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On How Calvinism & Capitalism Have Calcified Our Imaginations

Written by: on January 28, 2020

Observing that many of the most successful and well-educated business people of his day were Protestants, Max Weber, in his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sought to answer the question: what is the connection between Protestantism and the emergence of the capitalism of his day?  Drafted less as an economic expose, The Protestant Ethic reads like a sociological analysis that sought to understand why people behave the way that they do.[1] Drafted within the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Weber, like so many others, was aware of the economic shifts that were occurring, believed he saw a unique contribution of religion to the transition and sought to articulate what that contribution was. While he is quick to point out that an ethos of capitalism had existed in myriad forms throughout history, he was especially interested in the Protestant (generally), Calvinist (specifically) ethical contributions that gave shape to contemporary capitalism.

Not a religious man, Weber was first and largely influenced by US American deist, Benjamin Franklin[2], who was successful at advancing business as the vocational ideal. This elevation of business to the top of the vocational food-chain replaced the previously well-regard occupations of art and spiritual contemplation as the most well-regarded vocations. Weber seemed to be attracted to Franklin’s idea that time was money and that one’s reputation as having a robust work ethic, vocational drive, honesty, and punctuality would serve the businessman well.  That is, to embody such characteristics is to demonstrate to others that one is a trustworthy colleague. Influenced by Franklin, Weber adopted the idea that professional success was the highest ideal, respected those who were deemed economically elite, and thus, wondered about the connection between the perceived Protestant dominance of professional success and their faith.

Here, Weber entered into his exploration of Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologies and homed in on Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination.  From his perspective, this doctrine was the fertile ground upon which Protestant work ethic[3] and understanding of vocational calling[4] emerged. In short, Weber deducted that this doctrine, which asserts that some are pre-ordained by God for eternal communion with God and others for eternal damnation, generated insecurity in the lives of Calvinist Protestants. Thus, the driving question for Calvinists was: How can I know that I am one of those elected for eternal communion rather than eternal damnation? To assuage their fear, Calvinists resurrected the Hebrew Scripture’s criterion of wealth as the metric by which they could measure their certainty on whether or not they resided within God’s favor.

In order to identify the locus of the spirit of capitalism, it is here that Weber offered his best work. He drew the connection between the doctrine of predestination, the fear it generated in Calvinists, the metric they adopted to gain confidence in their election, and the ethic of work or vocational “calling” that they developed. In so doing, Weber identified what was, from his perspective, the theological origins of contemporary capitalism: in order to pursue certainty of God’s favor measured in the acquisition of wealth, Calvinists transformed their theology of work.

While there are many detrimental implications[5] to the doctrine of predestination, the emergence of capitalism is one that I have never considered.  That said, there are three other implications that surface here that are worth our consideration. As we seek to become faith leaders within our global context who are can navigate the dynamics and implications of our history well, consideration of the following seems important. If predestination gave rise to capitalism, then it increases the doctrine’s emphasis on the individual[6], it encourages exploitation through unchecked consumerism, and it replaces sacrificial love as the defining characteristic of Christian faithfulness with accumulating wealth.

Individualism

As Weber laid out his understanding of predestination, the notion of individualism surfaced as an unfortunate yet natural consequence. It is a natural response in that the doctrine itself successfully generates fear rather than hope. Individualism, often in the form of self-preservation, is a common response to fear.  Individualism in practice seeks either the elimination of anxiety or the arrival upon a positive destination that is beneficial to the person.  It is an unfortunate response in that individualism causes us to prioritize our own self-interests over and above those of others.  In short, the individualism that emerges out of the doctrine of predestination and that capitalism requires is antithetical to the others-oriented, self-sacrificial way of Jesus.

Exploitation

In the traditional economy that Polanyi highlighted in The Great Transformation, the common good of the community was of central interest.[7]  While inequity certainly existed, the ethic of the traditional economy in some ways sought to reflect the vision of the prophet Isaiah in which he portrayed a way of life where each woman, man, and child was able to rest under the shade of their own fig tree. In this passage, work is implied, as is the equal distribution of space and resources.  Within this equation of sorts, humanity is able to exist at rest with self and one another. Yet, Weber seems to suggest that, with the onset of Calvinism, the doctrine of predestination, the insecurity that it generated, and the spirit of capitalism that resulted, the accumulation of wealth in order to secure certainty of God’s affection become necessary.  In short, the distortion of one’s understanding of work as an attempt to accumulation wealth in an effort to secure personal confidence in God’s favor requires the exploitation of others. The entire system is antithetical to the others-oriented, self-sacrificial way of Jesus.

Replacement

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate implications of the doctrine of predestination is that it eliminates a core distinctive of the Christian tradition. Namely, in the work of Jesus on the cross and empty tomb, we do not have to wonder Whose we are. In his letter to the Ephesian community, Paul identified the entire community as “beloved.”  In so doing, with confidence, he declared to them that the work of God in Jesus meant that each of them were God’s tekna[8], God’s beloved. God loved each of them as though every single individual was God’s only child.  Because of the work of Christ, we do not have to wonder about Whose we are nor our eternal destination/existence.  Fittingly, Paul continues like he did in so many other places, urging them to live lives marked by love. The fruit of love, as is designated throughout the entire New Testament was and is the indicator of Christian faithfulness. The individualism and exploitation of others generated by Predestination’s uncertainty of God’s favor replaces love with the accumulation of wealth as an indication of Christian faithfulness. This replacement, like individualism and exploitation, is antithetical to the others-oriented, self-sacrificial way of Jesus.

So where do we go from here? If, as Weber suggests, the spirit of capitalism is deeply influenced by Calvinism, Protestantism, and Evangelicalism, and if that spirit is incongruent with the Spirit of the Resurrected One, how do we think of and participate within the milieu of capitalism? From my perspective, more than taking this question very seriously, we must ask that Spirit to reawaken our imaginations to the reality of our belovedness and the necessity of courageous generosity.

~~

[1] https://eh.net/book_reviews/the-protestant-ethic-and-the-spirit-of-capitalism/

[2] Weber, Max, Talcott Parsons, and R.H. Tawney. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. 24

[3] Ibid. 17

[4] Ibid. 29

[5] Ibid. 35

[6] Ibid. 73

[7] Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press: Boston. 2001, 258.

[8] https://www.greeknewtestament.com/B49C005.htm

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

29 responses to “On How Calvinism & Capitalism Have Calcified Our Imaginations”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    Your comment in our zoom session regarding the tension we exist in as Christians wanting to follow Jesus, yet living in this capitalistic society has me considering how this monster can be tamed. I think there is an awakening happening across the nation. I believe marginalized voices are speaking up and beginning to be heard. I believe people are awakening to the globally damaging effects of our consumeristic ways. What I don’t think is happening is an awakening to how we got here, especially theologically. And that I think is where work needs to be done.

    The tangled ball of yarn that is evangelicalism/capitalism has to be untangled, otherwise we will continue to do destruction to our communities and planet, all in the good name of Jesus. What changes do you see taking place? What pockets of hope are you seeing? How can we capitalize (pun intended) on that momentum to transform a generation to benefit the generations that follow?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy,

      I think you’re right that there is a bit of an awakening happening. Based on my reading of Gandhi, Dr. King, and others, I would suggest that the impacted communities have ever been aware of the negative implications of the consumerism & oppression that is inevitable with the onset of capitalism. So the awakening I’m paying attention to is that of dominant culture folk who have benefitted from the system and who are learning to listen to the analyses from the margins.

      And yes, I agree with Weber that this conundrum is deeply influenced by self-serving theology.

      The problem, as I see it, is that too few are able to imagine a scenario where redistribution toward equity could become a possibility. It seems as though capitalism has become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we cannot nor will not critique it.

      Untangling the ball, from my perseptive, will take a lot of courage on behalf of those of us who have and continue to benefit from the system as is.

  2. mm John McLarty says:

    What strikes me- especially in light of our readings over the past few weeks- is how truly intertwined our western Christian churches are in the political and economic structures of our time. We are happy when church members succeed in business and return some of their good fortune as a tithe and offering. We ask smart business leaders to serve as Trustees and finance committee members so that the church will employ good business practices. We listen dutifully to sermons on sharing and sacrifice, but secretly cringe at the passages about the trappings of wealth and love of money. And even Christians cast votes for candidates who they think can provide higher returns on investment and better standards of living, not the ones who recommend higher taxes and stress the importance of paying our fair share. If it’s even possible to put the genie back in the bottle, what would it look like for the church to return to a 1st century model? (not that the church of the 1st century had it any more figured out than we do!)

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Can this genie be returned to its bottle? That sounds like a topic for a really solid thesis!

      My friend, I just don’t know. Like you, I also don’t know that, outside of Acts 2, I see much evidence that the 1st Century Church did it well either. What I do know is that my hope grows every time I work with communities who are shaping alternative economies based on equity, redistribution, and justice. My hope grows when I see church models that are no longer dependent on capitalist systems (paid staff, facilities, program budgets). My hope grows when I see examples of radical resource sharing and strategies for needs being met. My hope grows when I see mission methodologies shift from charity to solidarity.

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        One other thought. A repeating theme that I am observing and impressed by is that movement in this direction is being pioneered by pastors who are choosing to walk away from tenure.

        • mm John McLarty says:

          In my tradition there is such a thing as the “guaranteed appointment” for Elders in Full Connection like me. The motive was pure enough, to make sure that a pastor was not without an opportunity to serve regardless of age, gender, or skin color. However, it has also become an albatross that allows scores of ineffective clergy to remain in service. It’s fairly easy to separate the hungry and motivated from the lazy in my system, but there’s not much right now being done about it.

          • mm Jer Swigart says:

            Yikes. “Guaranteed Appointment ” seems like an albatross indeed. Naturally, I imagine that decisions like these are rooted in really good intentions. That said, the consequences seem severe for the reasons you stated. Most notably, it seems to invite pastors to trust in their own ability to protect their longterm livelihood through self-preservation. Perhaps this is an embodiment of the spirit of capitalism?

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Jer,
        Can you please share info about the churches you are seeing that are moving away from dependency on capitalist systems? I’d love to learn more.

  3. mm Joe Castillo says:

    However, depending on the historical context, individualism may have different meanings. Especially from the second half of the twentieth century to date, with the triumph of consumerism, individualism is interpreted as the tendency to isolate itself from society and its values, as well as the tendency to think and act in function not only of own interests, but of personal pleasures and self-satisfaction.

  4. mm Joe Castillo says:

    Catholics also participate to a lesser extent in the illustrated layers of the working element of the modern big industry. It is a known fact that the factory nurtures the ranks of its most prepared workers as elements from the small workshop, in which they are professionally trained, and from which they depart once formed; but this occurs to a much greater extent in the Protestant element than in the Catholic, because Catholics demonstrate a much stronger inclination to continue in the office in which they usually reach the degree of teachers while Protestants are launched in a much greater than the factory, in which the upper positions of the enlightened proletariat and the industrial bureaucracy.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Weber did seem to suggest that a spirit of entrepreneurialism resided within Protestants. He seemed to suggest that that dutifulness that was baked into the historic Catholic movement could make sense of why Protestants moved forward & upward and Catholics didn’t seem to at the same rate & pace. Do agree with his assessment? And do you see that pattern repeating itself today?

  5. mm Dylan Branson says:

    One of the things that crossed my mind as I was reading your post was what it would look like to shift from an individualistic mindset to a communal/collectivist mindset within the Western church. Or maybe it’s more of a “both/and” where we recapture the communal nature in conjunction with the individualistic nature. What would it look like to truly embody a Philippians 2 mindset where we look to others needs before our own?

    I was talking to a friend of mine a while back about the compatibility of capitalism and Christianity. One of the things he mentioned was that capitalism (theoretically) allows for generosity in that we are free to give (course in practicality, I don’t think we see it play out like that as often as we should). Another friend brought that up the same point fairly recently after reading a post on Desiring God (link is https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-capitalist-and-the-christian-hedonist if you’re interested). Would be interested in your thoughts on it if you get a change to skim it.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      The celebration of capitalism for the purpose of eventually becoming generous seems to be the same argument made popular among white Evangelicals by Dave Ramsey. It makes sense within a capitalist system, yet I don’t see it fleshing out. I don’t buy it.

      As I read Weber, I began to wonder if the “spirit” of Capitalism is an angelic or demonic spirit. Wealth building is seductive. It’s powerful. And I’m not sure that it generates the generosity that Ramsey and others promise. Would love to hear your impressions.

      • mm Dylan Branson says:

        Ultimately I agree with you that in theory it sounds great or “Christian” (whatever that really means in this context), but in reality it manifests into something completely different.

        I would argue that it isn’t so much that the “spirit” of capitalism is inherently bad, but rather that it’s something that’s been corrupted by sin and created these bastardized manifestations. It may also be that it’s an unholy union of the spirits of capitalism and individualism that have joined forces to enslave the Western Evangelical heart. Like you said, wealth is seductive and drives us to do things that can be unimaginable.

        For example, right now in Hong Kong there’s a mask shortage because of the coronavirus outbreak. People are taking advantage of that and if there ARE masks available, they jack up the prices. Or (which I think is worse), there have been people digging through the trash to find used masks and resell them to people.

        But in the end, I don’t think celebrating capitalism as the be all end all or a socialistic mindset is the answer as we end up idolizing them in the end. I do think that in regards remedying the spirit of individualism we see that there needs to be a call back to the communal life. One book I read in the past year was The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher who expounds upon the communal life found within Eastern Orthodoxy. Reading that, I found it compelling a lot of ways in terms of what it looks like to be an “alternative community”. Could be worth checking out.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          You make good arguments, Dylan, especially with regard to the fusion of capitalism with individualism. Yet, I still don’t see the centrality of a non-evangelical Jesus within capitalism. If his Spirit doesn’t permeate it, is it good?

  6. mm Steve Wingate says:

    From my perspective, more than taking this question very seriously, we must ask that Spirit to reawaken our imaginations to the reality of our belovedness and the necessity of courageous generosity.

    I am curious in what are a couple ways this flesh out in your perspective?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Learning from indigenous spirituality (of which Judaism and pre-Constantinian Christianity were examples of) has been very helpful in awakening my imagination to equity, communal resources, and wealth redistribution. If we’re going to become liberated from the spirit of capitalism, we have to displace ourselves into relationships with communities who are living hopeful alternatives to it.

  7. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Powerful insights. Though not a Calvinist I have studied the doctrine of predestination through a few different lenses of Reformed Theology. It does raise up many questions and concerns and I have often wondered about some of its influences in the church. But even after reading Weber I am not sure I would have made the connections he did with capitalism.

    You wrote” As Weber laid out his understanding of predestination, the notion of individualism surfaced as an unfortunate yet natural consequence.” I would personally chase the notion of individualism back further than the doctrine of predestination. If I remember my studies on the Enlightenment the concept of individualism was part of the enlightenment liberal mindset in the 1820’s from France. Do you see the doctrine of predestination adding or complicating the aspect of individualism that was prevalent in enlightenment thought?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Great question, Greg. Imagining that Enlightenment set a context for individualism to emerge, I would likely argue that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination accelerated the mindsight. Further, I may argue that the doctrine incentivized individualism.

      As it seems that you’ve studied Enlightenment more than me, how would you draw the connection and implications of predestination to individualism?

      • mm Greg Reich says:

        Jer,
        I can’t say I have studied the Enlightenment all that much. A good portion of my studies are spent trying to understand the perspectives and writings of others. Enlightenment is one of those topics that I periodically study to gain insight.

        When it comes to individualism I would argue that it shows up in the garden of Eden when Adam points at Eve and blames her for his decision to eat the fruit. Cain and Abel showed it in the statment ” Am I my brother’s keeper.” The “what’s in for me” aspect of individualism is part of our sinful nature. It’s part of the reason we rebel against the Lordship of Jesus in our lives.

        As far as predestination, I believe its original intent wasn’t to create individualism but bring security to believers. In reality I would say it ends up creating an air of arrogance and created an excuse to isolate from world involvement, which arguably could be a form of individualism. If a person feels they are chosen and can’t change the fact that others aren’t why should they try to save them when it won’t make a difference. Of course, a modern Calvinist would say since they don’t know who is chosen or not, they have a responsibility to evangelize.

        With this said I think there’s an air of individualism in the theology of free will in that salvation is depicted personal individual choice as to whether we accept or not accept Christ. Many forms of theology focus on personal responsibility. As to whether they breed or reinforce individualism that is arguable on both sides. Often times when looking at these types of things it becomes a chicken or egg argument.

        My concern is do we truly understand how the fall has affected humanities culture making call? Is it fair to blame everything either on the culture of the church without considering the effects of sin? Paul in Galatians goes out if his way to explain our freedom in Christ. In chapter 5 he lets us know if we serve the flesh the fruit that is produced will look a specific type, but if we nurture and serve the spirit the fruit will have certain characteristics. Is it possible as a christian to seek unity and healing without understanding how sin has tainted our hearts and minds, as well as, the ones those we are ministering to? This little reminder can do a lot to get us by the what’s in for me mindset when we knowing accept the fact we are all broken in this life together.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          I really appreciate your thoughts here, Greg. The concept of individualism as a consequence of the fall in that it interrupts relationship would be a really interesting topic to study deeply. This especially seems to be true in that individualism so permeates our faith and culture. Take a read of my and Dylan’s thread if you get a chance as this theme shows up there as well.

  8. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, I’ve come across a similar line as you pen, “we must ask that Spirit to reawaken our imaginations ” in my investigation around imagination. I’ve found more than ten adjectives writers have placed in front of imagination: Apostolic imagination, Christian imagination, priestly imagination, etc. I’m intrigued by a comment you made in class about letting Jenning’s “Christian Imagination” be a conversation partner for these last few weeks. Would you please elaborate an connections you saw? I’d be really curious.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Hey Shawn.

      I had responded to your comment earlier this week, but can’t locate the comment now in this thread. That’s odd. Did you ever happen to see what I wrote in response to your comment with regard to my findings on Jenning’s perspective?

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        In very short, Jennings suggests that Western Christianity suffers from a “diseased social imagination” (p. 6) in that it’s “enclosed in racial and cultural difference, inconsequentially related to its geography, often imaginatively detached from its surroundings of both people and spaces, but one yet bound to compelling gestures of connection, belonging, and invitation” (p. 4). He asserts that “Race” has been marbled into modern Christianity, resulting in a Christian theology that “operates . . . without the ability to discern how its intellectual and pedagogical performances reflect and fuel the problem, further crippling the communities it serves” (pp. 6–7).

        • mm Shawn Cramer says:

          I didn’t see the previous response, and was just thinking about that again over the weekend. Thanks for taking the extra time last night to rehash it. As I work ahead a bit, I think I will be surveying and analyzing Dr. Clark’s use of the word “imagination” in his dissertation and this helps along those lines, too. Cheers.

  9. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Does work ethic arise from morality?

    Vocationalism is about the “spiritual quest for greater meanings and the understanding of life relations.” [1] I wonder if next progressive steps to this spirit of Capitalism could be a deeper, heart-centred reconnection? Something after individualism and exploitation and replacement? Sacrificial love.

    [1] A neat, quick read that I found while reading your post:
    https://daily.jstor.org/the-spiritual-side-of-vocation/

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