Max Weber and the Protestant Work ethic | In Short

Although you, like me, have likely not read the entirety of german economist and sociologist Max Weber, you have likely, even unwittingly come across its intellectual legacy. Weber in this foundational book for sociological economics is trying to discern the correlation between nations that prospered through capitalism in the 20th Century and those that didn’t. In his time, it was commonly stated that it was because they were protestant and that is why. But the rest of the sentence was rarely completed, and certainly not backed in any meaningful way. Weber travelled extensively and was not convinced that, “because God is blessing them” was a clear or careful enough answer and instead takes to re-reading the happenings through the impact of how people in the nations which prosper lived, and more importantly to his thesis how they read the texts which were foundational, namely the new testament, and lived from those readings.

Max Weber was a bourgeous academic, and in many ways an inter-disciplinary academic of genius proportions. That being said the book he is most well known for (the one in question), is hotly contested and rarely whole-sale endorsed among modern readers.

That being said, it truly is a foundational text for sociology, political and economic thought and finds the practise of Christianity as the source for these outcomes. Weber’s conviction is that the only source for ethics, that is, a way to live, can be religion, it is the only source powerful enough.

Weber, though is by no means an evangelical in a way that we might understand it. Weber is reading the new testament under the influence of german liberalism and even unitarian understandings.

Weber sees capitalism as a broader way of life not simply an narrow economic system. Weber argues that there is a religious basis for rational calculated thinking in economics. Of course, it seems obvious today that you would apply arithmatic calculating (accounting) to your business, but this originally was a significant inter-disciplinary cross over. Numerically attested profit becomes an aim rather than simply the sense of wealth and well-being of the owner with capitalism.

What Weber was interested in, in it’s essence was; What is it about protestantism that brings around capitalism as opposed to catholicism?

In many ways Luther, the oft-awarded father of the reformation, creates the idea of vocation as a job in the market place and was very keen to dissassemble catholic monastic ways of life that simply live apart from the world and pray for a world to come. In that sense Luther lays the ground work for religion and economics to intersect so closely.

What God requires, Luther as read by Weber would say, is not that you live a monastic life being filled up by God in a cloistered lifestyle but that you live out your ‘worldly vocation’. To be a tool in the hands of God rather than a vessel to be filled by God.

This gives a religious justification, to a religious calling to live out work in the world.

Following this, Calvin’s doctrine of double-predestination, affirms that God intends for some to go to heaven and to go to hell, and that God knows who this will be yet we don’t. Weber argues the kind of psychological tension this creates in protestant life leads people to work out their salvation in fear and trembling by becoming religiously passionate workers into an economic system. In one of the most ironic untintended consequences of the reformation, Weber argues protestants work to affirm if not earn their salvation.

By the 20th century, with increased secularisation, Weber contends that what results is what can be seen as ‘a corporation man’ where someone continues to ‘live to work’ and retains the sense of work ethic but it has become entirely detatched from the original sense of religious vocation that gave it rise.

Weber is not so much looking to describe the origins of capitalism but instead to give reasons why it has found a grounding in certain nations and less in others.

Weber’s detractors argue his thesis, if it works, only goes so far. For example how do you account for the rise of capitalism in non-Christendom nations such as japan? Those seeking to uphold Weber’s thesis contend that capitalist flourishing in non-christian nations solely attests to the power of the ‘Spirit’ or ‘ethic’ weber describes reaching beyond it’s historical and cultural heartland in western europe.

Whether Weber’s analysis is correct or not, what is clear is that we live in economic systems that have their philisophical roots and sociological fruits in Christian thinking and christian practise. If we are discontent with our current economic realities, it is worth thinking what theological resources may help us articulate more just and Godly alternatives.

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