By Jeff Burks | Spring 2018

Jeff Burks has a unique way of teaching data analytics. He brings God into it.

Jeff Burks’ data analytics class is intended for junior and senior accountancy majors — future decision-makers and strategists who are preparing for careers in an ever-changing information age.

But as the associate professor of accountancy prepares to teach, he has more on his mind than methodology. He’s thinking about God. He sees no delimiters that place accountancy in the business school and spiritual matters in theology courses. Burks draws from Catholic intellectual and social teaching traditions to help his students understand how accounting as a discipline fits into God’s plan of creation.

The result is a course in step with Notre Dame’s mission to pursue “the religious dimensions of all human learning.”

It’s an odd approach, I’ll admit.

Of all of the business majors, there would seem to be none more temporal and mechanistic than accounting. Guided by a body of standards, accountants measure an activity after they distill its economic substance. And teaching accounting involves making sure our students understand the measurements, economics and standards. My course throws data analytics into the mix. Numbers are flying everywhere.

Where is God in that?

Here’s another way to look at it.

Statistics, which underlies my data analytics course, is based on the premise that there is order in the world that can help us distinguish patterns from random chance. I believe this order is a reflection of something called the Divine Logos, which in the Christian tradition means the Word of God, or the mind of God, that sustains Creation and makes it intelligible or able to be studied. For Christians, the Divine Logos is not a cold type of clockwork. It is radically personal and relational, because John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus Christ himself is the “Logos [Word] made flesh.” “All things came to be through him” and he “made his dwelling among us.”

I try to be mindful that teaching and research done right is a cooperation with the Divine Logos. Any authentic cognitive exercise — accounting, data analysis, whatever — is a form of obedience to God, a re-thinking of something that God originally thought into being. Catholic intellectuals such as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Bishop Robert Barron have advanced these ideas, and I’d like my students to consider them.

I start the semester with two readings that have contrasting views about man’s relationship with nature. The first emphasizes man’s power over nature, similar to the Enlightenment philosophies of Bacon, Descartes and Kant; the second reading is based on Catholic Social Teaching and emphasizes man’s cooperation with nature.

The first piece is the introduction to the book Against the Gods by Peter Bernstein, which traces the history of probability and statistics — the basis for what we call “risk management” in the business world. God is unmentioned in Bernstein’s account of history. Reading between the lines, God seems remote and even ill-willed in His design of the world.

The book portrays nature as the enemy and man as nature’s hapless and ignorant victim — that is, until man gains mastery and imposes his will on nature through statistical and quantitative analysis. That’s the “power over nature” reading.

The other reading — the “cooperation with nature” piece — is a sampler of passages that discuss technology, information and the nature of labor from the Church’s social encyclicals. The passages emphasize Creation as a gift from God, the marvelous order in nature, man’s ability to appreciate that order and labor as man’s cooperation with Creation.

During our class discussion, I emphasize a quote by St. John Paul II from Laborem Exercens. He contends that God lovingly left Creation incomplete, embedding hidden resources and values in Creation for man to discover and develop. Man’s labor — man’s work — is to unearth those hidden resources and values, and thereby cooperate with God to perfect Creation. The pope actually uses the word “perfect” to describe what man does with Creation through his labor by God’s grace. It is an incredibly lofty understanding of labor.

I propose to my students that the role of accounting and analytics is to generate the information that helps us discover those embedded resources and values. The information can be about the hidden resources themselves, or it can help various parties build trust, coordinate and work together to cultivate the resources.

The other theme from the encyclicals that I emphasize is that the truth is not synonymous with the possible. Just because you can exploit something doesn’t mean you should. And despite the power of tech and big data, there are vast swaths of reality beyond what we can measure with our puny instruments here on earth.

Therefore, whatever we do with data and information must be done with humility and right purpose. It shouldn’t be done with an exploitative mindset, but rather with the objective of promoting the common good and human dignity.

I start the semester with these themes and revisit them here and there as they are sparked by other course topics or readings. For example, the Central Limit Theorem — the phenomenon that aggregations of independent random variables tend toward normal distributions — is a great example of the marvelous order embedded in nature.

Do all my students embrace this approach? No. Many take the two reflection assignments to heart. But there are usually a few who tell me in their end-of-semester evaluations, “This has no place in an accounting course. It’s a waste of time.”

But I think it’s the right approach, especially considering we are, after all, part of the University of Notre Dame. As the mission states, it’s our obligation to pursue “the religious dimensions of all human learning,” not just theology and philosophy, not just history, but all human learning, even the business disciplines.

I don’t expect students to agree, so I’m there to propose. I don’t even require them to take a position. I tell them, just compare and contrast.

I do hope they see their studies and their future labor — the practice of accounting — as a participation in the continuing work of Creation and as a way of discovering the hidden resources and values contained in Creation.

You always hope that you have planted a seed. Overall, I want them to understand that their faith is not something to be compartmentalized. It’s not just what you do on Sunday. It gives meaning, direction and unity to your life.

Jeff Burks is the Thomas and Therese Grojean Family Associate Professor of Accountancy and the Deloitte Faculty Fellow. He researches financial accounting issues, focusing on public policy questions. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 2007, majoring in accounting and minoring in finance. He has an MBA from Creighton University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame (FIN ’97) and worked as an internal auditor in the financial services industry.