Today is Black Friday, a celebration of materialism, when shopping turns to sport, and Americans spend billions on merchandise nobody really needs.
As individuals and as a culture, what do we make of this selling and buying? Of the constant stream of new games and gadgets? Of the reason and rationale for why they are made? With a stroll through Wal-Mart or Nordstrom we see that plenty of merchandise springs from a single motive: money. But here-and-there, if we look longer and think deeper, we sometimes find a few other factors.
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.
New concepts — what Christians should recognize as the continuous unfolding of God’s creation — develop as they move from generation to generation. The wheel is always a handy example. Romer points out that a concept like the wheel can be used over and over again. The more it’s used the more it grows. Each generation brings fresh perspectives, we combine thoughts from different fields, and gradually something new is born; something that makes the world healthier, safer, or more interesting.
A more recent illustration comes from a company called the Dorel Juvenile Group. An article in Fast Company magazine describes how in 2012 Dorel teamed with racecar engineers to create a new and safer car seat for children. “To innovate, we felt we needed to think more broadly about danger,” said Barry Mahal, an executive vice president. “We partnered with one of the largest providers of seats for racecars, which protect drivers in 200 mile-per-hour crashes.” 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 to Barry Marshal, the Fast Company reporter, “which force the energy created in a crash to collapse on itself, keeping it and the associated impacts away from the child.”
It is ideas like 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, and revise things — products that are produced and sold — that make us safer, wiser, and more fulfilled.
The world is “a playground of nearly unbounded opportunity,” says Romer. In other words, God has lavished us the raw materials to work with, including things like carbon and oxygen atoms — the basic ingredients of Dorel’s safer car seat. Left as God made them, they’d never morph into a product that protects children. But human beings — made in God’s image — 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.
Theologian Michael Novak has 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 the means by which mankind makes things new. It is also a source of delight, Novak says. It’s how humans derive the God-like pleasure of stepping back and appraising their work and declaring, “It is good.”
It’s no accident that an economic system like ours evolved where Judaism and Christianity flourished. Over the centuries, Novak points out, millions of people learned from Jews and Christians that the earth was more than a habitat; it is also a puzzle piece made to mesh 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.
Millions of people learned from Jews and Christians that the earth was more than a habitat; it is also a puzzle piece made to mesh with man’s ingenuity.
It’s that knowledge that forges our thoughts about why our work does or doesn’t matter; that enables us — and even compels us — to explain to anyone who asks, that of course we work and serve and create: We’re made (and are being renewed) in the image of an industrious, giving, and creative God. We’re creatures who observe and ponder and who see something new — often hidden in plain sight — just waiting for us to grasp its possibilities.
Such work is where we participate with the Creator Himself; it’s where we use our intelligence to tap the world’s latent potential, and the means by which 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 His, is aggressive. It’s action not just reaction. It reflects God Himself, 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, a local mayor, or five buddies who write code in a suburban basement — creates something new — not just for the money, but to fulfill our insatiable need to make life more abundant.