Working for What Purpose?
Well-known German sociologist and historian, Max Weber made significant contributions to the fields of social science and cross-cultural studies. In his work, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, he argues that the stimulus of capitalism had a spiritual root, namely from the Calvinists. As a book categorized within the social sciences, the historical significance that Weber contributes to the conversation surrounding the relationship between religion and capitalism provides valuable understanding that only builds upon previous conversations we have had on Evangelicalism. I must admit that this reading was a bit drier for me to navigate through, but I found a few online videos that helped contextualize Weber’s concepts.
At the crux of what Weber articulated was that the Calvinists, and specifically their belief in predestination, became a driving force for the expansion of this “Spirit” of capitalism. Their conviction that their contribution to society came through the form of work encouraged them to find their assurance through industry, perpetuating capitalistic growth. In terms of the Protestant ethic, Protestants criticized the ascetic ideals of Catholics while Catholics accused Protestants of striving towards materialism and focusing on a secularized way of life. The well-known express of “either eat well or sleep soundly” referred to the Protestants desire to eat well, living in the lavish, while the Catholics chose to sleep soundly, committed to a more spiritual way of life. The tension that existed, and still does, between such dramatically opposing viewpoints has thus created and perpetuated ways of living and being that impact society at large.
While going through the reading this week, it was fascinating to hold conversations with my husband, a fifth-grade teacher, who switched from teaching at an Assemblies of God affiliated school to a Calvin affiliated school. While his theological training is much more advanced than mine, even he has been caught off guard by a small sect of staff that hold such extreme (perhaps fundamental?) views on certain religious topics. Recently in reflecting with the head of his school about conversations with the pastor of the associated church, my husband expressed that he has simply never encountered someone before that professes following Jesus but holds rigid views in terms of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and a host of other biblical concepts. The response from his supervisor: “you shouldn’t have met very many.” But in furthering our conversations at home and me discussing Weber’s discussion on capitalism and the emphasis of Calvinists building up capital through trade, he was able to recognize the mass amounts of wealth and industry leaders represented by the families at his school. And yet, the contrast between knowing about God and knowing God is crystal clear through his conversations and interactions with some.
While I have largely grown up and worked in non-denominational or Pentecostal environments, the readings of Bebbington and Weber have driven me back to reflecting on John 17 and the being in but not of the world. Verse 11 clearly states that we wouldn’t be taken from the world but kept from the evil one. In relation to capitalism and discussions of money throughout the Bible, similar sentiments are expressed: money in and of itself is not evil, but it is the love of money that is considered a root of all kinds of evil. Surprising even myself, I circle back to Augustine and his emphasis on why we love and seek after what we do. The Calvinists may have spurred on a capitalist economy through seeking assurance in their works which can be argued to have had both positive and negative societal impacts, but ultimately it makes me question how I can today, living and leading within a very capitalistic society, can keep my eyes fixed on the one who bring true, everlasting abundance through eternal life. How do I leverage industry for the advancement of the kingdom? How do I work with excellence and use the skills and giftings given me to meet real- and Kingdom-needs? How do I help usher those who may know a lot about God into a space where they can actually know Him in a personal, transformational way? How do I engage in this world in meaningful ways while the fruit of my life still reflect the Spirit?
 BBC, “Max Weber and The Protestant Ethic.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-0sIHDzsU4
 Weber, 5.
 1 Timothy 6:10
10 responses to “Working for What Purpose?”
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Kayli, it sounds like you had a busy week as the book and life intersected. I’m curious, as you circled back to Augustine, did you see any direct connections between his work and Calvin’s views? Many people note how Calvin built on Augustine’s theology while the Catholic Church built so much on his work as well. I’m curious, because as you note, the Protestant and Catholic views differed greatly. Does Augustine lead in one clear direction or the other in your opinion?
Roy, you are so kind and generous to assume that a question with such theological depth is something that my mind would ponder 😉 I feel as if I ought to defer to Troy on this one. My assumption would be as a Roman Catholic, holding particular views he did, that he may be more apt to align towards Catholicism as we understand it today, but in all honestly, I really don’t know. 🙂
Kayli: I enjoyed your post. I grew up Roman Catholic and I still attend Mass when I travel or visit family. I still see the tension between Catholic and Protestant views of work and it is endlessly fascinating to me. How a person’s faith can influence their thinking on issues of macro economics and their approach to work show just how connected our faith is to our daily lives. There is a line between “live out your faith with fear and trembling” and “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” How that exactly plays out in each of us as we go about our work and material consumption looks different from Christian to Christian. Have you seen this play out differently in your interaction between Christians in different denominations?
Hi Troy: It’s been really interesting because I would say I wasn’t aware of significant differences of interactions between denominations until the last 5-10 years. Most recently with my husband switching to the Calvin-affiliated school, he’s been accused of being a heretic and satanist because he’s gone to school and worked in Pentecostal environments. While this wasn’t from someone at the school but the pastor connected to the school, it’s been tricky to navigate as their daughter is one of my husbands students this year. He has influence but no authority and you can see how the head of the school has been navigating tensions like these the last few years.
I do work at an Assemblies of God institution and while I don’t hold credentials or go to an AG church, I’ve been told I’m the “most pro-AG, non-AG” most folks know. Largely, I try to find the commonalities when I can as that seems to fuel relationship and connection more than the others. Our institution is also a Hispanic-Serving Institute so we have a lot of Catholic students. Some are excited to attend a less liturgical chapel environment while it’s incredibly challenging for others.
Kaylee, I love these questions at the end!! So good! If you have time, I would encourage you to read my response to Denise as I address some of these questions. I love that you are wrestling through these questions! In my opinion, how we answer those questions can lead to a full immersion of our faith in to our every day lives, which I love. Also, it can give meaning and significance to various trades, job, and work environments. For example, your husband has incredibly kingdom-impact through his work as a teacher, just as my wife does as a mother and doctor, just as others do in their various roles. I pray He continue to guide and lead these thoughts for you and your husband!
I am certainly inspired by the convictions that led to a “Protestant work ethic.” I certainly see it in my family tree, with people like my PaPa working up until a few years before he died and still finding projects to do after retirement.
At the same time, I think an unhealthy Protestant work ethic has led to unhealthy work-life balance and poor self-care.
What’s the balance between serving God faithfully and with excellence in our work while not killing ourselves in the process?
Hey Andy: I would lean towards it’s not a one-size fits all model of working with excellence and overworking. I think different seasons and stages of life help us to determine what that look like. I think where the overworking can come in is when we are out of sync with what the Lord has asked us to do versus what we think we ought to be doing. I love the phrase “don’t should on yourself” — am I being asked to serve in this capacity or do I think I should for one reason or another? I read the book “Why Men Hate Going to Church” when I was in my undergrad and it completely challenge how I viewed stepping into what I was being called/asked to do by the Lord versus my instinctive nature to just meet a need.
I think ultimately being able to be honest with the Lord and having real accountability as to the motivations behind the work is where we will find a fulfilling level of serving with excellence while still emerged in the rest and abundance of life He offers us.
Kayli I appreciate your reflection on our reading this week and the ways you are integrating it with conversations with your husband.
You may have surmised that I am not one who will lay the capitalism card at Calvin’s feet. I think often we humans forget this little nugget from Genesis 3 “Cursed is the ground on account of you;
in hard labor you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
18 Thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you will eat bread
until you return to the ground,
because out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you will return.”
Jesus came to redeem creation, to liberate us from this prison we create for ourselves. With this in mind, and coupled with your questions, how might Matthew 10:16 inform your process as you discern answers?
You did an amazing job analyzing the texts despite their apparent aridness. I can relate to the academic stretch. Great questions. Your reference to John 17 also was on my radar. Having grown up Catholic and worked in one the most Catholic countries you made me laugh out loud with the truth behind your statement, “Catholics chose to sleep soundly, committed to a more spiritual way of life.” Sometimes I wonder if we all are not asleep in our spiritual practices. Could it be the comfort and predictability of religious rules provide the structure for monetary success, but they are actually empty shells for spiritual transformation?