Left-Brain Innovation

Michael Metzger

There’s a debate whether innovation in the U.S. is rising or, as Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal claims, is “somewhere between dire straits and dead.” What if it’s neither? What if it’s left-brain?

Left-brain innovation might have begun with the Reformation (the 500th anniversary was last year). On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, seeking to coax his colleagues into a reconsideration of indulgences, which were being abused. But in his defense at the Diet of Worms, Luther appealed to his individual conscience as final judge. That was unprecedented—that individuals had “the capacities, and their right to judge in their own cases.”[1] Luther opened a Pandora’s Box called individualism.[2]

In older church traditions, conscience was discerned collectively (Jeremiah 17:7-9). I doubt Luther meant to inaugurate “the age of the individual,” as Edmund Phelps, the director of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society claims, but in many ways the Reformation did. It shared the Enlightenment’s view of human nature, how individuals best decide truth. This marked the beginning of left-brained innovation.

Innovation is the Latin translation of the Greek renew. The renewal of all things is the mission of the church (Colossians 1:20). In older church traditions, innovation was pictured as a virtuous cycle of two interconnected flywheels. On the right was social wellbeing. It turned the left wheel of economic prosperity. The right drove the left.

The left flywheel drives innovation today. We see economic prosperity in innovative companies like Alphabet and Apple. But social wellbeing—the right flywheel—is on the decline. According to a 2017 Gallup study on the American workplace, two-thirds of workers are disengaged at work. Of the country’s approximately 100 million full-time employees, 51 percent feel no real connection to their jobs, and thus they do the bare minimum. Another 16 percent are “actively disengaged.” We’re seeing the left flywheel of economic prosperity working, but mostly for a few and mostly at the top.

For instance, globalization has brought greater efficiency but at the expense of greater inequality and economic dislocation. A few prosper while social wellbeing declines.

Or consider financialization. The revenue and profits of the financial sector are an increasingly large segment of the worldwide economy. But the goals of work are too often commoditized, emphasizing wealth maximization but reducing the meaning of work to nothing but price. Economic prosperity for a few comes at the expense of social wellbeing—the good of all.

Or consider communications technology. It has enabled connectivity, new solutions and products and lower costs, but its increasing velocity also brings communication overload, increasing inattention and distraction, diminished social skills (as well as social isolation), and rushed decision-making. Again, social wellbeing withers.

These are instances of left-brain innovation. It’s more about making new gadgets than increasing goodness. It’s left-brained because it is only in the left hemisphere that we think efficiency, including what makes money. The right hemisphere thinks effectiveness—the good of all. The left hemisphere understands individual numbers as absolutes—1+1=2. Only the right hemisphere understands numbers and money in context—whether our current economic prosperity also promotes social wellbeing.

Too often, it’s not. According to Mr. Phelps and collaborators Saifedean Ammous, Raicho Bojilov and Gylfi Zoega at Columbia University, countries with more individualistic cultures have more innovative economies. But the innovations tend to be technological, left-brain. Social wellbeing is not measured as carefully, nor is it evident.

Social wellbeing is more evident in communal countries, which is definitely not the U.S. For example, according to the Columbia University study, less individualistic cultures, such as France, Spain and Japan, showed little innovation but greater concern for the common good (right-brain). It’s no coincidence that Jesuits blunted the Enlightenment in France and Spain while Japan has never embraced Enlightenment thinking.

Last week I said I was returning to why the Clapham Sect is our model. They took on two big challenges: the slave trade and corrupt society. We face two challenges. The U.S. is decaying. And we’re obsessed with money. Ambidextrous innovation could solve both. We don’t need left- or right-brain innovation. We need virtuous innovation, holding in tension the individual and community—economic prosperity and social wellbeing. Churches used to hold this tension, filling the role of right-brain outsiders. They can do it again, but it requires returning to pre-Enlightenment faith traditions. My prayer is for a network of churches to do this, restoring virtuous innovation.


[1] Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).

[2] Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 5.


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  1. Mike, please correct what I’m perhaps missing: if the right brain acts for the good of all, in Jesuit influenced Spain and France and Japan thru the centuries (and as evidenced by the movie Silence) the good of all has typically been for “the in-crowd” only, leaving out the outsider: the Jew, the immigrant, the lower class, and the Japanese convert to Christ. The left brain deserves praise for including these excluded peoples, as fortune is attached to technological supply that is in demand – and when the supply is provided by the outsider, they become insiders – until the natives rise up to destroy the outsiders for profiting from innovation without benefit to the native paying customers. I’m just saying that your glorification without qualification of “the good of all” fails to recognize that in man’s typical sinfulness the good of all is the enrichment of “my native family” and the disempowering of those who are “not like me.” Left-brain thinking deserves credit for saving outsiders from utter disempowerment.

  2. Hi Dave T:

    You asked what you might be missing. In a nutshell, the right hemisphere is broadly vigilant. It’s big picture. Ex: today’s NYT article on Zuckerberg and Facebook. While it’s made him fabulously rich (because he knows how to monetize markets–a strength of the left hemisphere), right-brain thinkers have challenged whether Facebook is contributing to social well-being. Lot of evidence it’s not.

    If I read your comments correctly (maybe I don’t), your inclusion/exclusion distinction misunderstands left and right hemisphere distinctions. In fact, it is only in the right that we consider “the other” (and are, hence, inclusive) while the left is narrowly focused and usually not collaborative (and hence, not inclusive).

  3. Interesting that I just had a conversation with my 22-year-old grandson where he has very recently tuned into, just over the Christmas holiday season, the tension between eulogy virtues versus resume’. He led me on that although I did have a recent conversation with my pastor, as I considered what may be my “final” retirement, about whether I should seek “success” or “significance”. Of course my Christian pastor considered “significance” as moving forward with Kingdom of God virtues and goals while worrying less and less about money, power, or prestige.
    I’m thankful to have been refered to Joseph Peeper and Matthew Crawford to read about the deeper meaning of/purpose of work. Management in USA companies has missed those points and therefore we do have the result of individuals detaching from work because it has not meaning. I think I get that but I am at a loss of what balanced right/left innovation will look like in the church. I’m still thinking a lot about it.
    I’m not sure the Reformation is the culprit here. Luther, in particular, never intended to leave the church. If Roman Catholicism and the Papacy was even close to that described in books about Luther’s response, I want no part of that. Something had to change. If being able to read Scripture as an individual is wrong I’d like to know why. Because the corrupt Papacy saw its power threatened by this so-called individualism it threw Luther out of the RC church. His plan was to stay and renew and reform that system from within.
    Perhaps Mike is right in that the rugged individualism in which we live is an unintended consequence of the Reformation, emphasis “unintended”.

  4. Bob:

    Yes! The Law of Unintended Consequences.

    btw, the RC adopted 70 of Luther’s 95 Theses within 30 years. No one kicked him out.

    As for what left/right looks like in the church – it’s called ambidextrous and includes – no, relies on – the right brain perspective of prophets. As I written before in these columns, the Western church is not-for-prophet

  5. Hmmm. I have read that in January of 1521, by Papal Bull, Leo X excommunicated Luther. Have I missed something?

  6. Good point. I was hasty. I was thinking of recent comments by Pope Francis, and how Luther helped to purify the church with his needed correctives.

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