Biblical and biological inspiration for restoring a holistic understanding of business.
Stating that ‘Our God is a business God’ may seem a bit of a strange thing to say, especially on an environmental blog. But bear with me and let’s see if it merits being stated. I’ve attended three events in the past five weeks where organisations with a passion for mission helped us look at how business can be one major strategy or – in the case of one of these groups – the strategy, by which God’s love and truth, shown to us in Jesus, are made known. In contrast, business hardly gets a look in on most preaching and teaching schedules in our churches. And a theology of business is sadly lacking in Christian circles in the western ‘developed’ world. More generally, a theology of work, which can include how businesses treat their employees, has been developing in recent decades but even this gets little air time in sermons.
One of the buzz words amongst those looking at the role of business in mission is ‘transformation’ and this word prompted reflection from my perspective as a practical biologist, i.e. an agricultural scientist. Those interested in mission see business as being transformative for God’s Kingdom purposes. Business, by its very nature, has transformation at its heart. The earth’s resources, be they fossil fuels, metallic ores, wind power, or biological materials, are changed, in some way, into products. Similarly, people’s skills are converted into services. Sadly, we have come to see many products and services as being opportunities for making money only, rather than being ends in and of themselves. But more on this later.
Back to God and business. All plant and animal life is the product of transformation. So when God created, and as He sustains, though Christ, the natural world around us, we are seeing God transforming: taking various inputs and making something new and different. Thus energy from the sun, the only new source of energy on our planet, is converted through photosynthesis into chemical energy, the other raw materials being carbon dioxide and water. Add in a few nutrients in simple chemical form, taken up through the roots, and we end up with plants with leaves, stems, roots, flowers and fruit. These five types of organs comprise all living plants but in a vast variety of forms. This diversity is more limited in leaves, stems and roots, but variable beyond our imagining in the colour, structure, smell and taste of flowers and fruits. It is remarkable, almost incredible?, how so few ingredients can be transformed into the flowers we grow in our gardens and the fruit and vegetables we eat. God’s transforming creativity and activity doesn’t stop with plants. Animals eat plants and other animals. In growing from embryo to old age, and in living each day, what is eaten by animals is transformed into their complex and intricate bodies and behaviours. Humility and wonder are good starting points for considering what we see around us, leading to delight in God’s workmanship and worship of Him as Creator.
What does God being in the business of transforming have to do with business as we understand it in the 21st century? On the face of it, very little. ‘Growth’ is the aim, even the ‘god’, of our age, encompassing our economic, political and philosophical endeavours. And the sole aim of businesses is often to make profits for their owners and shareholders. Prioritising the welfare of workers is couched in terms of achieving higher productivity, rather than being an end in itself. Likewise, there is very little attention paid to accounting for all the social and environmental costs inherent in producing goods and services, hence talk of business ‘externalities’ – also called pollution or side-effects – in recent times. As a result, care for our planet and environmental concerns have to be legislated for, rather than being intrinsic to the business of business.
There are voices which recognise that business needs to be understood more holistically. For example, Will Hutton, writing about capitalism in his book ‘The writing on the wall’ (Abacus, 2007) before the current economic crisis began in 2008, talks about ‘the hard and soft dimensions’ of successful business. He describes the origin of the term/entity ‘company’. It was about a group of companions coming together to ‘share risk in an enterprise’. The company had an explicit purpose ‘which was not in the first instance to maximise profits’. Hutton writes, ‘For most of the following three hundred years [since the first company was formed] incorporation in Britain, America and Europe required the company’s founders to declare what the function of the company would be, and faithfully follow it. This principle has been weakened in the US and Britain since the so-called shareholder-value revolution of the 1980s, which asserted that the sole purpose of a company is to maximise profits.’
The concept and the entity that is a ‘company’ need to be redeemed so that humankind can fulfil the creation ordinance to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.’ Humankind has been given the natural world as a gift (Genesis 1) and since the Fall we have abused this gift in how we have used it. Christians, as the redeemed people of God, could and should be leading the way in freeing creation from its frustration (Romans 8:18-25) by reforming and re-forming business to care for people and planet, as well as producing goods and services and profits.
Plant and crop physiologists – those who ponder and wonder at how plants function, describing and revealing the processes that make plants plants – have long puzzled about the seeming lack of efficiency inherent in photosynthesis. In most temperate plants, only about 5% of the energy arriving at the earth’s surface as sunlight ends up as chemical energy in the material of plants. Physiologists have long endeavoured to improve this efficiency but without much, if any, success. We have begun to understand that this isn’t ‘inefficiency’ on the part of the plant but rather the real cost of producing chemical and morphological complexity. (Such costs include the production of sophisticated compounds that, for example, give colour and taste, requires energy to transform simple molecules. This energy is provided by respiration so using up some of the material produced through photosynthesis.)
Does this give us food for thought about incorporating into our business processes the full costs of production, ensuring that people and planet aren’t being penalised to make things artificially cheap? Can we begin to recover valuing products, whether material or knowledge and skills, for themselves, rather than seeing them solely as a means of making money? Can Christians discover that living as the redeemed people of God gives us the wonderful privilege of transforming resources, knowledge and skills – of doing business – in ways worthy of our God-given image? God means business and so should we.
EW is an agricultural scientist, working not just with cereal and potato crops, but with the farmers who produce and businesses that transform them into food and other products.