"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul." -William Ernest Henley 1888
William Ernest Henley wrote this poem, now called "Invictus", in 1888. At the time it had no title. And while it might be just the sort of thing one would expect a social entrepreneur to hang on their wall, it really is just the sort of thing that I find unhelpful when I think about social entrepreneurship. The idea that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul sounds great until I am faced with forces that are truly beyond me. Social Enterprise doesn't need more self determination. It needs more humble reliance on something bigger than the self if it will have the longevity it needs to solve the unbelievably complex problems our world is facing.
I have been trying to develop an internal list of reasons why I think the Christian church might have something to offer the world of social enterprise. What I should have started this list with was simple: We trust and rely on God, a power beyond ourselves.
I have discovered in the last three years that social enterprise can really be exciting and discouraging. It takes an immense amount of work and passion (I cannot overstate this!) to get a social enterprise off of the ground. I have never worked so hard at anything in my life. All the ups and downs can really wear you down, especially if they are combined with a heavy measure of idealism. One of the ways that I think Christianity has something to offer the largely humanistic realm of social enterprise is that it removes the burden of us being unconquerable masters of our own destiny day in and day out, and places outcomes and initiative in the hands of God.
Christian theology has, depending on the particular theological tradition, always emphasized that our fate is not in fact our own. It is God who is the master of our collective and individual histories and destinies. And while our experience of that truth is frustrating when we find God to be remarkably inscrutable, it is a comfort nonetheless. Knowing that all power to enact change rests beyond one's own efforts and ability helps a social entrepreneur in a number of ways.
1. Adaptability- When new realities present themselves, the Christian social entrepreneur doesn't have to be confounded at their lack of control. They already know they are not in control. This produces a willingness to adapt to the new shape that God is giving to things. The Christian entrepreneur can pivot, assigning any new reality to the manifestation of God's will. We can embrace the disruption that is God. Christian Social Enterprise ought to be strikingly adaptable, despite what our institutions have recently demonstrated in their intractable intransigence.
2. Trust- When the future seems unkind or opaque, which it often does in social enterprise, the Christian Social entrepreneur has the ability to move forward with courage because they are not primarily trusting their sense of ability, instincts, or influence about an unknown future. They are trusting God. As a friend of mine says, "There is no one better to trust an unknown future to, than a known God." Trust (or faith) is not about a singular belief or a belief system. Trust is about taking action when outcomes are not clear or not in our hands. When I have failed multiple times I begin to doubt my instincts and abilities, but in the world of entrepreneurship there is no time for inaction. Often, the only way I can move forward is by identifying the most logical course of action and trusting that for good or for ill, the Lord will walk with me.
3. Hope- Christian hope is what propels us onward even when the odds are long. If I had to hope in human nature, my own personal fortitude, or a happy turn of events, I think I would give up. As I said, social enterprise is full of defeats. I try to think of those as learning opportunities, but they are often just plain old defeats. Christian Hope is the sense that good may yet come and it is allows us to get up and dust ourselves off quickly, even when we are out of resources and our backs are against the wall. Christians sense that even if their personal endeavor is doomed to failure, that they may be contributing to the larger tapestry of Kingdom work. We are the people of the Red Sea and the empty tomb. So, when it gets darkest in our enterprises we move forward in action, not pep talking to our selves about the success that will surely come, but humbly holding our candle in front as we proceed.
4. Revelation and Creativity- One of the hallmarks of entrepreneurs is that they tend to be creative. They are good at finding solutions to complex problems with whatever/whomever is on hand and often connect ideas and things that previously seemed unrelated. But, eventually everyone's creative prowess wears out. Artists and musicians often talk of the curse of their first great success. How did it happen? Where did that creativity come from? Will it ever come again? The Greeks thought of the muse, Christians identify with a Creator God. The Christian entrepreneur recognizes that God has allowed us to create in ways that imitate God's creative nature. All creativity proceeds from God's revelation to humanity. It is the Spirit who empowers us to give birth to all sorts of innovation. The hidden power of this is that all creative revelations feel random. It feels as though we have staggered into them. We wonder, "How the heck did I think of that?" Or, "Why didn't I make that connection before?" Without the idea of God we might be left to imagine that such a revelatory moment was in fact an accident. It was purely the child of chance and that there is no rational reason to believe that such a moment may ever come again. But, it is the idea of God that allows the Christian entrepreneur to assume that there is a Providential Author who supplies us. And while that doesn't give us a timetable, it does supply us with a sense of intentionality behind our creative bursts, a sense that they will come again as Christ has promised to do.
4. A Macro View- Christian theology has always acknowledged the complexity of the world in which we live. It has always felt that there will be something that is unknowable and beyond our control because our world extends from a God that is at some level unknowable and beyond our control. This view of ourselves as a kind of an ant on a rolling tire is a particular virtue when one is confronted by macro level shifts. Macro shifts in society and economy can really feel disorienting to entrepreneurs. Human beings feel like gods over their own enterprise. They organize, envision, and execute. But the nakedness of their illusory control comes to the fore when something seismic happens. The Christian is able to navigate such seasons well because they sense that there is in fact something, a someone, bigger than even the macro shift. This of course then moves them back into their other virtues of adaptability, hope, and trust.
5. Humility- One of the side effects of recognizing that we are not in fact in control of our fates or destinies is that it ought (thought sadly doesn't many times) to make us humble. Christians ought to be able to hold onto their conclusions and their successes quite loosely. In the end, they aren't really....ours. If practiced well, Christian humility should serve as a guard against the hubris that so often ruins good things. It will allow us to see new opportunities more quickly and to spread credit for our achievements much more generously amongst those who have made good things possible. It will also allows us to better listen to those who we would wish to impact with the good that we seek to do. Perhaps they have a better idea of what they need than we do? Perhaps we were wrong in the solutions we created. The faithful Christian always assumes we are wrong at some level, that there is more to be inquired about. We do this because the truth does not rest in our idea or enterprise, so we must constantly redesign and re-examine. We are sure that we are simultaneously right and wrong in our assessments. But humility will also lift us as well. Humility is not in fact, thinking of ourselves as nothing, but rather making an honest assessment of who we are and are not. Really, humility is properly understanding ourselves. Once we do that we can then figure out more clearly how we can use the gifts we have to good purpose. In this way, humility keeps us both from an over-inflated view of ourselves and a demeaning view of ourselves. It is the awareness of God that allows us to hold that tension.