Bruce Baker, assistant professor of business ethics, Seattle Pacific University
The tangible benefits of entrepreneurship seem fairly obvious: economic productivity, job creation, and solutions to all kinds of material needs. But what about the spiritual blessings of entrepreneurship? The global reach and sweeping victories of democratic capitalism in the twentieth century bear witness to its power to shape culture as well as commerce. Entrepreneurship is like the heartbeat of this economic force. Unless we understand the spiritual blessings of entrepreneurship, we will fail to appreciate the contribution it makes to the formation of a virtuous society.
The theological idea of common grace provides a window into the spiritual dimensions of entrepreneurship. The language of “common grace” emerged from the public ministry and teaching of Abraham Kuyper in the 1880s. In essence, the idea refers to the theological perspective that emphasizes the presence of God’s grace as active everywhere and at all times, in every sphere of public activity, secular as well as religious. The Christian Reformed Church in America systematized this idea in their 1924 doctrinal statement which defines common grace in terms of three precepts: (1) the natural blessings of creation and providence are distributed to humanity in common; (2) by God’s grace, sin is restrained somewhat within human affairs; and (3) positive acts of civic righteousness give witness to the providence of God’s covenantal blessings poured out on humankind.
It’s interesting to note that this language of common grace emerged in parallel with industrial capitalism’s rise to dominance in the twentieth century. Economist Joseph Schumpeter famously defined entrepreneurship in his landmark 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, as the “fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion.” According to Schumpeter, entrepreneurs “reform or revolutionize the pattern of production by exploiting an invention or, more generally, an untried technological possibility for producing a new commodity or producing an old one in a new way, by opening up a new source of supply of materials or a new outlet for products, by reorganizing an industry and so on.” In all these ways, entrepreneurs deliver tangible blessings and contribute to the proper functioning of the social architecture.
There is nothing inherently religious or theological in Schumpeter’s thought. Indeed, within any given industry there is often little observable difference between the business practice of entrepreneurs with religious faith and those without faith. Here is the reason common grace helps shed light on the matter: it invites consideration of how God’s covenantal blessings can be seen to apply even in contexts that are not explicitly religious.
Viewed from this perspective, there are at least four important spiritual aspects of entrepreneurship that contribute to the formation and operation of a virtuous society: spiritual capital, beauty, personal risk, and civic righteousness.
The first of these, spiritual capital, may be defined as the cultural reservoir of religiously inspired sentiments which give meaning and purpose to economic and civic ventures. To the extent that entrepreneurship arises from the commitment of industrious souls who are willing to take risks, work hard, and play fair in order to contribute to the flourishing of society and economic shalom, entrepreneurial activity builds up spiritual capital. There is an inherently spiritual component to the motivations of entrepreneurs who desire to make valuable and lasting contributions that will benefit others, as opposed to merely self-serving schemes concocted for the sake of money. Of course, greed persists even as grace abounds, but businesses are generally sustained for the long term by well-meaning, trustworthy relationships. The spiritual significance of serving others through creativity and righteous work gives witness to the spiritual blessings of entrepreneurship. The mere fact that the free market sustains itself and meets the needs of society without crashing under the weight of greed and other sins affirms the precept that God’s grace actively restrains sin.
Secondly, beauty can be seen in the fruitfulness of entrepreneurship. Aesthetic appreciation is necessary to see past the facile, merely pragmatic explanations of entrepreneurial activity that fall short of appraising its spiritual dimensions. Beauty is common to human experience; it aims the soul in the direction of God. As Dostoyevsky said so well through the mouth of The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.” Our culture needs a healthy dose of this type of imagination, this aesthetic eye, to behold the beauty in human endeavors – perhaps especially in entrepreneurial endeavors, which are so often described only in financial terms. Without beauty, we are left with merely functional definitions of human nature based in the mechanistic, false and reductionist idea of homo economicus, which lurks within so much of the rhetoric of our secular age.
There is beauty in the creative accomplishments that result from human cooperation with God’s creative purposes. Entrepreneurship is one of those domains in which beauty can be seen in the creative impulse instilled within the imago Dei, as it strives toward livelihood and the profusion of new ideas and new solutions to human needs. Kuyper saw the multiformity of such creative drives as a pointer to God’s ubiquitous grace. He appreciated the beauty of “infinite diversity [in the creation], an inexhaustible profusion of variations that strikes and fascinates you in every domain of nature.”
Personal risk is the third indicator of spirituality in entrepreneurship. Risk-taking is so inherent in entrepreneurship that some investors consider entrepreneurial failure as a paradoxical indicator of success, based on the wisdom that it’s better to bet on someone who has learned humility from their mistakes, rather than someone who has not tasted failure.
Entrepreneurial risk-taking is multi-faceted. It is premeditated and voluntary. The entrepreneur accepts personal risks of all sorts (financial, relational, emotional and spiritual) in committing to an inspired purpose that will bring benefits to others if it succeeds. There is an element of grace in this choice to commit personal time, energy and resources into efforts that benefit others, without any assurance that the sacrifice will produce either benefits for others or for oneself.
To the extent that entrepreneurial behavior displays self-sacrifice for the sake of others, it serves as an analog – however tarnished and mundane – of divine love. Of course, this analogy must not be pushed very far. After all, there is an immeasurable gulf between the mundane reality of business risk, and the self-giving vulnerability of a loving God who chooses to be revealed in the in the self-emptying act of kenotic sacrifice (Philippians 2:4-8). This connection between economic risk and other-love can be traced back to the writings of Augustine and other Church Fathers, as Anthony Percy notes: “The risky work of the entrepreneur…has the potential to intimate to us the risky work of Christ’s Redemption….So too, the entrepreneur, in obedience to the gifts he has been given, decides to risk his own personal wealth – to give of himself – not only for personal gain, but also for the benefit of others.”
Finally, entrepreneurship displays civic righteousness. Peter Berger sums up the identity of the “Western type of entrepreneur” in terms of individualism, responsibility, asceticism, rationality and a strong sense of conscience which makes them reliable and trustworthy. These attributes offer a fitting description of civic righteousness. To the extent that entrepreneurs create jobs, enhance productivity and bring beneficial innovations to market, they bring prosperity to society. These are fruits of their civic righteousness, as well as indicators of their spiritual discipline. Of course, righteousness is not an outcome of all entrepreneurial activity. There are uncivil forms of entrepreneurship that violate moral norms. Overall, however, entrepreneurship makes a generally positive contribution to the common good, and is an essential component of properly functioning market economies.
Given the decline of religious dialogue in the public square, and the tendency of public discourse to reduce the free market to mechanistic theories without transcendent grounding, there is a vital need to discern the spiritual side of business behavior. Dealing with similar concerns in his own time, Abraham Kuyper pointed the way forward by encouraging Christians “to continually expand the dominance of nobler and purer ideals in civil society by the courageous action of its members in every area of life.” We may take at least one step in that direction by exhorting and encouraging the higher aims of entrepreneurial behavior, and affirming its spiritual blessings.
This article is adapted from “Entrepreneurship as a Sign of Common Grace,” Journal of Markets & Morality 18(1): 81-98.