sgtribes.jpg Today I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s latest book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. I began over breakfast in a local hotel restaurant, where I’ve been known to show up for breakfast with no companion other than a book. (Today it was also a prelude to an oil change.) As I read along quite enjoying myself, I arrived at page 79.

Fear, Faith, and Religion

People who challenge and then change the status quo, do something that’s quite difficult. They overcome the resistance of people they trust, people they work for, people in their community. Every step along the way, it’s far easier to stop and accept the thanks of the balloon factory workers than it is to persist and risk the humiliation of failure.

So why do it?

Faith is the unstated component in the work of a leader and I think faith is underrated.

Paradoxically, religion is vastly overrated.

Stick with me (and Seth) now. Wait until he explains this, and you’ll see he’s right.

Faith goes back a long way. Faith leads to hope, and it overcomes fear. Faith gave our ancestors the resilience they needed to deal with the mysteries of the (pre-science) world. Faith is the dividing line between humans and most other species. We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, faith that Newton’s laws will continue to govern the way a ball travels, and faith that our time in med school will pay off twenty years from now because society is still going to need doctors.

Chris Sharma is able to do a dyno [(a leap into midair from one “hold” to another)] on a rock face one hundred feed above the ground because he has faith that it’ll work out okay. If you watch kids learning how to dyno, you’ll see that the secret to developing the skill isn’t about building their muscles or learning some exotic technique. It is merely about developing the faith that it’ll work. “Merely,” of course, is a huge step. It’s nothing but a few neurons’ worth of faith, just the knowledge that you can do it. But without faith, the leap never works.

Faith is critical to all innovation. Without faith, it’s suicidal to be a leader, to act like a heretic.

So far, so good, right? Faith, hope, and overcoming fear — New Testament stuff right there, isn’t it? An then there’s the “leap of faith” imagery that everyone loves so much. And whether you measure faith in mustard seeds or neurons, we know it stretches better than Bryl Creem. So we like the bit about faith… but let’s not confuse that with religion.

Religion, on the other hand, represents a strict set of rules that our fellow humans have overlaid on top of our faith. Religion supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out.

There are countless religions in our lives, not just the capital-R religions like Zoroastrianism or Judaism. There’s the IBM religion of the 1960s, for example, which included workplace protocols, dress codes, and even a precise method for presenting ideas (on an overhead projector). There’s the religion of Broadway, which determines what a musical is supposed to look and feel like. There’s the religion of the MBA, right down to the standard curriculum and perceptions of what is successful (a job at Bain & Company) and what’s sort of flaky (going to work for a brewery).

Religion Works Great When it Amplifies Faith

That’s why human beings invented religion. It’s why we have spiritual religions an cultural religions and corporate religions. Religion gives our faith a little support when it needs it, and it makes it easy for your peers to encourage you to embrace your faith.

Religion is at its best a sort of mantra, a subtle but consistent reminder that belief is okay, and that faith is the way to get where you’re going.

The reason we need to talk about this, though, is that often religion does just the opposite. Religion at its worst reinforces the status quo, and often at the expense of our faith. They had a religion at Woolworth’s department store, and sticking, without variation, to the principles that made the store great prevented them from turning it into a new, better kind of experience. The store is long gone, of course.

They have a religion at the country club down the street as well. A set of convictions and rules that is just too hard to change. As a result, an entire generation of professional women won’t join that club, and it’s going to fade and blow away soon.

Don’t get lost on the idea that humans created religion… largely, we did — at least as it’s used in this context. Faith, that’s another matter. Divine Truth, something else again. But religion, those rules to which we cling as though they, and not our faith, will save us… that’s religion. There’s a good kind too (more on that later), but the empty kind isn’t doing us any good, especially since we keep working against change, fighting for the status quo. And it’ll be the end of our religion — if not the end of our faith. But don’t get the two confused, because they aren’t the same thing.

Challenge Religion and People Wonder if You’re Challenging Their Faith

The reason it’s so difficult to have a considered conversation about religion is that people feel threatened. Not by the implied criticism of the rituals or irrationality of a particular religious practice, but because it feels like criticism of their faith.

Faith, as we’ve seen, is the cornerstone that keeps our organizations together. Faith is the cornerstone of humanity; we can’t live without it. But religion is very different from faith. Religion is just a set of invented protocols, rules to live by (for now). Heretics challenge a given religion, but do it from a very strong foundation of faith. In order to lead, you must challenge the status quo of the religion you’re living under.

Of course, religion and faith go together. You can remind yourself of your faith by wearing the company uniform or uttering the mantra of your current religion. You can embrace the support of the community by showing up at church or at the company picnic and following the rituals of whichever religion is being practiced. Without religion, it’s easier for faith to flag. It’s no wonder that religion has been around forever. It reinforces faith, and we can’t succeed without it.

So successful heretics create their own religions. Fast Company magazine was a new testament for a new religion. It brought together a new group of friends, new supporters, new rituals. The same thing happens at companies that embrace heretical behavior (like IDEO) and at blogs or even at Buck’s restaurant in Silicon Valley or the TED conference or other places where leaders like to hang out. These religions exist for one reason–to reinforce our faith.

And here we hint at the good kind of religion — that which helps not hurts our faith. Novel idea, eh? But alas, the process of switching over from the bad kind to the good kind is the work of heretics. Not real honest-to-God- heretics, but the kind that get branded with the label, only to have their execution rescinded 200 years later. A bit late, that. Change is a risky undertaking, but fortunately the stakes aren’t quite as high as when they used, well, real stakes.

Switching Religions Without Giving Up Faith

A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that about a third of all Americans have left the religion they grew up with. The study mistakenly uses the word faith, but in fact, few of these people have lost faith. What they’ve done instead is change the system they use for reinforcing that faith.

When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.

Faith is What You Do

If religion comprises rules you follow, faith is demonstrated by the actions you take.

This is some great stuff here. That last bit is pretty much straight out of the book of James, innit? And what about love of the system stunting your growth? Has it gone quiet in here, or are there some “amen’s” from the back of the room? We who have been called “church-leavers” know too well that religious systems and faith eventually become incompatible, and we find we have to give up one or the other. The pews in some churches are sadly filled with those who gave up the opposite option than what the church-leavers have. But the latter have a stronger faith while the former have nothing but attendance and numb buttocks from a hard pew once a week. Which of them are called heretics, disparaged and pitied, and which are called faithful?

A Word for It

Religion and faith are often confused. Someone who opposes faith is called an atheist and widely reviled. But we don’t have a common word for someone who opposes a particular religion.

Heretic will have to do.

If faith is the foundation of a belief system, then religion is the facade and the landscaping. It’s easy to get caught up in the foibles of a corporate culture and the systems that have been built over time, but they have nothing at all to do with the faith that built the system in the first place.

Change is made by people, by leaders who are proud to be called heretics because their faith is never in question.

In the year 1515, the Council of Trent wrote this about heretics: “Finally, all the faithful are commanded not to presume to read or possess any books contrary to the prescriptions of these rules or the prohibition of this list. And if anyone should read or possess books by heretics or writings by any author condemned and prohibited by reason of heresy or suspicion of false teaching, he incurs immediately the sentence of excommunication.”

Boy, are you in trouble. Better get rid of this book.

Well, that took me up to page 85. It’s a short book, only about 150 pages… and well worth the quick read that it is. Reading it is quick — implementing it may take a little longer. But that’s worthwhile as well. While Seth Godin is largely speaking here about business using a religious metaphor, I am not. And I guess I’m a heretic (which is, in fact, what it says for “Religious views” in my Facebook profile). And I’m okay with that. So I would urge you not to get rid of this book, or this blog, but to read on. It’s good stuff. The book, I mean — I can only hope the blog is almost adequate, or at least mildly amusing on some level.

But when you see Seth Godin’s words as directly applicable to the church, they are striking indeed. “When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.” That’s a real gem. Religion is the system, the rigid rules which were never canon, and which belong to some other time and place. But criticize them, and you’re a heretic, undermining The Faith. *sigh.* I don’t think so. As I’ve said often enough, “It’s not a crisis of faith, it’s just a crisis of ecclesiology.” As I’ve described it though, denying the ecclesiological crisis will ultimately lead to a crisis of faith… like a cancer that slowly invades the entire body until it gets to the vital bits.

Lest we imbibe the worst of religion and it’s urging for the status quo, let’s not get caught up in the systems which have nothing to do with the faith that built them. I love the observation about religion being the system or rituals used to reinforce faith. I’ve talked as well about the “habits and practices” of spiritual formation, and I think this is the descriptor here. This is the reason why so many of us are looking into the past to the historical habits and practices of the church to find what has helped with spiritual formation and faithful journeying. The present ones aren’t working — too often now they’re getting in the way, reinforcing the status quo at the expense of our faith.

So what do you say to all that?

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