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IndieFaith Blog
Sunday, 14 May 2006
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05) Max Weber puts forward the thesis that the spirit of modern capitalism was nurtured in developing models of Protestant asceticism (i.e. Calvinism, Puritanism, Methodism, etc.) which demanded not a retreat from the world but a march into the world where each individual must be equipped with a personal sense of calling which, as a worldly form of monasticism, forms a rational framework for all of life. A fundamental characteristic of this “calling” is the need to reflect the fruit of election or salvation. This view resulted in the rejection of Catholic “magic” in which sacraments gave evidence and assurance of salvation. Thus evidence was sought in work and actions of the everyday life. Someone in the communion of God must demonstrate a different life than the unsaved. As an ascetic movement all of a person’s life was to be included in their calling. This left idleness (the wasting of time) to be one of the greatest sins for this reflected a lack of calling or a lack of pursuing God’s calling. The wealthy were not exempt from this (wealth generally only condemned as it to led to laziness). In this way an industrious people were cultivated who pursued excellence in their calling (including greater production and efficiency) and the rejection of frivolity (a frugality that did not indulge in worldly pleasures). Weber argues that this culminates in Benjamin Franklin’s maxim “Time is money”.

Near the conclusion of his work Weber offers an interesting quote by John Wesley that encapsulates much of his developed thesis.

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. . . . Is there no way to prevent this – this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.”

This of course is followed with the admonishment to give all one can as well. And this is something that I have been struck with recently. I have recurrent thoughts that it would have been good to develop a business in which I could provide quality employment and products to whichever community I belonged.

The issue raised for me and in Weber is how central economic activity is to one’s calling from God. It will take me further reflection to understand why, until recently, economic activity was almost entirely marginal to my quest for God’s calling. However, according to Weber, economic activity became a primary model of exhibiting the fruit of God’s calling.

Weber concludes prophetically,
“The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did it part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light coat, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should be become an iron cage.”

Posted by indie/faith at 7:50 PM EDT
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Sunday, 14 May 2006 - 9:54 PM EDT

Name: dave beldman
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Good to see that you are posting a little more frequently (I know--I'm one to talk) and provoking thought as usual.
Some things to keep in mind. Weber's thesis is trying to account for the radical economic shift which appeared to coincide with the Protestant Reformation but not everyone buys this thesis. I'm not sure I agree that "economic activity [is] a primary model of exhibiting the fruit of God’s calling." Would it follow that being an artist is less of a calling than any other because it is not typically lucrative?
Further, I think you have to define "economic activity." You wrote, "until recently, economic activity was almost entirely marginal to my quest for God’s calling," though I'm sure you have pondered the prospective salary of say a pastor or an OT professor. Does that count? I think it is true that we ought to consider the economic viability of our prospective callings but that is only one factor. I think typically, too many Christians are choosing careers that will give them the biggest pay-check (perhaps I am being too general here).

Tuesday, 16 May 2006 - 7:20 PM EDT

Name: Dave D

Hey Dave. I was hoping that you would weigh in here. Weber is certainly heavy-handed with Calvinists (especially the Dutch variety). First, with regards to the arts, Weber does note that Puritans, though often extremely cultured, "descended like a frost" upon the fine arts of England. Weber writes that "the conception of idle-talk, of superfluities, and of vain ostentation, all designations of an irrational attitude without objective purpose, thus nor ascetic, and especially not serving the glory of God, but of man, were always at hand to serve in deciding of favour of sober utility as against any artistic tendencies."

This has certainly been my experience from Mennonite upbrining though there was no explicit theological framework for why it existed. How does your formation react to this Dave?

As to the question of "economic activity" I don't think even Weber is claiming that this was a central component of the theological matrix he explores. Rather, it became of an implication of "worldly acesticism". I am still sorting out my theology of economics.

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