Written more than one hundred years ago, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism requires the context and perspective of its translator, Talcott Parsons, even if that translation took place more than fifty years prior! I am realizing that to adequately translate material, whether it is from German to English or from modern to post-modern the translator has to be knowledgeable of the context into which he/she is writing so that the author’s voice and intent will be clearly heard. This means that one must know what and who, the subject and the audience. That is only part of the necessary groundwork, the book’s Foreword by R.H. Tawney sets the scene, surveys the landscape and points out the crucial details so one does not reduce the meaning to generalizations or easy reasons. I have been reminded in another sense that I too am a translator of a message.
But this book is not only about the subtly of translation. It seems we might be facing more collateral damage. Who would think that religious reform drawing upon justification by faith would morph in its focus on the glory of God? If sloth was deemed a danger to the soul and labor is a spiritual end, what do we do now when the remedy developed, capitalism has infiltrated all manner of life as we have experienced it? What should we be paying attention to now so we might prevent collateral damage for future generations? The underlying concern is that we will never completely avoid unintended consequences or casualties, but hopefully we might mitigate the extent or longevity of the results.
The book is not about wrestling over the strength of our motives for economic self-interest. In fact Weber seems to normalize it. His focus is on what caused the flip from unacceptability to acceptability. I don’t even want to say it, but it seems that the perfect storm came along amid the reformation. “Habits moulded by the pressure of the economic environment will in turn set their stamp on religion.” As Tawney points out this does not mean that religion caused capitalism to evolve or even created it, but religion was instrumental in “creating conditions favourable to the growth of a new type of economic civilization.” Clearly both interpretation and contextual understanding was significantly shaped and continues to shape our present perspectives and the practice of the religious faithful.
I did not expect to consider, that maybe, just maybe capitalism has influenced the mission of the church. Weber defines capitalistic economic action “as one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit.” This is pretty intriguing and sounds quite neutral; we accept this, especially the “peaceful chances for profit.” (Who doesn’t want that?). He follows this up by stating, “Where capitalistic acquisition is rationally pursued, the corresponding action is adjusted to calculations in terms of capital.” So I wonder, in evangelicalism would we ever consider salvation in some way, shape or form a capitalistic acquisition, something to pursue? Are adjustments made based upon calculations of effectiveness and return, which expects a profit? If we understand capitalism as an expectation of profit based upon exchange how has capitalism influenced or even changed the salvation of souls? If we respond with yes to any of these questions does it mean that the ethic of labor, driven by practicality and then advancement from within the Church developed an ethic that became a driving force? Did it eventually turn back and change the Church whom developed it?
It is true, Weber does not say that Luther, Calvin, Knox or Voet had much to do with what we would consider progress. But he recognizes something else, something we should pay attention to, religious characteristics and what drives those characteristics. Weber centers in on the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination as instigating the great concern, “Am I one of the elect?” If you are suspicious of feelings and emotions to demonstrate authentic faith, as Calvin was, what do you place your trust in to verify true faith? For Calvin the answer was in a “type of Christian conduct which served to increase the glory of God.” If Christian conduct serves to increase the glory of God and we do not on our own possess the ability to please God, therefore relying on God to produce this goodness in us, we end up in a convoluted way of practicing, “that God helps those who help themselves.” One thing it seems leads to another and to another. Work became an expression of brotherly love. The favor of God was associated with goods produced for the community, which would be hindered by slothfulness.
One of the most important opponents to the spirit of capitalism was a bit of a surprise, traditionalism. I do not fully know what to make of that. To oppose the spirit of capitalism today we would be facing down the status quo. Traditionalism is often associated with keeping things the way they are, do not change, but there must be something here for us to notice, to recognize and pay attention. Weber pointed to the laborers, citing the place to begin was “from below.” If we were a ‘think tank’ or a task force, where would we look to counter the influence of capitalism? Is the starting place in the Church? Where do we find and listen to those who are from below? Where are the equivalent laborers?