Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism intrigues me. I understand why this work has stood the test of time, for though his empirical arguments seem to be rooted in personal observation, his theoretical explanations of the correlations between Protestantism and Capitalism resonate and draw the modern reader into the conversation. I found myself repeatedly pausing as I read, considering the validity of various assertions while constantly reminding myself that he was writing over a century ago.
Similar to Bebbington, who wrote Evangelicalism in Modern Britain in order to “consider the influence of Evangelicals on society… and the ways in which Evangelical religion has been moulded by its environment.”, Weber looks specifically at how “religious forces, not simply economic ones, paved the way for the mentality characteristic of modern, Western capitalism,”
But as I read, I also kept asking myself, “What went wrong?” The editors Wells and Baehr summarize that “the Protestant radicals, inspired by a powerful sense of the divine, helped unwittingly to create a society and economic order its pioneers would have seen as godless, materialistic, and devoid of any ultimate purpose.”
I accept the suggestion that the end result of capitalism was not their intended result. But was it avoidable?
The driving religious force, in Weber’s analysis, is the Protestant concept of “beruf,” a German word for which there is no English equivalent. “Work gained an unprecedented dignity by being understood as a vocation or calling (Beruf) ordained by God.” In addition, Weber explains how a strong protestant work ethic, one infused with honesty and integrity and animated, by a sense of divine calling, led to a common understanding that Christians were good people with whom to do business. Thus Protestants began to prosper under Capitalism. Or vice versa. Even Weber seems unclear on which is the chicken and which is the egg.
While the Roman Catholics frowned upon materialism and worldliness, and therefore considered work to be simply a means of meeting their basic needs, Protestants began to understand wages as proof of their election or “the expression of diligence in one’s calling.”
And “one’s calling” is a highly personal endeavor, n’est-ce pas ?
Critic Donald Nielsen astutely points out a minor contradiction in Weber’s understanding of the telos of the Protestant work ethic. His observation is worth quoting at length:
Weber sometimes suggests that the Puritans resolved the problem of asceticism’s unintended consequence of wealth better than the Medieval monastic orders…by resisting the temptation to use wealth to “ennoble” their middle class life style. On the other hand, Weber concluded his study on a very different note concerning precisely this issue. He cites Baxter’s idea that concern for outward possessions, accumulated through ascetic devotion to one’s calling, ought to be like a cloak which can be thrown aside when it threatens the soul’s salvation. He liked this Baxterian image so much that he expanded it into his now famous metaphor in which the cloak becomes what Baehr and Wells call a “shell as hard as steel” (Parsons’ “iron cage”).
And what do “shells as hard as steel” do, but isolate us from one another.
Enter Rebel Sell, a book that claims to have identified the Achilles heel of social justice countercultural movements that seek to clean up that godless, materialistic, purposeless mess that the Protestant rebels created. While the countercultural movements pride themselves in working above or outside of the corrupt systems and masses, authors Heath and Potter point out their heavy reliance on a romantic form of individualism that was fuelled by writers such as Emmerson and Thoreau. “They were romantic individualists who valued self-reliance and were possessed of a grand contempt for mass society.”
It seems that the counterculteral rebellion has created it’s own “shell as hard as steel” through self-reliance and individualism. The very quality that they prize may be the thing that’s keeping them from reaching their goals.
Wells and Baehr insist that the Puritans knew not what they did. “The Puritan’s of Weber’s story did not know, could not know, what they were doing; people can only know what they intend to do, and even then, their self-knowledge is highly imperfect.”
Enter The Dark Side of Leadership, where authors Macintosh and Rima write about the importance of self-knowledge in equipping leaders to avoid major pitfalls. And even though they rightly observe, “That is the role of leadership: to do the right things, not merely to do things right” I wonder if their approach might not lead us down the same perilous path of the Puritans—one that is so myopically focused on personal salvation that it fails to acknowledge what the “right things” really are in the context of the Body of Christ.
Almost synonymous with the Reformation and certainly intertwined with both Capitalism and the Protestant work ethic is the rise of autonomy. Even the invention of the printing press contributted to this trend, for now individuals could possess and read the word of God in their own homes and on their own time, whereas before the reading of the Word of God was only ever a corporate activity. Christian communities in the States particularly prize autonomy and individualism and have (unwittingly?) reduced the faith to a “personal relationship with Jesus,” which renders participation in the body of Christ to an optional activity on Sunday mornings. When we seek to live a life of faith autonomously, we will, undoubtedly, end up doing the wrong things even if we have the right intentions. We need to be thinking and acting communally–this is the whole point of being Christ’s body on earth.
Enter Being Consumed, where Cavanaugh offers the solution of being re-membered to the Body of Christ. Might community-mindedness have been the antidote to the pitfalls of the Protestant work ethic? What if we were better at honoring our connectedness? What if we thought about the impact that our actions had not only on ourselves, but on others. What if we acknowledged that the words “personal relationship with Jesus” never appear in the word of God, and that faith is always, only, and ever a team sport? What if we lived into the unity for which Jesus prayed?
 David William Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Repr (London [u.a.]: Routledge, 1995).
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: And Other Writings, ed. Gordon C Wells and Peter Baehr (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), http://rbdigital.oneclickdigital.com. ix.
 Weber. xviii.
 Weber. xix.
 Weber. 12.
 Weber. xii.
 Donald A. Nielsen, “The Incredible Shrinking Protestant Ethic,” International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society 16, no. 4 (June 2003): 587.
 Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (Chichester: Capstone, 2006). 72.
 Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. xii.
 Gary L McIntosh and Samuel D. Sr. Sr Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become an Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures, Ebook (Grand Rapids: Baker Pub. Group, 2010). Loc 719.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008).