GOD AND GENERAL MOTORS

by Bob Wheeler

Atheists often tell us that atheism is nothing more than a simple disbelief in God. According to them it is not a worldview, a philosophy of life, or a system of morality. It is a simple statement about the existence or non-existence of God, and has no implications for anything else.

    Strictly speaking the statement is quite true, sometimes exasperatingly so as we try to get atheists to think through the implications of their radical stance. We cannot help, at times, but suspect that their denial of any broader implications is an artful dodge. If the universe was not created by an intelligent Supreme Being, then how did it get here and what is it like? The existence or non-existence of God must have some implications for the rest of reality, and a simple denial of God’s existence, without an accompanying explanation, leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

    But what, then, are the implications of God’s existence? What difference does it make in our day-to-day lives?

    We saw a particularly vivid example recently in the controversy surrounding the faulty ignition switch installed on several models of General Motors small cars. The switch would turn from the “run” to the “accessory” position at the slightest touch, causing the engine to stall with a loss of power to the steering and brake systems. What is worse, the airbag system was wired into the “run” circuit, so that when the engine stalled the airbag would not deploy. Several people were killed as a result of having lost control of their vehicles.

    What is especially astonishing is that General Motors knew about the problem right from the very beginning. The prototype car stalled on the test track at the factory when the driver’s knee hit the key fob. The engineers, one would have thought, would have noted the problem and made a point to fix it. And yet the engineer with responsibility for the switch, Mr. Ray DeGiorgio, signed off on it. GM chose to treat the problem as a “nuisance,” and at one point dealers were advised to tell their customers not to put too many keys on the key chain.

    The safety issue aside, one wonders how General Motors expected to sell cars that were, by their own admission, “nuisances.” In the highly competitive small car market, where GM is up against the likes of the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic, and the Nissan Sentra, who would want to buy a Chevy Cobalt that might stall in the middle of a busy highway? What could Mr. DiGiorgio and his fellow engineers and managers at GM possibly have been thinking?

    All of which brings us back to our original question, what practical difference does the existence of God make? It should have made a huge difference, in point of fact. In a way, GM’s folly is all too typical. Most of us go through life pursuing our own individual interests, and employees are naturally focused on how they can succeed on the job. Success is measured in terms of favorable performance reviews, bonuses, pay raises, and promotions. In order to achieve that kind of success, we must impress the supervisor above us. But an employee in a large company rarely looks at the bigger picture – about how to make the company as a whole succeed. And in a typical large manufacturing operation the customers are invisible – the assembly line worker never sees them. Thus in the employee’s mind the company’s business plan is only a secondary consideration at best. He simply goes about his job attaching part A to assembly B without giving any thought to the larger business objective. And that is probably the way most of us approach life in general. To get ahead we go along, and the broader considerations are things about which we rarely think.

    The genuine Christian, however, has a radically different approach to life. The new birth has brought him into contact with a higher reality. He has experience “the life of God in the soul of man,” as one old writer put it, and he now sees life in a whole new context. He is conscious of the fact that God is the ultimate reality, that everything in life has a purpose and meaning, and that our goal in life is “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Thus in our thinking we start with God Himself. How did He intend human society to function and operate? This question touches on every aspect of human behavior and relationships.

    This, in turn, leads us to consider every institution within human society – the church, the state, the business community, and academia. And within the business community each individual company has its role to play, the contribution it makes to the general economy. Thus each company has its own business plan, a long-term strategy for turning a profit and achieving success. Each department within that company, in turn, has an assigned task and function, and each individual employee has his own particular job to do. All of it should contribute to the success of the whole.

Thus, while most people, in their thinking, start at the bottom, with themselves, and work up, the Christian starts at the top, with God, and works his way down. This gives the work he does meaning and purpose, and gives him an incentive to pursue excellence in every endeavor.

In other words, General Motors should have been trying to make a profit by making quality cars that fulfill a human need for safe, reliable and cost effective transportation. And Mr. DiGiorgio’s job should have been to design an ignition switch that is at least as good as all the switches that are already on millions of other vehicles. Not one of the cars with the faulty switch should ever have made it to a dealer’s showroom.

    In the business world, as in all of life, God expects us to respect the rights and wellbeing of others. A profit is legitimate only if the product or service meets a genuine human need. Thus, in order to succeed individually we must advance the common good. We build prosperity collectively, as a society.

    All of which appears to have been lost on Mr. DiGiorgio and his colleagues at General Motors. I am very far from thinking that one must believe in God in order to be an effective automotive engineer. I have long favored Japanese brand vehicles (I currently own a Suburu and a Nissan), and it is doubtful that most Japanese engineers are devout Christians. Presumably competition in a free market economy will provide the incentive to make a quality product. General Motors has apparently grown too old or too large to respond to market forces, and probably needs to go the way of all scrap metal. But belief in God should make a real difference. It provides a higher motive, a nobler ideal. The managers and engineers at General Motors should not have needed to have been prodded along by Congressional committees and lawsuits to do the right thing. Their duty should have been perfectly clear. And if they had thought about God they would have seen it.


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