This semester my cohort is focusing on capitalism, consumerism and leadership. Our first assigned reading was Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber penned it in German in 1904 and 1905, but it’s a book that speaks to the heart of today’s American society.
There are lots of ideas from this reading that stand out to me, and I’ll write about two of them here. The first is the connection of vocation and spirituality. In American society, we’ve become defined by our work. When we meet someone new, one of the first things we ask is, “What do you do?” We think and act as if someone’s job gives us a glimpse into who they really are. It enables us to ‘size them up’ and make assumptions. If he or she owns a business then they are someone we should respect. If he or she works picking up garbage we probably question their intelligence and motivation. If he or she is a doctor then they must be trustworthy. This isn’t all that far from Weber’s argument that Calvinism linked faith and good works. If you were part of the elect you had to work hard as a sign of being chosen. While I don’t think many today would make that connection of grace and work so bluntly, I do think connecting vocation and spiritual vitality (grace/work’s kissing cousin?) is easy to do. For example, most church committees are filled with professionals and not minimum wage earners. Lawyers are great on the HR committee. Businesses folks are great on the Finance Committee. I have a sneaking suspicion that we get people to fill these rolls based more on their work experience or skill and less on how they model Christ-like-ness. If so, is this just an extension of what Weber argues allowed the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’ to thrive?
The second challenging idea is Weber’s notion of the iron cage. Weber argues that before modernity, money was a means to an end. Money could be used to serve your neighbor, or do good works, and to purchase possessions when necessary. But with modernity that changed. Money was no longer a means to an end, but the end itself. People worked harder and harder so they could spend more and more money. It’s as if they’re on the hamster wheel chasing something they’ll never obtain. Or, as Weber puts it, they’re in an iron cage with no way out. He writes, “material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history” (pg. 181). I’ll admit that I’m still processing Weber’s connection of Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism, though for me I think of it as “Church and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Here are some questions that I’m pondering:
- Are we primarily producing consumers or disciples? In what ways do church structures and systems affect this?
- How can Christians and the church speak against this system when we’re beneficiaries of it?Would we have credibility? Do we have an alternative system to offer?
- What’s the remedy?
- Am I willing to change even though the current system offers me “comfort” and an “easy” life?