The worlds of faith and business often eye each other with suspicion— as if one would rob the other of something essential to it. But in reality, pitting the two against each other is like taking a piano’s sharps and flats away from its naturals; the result compromises the musician, limiting his imagination and resources for making a beautiful piece of work. In our human lives, our faith and business choices will never be wholly separate, and that’s a reality rich with significance. Faith can inspire business, just as business can inspire faith.
Faith Inspires Business
A society’s economic functioning is closely tied to the religious values it holds dear. In his article, “How Christianity Created Capitalism,” Michael Novak describes how medieval Catholicism— particularly the influence of monasteries— created an environment in which a new, more vibrant economic order was able to develop. Novak writes:
The economic historian David Landes, who describes himself as an unbeliever, points out that the main factors in this great economic achievement of Western civilization are mainly religious:
– the joy in discovery that arises from each individual being an imago Dei called to be a creator;
– the religious value attached to hard and good manual work;
– the theological separation of the Creator from the creature, such that nature is subordinated to man, not surrounded with taboos;
– the Jewish and Christian sense of linear, not cyclical, time and, therefore, of progress; and
– respect for the market.
In other words, when faith informs a culture, people are more able to realize the dignity of each person and the power of the intellect and free will as resources that can be used for the glory of God. A society informed by faith sees work not merely as a necessity but also as fraught with moral significance. In a faith-filled society, economic systems are oriented to collaboration and communion. Novak even goes so far as to say that we owe the ideal of relating individual gifts to the unified goals of the business organization “to the high medieval religious orders, not only the Benedictines and the Cistercians, but the Dominicans and Franciscans of the early thirteenth century.” Thanks, monks!
Faith and Business: 21st Century Inspiration
But faith’s potential to inspire business did not end in the thirteenth century. Today, faith still looks beyond the horizon of material gain to the horizon of love, and so faith inspires business organizations to greater heights then they can achieve on their own.
The past few years I have had the honor of serving as chaplain for Attollo, an organization which creates network groups of business owners, CEOs, and presidents who seek both business growth and spiritual growth. Through peer-to-peer advice, coaching, and accountability programs, the organization keeps the focus on what is most real and lasting in our lives— the call to holiness— but honors how members are striving to pursue holiness through using their talents to create wealth and serve their neighbors. The men and women on this organization realize that faith can bear fruit in business— and that if a faith-fueled organization is to be successful and have a lasting impact, it needs to adopt sound business principles.
The men and women in this group— and others like them throughout the world— are inspired to be better business leaders and entrepreneurs because of their faith, not in spite of it. Once we realize that our faith and values won’t disappear when dealing with business decisions, we can make the bold decision to more fully integrate faith and business. Far from trying to force faith down the throats of our coworkers or employees, this means focusing first on personal development: How can I live more authentically and be more other-centered in serving others with my business skills?
What about Business?
So, faith can inspire business, but can business inspire faith? Absolutely. Here are just a few of the ways business creates a thirst that can and should ultimately lead to a leap of faith:
Business Efficiency Begs “Why?”
Business inspires faith because… business’ emphasis on efficiency begs the question “why?”
Eventually, the pursuit of efficiency demands that we face the question of ultimate meaning. Efficiency is necessary to compete in the business sphere, but what is it all for? Mere survival and material profit? What about our health, our desire for leisure, our sense of worth? What about the mystery of God? Work calls us to consider how we are made for more than work alone.
In one of his talks, Bishop Robert Barron recounts the story of a former Wall Street trader who became an Eastern Orthodox monk. According to Bishop Barron, the monk urged his former colleagues to keep a jar of dirt on their desks, as a reminder of the brevity of life (“Memento, homo… quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”Genesis 3:19). The Bishop’s story goes to show that even if you do the important work of the economy, which has moral significance, that work is not your final end.
Business Collaboration Points to the Mystical Body
Secondly, business inspires faith because…. business represents an eloquent effort of collaboration and civility, which points to the mystery of the Church as its fulfillment. Consider how, back in the day, shoemakers made shoes— not so much to make a profit but to provide people the footwear they needed! Shoes were a good there was a clear need for (especially around popular pilgrimage spots), and the shoemaker made it his mission to develop and provide that good. At heart, this is the business leader’s vocation: to meet the needs of the world through the creation of goods and services that are genuinely needed.
While the abstractions and globalization of modern life may make it increasingly difficult to bear this in mind, the business person’s work is inherently other-centered and collaborative. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s reflection on the Vocation of the Business Leader emphasizes this:
A business joins together people’s gifts, talents, energies and skills to serve the needs of others. This in turn supports the development of the people who do the work. The tasks they perform in common bring forth the goods and services needed by a healthy community.
This emphasis on collaboration and civic unity gently points to a more profound collaboration and unity: the mystical body of Christ. The best business collaboration pales in light of the persons and gifts united to Christ, the Head of the Church. Like well-structured business organizations, the mystical body of Christ has different members with different functions arranged in a hierarchical order. But unlike in any business organization, participants in the mystical body are guaranteed the perfection of their leader, Christ, and receive supernatural grace from Him. Good business collaboration may draw us to the mystical body of Christ, which invites collaboration, not just to an earthly goal, but to a supernatural destiny: Heaven.
Success is Realized in Sanctity
Finally, business inspires faith because… business’s pursuit of success is only fully achieved in the possession of Christian virtue. Think about how the character traits that a budding entrepreneur needs to succeed—such as creativity, appreciation of the human imagination, prudence, and capacity for self-sacrifice— run strikingly parallel to the virtues that make for human flourishing from a Christian perspective. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI notes this parallel, writing that authentic development and progress requires minds “capable of thinking in technological terms and grasping the fully human meaning of human activities, within the context of the holistic meaning of the individual’s being.”
In short, achieving true business success requires a holistic understanding of human nature! Cultivating Christian virtue is what gives a person this holistic understanding of man, his desires, and what is capable of satisfying him. This over-arching perspective that Christianity offers is the most powerful lens for making the right choices in the business sphere, and business endeavors that lack this holistic view fall short of true progress or success. Business can make us gradually realize that “success” centered only on the earthly is no real success at all. Putting the pursuit of Christian virtue first aligns us much more directly with what can satisfy our ultimate longings, and may actually make us better business persons in the process.
Faith and Business: We Go Together
Faith and business are not separate planets; they are essential keys for the music of our economy, and our personal lives, to play harmoniously. All of us are called to holiness, and we are called to integrate the pervasive influence of faith in our lives into our particular vocations— be it in the dentist office, the retail industry, or freelance work from home. The resources are out there: Let’s increase the dialogue about how faith and business can inspire each other.