In Max Weber’s book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the idea of religion shaping human characteristics, such as industriousness and self-denial, can positively affect the creation of wealth among the citizens of a nation. The premise of this book is immensely fascinating. The interplay of how faith shapes an individual’s work is interesting to study by itself. But how the faith of a group people can shape an entire nation and create a whole new worldview of economics is worthy of serious research and discussion.
Weber states, “These Puritans placed systematic work and a striving for profit in the middle of their lives for reasons related to their all-consuming questions: Am I among the saved?” (p.9). These religious people of the American Colonies, as well as in England and the Netherlands, wrestled with the notion of “once saved, always saved”. To find their answer they looked more to their worldly success and material prosperity than to the Bible. If their crops were abundant on a certain year, then they are in the good graces of God and their salvation was secure. But if the crops failed, their child got sick, and one of their oxen died, then God was displeased with them and their salvation was no longer secure. It is a precarious way to live and makes one’s faith always unstable. That is the negative side of their theology. The fear of not knowing if eternity with their God and redeemer awaits them after the grave is indeed a deep-seated fear.
But there is an enormous positive side the Puritan mind and their work ethic. It made for great accomplishments, creativity and economic growth. Weber explores at length this explosion in work productivity and the mindset of capitalism that fostered it. Far from being opposed to each other, Christian faith and Capitalism complemented each other to free the individual to work hard and create. Dr. Clark in his dissertation states, “Weber’s Protestant thesis arose in response to the question of why modern capitalism has emerged with the pursuit of profit and had not done so previously.”(p.78) It is a fascinating answer and part of it has to do with an individual’s sense of calling to take their own work seriously and with an entrepreneurial spirit. Weber states, “Puritanism, which grew out of Calvinism, provides the most consistent foundation for the idea of vocational calling” (p.158). When one approaches their daily work with a mindset that God is calling them to this specific task, one has a tendency to take their work a little more seriously.
The historical lens that Weber gives the reader is helpful. He traces the roots of how faith and economics interacted with each other back to the middle-ages. This proves helpful, as I came to better understand how the differences in the predominantly Roman Catholic nations of Europe and the Protestant nations of Europe nations played out. There is continuity and growth in these divergent ideas when the New World starts to get settled and the particular brand of American Capitalism takes root. All this historical context helps a Christian’s depth of understanding when the church today debates ideas such as the Prosperity Gospel and Once Save, Always Saved. We have argued these ideas before and Weber does a great job of explaining the history of these ideas.
It would be interesting to know what Augustine would think of this discussion and the history that Weber traces. Augustine separated the City of Man and the City of God dramatically and decisively, but I think he had wisdom enough to understand how God’s ways can be employed in this life to help build this world and at the same time build the Kingdom of God. Our work is not mutually exclusive—and we can build both at the same time. In the profound reflections of Forrest Gump, while standing over Jenny’s grave: “I think it’s both. Both happening at the same time.”