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Christian Worldview from the Business School

Walton Padelford, University Professor of Economics, Union University, Jackson, TN

            The University of Mobile website has an article by President Foley entitled, “Distinctively Christian Higher Education for a Purpose.”  In this article two models of Christian higher education are presented; the environment model and the core concept model.  The late theologian Francis Schaeffer made the same distinction some thirty years ago when he said that most Christian higher education consists of paying for some very expensive morning prayers.  What he meant was that the Christian faith was something tacked onto higher education; something added like an illusion of piety or an environment.  The lecture hall and the classroom was largely unaffected by the Christian faith.  Your university and mine are attempting to move toward the core concept model outlined by Dr. Foley.  This model would encourage the Christian faith to inform in some way our academic pursuits.  “Core concept implies a foundational theological position which guides a foundational philosophical position.  Thus, the institutional operations flow from and are guided by those foundations” (Foley).

            Before proceeding further, let me give one cheer for the Christian environment model.  In the Christian university, the discipleship life and devotional practices of the faculty are important.  Disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, and regular worship inform and motivate us.  Through these practices Christ truly becomes the center of our lives, and this Christ-centeredness must produce a favorable environment on campus and produce an influence for Christ among our students.  We teach what we know.  We reproduce what we are.  A helpful book here is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard (Willard).  However, let us think more specifically about the core-concept model.  Does the truth about Christ impact the academic disciplines, and if so, how?  I am able here to speak from my experience in the business school only.  My academic training is in economics, and also I have taught many classes in business ethics.  So, it is from the perspectives of economics and business ethics that I must speak.

            Does the truth of Christ revealed in the Bible impact my teaching of economics?  The answer is-----somewhat.  In upper-level economic theory classes, I don’t use biblical comment much if at all.  These classes concentrate on theory, and mathematical problems.  It is at the level of values or presuppositions in the development of economic models that biblical teaching comes into play. 

            It is in introductory economics courses that some foundational biblical and philosophical comments can be made.  In any principles of economics text, there is a paragraph on positive and normative economics.  Positive economics deals with verifiable facts, and theory based on those facts (assumptions about human nature are also involved in positive economics).  “Analysis that does not impose the value judgments of one individual on the decisions of others is called positive analysis” (Boyes and Melvin 8).  Normative economics deals with values, or as the textbooks say, “what ought to be” (Boyes and Melvin 9).  The implication is that economic models should be value free or wertfrei in the language of Max Weber.  This goal seems not to be possible particularly in the social sciences.  Some basic assumptions about human behavior must be made, and these assumptions contain subtle value judgments.  These human nature assumptions can provide a good point of discussion in class.  Biblical discussions of human nature can be compared with other assumptions, and class discussion or assignment can provide a lively interchange of ideas.  Biblical ideas can be discussed without demanding acquiescence on the part of the students.  Christian university should be a place where biblical ideas can compete with other ideas.

            In introductory economics the discussion continues about the development of economic theory.  We discuss empirical testing of economic theory, and then the question arises, “What shall we do with economic theory?”  It is pretty easy to see that in macroeconomics we move from theory to policy recommendations.  For instance, what unemployment rate is considered good?  What inflation rate is acceptable? 

            When we get to this point we are squarely in a discussion of right and wrong, better and best, or of ethics.  Here we must discuss values as part of the discipline of economics.  Biblical values of work and employment could be discussed here.  For instance, what does the Bible teach about the value of work?  What responsibility does government have for maintaining employment in an industrial society?

            My interest at this point in the introductory course is in discussing the reticence to discuss values in modern economics when they are clearly so important for policy.  How did we arrive at a belief that values are simply my opinion versus your opinion, or that there is no point in discussing the truth of various value positions?  How has the discussion of truth changed over the ages?  There are four headings under which this discussion flourishes: the natural law position, the St. Thomas Aquinas or classic Catholic position, the Reformation position, and the modern science position.

            Briefly, the natural law position, beginning with the Greeks and coming through the church, is that nature is an internal principle of growth inclining things toward an end or purpose (Aristotle).   Humankind’s reason is capable of knowing these ends including the end for man.  Therefore, in this view, purposiveness is contained in the very fabric of nature.  In doing philosophical investigation or in discussing the truth of things, we are discussing right and wrong behavior.  Right behavior would be acting in accordance with the purposes of nature.  Wrong behavior would be going against the purposes of nature.  The good for humankind would be in attaining the highest purpose which nature indicates for us (Strauss 127).  In this natural law view, philosophical discussion, (and in the case of the church, theological discussion) should take place concerning all phenomena.  

            The classic Catholic position builds on natural law, but introduces the fact of the Fall of man into the discussion.  The Catholic position emphasizes that man’s will is fallen, but his intellect is not.  So, reason can continue to pursue and discover the truth about all things including truth about God and the good for man.

            Reason, for St. Thomas Aquinas, has the connotation of right reason.  It is a vehicle to be conscientiously used to attain the truth of moral issues.  Reason is not left free to fly wherever it wishes, but is aided by grace and revelation which gives a super-clarity to reason (Aquinas).  The highest good for Thomas was the beatific vision or an experience of complete communion with God.  All of humankind’s activities should aim at its attainment. 

            The Reformation position or classic Protestantism applies the fact of the Fall to mankind’s intellect as well as the will, so that reason is not sufficient to discover the truth about God.  Divine revelation, i.e. the Bible, is required to know the truth about God and  man.  This may seem to be a retreat from the university life implied by the Catholic position.  However, the Reformation started as a university movement in Wittenberg.  Martin Luther’s students fanned the flames of controversy by translating the 95 theses into German, publishing them, and distributing them widely.  As in Catholicism, the Reformation brings biblical data to bear on questions of the good for man, ethics, and character development.

            It is the fourth approach to truth that has had a tremendous impact on the development of modern economics.  The modern science view is really a philosophic outlook rather than a peculiarly scientific paradigm.  The modern science view coming from Galileo revolves around two presuppositions.  1.  Nature is composed of atoms in motion.  2.  Mankind can understand nature by mathematizing the motions of the atoms.  

Causation is described in terms of forces propelling the atoms.

            The height of achievement in analyzing the forces is Sir Isaac Newton’s universal law of gravitation.  But what is the cause of the forces?  The question of ultimate causation was not answered on the grounds that it was outside the realm of science.  Nature is simply atoms in motion without a particular end (Burtt  99, 104).  The fundamental principles of the new science are opposed to the principles used by the ancients in developing classic natural law.  Nature is no longer an internal principle of growth inclining toward an end, but a number of atoms in motion with no particular end, or no end knowable by science.  Since ends are outside the realm of science, they are also outside the realm of reason.

            Economics has imitated this scientific outlook by mathematizing economic action and looking for a simple law of motion like utility maximization or profit maximization which makes the whole system go.  The student, here, might feel that she is being reduced to an atom with predictable, machine-like characteristics and, and that there is no way to escape from the labyrinth.  Biblical input here on the human being created in the image of God can ennoble our students and give them hope.

            My second area of teaching in the business school is in business ethics.  This would seem to be an easy way to introduce biblical values into the classroom.  However, here, I have tried to challenge the students to think along the lines of some of the “darker” teachings of Scripture.

            There is a tendency in some business schools, particularly in Christian universities, to trumpet the benefits of biblical teaching in producing monetary success.  If we are not careful this teaching can be subtly changed into the fact of monetary success evidencing the practice of biblical values.  This, of course, is not necessarily true.

            At this point, there is an opportunity to introduce the students into some healthy biblical realism.  “Vanity of vanities says the Preacher, Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (New American Standard Bible, Eccles. 1:2).  “There is no remembrance of earlier things; and also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still” (Eccles. 1:11).  “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good.  This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God.  For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?”  (Eccles. 2:24 – 25).

            Business ethics gives the professor and the students an opportunity for character formation and encouragement.  Many times, we can select answers to right behavior apart from specific biblical teaching.  It is the encouragement to do the right thing that is needed.  For this reason, I use the life story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to encourage the students.  His is the story of great courage to do the right thing in the midst of very trying circumstances.  We need encouragement to follow Christ.

            I conclude with a classic case in business ethics; the A7D case.  The case concerns a contract for airplane brake assemblies at the Troy, Ohio plant of B.F. Goodrich.  The brake design proved to be faulty in test after test with young engineers opting for a new design and older engineers unwilling to look at the problem again.  Testing of the brakes continued with failure after failure until the problem arrived on the desk of Ralph Gretzinger the lab supervisor.

            Gretzinger vowed he would never permit deliberately falsified data or reports to leave his lab. A month later, the brake was again tested, and again it failed. Nevertheless, Lawson asked Vandivier to start preparing the various graph and chart displays for qualification. Vandivier refused and told Gretzinger what he’d been asked to do.  Gretzinger was livid.  He again vowed that his lab would not be part of a conspiracy to defraud.  Then, bent on getting to the bottom of the matter, Gretzinger rushed off to see Russell Line, manager of the Goodrich Technical Services Section.  An hour later, Gretzinger returned to his desk looking like a beaten man.  He knew he had only two choices: defy his superiors or do their bidding.

“You know,” he said to Vandivier, “I’ve been an engineer for a long time, and I’ve always believed that ethics and integrity were every bit as important as    theorems and formulas, and never once has anything happened to change my  beliefs.  Now this….I’ve got two sons I’ve got to put through school and I just…”

            When his voice trailed off, it was clear that he would in fact knuckle under (Shaw and Barry 32). 

            Now, whether we approach this case from a Kantian or Utilitarian perspective or the perspective of the golden rule, we know that Gretzinger should do the right thing; that is, not to falsify the testing reports.  However, on the personal side, we see that Gretzinger desperately needs his job.  He has two sons to put through school, and he needs the money.  Probably, at his age, there is no other job in which he could make the salary he is making at Goodrich.  It is here that we need to encourage each other to do the right thing.  I can’t say whether I would or would not do the right thing.  I haven’t been in that particularly situation.

            I am hoping that following Christ will motivate me to do the right thing in various business contexts.  I need encouragement here, and I need to encourage my students.    


Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica II Q. 94 Art.2.  We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason.  Which is proved thus.  The knowledge which we have by natural reason requires two things: images derived from sensible things, and a natural intelligible light enabling us to abstract intelligible conceptions from them.  Now in both of these, human knowledge is assisted by the revelation of grace.

Aristotle. Physica. 199b 15 – 18.

Boyes, William, and Michael Melvin. Economics. 6th ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Burtt, E.A.  The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. New York: Doubleday  and Company, 1932. The real world is simply a succession of atomic motions in mathematical continuity.  Under these circumstances causality could only be intelligibly lodged in the motions of the atoms themselves; everything that happens being regarded as the effect solely of mathematical changes in these material elements.

Foley, Mark. “Distinctively Christian Higher Education for a Purpose.”  University of Mobile <http://www.umobile.edu/foley.asp>

New American Standard Bible.  The Lockman Foundation.  Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation House, Inc., 1973.

Shaw, William H., and Vincent Barry.  Moral Issues in Business.  Belmont, California: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2004.

Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.  The good life simply, is the life in which the requirements of man’s natural    inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree,…The   good life is the perfection of man’s nature.  It is the life according to nature.  One           may therefore call the rules circumscribing the general character of the good life     ‘the natural law.’”

Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.



"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn."
-John Cotton Dana (1856-1929)