What’s So Spiritual about Capital?
Bruce Baker, Assistant Professor of Business Ethics, Seattle Pacific University
Spiritual capital is becoming a hot topic. It helps explain the appeal of new ideas like Bill Gates’ “creative capitalism” and John Mackey’s “conscious capitalism.” Yet it goes beyond these secular notions by recognizing that working to create value is a spiritual blessing, core to what makes us human. When people combine their efforts to do wholesome business, they demonstrate embodied spirituality. We can see the telltale signs of spiritual capital in businesses such as Merck’s mission to heal disease, ServiceMaster’s aim to honor God, IBM’s commitment to corporate citizenship, and Alaska Airlines’ public statements of faith. These are but a few examples of companies whose market valuation contains a healthy amount of goodwill, attributable to their spiritual capital.
I was recently delighted to be invited to teach a class on spiritual capital. This is the sweet spot for my studies—theological reflection on the intersection of faith, ethics, entrepreneurship, and economics. People were intrigued when I told them about the new class on spiritual capital, but everyone had the same question: What is it?
In a wonderfully ironic, whimsical, and literary sense, those words—what is it?—contain a revelatory kind of answer. This question is a literal translation of the Old Testament word manna (מָן), the mysterious “morning bread” that God fed to the Israelites as they sojourned in the wilderness:
When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” [Ex. 16:15]…Now the house of Israel called its name manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. [Ex. 16:31]
Spiritual capital can be compared to manna. Like manna, it’s mysterious and hard to define, yet it fills a real need in providing daily nourishment and energy for the road ahead. It feeds a healthy corporate body. Although spiritual capital is intangible, it is every bit as real as manna—as necessary for the sustenance of economic life as bread is for bodily life. It is similar to manna also in that both find their ultimate source in God above.
Spiritual capital is so much a part of ordinary, daily life that people have come up with a wide variety of non-religious expressions for it—“team spirit,” “corporate soul,” “mojo,” “goodwill.” These are only a few of the phrases used to describe the fruit of this mysterious spiritual gift which brings life and vitality to organizations and societies. Secular businesses, as well as churches and religious ministries, benefit from and depend upon spiritual capital, whether or not they identify it as a gift from God.
One reason spiritual capital is difficult to define is because it manifests in so many different ways in both overtly religious and secular organizations. Furthermore, being a work of the Holy Spirit, it is intangible, and therefore, not easily understood in the categories of human logic.
This last statement is, of course, a theological one—it is a work of the Holy Spirit. Here is the decisive juncture for any attempt to define spiritual capital, or any other spiritual reality: we must recognize at the outset that we are treading on theological ground. Our definition must acknowledge Christian faith in order to capture this distinctive understanding of the Holy Spirit. There are other faiths and secular perspectives, but if our definition and discourse are to have integrity, we must speak from within the context of Christian faith. For me, this means I will define spiritual capital—its form, function, and fruit—from a within a perspective of faithful witness to the trinitarian God of Grace.
These are some of the profound questions we face when seeking to understand spiritual capital: How is the trinitarian God of Grace revealed in human organizations? Where do we see spiritual capital at work, and how can we better align ourselves and our workplaces with the movement of the Holy Spirit? How can we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit [Gal. 5:22], and strengthen the social fabric of our workplaces and ministries?
Our culture presses for answers that will appeal to secular audiences, particularly when we discuss political economy. This is for good reason, of course. We hope to bring a winsome witness to all that we do and say. In the case of such an important topic for business and society, the power and blessings of spiritual capital should be shared as widely as possible. This sincere motivation has led some commentators to offer vague, quasi-religious, or even strictly secular definitions of spiritual capital. While there is a time and place for those nuances, they lack the power of the Gospel to transform. Our teaching and thinking will bring greater clarity when we approach theological topics from within our faith perspective.
For this reason, I approach spiritual capital as an explicitly pneumatological topic. After all, what makes spiritual capital “spiritual” if not for the Holy Spirit? Spirituality becomes a woolly concept all too easily if plucked from its theological roots. As a result, I use a theological approach in the classroom even though my business students come from a swath of global faith perspectives, including irreligious ones. I suspect their primary concern is the same as mine—not whether they share my faith, but whether my teaching has integrity.
With these thoughts in mind, I offer a preliminary definition of spiritual capital: The capability and potential of a society or community of work to experience the tangible blessings of wholesome prosperity (shalom)bestowed by God. Two corollaries refine this definition: first, the Holy Spirit is the true source of life-giving sustenance and fruitfulness; and second, spiritual capital follows upon the biblical mandate of stewardship and covenant relationship with the God of Grace.
From this perspective of faith, we realize that spiritual capital is a blessing from God. It is different from other forms of capital in that, “How do we capitalize on it?” is the wrong question. Rather, the right question is, “How do we grow and share it?” It’s a blessing that grows when it is shared. We give thanks to God when we receive it, and in the process, we are rewarded with the discovery of how he magnifies the gift of spiritual capital by establishing the work of our hands [Psalm 90:17].