It’s not too often that I’m going to quote an urban poet like Snoop Dogg for my cohort blog, but I guess that just happened. 😉
Reading through the first half of Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism“, I find myself reflecting on the narrative of capitalism in modern America. Weber is still considered the leading voice in sociological circles of connecting ideas to cultural factors. How did we get here? Perhaps more importantly for those who claim to follow after Jesus of Nazareth, should we have ever gotten here? Are we to be defined by what we acquire and work towards the ends of individual comforts and securities?
“Capitalism, as an economic system, resting on the organization of legally free wager-earners, for the purpose of pecuniary profit, by the owner of capital or his agents, and setting its stamp on every aspect of society, is a modern phenomenon.” (Foreword Ic) Weber is searching for a unique reason for the explosion of capitalisitc development in the US and England that was quantitatively and qualitatively different than that of other cultures with free enterprise. He asserts that there is something peculiar about the Protestant work ethic, particularly amongst Calvinists post-Reformation that contributes to this success. At some point, “labour is not merely an economic means; it is a spiritual end.” (3)
Weber sorts through other possibilities to account for the phenomenal growth such as inherited wealth, Enlightenment rationalism and the technology of industrialism. In all these cases, Catholics and other western European contexts had the same experiences and constructs of modernism but without the same lasting and ongoing effects. Weber points to a new kind of ‘calling’ that came out of the Reformation to hopeful Protestants that caused them to look at money differently, their work differently and the end of their labor differently. Weber strongly believes that Calvinism “seems to have promoted the development of the spirit of capitalism.” (44) Later he states: “It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. This is the quailty which interests us.” (51)
This ethos is what Weber points to as being a peculiar Protestant work ethic that changed the game of how work and wealth is perceived. Work and making money is no longer just for basic means, it became a part of the calling to being committed to God. “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs. . . At the same time it expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.” (53) What has its origin in a new way of thinking religiously through the Reformation has become the norm, the basis of our thought growing up in capiltalistic cultures.
The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at leas as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action. (54)
This new identity was a tremendous sense of responsibility and calling about what one ‘ought’ to do and be on earth. “The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic aesceticism, but solely through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling.” (80) Work and wealth acquistion were to be done towards the greater good of all individuals, they served a higher calling than just work: “labour in a calling appears to him as the outward expression of brotherly love.” (81) Work was ministry and ministry was work. It was guided by an ethic of avoiding the world and taking care of one another. Weber suggests it is this ethic that uniquely drove the explosion of capitalism that has led to America redefining modern society and economics.
But now we have witnessed another huge shift. America is increasingly more post-Christian, pluralistic, modern in its no need or dependency on God. Our capitalist comforts have created enough distractions from the questions that matter. Work, vocation, acquiring wealth has become the story that is sold to offer us meaning and purpose in this life. Not far behind is Christian Evangelicalism in America that more resembles industry and corporate strategy than the Beatitudes. This is where we find ourselves, but ought we even be here?
The ‘ought’ question is probably not the best question. Since we are here, now what? How do we participate in and around godless capitalism and not be of it and free from its corruption? It will start with an intentional desire to be a different people, a people set apart. A people defined by our Kingdom story and not by our economic culture. In my mind and experience, that only happens in authentic community. May we set our minds on that work, and not on our money.