May 8, 2011

smells like protestant spirit

I was quietly sobbing over Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in a public library in graduate school. A revered early 20th century masterwork of sociological analysis, this book is nevertheless not commonly considered a tearjerker. But, as I read passages like:

Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will. Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins. The span of human life is infinitely short and precious to make sure of one’s own election. Loss of time through sociability, idle talk, luxury, even more sleep than is necessary for health, six to at most eight hours, is worthy of absolute moral condemnation[,]

I was aching with the realization that this was why I felt guilty basically every minute of every day, this was why I was forever trying to do something every minute of every day, this was what I had been taught my entire life, and this was the root of the common American compulsion to run maniacally (but oh so cheerfully) on the Eternal Economic Hamster Wheel of God’s Will.

The “this” was Weber’s famous thesis, his compelling explication of how and why those engaged in modern capitalism exhibit a particular ethos, a spirit of compulsive productive anxiety. In his summary, he explains that the initial religious impetus for this anxiety has been all but forgotten, but its unconscious detritus, “… the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.”

Weber identified in the theology of early Reformation heavyweight John Calvin—specifically in the psychological ramifications of his doctrine of predestination—the rise of an inescapable existential fear and a consequent rationalized behavioral response. Basically, predestination is the belief that only some human beings are elect (i.e. chosen to be saved by God from eternal damnation) and that election is predetermined by God, irrespective of anything we human beings might do in this life. You almost want to laugh instead of crying. Before you think about how much this sucks or ask why would anyone believe such a thing, recall that Protestantism was “in protest” of prevailing Catholic dogma, and fundamental to that dogma was the doctrine of salvation through “good works.” Recall also that rampant clerical abuse of this doctrine was what inspired Luther and other Protestant thinkers to develop in response the idealistic but equally slippery doctrine of salvation “by grace alone.” Recall, lastly, what a big darn deal the afterlife in general, and not burning in Hell in that afterlife in particular, was to all of these people in the 16th and 17th centuries. Therefore, having no theologically acceptable means of intercession with God was the spiritually ethical course for early Protestants but was also, to put it mildly, profoundly anxiety-provoking.

And, for the Calvinists and so many other Protestants, it gets worse. In my textbook’s introduction, scholar Anthony Gibbens explains that, in response to this unavoidable anxiety, “[o]n the pastoral level, two developments occurred: it became obligatory to regard oneself as chosen, lack of certainty being indicative of insufficient faith; and the performance of ‘good works’ in worldly activity became accepted as a medium whereby such surety could be demonstrated. Hence success in a calling eventually came to be regarded as a ‘sign’—never a means {my note: that would be so Papist!}—of being one of the elect.”

Translation: You gotta 100% believe you are saved for this “salvation by faith” thing to kick in. But, oops! Well-intentioned and pious but otherwise ordinary mortals experience a certain percentage of spiritual doubt on any given day. Well, ok. To counteract that panic emanating from not being 100% sure, we the theologians offer you the likelihood (but still not absolute assurance!) that the productive fruits of your livelihood may well indicate that God is impressed. Whew! Productivity every single day keeps the Devil away.

Now you understand why the American Puritans achingly aspired to be something they called “Visible Saints.” And, nineteen years ago in that library, I understood why my parents and so many other well intentioned, though hardly pious, Americans were still unquestioningly inculcating aphorisms like:

Good, Better, Best

Never let it rest

‘til your Good is Better

and your Better is Best!

And, I finally understood why I had felt like I was about to scream for most of my existence. Any religious benefit to being a perpetual productivity machine had long been forgotten by basically everyone in my mainline swathe of America, but the fear of not being one stuck. Nonetheless, fundamental and inchoate fear was certainly not to be acknowledged. In the world I knew, angst in one’s very bones was simply accepted as axiomatic, even if problematic. Apparently, it was even rude to talk about it. Or, more obviously, it was whining. The antidote? Do something! We are not put on this earth to just lie around! You just think too much! What you need is a job!

Academia was not a job according to my family. I think that my parents were sort of holding their noses while I “drifted” for a while through graduate distractions. And, hey, I didn’t finish. I never did make a job out of it. But, soon enough I would be a mother. That counts for a job in Protestant Land. I was off a thirty-one year hook with that maneuver.

But, at twenty-eight, newly married and profoundly adrift in Dallas, Texas, I didn’t yet have any babies for cover. I didn’t yet know the courage my babies would ultimately give me instead of that much vaunted cover. I was still, in many ways, a baby myself, without any sure sense of myself or my own beliefs. My twenties had primarily been spent grappling with what I didn’t, or couldn’t, believe. It was time to start digging deeper. Both internally, digging into my own psychological weaknesses. And externally, diving deeply into as many books and as many experiences as it was going to take to synthesize conviction – to understand what I could, and did, believe.

At twenty-eight, all of these realizations didn’t feel good. They actually stunk. But, so does living without a sense of spirit. And, after years of sobbing and sobbing, I was just beginning to realize how much there was to laugh about as well. How painfully funny our human drama is, and how much fear we have to let go of to begin to really love, or laugh, or even just breathe easily.

I pinned up an index card exclaiming “Holy Eucharist, Batman!” on my studio wall along with other more noble exhortations. My mom didn’t think that was funny at all, but I did.

Categories: Calvinism, Puritans, The Protestant Church, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism