On Entrepreneurship, Poverty and Abraham Kuyper: An Interview with Peter Heslam

June 25, 2012
Posted by Joe Gorra

It is rare to find a scholar with a practitioner’s heart. Peter Heslam, though, is as much ‘into’ ideas as he is practices. In fact, he says that “The best ideas are rooted in practice and the best practice is rooted in ideas”

In my wide ranging  interview with Peter Heslam, we discuss his Cambridge multidisciplinary project, “Transforming Business,” the value of entrepreneurship, thinking about enterprise solutions to poverty, and the wisdom of Abraham Kuyper and John Wesley when helping us think about the current economic crisis and recovery in light of the value of thrift, magnanimity and magnificence. We close our conversation with him by offering some encouragement for emerging scholar types concerning how they might think about their academic pursuits ‘beyond’ academe.

At the University of Cambridge, you direct an innovative and very interesting research and development project, called “Transforming Business.” Why don’t you tell us about that endeavor, how it came about and why it’s at Cambridge?

Transforming Business analyzes and catalyzes the contribution of Christianity and entrepreneurship to human flourishing. Our focus is on enterprise solutions to poverty – ‘what works?’ In finding answers to this question, we pay particular attention to the role of faith in building social capital – the institutional, relational, moral and spiritual aspects of society.

The role of faith in building social capital is fascinating.

Social scientists increasingly agree that social capital is fundamental to business success, economic development and wellbeing and that Christianity is one of its key contributors.

Through innovative research and instruction we aim to channel the rising concern about global poverty in fresh directions that will deliver tangible improvement and genuine opportunities for people in poverty, based on biblical, holistic approach to what it means to be human.

We use robust, creative and multidisciplinary thinking, along with practical models and case studies, to discover and disseminate the most effective means by which Christians integrate faith with enterprise to provide sustainable routes out of poverty.

Are there advantages for Transforming Business to be at Cambridge?

By being based at the University of Cambridge we have the advantages of a globally recognized research institution. Its multi-disciplinary make-up and close associations with other spheres are also important to us, as the project crosses such disparate fields as divinity and economics and has strong links with the real worlds of church and business, both locally and globally.

In finding and advancing effective ways for Christian faith to combine with business enterprise in the fight against poverty, we draw not only on the best ideas but also on best practice. This reflects our determination to equip and inspire the rapidly growing numbers of Christian entrepreneurs, business leaders and opinion formers worldwide with research-based resources that help maximize their impact, for the good of all.

Surrounding the project is a growing international network of business ethicists, economists, practitioners, consultants, psychologists, educators, theologians and thought leaders. They are united by a passion to integrate their faith with their knowledge and skills in order to address the most pressing social, economic, and moral challenge of our time: the elimination of poverty within the constraints of finite natural resources.

What are some of your research questions?

The current global entrepreneurial revolution and rapid rise of Christianity ensure that these questions are of crucial importance to the future of the planet and its people: How does the convergence of Christian faith and enterprise help tackle poverty? How do Christian business leaders understand their vocation and how can they inspire and equip those considering a call to business? What would a theology of entrepreneurship look like and what is its practical value? How does Christian belief help foster innovation, integrity, responsible risk-taking, and entrepreneurial aspiration?

What do you think is the unique contribution that Kuyper brings to the questions of economic development, poverty, welfare and state vs. society spheres (e.g., from The Problem of Poverty), which perhaps differs from other Christian social thought thinkers and ethicists.

Kuyper maintained that neither enlightenment individualism nor the collectivism of state socialism offered viable solutions to the endemic poverty associated with the industrial revolution.. He denounced socialism for its revolutionary nature that rode roughshod over democratic freedoms and resulted merely in the replacement of one sort of tyranny with another. It also excluded any reference to a transcendent ‘other’, basing its political programme solely on human reason – which is fallen. A third problem he found with socialism was its secular materialism, which reduced humanity to the realm of nature, robbing human beings of the dignity they have by virtue of being created in the image of God. For Kuyper, the world only has meaning because of its contingent relationship with a sovereign creator. And hope for the future doesn’t reside in a socialist utopia but in faith in the Lord of history. This did not mean, for Kuyper, that piety or charity were any more the solution to poverty than socialism. As he wrote in the publication you refer to of 1891: 

If you do not acknowledge this and think that social evil can be exorcised through an increase in piety, or through friendlier treatment or more generous charity, then you may believe we face a religious question or possibly a philanthropic question, but you will not recognize the social question. This question does not exist for you until you exercise an architectonic critique of human society, which leads to the desire for a different arrangement of the social order.

Perhaps Kuyper as political theorist is best known for his notion of ‘sphere sovereignty’. Do you think it’s of any relevance today?

I would indeed. Whereas Christian integralism tends to restrict civil liberties, as it allows the state to dominate the other spheres of society, promotes religious freedom and a flourishing civil society without the need to secularize the public square. This is because of its belief that society is made up of autonomous spheres that are all directly accountable to God, rather than to the state.

This is key to Kuyper’s notion of sphere-sovereignty and I believe it is of some considerable importance to the way Christianity develops in the developing and emerging world in the coming decades. Christians in those parts of the world, as in ours, need to work out what an ‘architectonic critique’ of society based on sphere-sovereignty would look like today. From Kuyper’s attempt to do that in his day, we can learn that this needs to be passionate in its pursuit of justice and the fight against poverty; determined in seeking freedom for the poor from the patronising hegemony of the rich, so that initiative and hard work are properly rewarded; unrelenting in its foundational critique of secularism and libertarianism; and rigorous in its propounding of freedom for the various spheres of society, with all the rights and responsibilities such freedom entails. While we cannot draw blueprints from Kuyper’s thought and work, these elements do provide rich sources of inspiration and reflection.

Did Kuyper see his theology of common grace as offering a critique against the ‘privatization of religion’?

That’s right. In propounding his doctrine of common grace, Kuyper’s argument was not so much with medieval asceticism as with modern religious philosophy. He was critical of what he regarded as its attempt to ban religion from the field of the human intellect and to confine it to the emotions and the will, in order to exclude religion from science and from public life.

For Kuyper, this attempt threatened to undermine the potential of the Calvinistic worldview based on common grace. It was indeed this worldview that, for Kuyper, accounted for the ‘Protestant ethic’ that, as Max Weber argued, had a dramatic effect on work and the economy. Weber maintained, in a similar way to Kuyper, that Calvinism propounded beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that had great economic significance: hard work, honesty, diligence, a sense of calling, discipline and the rational and productive stewardship of resources.

What was Kuyper’s view of wealth?

Although Kuyper wasn’t hostile to wealth, he was opposed to its accumulation at the expense of the poor, such as through usury and exploitation. Indeed, he sometimes stressed God’s ‘bias for the poor’ in ways that sound the liberation theologians of the 1960s: ‘When rich and poor stood opposed to one another, he [Jesus] never took his place with the wealthier but always with the poorer.’ He frequently pointed out that Jesus had more in common with the homeless and those on the margins of society than with the wealthy and the powerful.

Is there a concern that motivates Kuyper’s view of the poor?

Indeed, Kuyper’s worry was that the ideals of the French Revolution and enlightenment rationality amounted to a bias against the poor. For him, rationality, utility, pragmatism, secularism, and moral relativism helped increase injustice and inequality.

This is interesting contextualization. What did he think was distinctive about the Christian view?

The Christian worldview maintained that ‘authority and freedom are bound together by the deeper principle that everything in creation is subject to God.’ Without this starting-point, individual free will threatened to become the foundation of society. This, Kuyper believed, would allow pride, license, egoism, and material consumption free reign, as reflected in the French Revolution, which ‘left nothing but the monotonous, self-seeking individual asserting his own self-sufficiency.’

Sounds like an identification of societal problems in our own day.
Precisely, and Kuyper also attacks the French Revolution with other phrases that have contemporary resonance:

It [the French Revolution] compelled men to seek happiness on earth, in earthly things, and thus created a sphere of lower pressures in which money was the standard of value, so that everything was sacrificed for money. Now add the demolition of all social organization, followed by proclamation of the mercantile gospel of laissez faire, and you can understand how the ‘struggle for life’ was ushered in by the ‘struggle for money. 

While today’s crisis is far removed from the tyranny of eighteenth century French aristocrats, Kuyper dismissed both the individualism of libertarianism and the collectivism of state socialism as the answer to the problems caused by the industrial revolution. He sought to develop a ‘third way’ based on Christian principles.

As we conclude our interview, I’d love for you to encourage Christian graduate students in philosophy and ethics, who think that a career in such areas must amount to doing just quintessential academic work: be a professor and publish. Of course, some are, indeed, called to do that. But can you speak to the broader purpose of academic pursuit? Many academic discussions are often fraught with over-specialization.  How would you encourage scholars to avoid myopic thinking?

Central to Protestantism is the notion of calling. In the first instance, this is a calling to Christ and to his church but this leads to a further calling, to serve Christ in the various spheres of ‘secular’ life. That includes the academy. So the challenge for a Christian in the scholarly world is the same as that for a Christian in any other sphere of life – to use our gifts for the glory of God and for the service of humanity. This will inevitably mean our scholarship is infused with a sense of higher purpose. While this may not take explicit form, my experience is that people feel the difference – all the more so with the increasing emphasis on academic detachment, specialization and empiricism.

 Can you offer a personal example?

I try to make sure that, for every piece I write for academic peer review, I produce at least one piece for the general reader and one for the business leader. This discipline helps ensure I don’t lose the bigger picture – how my research serves wider humanity (however modestly), rather than simply my peers.

From what I said earlier about Kuyper, it’s perhaps not surprising that I find him an inspiration in this quest. Given his early scholarly achievements, the young Kuyper would have had the prospect of a glittering academic career. Yet he was determined to serve the wider ends of intellectual pursuit and to lead and inspire ordinary people. He wrote many learned books but most began not in scholarly journal articles but as newspaper columns. And as founder and rector of the Free University he succeeded in forming a group of more narrowly-focused academics around him, such as Herman Bavinck, who gave Kuyper’s ideas a deeper and more rigorous scholarly outworking than Kuyper himself provided.

Few Christian academics who aspire to be public intellectuals today find they can fulfill this aspiration while also meeting the exacting demands of the academic peer-review process. But they should be encouraged to devote at least some of their time and energy to discussing their ideas and findings with those outside the academy, for mutual benefit. Organizations like the Acton Institute provide great opportunities for such cross-fertilization between specialists and non-specialists in various fields of Christian engagement. The best ideas are rooted in practice and the best practice is rooted in ideas.

Read the Full Text of the Interview by Clicking Here.

Interested readers might also enjoy the recent interview with Amy Sherman, where she discusses “vocational stewardship for the common good.” Moreover, in our recent series of interviews, Ross Emmett discusses the need for Christian conceptualization of entrepreneurship and innovation, and Andreas Widmer speaks of “business as a moral enterprise.”