differencebetweentheprotestantandcatholicchurchservice-1024x768-5334I’ve been thinking about José’s blog on Luther’s Freedom (2/19), which reminded of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (PESC).

I find many of these ideas to be interesting.  The idea of Luther’s Reformation as a catalyst for change in terms of social relations in markets is pretty heady stuff.  I see the Reformation as the obvious move away from the [ideas/ideals] of the Catholic church (and its take on absolution and salvation, which was often criticized from within), which also marked a shift (in my opinion) a new era of spirituality, going from a more commutarian approach to an individualistic one, particularly under Calvinism.

After the Reformation, salvation was divorced (no pun intended) from leading a Christian life.  Pascal’s wager was irrelevant, as man could not influence God.  Nevertheless, through work could man serve God.  One’s profession was one’s calling.  It was later developments in Protestantism, i.e., John Calvin, where one couldn’t know for sure if they were saved, BUT success might be an indicator of it.  Hence, the Protestant work ethic was born.  It gave people meaning, as opposed to wallowing in nihilism due to not knowing one’s eternal fate.  Actions became centralized around the individual.  Community wasn’t dead, but status and legitimacy were now focused more than ever towards personal success.

Slouching towards late capitalism (or postmodernity), spiritual life was usurped by the profane.  The final fall of mediaeval asceticism?  The ascendance of bourgeois ideology?  Materialism filled in the gaps of meaning.  (S)he who dies with the most toys, wins?  Brands become the symbols/totems that hold meanings.  Nike = transcendence.  Coca-Cola = global community.  Apple = cool rebellion.

While I find Weber’s PESC to be interesting, I think that the main idea is that the cultural context matters when it comes to determining the roots of the various flavors of capitalism, which is being fleshed out with recent research.  One could write a paper on the Shintoist ethic and the divine spirit of capitalism to explain the rise and fall of Japan, layering how feudal structures were thrust into capitalism under Meiji and how, decades later, overembedded networks of people and organizations were both a boon (70s-80s) and an albatross (90s-00s) to economic growth.  Cultural context.

  • Is the trajectory of Protestantism responsible, at least in part, for our current era of materialism?
  • Was the trajectory inevitable?
  • If so, what does this say about Luther’s freedom?
image:  “Difference between the Protestant and Catholic church service” Cranach the Younger