Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Who Will Live in the Cage?

Written by: on February 22, 2014

My copy of the book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is almost all marked with yellow highlighter. And almost every three or four pages has post-it tags sticking out of the pages. There is a reason why my book is marked in this manner.

Is it because:

(a)    the yellow markings are prove of my hard work,  good deeds and salvation;

(b)   it is instructive to trace (highlight) with Weber, the influence of religious ideas on economic development (p.11)

(c)    I have an over-abundance of yellow highlighters

If you guessed (b) then you are correct, but probably not for the reason you think.  The real reason I highlighted and put post-it tags on my pages was because I found Weber a little dry. So, I found myself going back to the beginning of the book and highlighting over and over again certain words and phrases. I honestly thought I was going to highlight the entire book.  But then I found it, the non-highlighted “aha” section:

“…the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But faith decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”[1]

According to Weber material goods have gained an increasing and an inexorable power over the individual.  It is this materialism and worldly success that has imprisoned humanity in what Weber calls the “iron cage” of self-perpetuating, rationalization and depersonalization. This was due in part to the influence and relationship between ascetic Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism.  Yet, it is not necessarily the economic changes that created capitalism, but it was the changes of people’s ideas of what it meant to work that contributed to capitalism.

Weber writes that a man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary from that purpose.[2] However, it was the influence of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination that brought about a new work ethic. Calvinism led the people (believers) to look for a way to show or validate their elect status.  According to Calvinistic principles, personal wealth became actual evidence of their salvation.

So, basically if you have an important job where you make significant money than that means that you are a good person.  Not only are you a good person, but that must mean that God likes you. If you are doing well financially, you must be doing something right! Does this sound familiar?  Profit and material success were signs of God’s favor.  Weber claims that this new thinking broke down the traditional economic system, thus creating a path for modern capitalism.[3] The activities needed for an effective capitalism, according to Weber, is not natural. It requires education and a new attitude of rational and systematic pursuit of profit. However, in order for capitalism to prosper what is needed is for people to embrace, adopt and internalize certain values.

Today, the spirit of religious asceticism has escaped from the cage, but capitalism no longer needs its support.[4]  So what about this iron cage?

In his book, A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf writes the following about the iron cage:

“What he (Max Weber) had in mind is roughly something like this: if you play the game, you’ve got to play it by preset rules, which in the case of the market means that you must maximize profit, these rules, and not moral considerations, determine how the game is played. The market traps you, compelling you to act in accordance with its rules.” [5]

Volf goes on to say that in these situations, faith may not completely fail to shape the lives of people and their social realities. But faith can become idle in important domains in which it, as a prophetic faith, should be active.  In the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions.[6] We often experience a pull or tension on whether or not to refuse to play the game when the rules conflict with our religious convictions.

No one knows who will live in the cage in the future or whether new prophets will arise, or if there will be a great rebirth of new ideas and ideals.[7] Yet, we must be people of faith in our everyday activities and in the various places where we do our daily work.

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), p.181.

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Ibid., p. 60.

[4] Ibid., p. 182.

[5] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.” (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013) p. 14

[6] Max Weber, p.182.

[7] Ibid., 182

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

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