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While it may seem unlikely, to understand the business and economic perspective of Dr. Kevin Brown — assistant professor in Asbury University’s Howard Dayton School of Business — it’s helpful to first visit the writings of theologian John Wesley.

In his commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Wesley writes,

“Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between man and man, and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other” (italics added).*

Brown’s refusal to separate man’s identity as an image bearer of God with his economic activity is at the heart of his teaching and research at Asbury — as well as being central to his personal understanding of faith in the marketplace.

“I teach statistics and econometrics; I teach the scientific method,” Brown said. “I can use that to prove if a program is working. But can I prove love? Can I prove wisdom? Can I prove evil? These are things that are also part of our reality, but there is no tool in the scientists’ toolbox that can prove them. Does reality depend on its capacity to be verified, or are there things outside the realm of the disciplines that help us understand reality?

“The underlying theme is always to think about where business is really good, but test where the boundaries are. Where do we need a new understanding to get at the truth and be more faithful? That should be the goal for all Christians: how can I offer a more faithful expression?”

Brown tracks his understanding of this relationship between business philosophy and Christian belief to something he read several years ago. In 2001, theologian Stanley Hauerwas was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time Magazine; Hauerwas’ response was that “best” is not a theological concept; faithfulness is. A light bulb went on for Brown as he began mentally sorting through different scenarios in which being faithful sometimes meant following traditional economic patterns, and other times meant doing things in a markedly different way.

Two different research projects have emerged from this understanding. In the first, a writing project with a colleague at St. Andrews University in Scotland, he examines the economics, ethics and theology of social segregation. Generally in the United States, little objection is raised to people sorting themselves into homogeneous groups by race, income, age or any number of factors. Even in discussions about housing, integration is valued for its capacity to create a more fair or efficient arrangement. Brown, however, sees a deeper motivation for integrated social arrangements that reflects the “every tribe, every nation” reality of the Kingdom of God.

In the second, Brown look closely at ethical activity in business and the values to which practitioners typically appeal: efficiency (goal-based activity), equity (activity based in fairness) and enforceability (legal considerations). In most ethical case studies, the “right” answer can be found by appealing to the efficiency, fairness or legality of a particular action. However, Brown explores an ethical framework in which decisions are made based on a Christian’s spiritual identity — with defining features including posture toward God, purity and proximity to other people — before considering his or her actions.

“What we do cannot be divorced from who we are,” Brown said. “Yet few, if any, approaches to ethics begin with consideration of identity. When we do so, we are more adequately equipped to engage the subject of ethics or applied ethics.”

The effects of Brown’s research — not to mention personal business experience, study and devotional reflections — come into the classroom via a commitment to critical thinking in a field that crosses traditional boundaries between disciplines. In the liberal arts, business concepts mastered by students become entry points into a broader discussion about how they may follow Christ more faithfully in a global context.

“At one level you have the basic principles that students need to understand,” Brown said. “But where it really gets exciting is looking at how those apply in the professional world, and the implications of the principles for how we organize our own lives. It’s the paradox of knowledge — the more I learn, the less I know. It doesn’t mean we can’t know anything, we just realize how complex things are when we get deeper and deeper. That allows me to invite levels of complexity into the classroom with students and show them different ways of thinking about it. I challenge them to think about things now so they will be better prepared for the professional world later.”

* Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, by John Wesley