I have some pet peeves; we all do. Two of mine came up in this week’s reading. These pet peeves are related to the words “blessing” and “calling.” In my present understanding, these words are often misunderstood, particularly in Christian circles.
Sometimes I sneeze. Sometimes I sneeze several times in a row. In the American culture, the most common cultural response to a sneezing person is, “God bless you.” I know there are reasons why this is so. In the American Christian sub-culture it is appropriate to “bless” someone when saying goodbye. “God bless you, my friend. God bless you richly!” So what does this really mean to have a blessing from God? What does a person’s life look like who is “blessed” by God? Is that person protected from illness and calamity? Is that person free from financial worry? Many Christians in the West see wealth as a sign of God’s blessing; but is that always true? Is that ever true?
I am a teacher. I have been a teacher for over twenty years. Before I was a teacher, I was a minister. I felt a “call” to ministry when I was a teenager; at least that is what I understood at the time. That season of my life lasted for 16 years. Those were good days – and bad days. In my late 30’s I taught in my first classroom. I will never forget that day. Three years later I went into teaching full-time. Was this a new calling? What happened to the first one? What does a “calling” mean for a Christian? Is it a call that leads to a vow of humble poverty, or is it a call that leads to a vow of self-assured abundance?
The reading for this week was fascinating. I was impressed by Max Weber’s deliberate and well-developed argument that the evolution of Protestantism became a primary cause for capitalistic thought and practice, particularly in the modern Western world. Max Weber writes: “National or religious minorities, which are in a position of subordination to a group of rulers are likely, through their voluntary or involuntary exclusion from positions of political influence, to be driven with particular force into economic activity.” As one studies Church history, he or she cannot deny that Protestants were definitely the religious minority in the beginning of sixteenth-century Europe, but they did not remain a minority for long. However, as Weber shows, this new status did not come without much bitter, theological infighting among these protesters of the Roman Catholic Church.
In a relatively short read, Weber covers the development of Protestant theological thought from Martin Luther through modern times. In a deliberate fashion the author reasons that Capitalism, in all its glory, was predominantly advanced in the Western world as an economic and political system due to a Protestant theological framework. An unfolding of Protestant theology, reasons Weber, is the primary cause for the rise and spread of capitalistic dogma and practice. Starting with Luther, the text traces the meaning of the term “calling” (a product of the Reformation) and argues that over time the meaning of this term morphed from “one’s life purpose” (which included one’s secular occupation) to “one’s financial responsibility to the common good” (a concept radically different from its earlier definition). Luther’s reaction to monasticism became a “moral justification of worldly activity.” Although Luther popularized this concept of calling, “the task set by God [for one’s life],” it was only later that the concept developed a power of its own as it was further advanced by John Calvin and other Puritan sects.
Although it would seem contradictory that asceticism could ultimately produce a capitalistic philosophy of life (at least it seems contradictory to me), yet according to Weber’s thesis, that is exactly what happened over time. Chapter 4 of our text covers the historical unfolding of four principal forms of ascetic Protestantism: Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and Baptist sects. Each of these systems made its contribution to Weber’s thesis in different ways. Calvinism focused on rational thought and on the primacy of Scripture. It also promoted the concept that “labor in the service of impersonal social usefulness appears to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by Him.” Calvinism even encouraged intense worldly activity as that which “disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace.” According to Weber, this resulted in the view that “God helps those who help themselves,” something that Calvin probably never intended. Pietism promoted the concept of “calling.” Weber writes: “Labor as a calling was also the ascetic activity par excellence for A.H. Francke; that God Himself blessed His chosen ones through the success of their labors was as undeniable to him as we shall find it to have been for the Puritans.” Weber adds that Methodists contributed little new information to the understanding of “calling”; he then traces the input of the Baptist sects of the day, which included the Mennonites and the Quakers. Of this group Weber says, “…the immense importance which was attributed by the Baptist doctrine of salvation to the role of the conscience as the revelation of God to the individual gave their conduct in worldly callings a character which was of the greatest significance for the development of the spirit of capitalism.” Finally, Weber sums up his thoughts on asceticism thus:
As we have seen, this ascetic conduct meant a rational planning of the whole of one’s life in accordance with God’s will. And this asceticism was no longer an opus supererogationis, but something which could be required of everyone who would be certain of salvation. The religious lives of the saints, as distinguished from the natural life, was – the most important point – no longer lived outside the world in monastic communities, but within the world and its institutions. This rationalization of conduct within this world, for the sake of the world beyond, was the consequence of the concept of calling of ascetic Protestantism.
Christian asceticism, at first fleeting from the world into solitude, had already ruled the world, which it had renounced from the monastery and through the Church. But it had, on the whole, left the naturally spontaneous character of the daily life in the world untouched. Now it strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world.
Finally, Max Weber turns to the writing of the Puritan writer Richard Baxter. Baxter and his supporters objected to leisure and enjoyment; however, they did not object to activity. In fact, activity served to increase the glory of God. But what was truly sinful, according to Baxter, was wasting time. Baxter is even quoted as saying, “Work hard in your calling.” Weber then explains that many Protestants came to understand from the Old Testament teaching that they were God’s chosen people. Weber concludes:
In conformity with the Old Testament and in analogy to the ethical valuation of good works, asceticism looked upon the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself as highly reprehensible; but the attainment of it as a fruit of labor in a calling was a sign of God’s blessing. And even more important: the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof or rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of that attitude toward life which we have here called the spirit of capitalism.
I have a third pet peeve. I do not appreciate when people think they have God figured out, particularly when they think they understand the Bible seamlessly. I used to do this; I used the Bible like a magic book but do not do this any more. I don’t believe that the blessing of God is necessarily about material possessions, wealth, or a problem-free life. If this were so, then we would have to forget about the majority of the world’s population (many of them Christians) who find themselves in poverty and affliction, and I can’t forget.
I loved Max Weber’s book, and I am glad it was an assigned reading. I agree with his basic thesis. But as with most of our readings for the semester, I am left with a question: Now what? How do I apply this to my life? Only time will tell.
God’s richest blessings on you all.