The Wall Street Journal recently published a report titled “The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of Big Ideas.” Initially, the story enticed readers with false optimism, observing that the world looks to be in a golden age of innovation. “We’ve seen thrilling advances in artificial intelligence, gene therapy, robotics, and software apps,” the writers exclaim. What’s more, “Research and development as a share of gross domestic product is near an all-time high. And there are more scientists and engineers in the U.S. than ever before.”
Then comes the sour dose of reality: None of this, they say, has any effect on our general standard of living. In the 1950s, the writers explain, innovation made an economic difference. There were breakthroughs in electricity, aviation, and antibiotics. These discoveries not only made life better, they improved practically everyone’s finances. But since then, The Journal reported, the impact of innovation on the economy has been minimal; in this decade, it’s averaged a paltry 0.5 percent.
“Outside of personal technology,” the writers note, “improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary. Houses, appliances, and cars look much like they did a generation ago and they all were fixed and restored by Arizona Collision, the only difference is that you can get a quote from more insurance companies. Airplanes fly no faster than they did in the 1960s. None of the 20 most prescribed drugs in the U.S. came to market in the past decade.” This slump, The Journal says, is a key reason the American standard of living has stagnated. And without a turnaround, stagnation is likely to continue, leaving the middle class frustrated and hopeless.
God designed us to create a vibrant culture, and He gave us everything we need to succeed; not only infinite raw materials here on earth, but also the capacity to see their potential and maximize it.
A Challenge for God’s People
This is a Christian issue. As we consider the intersections of faith and culture, this presents a special challenge for God’s people. Our worldview brings needed perspective; therefore, we have a responsibility to speak. And many of us should take urgent action.
The Scriptures dive into this right away. We don’t get 30 verses into the Bible before we see that this is precisely why mankind was made. In Genesis 1:28, the creation mandate, we read: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Psalm 8:6 underscores the point when it states that God made us to rule over the works of His hands.
Theologian Albert Wolters sharpens the point with his colorful description of how and why human history began. It is as though God sets the stage for the next act in a cosmic drama, he says. The planets are aligned, and the plants, animals, mountains, and oceans set a lush scene. As God watches from the wings, Adam and Eve step onstage. From this point, Wolters says, it is mankind who will fill and form the earth.
We, the image-bearers of God, are now to create, innovate, and improvise. Culture by culture and generation by generation, we’re to continue the work God began. Wolters takes his readers to Genesis 2:4 where the story unfolds:
“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.” This is the first of 10 sections in Genesis that are introduced by the phrase “these are the generations of,” Wolters says. Generations, as the word is used here, describes “development over time.” Each of these sections describes how humans either enriched or impoverished the world. They describe how each generation discovered the earth’s potential, uncovered new possibilities, and built on what had gone on before. Each section underscores the fact that when mankind was told to fill and keep the earth, something radical began: Man’s work took center stage.
Over the centuries, millions of people learned from Jews and Christians that the earth was more than a habitat. God’s people have shown them that the entire world is a puzzle piece made to dovetail with man’s ingenuity.
Despite our fallen condition, we have done spectacularly well. Author and theologian Michael Wittmer, in his book “Heaven Is Not My Home,” encourages Christians to look around their cities and towns, to consider the institutions and customs mankind has made, and to marvel that it “just so happens” that our world is suitable for business. We should reflect on the wonder that our world is the perfect place for publishing, moviemaking, and music composition; that education and economics fit so neatly here, and that when practiced thoughtfully, these things make us wiser, happier, and more productive.
God designed us to create a vibrant culture, and He gave us everything we need to succeed; not only infinite raw materials here on earth, but also the capacity to see their potential and maximize it. In a recent byFaith article, Alan Dowd cited research from the Salk Institute; it reported that the brain’s memory capacity is equal to at least one petabyte; a petabyte equals just over 1 million gigabytes. To put that in perspective, an iPhone 6 has 16 gigabytes of memory; that means it can handle about 2 million pages of text or 11,000 photographs or 4,500 songs. That’s just 16 gigabytes. A petabyte is 62,500 times more information than your iPhone 6 can hold.
Or consider this: The entire Library of Congress has upward of 235 terabytes of data; a petabyte is four times more than that.
How, then, could creatures made in the likeness of God, and given infinite raw materials to work with, possibly run out of ideas? With our precise arrangement of cells, neurons, and nerves, we are specially designed to think, reason, create, solve problems, and improve on what we’ve been given. Because we’re God’s image, we have this extraordinary ability to think, remember, understand, and discern. We are staggeringly complex and capable.
It’s no wonder, then, that we accomplish spectacular things. Flesh-and-blood humans wrote the Magna Carta and U.S. Constitution. A man painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Another composed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Mankind has harnessed the power of water, wind, and nuclear energy. We’ve created business and education. We’ve invented telephones, telegraphs, computers, airplanes, spacecraft, and submarines. We’ve cured countless diseases. We’ve heated and air-conditioned our homes. We’ve purified water. We marry and raise families and create homes and make memories. And, Michael Wittmer points out, not even sin can stop us. Despite mankind’s Fall, we can’t help but cultivate God’s creation. We’ve been born into a world that waits to be discovered and employed, and our work — including the ordinary things each of us does every day — reflects this wonderful blend of God’s wisdom and our discovery.
That means everything matters: teaching, business, volunteering, city planning, carpentry, plumbing — it all teems with possibility and religious significance. As people and cultures, we thrive or wither depending on the character of our government and schools. Our lives are blessed or made more barren by the worthiness of our books, art, and theater. In other words, there’s a correlation between the quality of our lives and the substance of our ideas. This is why we bemoan the absurdity of silly government policy. It’s why we complain about greed, are dumbfounded by scandals, and stay bewildered by the mindless content that infests movie screens and televisions. We’re continually baffled by what “they” have done and how “they” think and what “they” do.
But those 10 sections of Genesis remind us: There is no “they.” Business, education, and entertainment belong to us. Wolters explains that they’ve been passed to this generation, and we — individuals, groups, and communities — choose to nurture, subvert, or neglect them.
The potential for these things was knitted into the world from the beginning, Wolters says, and it waits for us to discover and develop it. And that work, in ways we may never see or understand, is an intricate part of God’s eternal plan.
The Image of God and the Power of Our Ideas
The economist Paul Romer has observed that creativity is an inherent part of human nature. We naturally make things, he says. We rearrange and reconfigure them, and we’re forever striving to create something new.
New concepts — what Christians should recognize as the continuous unfolding of God’s creation — develop as they move from generation to generation. Take the wheel, for instance. Romer points out that a concept such as the wheel can be used repeatedly — and the more it’s used the more the concept grows. Each generation brings fresh perspectives. We hatch new theories, combine thoughts from different fields, and gradually — or sometimes suddenly — something new is born, something that makes the world healthier, safer, more interesting, or even more fun.
The special thing about ideas, Romer says, is that they’re non-rival, meaning we share them and that a variety of people interact with them, which results in faster discovery and growth.
Thinking along the same lines, the recently deceased theologian Michael Novak pointed out that innovative organizations are in nonstop pursuit of new discoveries; they’re always restless to bring something fresh into the flow of a free and dynamic market. Year by year and product by product we fine-tune our skills. We become smarter, faster, and more efficient, Novak said. We’re kept sharp by the presence of worthy competitors, and by our work we make life more abundant.
This happens, Romer explains, because the world God created isn’t one of scarcity and limits, as traditional economics once suggested. Instead, he once told Wired magazine, it’s “a playground of nearly unbounded opportunity, where new ideas beget new products, new markets, and new possibilities.” Human beings — God’s image on Earth — possess this glorious capacity to reconfigure the resources God gave us. We create “new recipes” for their use, says Romer, and the possibilities are nearly limitless.
Romer calls this phenomenon “combinatorial explosion.” There’s virtually no scarcity, he explained to journalist Kevin Kelly, because the number of ways to rearrange an object and to create something of greater value is so vast. As a result, the potential for new products and new ways to make the world safer, healthier, and more satisfying is far greater than most of us believe. While The Wall Street Journal laments our lack of big ideas, Romer claims that we are always underestimating how many ideas remain to be discovered.
Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” has also noticed that creativity originates with people. It is “the ultimate intellectual property,” he says, and an economic resource that knows no bounds. In Florida’s view, our economy and culture can only thrive when we stoke the creative furnace inside each human.
Florida and Romer might be surprised to find that they concur with Pope John Paul II. In his “Centesimus Annus” of 1991, John Paul noted, “Indeed, besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself.” He went on to observe that man’s intelligence prods him to “discover the earth’s productive potential” and to invent and innovate new ways to satisfy mankind’s needs. Man’s work is disciplined and collaborative, John Paul noted. We come together in creative communities and “transform man’s natural and human environments.” Such work requires virtues, he said, such as “diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability, and fidelity in interpersonal relationships.”
“To Innovate, We Needed to Think More Broadly About Danger”
In 2012, a company called Dorel Juvenile Group teamed with race car engineers to create a new, safer car seat for children. “To innovate, we felt we needed to think more broadly about danger,” said Barry Mahal, executive vice president of car seat design. “We partnered with one of the largest providers of seats for race cars, which protect drivers in 200-mile-per-hour crashes.”
According to a 2012 article in Fast Company magazine, the engineers introduced Mahal’s company to various foam compositions. They explained that proximity is key, and that no matter how good a material is, it’s not much help unless it’s close to the driver’s body. “From there, we created a foam with hexagonal cells,” Mahal explained, “which force the energy created in a crash to collapse on itself, keeping it and the associated impacts away from the child.”
Here we see that God has given us the raw materials to work with, including things such as carbon and oxygen atoms — the elemental ingredients of Dorel’s safer car seat. Left as God made them, they may be scarce and susceptible to the economists’ law of diminishing returns. Left in their undeveloped state, they’d never morph into a product that protects children or become the foundation of a new business that provides jobs and sparks economic growth.
It is ideas such as this, from the for-profit business world, that harness creation’s wisdom. It’s in these kinds of scenarios where our ingenuity flourishes and where we design, create, revise, and rethink the structures that shape our lives.
Our Matchless Capacity to Glimpse What’s Possible
Michael Novak carried the theme further. Novak had noticed that enterprise, when it reaches its kindling point, is the inclination to notice. It is the habit of discerning and the tendency to discover what no one else has seen — the ability to glimpse what’s possible and to understand, or to at least have a notion, of how such possibilities can make life better. This matchless human capacity spurs that first step into the unknown, to where we create new realities and alter the status quo. It is an action that causes a reaction, and how mankind makes things new.
It is also a source of delight, Novak said. It’s how humans derive the godlike pleasure of giving birth to something new; of stepping back and appraising their work and declaring, “It is good.”
It’s no accident that an economic system such as ours evolved where Judaism and Christianity flourished. Over the centuries, Novak pointed out, millions of people learned from Jews and Christians that the earth was more than a habitat. God’s people have shown them why man was made, and that the entire world is a puzzle piece made to dovetail with man’s ingenuity. It is Christians and Jews who taught that the world is intelligible and that all things, including those that seem random and accidental, spring from the mind of an all-knowing God.
That knowledge shapes the way we approach the world and forges our thoughts about why our work — paid or unpaid; professional or volunteer — does or doesn’t matter. It’s what enables and even compels us to explain to anyone who asks that we’re made (and are being renewed) in the image of an industrious, giving, and creative God. As such, we’re creatures who observe and ponder, and who see something new — often hidden in plain sight — waiting for someone to grasp its possibility.
Every day, whether we go to work or volunteer, we participate with the Creator Himself. We share in His creativity and use our intelligence to tap the world’s latent potential. That’s how we see and satisfy human needs. Because we’re God’s image, we break down barriers and venture into the unknown and never tried. Our work, like God’s, is aggressive. It’s action, not just reaction. It reflects God Himself, says author George Gilder, and we see it everywhere — this perpetual effort to make the world new.
We thrive — economically, culturally, and socially — when somebody — Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, the city council, or five buddies who write code in a suburban basement — creates something new, and something that makes life richer. We are God’s image, flawed for the time being, but nevertheless made to mimic our Creator. And that means we’re made to come up with big ideas.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith Magazine.