I recall hearing a story years ago that came to mind during this week’s reading. A fisherman rests under a tree in the afternoon after a day where he caught enough fish to feed his family. A businessman from another land comes and asks the fisherman why he is resting when the day still contains daylight. The fisherman states that he caught enough for the day. The businessman enthusiastically shares that if the fisherman catches more than he needs, he can sell the excess, eventually buy another boat, and catch even more. “Why would I do that,” asked the fisherman. “So you can expand. If you continue to build, you could own a fleet of fishing boats,” replied the businessman. “What would I do then?” asked the fisherman. “Then you could rest after all your hard work.” “But that is what I am doing now.” This story relates to the issue of capitalism and a work ethic that Max Weber seeks to connect to faith The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Weber’s premise asks: How did the ethics of Protestantism (especially Puritanism) influence the emergence of a “spirit of capitalism?” His work, classified as religion and philosophy, focuses on the ethics of ascetic Protestantism and its resulting capitalistic momentum. Differing from the Catholic view of ascetism applied only to religious life, Protestants expanded ascetism to an entire life structured as a means to please and reflect God. Weber argues that the modern understanding of capitalism views work and its financial rewards as an end in itself. The emergence of modern capitalism opposed traditionalism in which, like the fisherman above, people worked enough to survive and provide in the moment. Not only did the capitalism view not condemn profit, but sees it as a virtuous pursuit. In seeking to unveil the source of that spirit, Weber turns to Protestant theology around calling in which one’s entire life could be dedicated to God, including one’s vocation and all that comes with it.
Weber traces Calvinistic beliefs, including predestination which believes that God determines those who are saved and those lost. The doctrine of God’s election of people before their birth gave adherents an individualistic attitude since they could not rely on others for any aspect of the expression of their salvation. In order to gain confidence about those who belong to God, Calvinists looked to their success in life’s activities and the presence of profit took on the outward sign of God’s favor upon that person. Weber notes that groups like Pietists, Methodists, and Baptists also held a similar view, but not the degree of Calvinists.
Weber acknowledges that his work stands incomplete and only attributes Protestantism as one factor in the formation of the capitalist spirit. Dr. Jason Clark in his dissertation notes areas in which Weber misunderstood specific aspects of various theological streams of belief and application. Clark states “The daily life of Christians, especially their labour, becomes the sole activity for the glory of God, with attention to hard work and prosperity as signs of Christian assurance being established.” As Protestantism grew, anxiety about one’s assurance of salvation also grew. Clark asserts that assurance got shifted onto “providence,” and which led not to a fulfillment of faithful Christian living but, rather, to “market imaginations” which included “non-religious imaginations for life.”
In all honesty, I have never given consideration or study to the connection of faith to capitalism. As I write this blog, I sit with a view of the Mediterranean Sea in Lebanon after a day of seeing a multi-faceted ministry that seeks to meet practical needs and share the gospel in a country collapsing economically. A ministry containing a school, farm, future hospital, and refugee shelter and more, requires fifty-thousand dollars to function every month. To meet those financial demands, entrepreneurship within the ministry and support from Western church and individual sources combine to sustain the effort. In this non-Western country, capitalism may be broken, but it exists painfully present every day. Beyond this country, a capitalistic movement born out of the Protestant Reformation dominates much of the world today. My naivete around the connection of faith and capitalism leaves me with more questions than answers today.
- What theology of work and wealth do we teach beyond the obvious principles?
- Are we subtly teaching a method of assuaging anxiety by giving a spiritual outlet for a portion of our wealth?
- If various streams of Protestantism encouraged both accumulating wealth and living a frugal life as a way to honor God, do we still connect the totality of life to God’s glory or does a greater divide exist now than ever before?
- In the discussion of a redistribution of wealth in this cultural moment, what do Christians add (or should they add) to the conversation?
- What does the biblical word “contentment” mean in this discussion?
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Talcott Parsons, trans. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 58-59.
 Ibid., 109.
 Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (diss., George Fox University, 2018), 82, https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132.
 Ibid., 120-121.