A Buddhist monk recently helped solve a problem at Google.
Last fall Google recognized it had a problem. It’s California headquarters is frantically abuzz with activity. Scarfing down a burrito is standard lunch fare. This presents a host of potential problems, including lower productivity and higher healthcare costs in the future. To correct the problem, Google called in a Buddhist monk. It’s yet another instance of other faiths eating our lunch.
Google is a go-go place. “Few places in America are as frantically abuzz with activity as the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.,” wrote the New York Times earlier this year.1 Hoping to instill healthy eating habits, Google brought in Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, in September of 2011. Nanh is co-author of “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.” Hundreds of Google workers showed up to enjoy a lunch in silence. There was a discussion afterward. The result is that scores of Google workers now enjoy a monthly hour-long wordless vegan lunch at the Google campus.
I’m happy they’re eating healthy but sad at another missed opportunity for the church. Why didn’t Google contact a Christian? The Christian faith has much to say about mindful eating. The answer of course is that America’s culture-shaping institutions generally do not take the church seriously. It’s a TGIF world, Twitter-Google-iPad-Facebook. Google is a culture-shaping institution. It takes Max De Pree’s maxim seriously – its first responsibility is to define reality. Google does not imagine the church as helping them define reality. What then would it take to change the equation?
In the first place, Christians would have to know the equation. In his book “Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge,” University of Southern California professor Dallas Willard writes how the church once made five contributions to culture. It was seen as a resource for:
• The knowledge of reality
The most important contribution was the knowledge of how reality works. For “most of Western history, the basic claims of the Christian tradition have in fact been regarded by its proponents as knowledge of reality,” Willard writes.2 The Western church taught what was considered real and right as a “public resource for living.” This knowledge “was made available to people in general through institutions of one kind or another.”3
In the 19th century, the knowledge of how reality works came to be reserved to institutions other than the church. This was largely the result of a philosophy called positivism. Positivism grew out a general revulsion with religious wars in the Middle Ages. By the 1700s, positivists sought to “cleanse” the world of religious involvement by making an “absolute distinction between facts and values,” writes Harvard professor Louis Menand. By the 1800s, it was generally assumed that facts were the province of science while values were the province of what was mockingly called metaphysics.4 There was no reality beyond – meta – the physical world. Thus, the church was relegated to merely offering belief, commitment, profession, and a call to adherence. Google however does not take these seriously unless they are perceived as grounded in reality. The result is the modern church is out of the reality business.
This leaves a world where tolerance is the highest virtue. Religion has no place in the “real” world. It is merely a matter of an individual’s private “values.” This is why Buddhism is popular. It is a philosophy, not a religion. It preaches tolerance while promoting ideas such as mindful eating. This kind of philosophy explains how the “real” world works, and ‘fits’ how Google imagines reality.
The good news is that there is still plenty of opportunity at the Google trough. Their in-house food service is a thing of legend, both in New York City as well as Mountain View. “Orchestrated by an official Top Chef and regularly winning plaudits,” writes Adam Martin in the Atlantic, “you pretty much expect to see things like suckling pig on display; but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.”5 Newsweek iPad editor Melissa Lafsky Wall is not impressed however. She tweeted photos of a suckling pig recently served at the New York headquarters. Viewers have been mostly grossed out. Google, cognizant of maintaining its “cool” image, might start sniffing around for healthy alternatives.
The best way to get in the reality business is to solve real problems. Google, Twitter, Apple, and Facebook have problems. Every institution does. But solving them is not a matter of curriculums and discussions according to professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. They are the authors of The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, noting how real life problems are, by nature, unpredictable and uncertain. Curriculum-driven approaches (typical of many churches) are static and don’t capture how reality works.6 Their solution is to stop talking, roll up your sleeves, and solve problems. The gospel for instance has much to say about pigging out. But until we solve these kinds of problems, our faith won’t be taken seriously. And that means Buddhism will keep eating our lunch.
1 Jeff Gordinier, “Mindful Eating as Food for Thought,” the New York Times, February 7, 2012.
2 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 8.
3 Willard, Knowing, p. 200.
4 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.
5 Adam Martin, “Google Wins at Pigging Out,” the Atlantic wire, March 13, 2012.
6 “The innovation machine” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.