town to town preaching a diluted and obscure—but very lucrative—concept of indulgences from the pulpit. Dominican friar John Tetzel, arguably the most infamous of the indulgence preachers, was exceptionally skillful at capitalizing on the anxieties and confusion of churchgoers, and became associated with the jingle, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther’s theses condemned such exploitation, and sought to clarify the purpose and theology of indulgences, as well as the true cost of forgiveness (which was free). As his theses were translated into local languages and distributed across Europe, they resonated deeply and agitated many. Luther gained support from across the continent, and the Reformation was born.

Indulgences Now

Admittedly, the indulgences granted by the high priests of religious innovation liberalism today are intended for a different crowd and achieve a different goal—but they are indulgences, nonetheless. Instead of a crude and manipulative method of direct financial extraction that targets ordinary working people, the indulgences granted by today’s divinity consultants make use of an alternative capital that helps their mostly affluent, urban, educated, and white flock differentiate from ordinary working people. It pardons them from confessing the reality that their professional-managerial elite status is less the result of their own greatness or importance, and more the result of their strategic, if not cheerful, compliance with an increasingly demonic distributive system. It also excuses them from any compensatory action that might change it.

In The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the “aspirational class,” a “new elite cultural formation,” is defined primarily by shared cultural capital and signifiers. This class prioritizes ideas, awareness, and knowledge because these allow members to best identify (and, if necessary, to create) new ways of demonstrating uniqueness and superiority. Indeed, writes Currid-Halkett, “they strive to feel informed and legitimate in their belief that they have made the right and reasonable decision based on facts,” no matter the choice at hand. “The aspirational class members’ self-assurance with their decisions and seeming deservedness of their social position allows them to ignore the growing inequality all around them.” Certainly, she adds, “they do not see themselves to blame.”

As inequality expands and becomes ever harder to ignore, however, the aspirational class needs additional reassurance of their own renown. Naturally, they spend their cultural and financial capital on divinity consultants ordained by elite universities and endorsed by innovative, liberal institutions. Merely by virtue of the business the aspirational class conducts—over and above any particular services rendered—they are absolved of the guilt of unmerited gain, and any responsibility they have to struggle for a more just distributive system is wholly excused.

As a graduate student in divinity school, Angie Thurston published an article in the spring of 2015 that demonstrates a divinity consultant in the making. Thurston began her career indulging the PMC elite not long after she arrived at Harvard in 2013—the same year that the university began its “One Harvard” capital campaign. Then, in what was an earlier moment of historic income and wealth inequality in the United States, Harvard (already the wealthiest university in the world) decided there was no better time to raise some fuck-you money, setting as its fundraising goal $6.5 billion. Among other things, some of the campaign’s priorities were to support an expanded graduate campus, enhance the university’s “global presence,” update its student housing, and provide additional financial aid. Three years into the five-year campaign, the university achieved its goal of raising $6.5 billion—then the largest capital campaign sum in history; when it concluded in 2018, officials announced that it had raised $9.6 billion overall.

The campaign’s “One Harvard” unity ethos clearly rubbed off on Thurston. While a degree candidate at HDS, Thurston enrolled in multiple courses at Harvard Business School, where she came to see its 1,800 students as “brothers and sisters,” as “God-carriers” who were “committed to making the world different,” even if that commitment condemned them to a hard life of making obscene amounts of money. Shilling baldly for Harvard Business School students, Thurston concluded that “making a difference in the world must at least include making money.”

One might forgive such credulity if it were not so advantageous. Such is today’s divinity consultant. Especially at a university that boasts more billionaire alumni than any other in the world (more than Stanford, MIT, and Yale combined), sentimentalizing Harvard Business School students as do-gooding altruists who bear the cross of unearned, bloated incomes is today’s indulgence preaching laid bare. Pope Francis is decidedly more critical. Not unlike Thurston, Francis would also admit elite business school students as part of the human family—and yet he is much more honest and outspoken about the role they play in our family system. “Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence,” writes Francis in his recent encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti. “This way of discarding others can take a variety of forms, such as an obsession with reducing labor costs with no concern for its grave consequences, since the unemployment that it directly generates leads to the expansion of poverty.” Francis adds that injustice today is fueled, as much as anything, “by a profit-based economic model that does not hesitate to exploit, discard and even kill human beings.” Predictable, yet revealing: when it comes to our global family system, divinity consultants are decisively more forgiving of the PMC elite than Pope Francis.

 A more recent illustration of the diversity consultant’s mindset is ter Kuile’s book, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices. It is an aggressive self-cuddle of a book, exhibiting the ticklish, self-involved evangelism of religious innovation liberals and the PMC heart incurvatus in se (turned/curved in on itself). The subtitle alone is an indulgence. It pardons readers for their modesty and entitles them to an unearned identity as righteous, workaday mystics—sagacious simply for doing the usual. How typical. Argues Catherine Liu in Virtue Hoarders, as the PMC’s accidental social location and preening opportunism converged into perceived cultural and financial success, “the class insisted on its ability to do ordinary things in extraordinary, fundamentally superior and more virtuous ways,” she explains. They now see themselves today as “reading books, raising children, eating food, staying healthy, and having sex as the most culturally and affectively advanced people in human history.”

Add to that watching movies. Ter Kuile opens his book with a confession: “I’ve re-watched You’ve Got Mail many, many times. But it represents so much more to me than just a movie now, because I’ve made it more meaningful. I have very specific rituals for when and how to watch (always alone, always with a tub of Pralines and Cream Häagen-Dazs ice cream),” he simpers. “It’s not an ‘Oh, what shall we watch?’ kind of movie; it’s an ‘I’m feeling lost and alone, and I need everything I’ve got to bring me out of this slump’ kind of movie.” Author and editor Meagan Day has otherwise described it as an “ur-Clintonite film” and “an alluring neoliberal fantasy,” which is perhaps why it works wonders for ter Kuile. “Certain lines are inscribed on my heart, like mantras,” he continues. “Characters are totems of how I want to be—or not be—in the world. While for most people it’s just another rom-com, for me, You’ve Got Mail is sacred.” It is not just evocative or entertaining or enjoyable, but sacred. Because he made it so. Soulfully.

 In another passage, ter Kuile takes the reader through Guigo II’s process of lectio divina, or “divine reading,” recorded in Scala Claustralium (The Ladder of Monks). In this pamphlet, Guigo II, a 12th century Carthusian monk and monastic prior, condenses the historic practice of biblical reading and study into four steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Ter Kuile elucidates by demonstrating how he and his colleague applied this process to the Harry Potter book series for their podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and encourages the reader to consider this practice as well. For ter Kuile’s particular flock, though, it is not about the actual practice of sacred reading, but the subtle permission he gives readers to believe that they possess the righteous gravitas and solemnity of monastics simply because they have read about one.

Religious Innovation Liberalism as Capitalist Fable

Worse than the unbearable lightness of today’s divinity consultants is the unbearable sacrilege of their ministry. “Their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America,” explains Bowles. “Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense.” Such borrowing is too cartoonish, expedient, and precious to take seriously as such. Helping corporate America to the autoeroticism of luxuriating in pseudo-spiritual richness and apparent moral reflection at the office while others are left without the time and space for a bathroom break is not an attempt to soften cruel capitalism, but to consecrate it. 

It is, in short, sacrilege. “PMC elites are always experimenting with themselves,” argues Liu, because it distracts them from the disquieting truth that they are fundamentally as ordinary as the working class that they despise and the working poor to whom they condescend. So, divinity consultants blithely repurpose ancient, sacred practices for airy consumption by mostly affluent, urban, educated, white millennials thirst-trapping for recognition as transcendent beings, while simultaneously being forgiven of their complacency and reassured of their cultural and financial supremacy. All that, even as this pandemic proves to be a portal merely between an old world of appalling inequality and another that is still worse.

Innovation, argues Thomas Frank, “is a fable that persuades us to accept economic arrangements we would otherwise regard as unpleasant or intolerable—that convinces us that the very particular configuration of economic power we inhabit is in fact a neutral matter of science, of nature, of the way God wants things to be.” Not unlike “personal growth influencers,” the work of today’s religious innovation liberals is to sell that fable through the penitential system and ministry of indulgences discussed above, even though most workers do not need more soul space at work. “Our jobs are not supposed to bring us enlightenment,” writes author and editor Jessa Crispin. “They are supposed to bring us money and stolen office supplies.”

As many of us already know, what most workers do actually need is a truly livable income, better benefits, the right to unionize, and a socialized economy. All that, and a whole lot less work, too. This is, of course, what the labor movement first demanded, writes author and journalist Sarah Jaffe in her recent book, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. Today, workers need this for workers’ sake, but we all need this for our planet, too. Combined with leisure activities that have negligible impacts on the environment, a work week of around 30 hours appears to make for a good start, although Jaffe might suggest even less. “Massive reductions in working time are not only desirable, as work is increasingly miserable—they are necessary,” she argues. Because increased productivity is so directly tied to intensified carbon emissions, she explains further, today’s culture of work “is helping to doom the Earth.”

Finally, the PMC elite have no more right to hoard sacred virtues than they do secular ones, nor are they entitled to their delusions of superiority. Their conversion from such mistaken beliefs is always most welcome, as is their conversion to committed socialism. Until then, concludes Liu, as capitalism is rightly called out “as the enemy of the people, we must also name our enemy’s most assiduous courtier and sycophant: the professional managerial class.” Let us name, too, their most assiduous high priests. The grotesque penitential system and indulgence preaching of PMC divinity consultants, ritual designers, and corporate clergy today do as much as anything to further entrench and sanctify capitalism. Say what one will about traditional religious institutions, religious liberal innovation is a sacrilegious fable all its own, designed to absolve and indulge an already self-indulgent elite class without them ever having to confess a thing.

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