Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Protestant Rest Ethic

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber drew a line connecting Calvinism and Capitalism, arguing that free-market ideology was much more likely to thrive in Protestant countries than in Roman Catholic ones.

Consider this illustration: It takes Joe 10 hours to produce 10 barrels of grain a day, earning him 10 dollars, which is the amount needed to sustain his and his family's needs. Now imagine that Joe were given a raise to two dollars per barrel rather than one dollar. The decision facing him would be largely determined, Weber would argue, by the volumes on Joe's bookshelf. If his shelf contains Thomas's Summa Theologica, then he'd earn his 10 dollars by producing only five barrels, and he'd leave work after only five hours' labor. But if his preferred reading were Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, then he'd still work all ten hours, produce all ten barrels, and earn double the money.

Now Joe can afford to buy a copy of The Wealth of Nations (a nice supplement to all his Reformation literature).

Despite Luther's doctrine of vocation (which gave even the most mundane tasks divine significance), the fact that it is Catholics who enjoy plenty of rest while we Protestants are toiling by the sweat of our brows seems theologically inconsistent. After all, is not Reformed theology the one that emphasizes resting in Christ's work, while those papists are supposedly trying to earn God's favor? And if most Catholics have only purgatory awaiting them rather than a new heavens and earth, then why is it the Protestants who are busily trying to improve their earthly portions?

Possible answers include: 1). Catholics risk displeasing their earthly bosses in order to get back to the business of trying to please their heavenly one; 2). Catholics believe that earning God's favor includes having as much leisure time as possible; or 3). Protestants' preoccupation with earthly rewards is greater than they care to admit.

At the risk of allowing my theology to unduly influence my cultural worldview, I call on all Reformed amilennialists to spend more time socializing with friends and family over food and tastily-brewed beverages, reading more of the Bible and theology than they currently do, and what may be the first step toward all of this: To Work Less.