By Rob Tribken
It is hard to find a well articulated theology of work – especially work involving entrepreneurial and other commercial vocations.
Shortly before his death in 2008, Catholic scholar William J. Toth wrote an extraordinary theological examination[i] of the entrepreneurial vocation that addresses this shortcoming. Toth uses Catholic social teaching and the Trinitarian theology of Karl Rahner to develop important theological insights into the entrepreneurial vocation.
Toth begins by reviewing the history of Catholic social thought as it pertains to market oriented vocations, and notes that for much of this history the value of entrepreneurship and other commercial occupations has been, at best, ignored (the Catholic church is obviously not alone in this, among Christians). A change began, however, with Pope John Paul II. In an address to the entrepreneurs of Milan John Paul promoted the value of entrepreneurship as a social service:
“. . . the degree of well being that society enjoys today would have been impossible without the dynamic figure of the entrepreneur, whose function consists in organizing human labor and the means of production in order to produce goods and services.”
John Paul viewed enterprise “as an activity of God the creator.” The image of God can therefore be seen in the way entrepreneurs combine mind, material, and work to provide products and services that contribute to human well being. Business enterprise is not merely a generator of profits, but contributes to human dignity, helps form community, and provides worthwhile goods and services — as long as the entrepreneurial vocation is respected and does not become corrupted through illicit exploitation, the rupture of social solidarity, or other sins that subvert the market and work against the development of wealth.
A central concept for Toth is that of “providential love.” This concept combines the idea of looking forward and anticipating the future with a desire to create something of value for others. The entrepreneur demonstrates providential love when he or she looks forward, anticipates the future needs of others, and takes risks based on what he or she thinks will be the response of others. The entrepreneur intends to create part of the future, but at the same time recognizes that success or failure will be determined by others who are free to accept or reject the offer made by the entrepreneur. The entrepreneurial response to this dependency on the free decisions of others is not to draw back and conserve wealth, but rather to proceed with persistence and a willingness to change, trusting that the world is (or eventually will be) open to the creative change offered by the entrepreneur.
Toth connects the entrepreneur’s providential love to Rahner’s trinitarian framework. As the entrepreneur works with providential love, persistently staking the future on the free decisions of others, he or she reflects an aspect of the Father. The kenotic love of Christ is reflected in the sacrifice the entrepreneur makes, giving before he receives — in fact giving before he even knows the response of others. The Holy Spirit, as understood by Rahner, is involved as the entrepreneur in effect experiences something of the transcendent mystery by making decisions, and taking risks, based on a reality which is well beyond the horizons of his knowledge.
From the perspective of a practicing entrepreneur, an obvious objection is that on most days our work seems more mundane than Toth’s description. Yes, we try to develop products and services that others will find worthwhile, and often need to invest and sacrifice before we see the response, but in the moment the work itself does not feel especially theological.
But that is beside the point. A theology of vocation needs to project a vision that identifies the deeper meaning of what we are doing so that we can begin to see the sacred, and its potential realization, in our day-to-day work lives. There is a deeper reality behind the mundane details of our work; Toth’s article helps us to see this reality and the deeper meaning of our entrepreneurial activities.
I recommend Toth’s full article, which can be found here: http://www.stthomas.edu/cathstudies/cst/publications/businessasacalling/04Toth.pdf
[i] William J. Toth, “The Entrepreneurial Calling: Perspectives from Rahner”, Business as a Calling: Interdisciplinary Essays on the Meaning of Business
From the Catholic Social Tradition (ed. Michael Naughton and Stephanie Rumpza), University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN: 2004), ebook.
Understanding how faith affects business has long been a passionate pursuit of author Rob Tribken.This photo was taken at a seminar he hosted with the De Pree Center at Fuller Seminary.
Rob Tribken is a California-based business owner and the chairman of the Center for Faith and Enterprise. He also serves on the board of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership.
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