Right now we need to reconnect business to its rightful place within society.
With its many problems, among them growing financial inequality, social division, and environmental degradation, we shouldn’t wish ‘old normal’ back too soon, at least until we have had time to reflect.
In the area of business, we want to begin to see this as a means to a greater end: human flourishing. How?
The great Dutch thinker Abraham Kuyper can help us in this task, for Kuyper was not just a thinker, but a 'do-er': founder and long-term editor of a newspaper, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and founder of the Free University of Amsterdam.
One of his guiding principles was that all aspects of reality are interconnected; including business.
For our purposes, imagine our post-Covid project as a journey; businesses, societies, and groups within those societies are the boats, and individuals are passengers. The sea right now is the Covid19 pandemic, yet it won’t be forever.
The boats keep moving, as they must. However, is the purpose of the boats merely to provide us with things to spend our time and money on, allowing for our own individual voyages? Surely that would be ‘old normal’ thinking? Is there a shared course along which we could all sail, one that could become the ‘new normal’?
The ‘old normal’ is aptly characterised by sociologist Jacques Ellul: ‘Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important than the ends.’ (The Technological Society, p 19).
In other words, the voyage of Western civilisation has, of late, been confused and self-indulgent, lacking the kind of direction that will sustain it.
In the world of the ‘old normal’, informed by the 18th century Enlightenment, we live as if God didn’t exist. We have excluded him from our accounts of origins. We have excluded him from our accounts of our current lives as political, social, and economic persons, too.
The immediate focus is on health, wealth, and personal peace. These, however, are means rather than more meaningful ends such as beauty, goodness, and truth.
Any society is made up of businesses within an economy, a political system, and its civil and religious institutions. Kuyper calls these areas or elements ‘spheres.’
Each sphere is tempted by the devil’s offer to affirm itself as god, to become an end in itself, rather than a means working towards a greater end.
If the devil’s offer were accepted, then the sphere of business would turn a monetary profit at any cost, the sphere of government would grab unprincipled and reckless power, and the spheres of civil society would cease to cast a vision for the good life, or for community and connection, instead affirming individualism and self-sufficiency.
The fear that haunts all of us who find solace in these dysfunctional ways of doing business, politics, and civil society is that if we were to give up our primary allegiance to these things, then we wouldn't be provided for. This is the devil’s lie.
However, believing this lie is not the only option. Kuyper is very clear that business is open to ‘common grace’ as much as any other ‘sphere’, and therefore is dignified by being part of something beyond itself.
This brings a humbling critique to any business activity we might view, to use Peter Heslam’s words, as ‘speculative activity in finance, burgeoning consumerism, and the prioritisation of wealth above all other concerns.’ (The Spirit of Enterprise, p.8).
This is an economy that has become an end in and of itself. The ‘old normal’ tolerated the world of corporations becoming a dominating sphere, not taking their place as one among other spheres, and not fostering wider human flourishing.
Our picture of a voyage raises the question, ‘Where are all these boats going?’ Kuyper’s Christian faith answers by finding our compass point and provision in the reality of God. The question of an ‘end’, that is, setting a course for the journey, is answered not in our own self-determined reality.
It was said of followers of Jesus that they left their old lives and ‘followed him along the way’. All things, be they business, family, church, leisure, are created good and with purpose, as gifts to us.
Kuyper famously stated that ‘there is not one square inch of all creation over which Christ, who is Lord of all, does not say, ‘mine!’ (Sphere Sovereignty, p. 488, cited in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
Therefore, if God is the creator and sustainer of all, while each sphere operates differently it remains connected to this larger calling and purpose. Jesus pre-empts our question. ‘Will we be provided for if we see businesses as just one sphere, co-equal to the other spheres?’ His answer to this and similar questions: 'whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.'
C.S. Lewis in a letter restates Jesus’ message, 'put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.' (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. III, 'Narnia, Cambridge and Joy, 1950-1963', edited by Walter Hooper, HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 111)
Right now we need to reconnect business to its rightful place within society. This may be a fruitful time for these ideas, a framework of distinct but interconnected spheres.
The neo-liberal view that the sole purpose of the firm is to make financially defined profits for shareholders, which has allowed business to be independent, self-sufficient and an increasingly dominant force, is now being seriously questioned here in the UK and in the United States.
Particularly in this pandemic, wider ‘stakeholder’ relationships are crying out for a deeper consideration. Yet, since we in the West are thoroughly pluralistic in our meaning convictions, how can we distinguish first things from second things, to use Lewis’ language?
The question presents itself: is a baseline cultural narrative available to unite different individuals (and businesses) in a more purposeful, unified journey?
Kuyper rejects attempts to claim that a Christian worldview should take over the whole culture, steering between the twin dangers of, on the one side, Christianity as a totalising, top-down government system, and on the other side, the pietistic Christian tradition that totally withdraws from an ungodly world.
For Kuyper ‘Culture […] was not inherently evil, but was perverted good’ and could therefore be ‘radically transformed to the glory of God’ (Creating a Christian Worldview, Heslam 1998, p.269).
In sum, this is what we can now describe as a ‘Christian’ meaning for the goal of human flourishing: transformation coming from making first things first, with secondary things thrown in. Reflection upon what constitutes ‘first things’ will be a necessary task.
Interestingly, a contemporary Dutch thinker, Bob Goudzwaard, distinguishes two concepts in Greek civilisation from which ‘economics’ has developed. Chrematistike is a notion of self-enrichment, and fits the current independent business approach that privileges shareholder financial profits.
The more commonly understood root is oikonomia, which contains a much more holistic, biblical idea of stewardship and a care of resources for both now and for future generations.
To repeat, the business sphere is not independent, but interdependent with the other spheres of the social order. After all, to paraphrase Jesus, what profit is it to gain in one area, only to lose the whole thing?
Goudzwaard explains why Enlightenment thinking has not proved capable of providing for human flourishing. It is because ‘life is meaningful only if there is a measure of simultaneous response to all the norms for human existence. Thus, socioeconomic life should not be separated from the rest of our existence’ (Capitalism & Progress, p.206).
Although conceived as a light shining out beyond the darkness of wars of religion, it can now be seen to have failed to create human flourishing. Repeated failure to create a culture resulting in human flourishing calls for a re-think regarding our society, and within it business.
This re-think can be fuelled by developing Kuyper’s focus on a holistic, systemic understanding of interconnected spheres of society, rather than the Enlightenment’s focus on the individual’s rights and freedoms.
In conclusion, Kuyper has led us to focus on human flourishing as an end goal for our society. The means are activities in interconnected, interdependent spheres. For business to operate as a self-enriching process independently from wider norms of justice and morality is for it to miss God’s concern for human flourishing.
Instead, can we define and communicate a sufficient, unifying vision for the business world that is attractive for those who don’t hold to Christian metaphysics? And can we develop a narrative that could be a contribution from Christians into the post-Covid ‘new normal’, for business?
Could this give meaning, and therefore direction, for businesses as they continue on a shared journey, keeping in line with other spheres of human life, committed to the shared end goal of human flourishing?
To state the whole of the best known quotation from Kuyper…
'Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: "Mine!"'
Prof Sue Halliday is the convener for Jubilee Centre's post-coronavirus task force on the purpose of business. This article was written with assistance from Jack Harding, research assistant for the taskforce.
This blog was first published on the website of the Jubilee Centre and re-published with permission.