Capitalism at is worst develops suffocating monopolies. The field of innovation is currently monopolized by the Mammonic grip of the evolving spirit of capitalism. Furthermore, innovation has been taken hostage by the Protestant ethic, and “the common good” requires innovation to be rescued from its inclusion as an agent of perpetual commodification and resituated as an instrument for justice and peace creation. In this fast-paced post, I will attempt to show historically how innovation was yoked with capitalism, how a particular eschatology helped build that yoke, attempt a prophetic call to resituate innovation as well as finally give some recommended shifts of innovation theory as a result. Buckle up!
In Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, innovation is placed within a list of attributes that characterize the Protestant ethic. Weber points to religious beliefs (namely Calvinistic soteriology) and personal asceticism as the starting point for religion (Weber, 95-100). Where Karl Marx would point to economic impulses shaping religion, Weber will focus primarily on the opposite – how religious beliefs impacted economic systems. The Christian elect, Weber’s argument goes, developed a certain ethic in hopes of affirming their status as elect. This affirmation was largely recognized through the divine reward of wealth. Harold B. Jones’s work in the Human Relations Journal is helpful both for a visual of Weber’s basic argument and the placing of innovation therin (Jones, 764).
From this point forward in Occidental history, innovation is “along for the ride” with the development of capitalism. While Weber relies heavily on Calvinistic soteriology, I believe he makes one of two mistakes. He either doesn’t go deep enough in the worldview of Protestants to find the impetus for the Protestant ethic or he minimizes the subsequent deist transformation of the “Protestant ethic.” My critique stems from Weber’s praise of the quintessential capitalistic innovator, Benjamin Franklin, as he relies heavily on Franklin’s ethics and virtue cataloging (48, 50, 180) to be a mouthpiece of sorts for his described ethic. Evoking the deist Franklin shows the development and praise of innovation beyond just the Calvinist Protestants to a larger “spirit” of the age.
Weber also underestimates the long-term desirability of the aesthetic lifestyle (pointing to the Puritans, see Weber, 155). Greed, comfort, power, and love of money are some of those most potent societal ills, and have been used to squeeze maximum profit from innovations. Though after the time Weber writes, slowly and slowly the “divine reward” portion of Jone’s diagram above gets replaced simply with wealth. This blog post isn’t so much a critique of capitalism in general, but a critique of consumer capitalism. (One may argue there is no such thing as one without the other, but that is beyond the scope of this post).
In some ways the Protestant ethic stems from Calvinist eschatology (the elect), but it largely relies on the soteriology (assurance) of this narrow view of eschatology. Innovation would align more with the mission of God if it were to be taken theologically from soteriology to prophetic eschatology and the ethical triad of love of neighbor, the common good, and shalom. Eschatology informs missiology, and too little thought has been given to this correlation among the majority of Christians. I’ve observed the selection of an eschatological theology as flippant as ordering off a menu – “I’m pre-trib, pre-mill. What about you?” The ethic of love of neighbor should stand as an evaluative check-and-balance for the implications of eschatology. A large part of the role of the prophets is to make apparent that which is largely unseen – the reality behind the observed – and imagine an alternative future reality. It is challenging to imagine a world where the social innovator is praised as equally as the technological innovator. Of course, technological innovations have social implications, so I don’t create a dualism here. I mean that a movement of people using their power to create added shalom (flourishing) value along with the intended recipient is challenging to believe without a movement of God to rattle the tracks of the engine that is consumeristic capitalism. Resituating innovation primarily in the ethic of love of neighbor would be a great starting place.
To dream and employ imagination just for a minute – what would it look like if the main impetus, driver, and evaluation metrics for innovation stemmed from the ethic of love of neighbor?
As innovation is resituated out of capital gain, I offer the following shifts of paradigm and practice (Five from the author of Innovation Theology and several of my own).
- Shift from “more” to sufficiency
- Shift from size to sustainability
- Shift from convenience to substance
- Shift from individual benefit to shared benefit
- Shift from growth-as-more to growth-as-better (Vincent, 23-24).
- Shifting from empathy to solidarity. This is not just “I understand your problems,” but “Your problem is now my problem.”
- Shift from Human-centered design to God-centered. Just because someone has an unmet desire, isn’t enough to validate the need for innovation. It must be rooted in the redemptive arc of God’s mission.
- Shift from creativity to sub-creativity. To not repeat the mistake at Babel, our creativity necessitates a surrender and submission to God’s creative impulse.
- Shift from creating for to creating with. This is similar to the first shift, but highlights that most innovative solutions lay dormant among the community of need.
- Shift from “added value” to “added kingdom value.” The term “value” is often conflated with “monetary value.” More consideration is needed to assess what value truly is.
- Shift from short-term Key Performance Indicator (KPI) assessment to long-term impact. Patience and second-ordered thinking are necessary for this shift.
- Shift from market feasibility to ethics as the main criterion for “green-lighting” innovations. Often the criteria for innovation are the overlap of feasibility, desirability, and viability. An additional, ethical question is needed, “Should we do this?”
Jones, Harold B. “The Protestant Ethic: Weber’s Model and the Empirical Literature.” Human Relations. July 1997, 757-778.
Vincent, Lanny. Innovation Theology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2017.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner, 1958.