The Greek word for “character”, charaktíra, referred to the stamp or impress used on a coin or seal.
Nature is the seal. What kind of stamp will you imprint on it?
Vincent Van Gogh said that “Art is man added to nature … nature, reality, truth, but with a significance, a conception, a character, which the artist brings out in it, and to which he gives expression … which he disentangles, sets free and interprets.”
Each person’s unique, created design brings out in people and things a certain character and impresses on them something of his own.
I have often wondered what happened when the apostle John entered the empty tomb. The gospels tell us that he “saw and believed.” What did he see? Did he see the head cloth “rolled up in a place by itself” and notice that it was rolled up in the same way that he had seen Jesus roll cloths before? I like to think that Jesus left his personal imprint on that cloth—not only in the imprint of his countenance, but also in the way that he turned up the corners.
There are as many different ways to live out the “vocation of business” as there are people—each of us leaves a personal imprint on creation through our work.
The way that we structure companies, serve clients, and even set-up office space makes an imprint. The incarnation leaves nothing untouched.
But how do we avoid “business as usual”? How do we give a Christ-like form to the business that we do so that it is imprinted with a cross and not an Apple logo or Nike Swoosh?
In 2010 I read a book by the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard called “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning”. I suddenly understood both the Gospel and business in a new light. I saw a thread that ran between them: the powerful role that imitating the desires of others plays in our lives.
In his study of human history, Girard uncovered a truth, often buried under elaborate myths, which the gospels unmask: humans use a scapegoating mechanism in order to hide from the truth of their own disordered desires.
For humans, there is no such thing as pure desire. This belongs to God alone. Human desire is always mediated by the desires of others. In other words, we imitate desire.
If you don’t believe it, talk to college students. Ask them why they chose to apply to certain schools or how they picked their major. You will always find a model.
Mimetic desire is dangerous. When I begin to desire the same object as another—whether it is holiness or profit—the other person becomes a rival to me. This mimetic rivalry eventually leads to violence. In groups, the violence is done to a scapegoat.
Mimetic rivalry destroys uniqueness and makes people more alike. As we become fixated on our rivals, we imitate them. We forget what it was that we really wanted in the first place.
Only the gospels tell us the way out: Jesus Christ, who in his divinity and sinless humanity is not subject to mimetic desire but desires only to do the will of the Father, tells us to follow him and imitate him.
On the cross, he revealed the folly of mimetic desire. The hysteric members of the mob that demanded his crucifixion were blinded to the very Truth of their own existence by the force of their contagious desires.
We are especially susceptible to the forces of imitative desire in business. Everywhere we look, there’s a new product, a new app, a new theory.
Paying too much attention to them is a sucker’s game. If we merely imitate the desires of others, we can fail to respond to the call of God, which is addressed to each of us personally. We can fail to innovate. We find it difficult to produce any real and lasting value. And, ultimately, we become like the people whose desires we imitate. “Let them that make them become like unto them: and all such as trust in them,” prays the Psalmist.
The “vocation of business” allows each person the freedom to live out his or her unique, personal vocation within it. Each person can do this by imitating the only vocation worth imitating—the vocation of Jesus Christ, whose only desire was to do the will of the Father and who tells us, “Behold, I make all things new.”
When we’re imitating Christ, business is truly a force for good.
Luke A. Burgis is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at The Catholic University or America and a 4x Founder/CEO of start-ups in Silicon Valley. He is co-author of "Unrepeatable: Cultivating the Unique Calling of Every person". This article is part of a series in preparation for the 2018 Principled Entrepreneurship Conference