I see a play in Seattle that creates quite a conversation between the four of us who attend. Later, someone asks me, “A good play?” While I didn’t particularly enjoy it musically, I say “yes,” with the idea that the play causes great dialogue over the thematic issues. The greatness of a book, a play, or an event resides in how it becomes a catalyst for future research, exchanges and/or integration of understanding. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism provides just that as a seminal book that continues today as a must-read in both undergrad and graduate sociology programs.
Becoming one of the first in an era of Marxism to link Protestantism and economic factors, he concludes that these intersecting social sciences create an environment for capitalism never seen before. Primed by the Protestant work ethic, sense of calling, and asceticism, capitalism now has a mechanism by which to cultivate greater wealth for the sake of wealth. The work ethic of Calvinism requires a serious focus on the value of work where “a community and home environment… fostered the peculiar mentality most suited to business acumen and professional advancement.” That work ethic impacts the sense of calling individuals have regarding their everyday mundane work as something that glorifies God. Finally, the asceticism of a self-discipline lifestyle sterilizes all other endeavors, focusing on the belief that “the rational expansion of wealth was tolerated or encouraged, as willed by God. What was discouraged was the irrational use of wealth. Together these teachings acted to assist the accumulation of capital by encouraging the ascetic compulsion to save. Accumulated money becomes a source of improvement for the world and those who acquire it (albeit, not for those who want a handout).
Weber’s proposal fascinates me as he connects facets of society. Yet, what intrigues me most is not so much the concepts of capitalism, Protestantism influence, the critiques of his work, but rather two observations about his life. First, he writes this work after a significant depressive illness that prevents him from writing in his academic field for a while. It causes me to wonder how often we need a break from the steady diet of focusing on something. Granted, I don’t recommend a mental breakdown. However, could it not be that the brain actually requires more rest than we often allow it to have? My suggestion does not mean that I’m going to stop doing my dissertation. Rather, I’m grateful for the seven years between now and when I first applied for the George Fox program in 2008. What a different place and perspective I have now that I took that time in between. Likewise, Weber contributes a broader and fuller understanding of society’s use of and investment in capitalism, perhaps as a result of taking some time away from his previous studies.
My second observation of Weber’s work focuses on his motivation behind The Protestant Ethic. He asks about social and economic change in his concern for the ubiquitous everyday serf becoming a day laborer. Apparently, the effort by the working class of Germany is to seek more financial and social freedom. He wants to understand the change versus being a “dilettante” who only starts an interesting conversation. Diving into the topic with as many social sciences as possible, in some ways, he’s fulfilling his own protestant calling (as “religiously unmusical” ) by seeking to understand how people find freedom. Questions abound in his quest: What is the attraction for that day laborer desiring freedom? What circumstances allow for that kind of motivation? How did the change come to pass? By connecting the Protestant factors with economic means, Weber begins to see the way a day laborer operates in society, ultimately impacting all of western society.
That leads me to ask the question, what are we, as followers of Christ, doing to understand the mind of society? Are we able to make connections between political, economic, religious, and social influences that speak to the way culture operates? How can we see, prophetically perhaps, that the Protestant work ethic and asceticism lead to an “Iron Cage” (a term Weber uses for the Puritans) who ascetically create a means for capitalism to flourish, yet at the same time create a new type of bondage? The initial goal of the day laborer for financial and social freedom eventually becomes another prison in which he seeks to escape. Weber starts with the question of freedom, one of the essential questions. Humanity desires freedom through the search for meaning. How are we free? Across the social sciences, what actually creates real freedom? As Christians, are we asking the bigger questions? What comes to mind is another Eastern European, who speaks of freedom through the Holocaust: “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.” Viktor Frankl goes on to say that responsibility must be co-joined with freedom, building upon the act of love which recognizes purpose beyond what we pursue or accomplish. As followers of Christ, we can point to the loving act of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who reminds us that the greatest of all is love (1 Corinthians 13). As Weber has done, can we continue the dialogue, heated and/or controversial that it may be, that asks of our responsibility?
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love,
and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.” Micah 6:8 (The Message)
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and The, trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), xi.
 Paul Gingrich Dr., “Sociology 250” (lecture, University of Regina, Regina, SK, Canada, October 2, 2002), accessed February 23, 2015, http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/o1102.htm.
 Weber, xii.
 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Salt Lake City, UT: Beacon Press, 2006), 77.
9 responses to “The Dialogue”
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I especially like the quote of Viktor Frankl, freedom is half the story and must be joined with responsibility. So the work ethic might help someone move from a minimum wage job and begin to prosper but while that enables them financially – but may also begin to create another form of bondage. Very interesting. I appreciated those insights and believe that we need to see work as an expression of our worship. Work as worship would certainly appropriately wed freedom and responsibility.
Mary/Dave…I also really appreciated the Viktor Frankl. Good stuff. And Dave I love your connection of work and worship. Brother Lawrence talks about “praying with ceasing” being possible through washing dishes/chores/etc. A joy and connection to Jesus through our work is possible and would bring freedom and responsibility.
Mary. Im sitting here getting ready to post my thoughts using the title of “Holy Hoarders” and I dropped to look in on my cohort’s thoughts… saw your quote “the rational expansion of wealth was tolerated or encouraged, as willed by God. What was discouraged was the irrational use of wealth. Together these teachings acted to assist the accumulation of capital by encouraging the ascetic compulsion to save.” Doesn’t this strike you as a kind of pharisaical bending of the rules? “I can accumulate stuff because, after all, I’ll manage it for the ‘greater good’ but you, on the other hand, will just use it for yourself so you shouldn’t be allowed to amass any measurable wealth…” Does it seem that the Protestant slide into capitalism was a slide into elitism and a sort of caste system?
Mary, Love your question: “What are we, as followers of Christ, doing to understand the mind of society?” More than ever, ok, for the first time ever, it seems my most basic drive is to attempt to understand the world we are living in holistically. I think the reading for this class has been incredible to lead us down this road. I really hope I can engage in and really absorb all that we are attempting to comprehend. Great post!
“What is our responsibility?” Good question Mary….As I’ve gone through this semester my eyes seen to be opened wider every week by our reading. More and more I feel a wrestling in my soul yet don’t know how to fully play it out.
Nick, I’m in much the same place… I can have a tendency to just slide into a sort of fatalism. “It can’t be changed, there’s nothing we can do to make things better, the wave is just to great to be avoided.” Then you jump into a course of study like this one and the stirring to MAKE A CHANGE becomes unavoidable. We have to do something different!
Just not sure what
“The greatness of a book, a play, or an event resides in how it becomes a catalyst for future research, exchanges and/or integration of understanding.”
That is a great way to look at it. While it is hard to process so much deep material so quickly, one of the advantages is the interplay between authors and topics. As I read Weber, I could not help but think about the idea that we are all theologians and that one’s theology will effect they way they live. With that in mind, it is easier to see the connection Weber makes between Protestantism and capitalism.
Mary, this is excellent! Great points and really well-written. When you mentioned Seattle, I went to the cohort Facebook page and did a little “benevolent stalking” (:-)) to find you have connections to Tacoma and Gig Harbor. I was born and raised in Tacoma, and spent the summers of my teen years clambering about Lake Minterwood, situated between Purdy and Vaughn. Lots of great memories and many a crossing of Narrows Bridge.
I love your investigation into Weber’s motivations for writing his tome. I don’t think that I had ever considered that, and both of those motives–a return from a period of possible depression and the industrialization and urbanization of Germany–are telling and immediately add a lot of hue and tone to the book. That is especially true as we see the vast urban migrations occurring in places like India, China and much of Africa. The risks and benefits of the move from serf to day laborer is a story that continues to be told daily through much of the world.
Responsibility … freedom … fair … just — these are words and concepts that continue to shade the backgrounds of the world’s great economies.
Thanks for sharing!
I love how you see things Mary. We do need to make sure we dont put ourselves in bondage because of a overly ascetic life. Striking that balance is so crusial. I am really praying to focus more on my spiritual life without going over board. There are times we need to relax our minds because sometimes we are doing more pouring out than we are being poured into. May God bless us all to know balance in all that we do!