If You’re Happy and You Know It Then You’re Saved
There’s an old joke in the American South that asks, what’s the difference between a Baptist and Methodist? The punch line? The Methodist will speak to you in the liquor store. This joke always brings a smirk to the most stoic Baptists and Methodists among us. It is funny because it taps on the underlying reality that protestants stem truly from a simple root system comprised of a few elements. Max Weber illuminated one of those roots and called it the Protestant ethic. Growing up as a Methodist in East Tennessee I could not tell a difference between Sunday mornings at Panther Springs United Methodist Church and my less frequent experiences at Hillcrest Baptist Church. There were certainly differences in the liturgy, but how we talked about God, how we approached evangelism, and most broadly and yet most poignantly, how we lived our lives, spent our money, and our time were all the same.
Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism made explicit a relationships that developed between the burgeoning Protestant movement, Calvinism specifically, and the growth of capitalism. Weber’s work is highly debated as it simplifies a very complex symbiotic relationship between religion and economics. Yet it provided a new framework in the early 20th century for understanding why capitalism flourished so well in countries rooted in Protestantism. Weber cites two crucial developments, stemming from the Reformation that provide the seedlings of the Protestant ethic and Capitalistic spirit. The two elements are a) vocation and b) predestination. Vocation stems from Luther and the Reformation. For Luther, all forms of work were sacred. The Catholic persuasion was that the highest vocation was the pursuits found within the church or monastery. For the Protestant, work of all kinds was valued by God, and must be pursued as though it were being done for God. The second element was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. This doctrine asserted that God chose and had knowledge of those who would be saved from eternal damnation, and conversely, knowledge of those condemned to Hell. However, Protestant’s themselves didn’t know who was saved! Previously, salvation was found in the Catholic Church, but Protestants were no longer tethered to such institution certainly. How was one to know if one was saved? Evidence was sought in the form of accumulated wealth.
Wealth was not sought for the sake of luxurious living, or gaudy materialism, but in, well, capital. Weber calls this ascetic Protestantism. Weber writes, “While favoring the production of private economic wealth, asceticism was opposed to injustice and purely instinctive greed–for it was this that it condemned as ‘covetousness’ […] it also regarded wealth achieved as the fruit of labor in a calling as a blessing from God.”  For Weber, it was this blessings, this fruitfulness, and the accumulation of capital that indicated Divine-favor and therefore chosenness. Of course this is stately simply, but it boils down Weber’s main point: That the Protestant ethic created fertile soil for the growth, development, and expansion of capitalism. Over time, capitalism takes a life of its own, untethering itself from Protestantism or any religious ethic. Capitalism was a tree planted between streams of living water – those streams were called Protestantism and industrialization. Just as Christ ascended to the Father and sent His Spirit, so too has Protestantism dissolved, and sent the spirit of capitalism.
I’m curious about Weber‘s work around rationalism and bureaucracy, and how they impact Western culture today. It is as though the system of capitalism requires significant organization built upon rationalism. Such organization is meant to free a company or group to pursue its goals in a well organized manner. But Weber found that this sort of rationalism led to disenchantment among the populace. Capitalism needed a bureaucratic structure to be efficient and to accumulate capital. However, this resulted in people becoming machines in a system of meaninglessness. The rise of rationalism, and the movement away from the Catholic Church also served to demystify life and religious experience. I wonder if we are seeing a re-enchantment within Western culture in more recent decades (1960s to present).
Carl Jung felt this was the place and purpose of psychology. I would also add this is the service which mythology provides as well. Has ascetic Protestantism mixed with Evangelical moralism created a disenchanted Christianity? Perhaps this helps to explain the cultural “spiritual but not religious” sentimentality. Capitalism is not going away. Protestantism is not evil, but it is dying. This death is not entirely bad, because it is the kind of death which is connected to life. So, how will life emerge? My bias is that our way forward is found within, so we need tools and guides for navigating our inner landscape, to reconnect with purpose, soul, and become re-enchanted.
 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: And Other Writings. Penguin, 2002. 116.
3 responses to “If You’re Happy and You Know It Then You’re Saved”
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Knowing the period Weber was writing this, it would have been an interesting conversation to see him give commentary on a socialist culture.
In reading the Book of Acts, you cannot help but wonder if socialism in its most basic form fits with the church’s pursuit of loving God and loving neighbor. Reading passages like Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, in which people were selling property, homes, and possession to meet the needs around them, along with Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem across many of his letters, we cannot avoid the equity created within the church, leveling the playing field as the wealthy provided the most for their neighbors.
What do you think?
I feel a more equity driven social and economic structure is generally a good starting point. But from a realist perspective, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to pry ourselves from the gravitational pull of global capitalism. I think the church has good bones for this shift, but it depends on the each denomination’s values and ethos, and how unconscious leadership is to its capitalistic spirit. Of course, local churches can pursue equity and justice, but if those aren’t actual values within their organization, they will only be frustrated, and eventually have to compromise in order to truly belong. What are your thoughts as a local pastor?
Michael thank you for your thoughts.
Your wrote, “but how we talked about God, how we approached evangelism, and most broadly and yet most poignantly, how we lived our lives, spent our money, and our time were all the same.” How much of this was done in silos…one for life, one for church?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 1 asks: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To Glorify God and enjoy Him forever. How might this question/answer shape Christians embodiment of the silos we live in?
How might Calvin’s major concern over humans propensity of idolatry of themselves be reflected in what Jung says of the shadow self?