Wednesday, December 20, 2006

predestination and omnipotence

I'm reading a book called "the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism," written by German economist/sociologist Max Weber in approximately 1905. It's a story about theological shifts changing the world forever...
Weber goes back to Calvin in the 16th century and describes his Protestantism as founded upon two theological pillars: a view of God as primarily transcendent and all powerful, and a view of soteriology emphasizing predestination and divine election. The combination of these two concepts, says Weber, led logically to "massive fatalism, loneliness, and anxiety among the faithful." Reformulations of Calvin's teachings in the next century led believers to eventually "uphold an ethos of 'world mastery' and to orient their entire lives toward work and material success."
"God desired action in strict conformity with His commandments and laws. Yet virtuous conduct, in light of the sinful character of the human species, proved difficult. Indeed, taming all wants and physical desires, and then orienting life in a consistent fashion to His laws, required heroic efforts of discipline."
"If they proved capable of mastering their selfish desires and leading righteous, dignified lives oriented unequivocally to God's commandments, then they could assume that the capacity to do so had been in fact bestowed upon them by their deity, who after all was omniscient and all-powerful."
If they could achieve this lifestyle, the crucial question- "am I among the saved?" - would be answered affirmatively and thus "held in check the tremendous anxiety and fatalism that resulted logically from the doctrine of predestination. Simultaneously, this gave birth to a frame of mind that Weber saw as specifically Puritan: the tempered, dispassionate, and restrained disposition that completely tamed the self and lead to a systematic rationalization of life."
Such was the fodder out of which was born the religion that "baptized" work and "idolized" vocation making all other areas of life secondary or trivial. This Protestant work ethic would be the mindset of the founding fathers of this country and eventually birth the vision of the "American Dream" out of which would come the United States of Capitalism.
Theology is dangerous.


jessi knippel said...

wow, phil what a powerful and challenging book. i'll have to pick it up when i have a moment to read. thank you for presenting thoughtful insights.

Lian said...

What's so interesting to me is the ebb and flow of theology throughout the history of the church. Every new idea - or reworking of an old idea - seems doomed to go too far and, after bringing some kind of renewal, bring disease into the church. How do we continue the long historical dialogue that has brought us so far and taught us so much about Christ and his mission that surely even the apostles couldn't have grasped in their lifetimes, without continually getting carried away and forcing those after us to counteract what we have done and taught and learned?
It's a question I've been asking myself to no avail in the last 12 months. The history of ideas has taught us more than we can hope to learn - on what can we rest?

notso-swift said...

The virus is the very idea that new "theology" adds anything to the church - it can only lead to the diseased, cancerously divided church that we're faced with in America! I'm sorry to detract from the main point of what you were saying, but the very idea that we understand Christ better than the Apostles is so very offensive. That very mentality that theology is some sort of science in which we develope our understanding of God and atain a deeper, clearer knowledge of Christ than the Fathers of the church is fire on a 3rd degree burn - that's a scary, dangerous way of thinking.

(I don't mean this to be a personal attack on you - I'm sure, were we to meet we'd get along just fine, but man, this way of thinking scares me.)

notso-swift said...

I feel like a bit dumb - just now realized that Lian is Chad. Kind of makes me wish I'd said that all a bit less harshly - sorry friend.

elnellis said...

great question chad, it's one i struggle with too. (and jeremy, i know you and i may not see eye to eye on this) but i see the christian theological task as exactly that- to discover what the incarnation means today. not only in theory, but actually- ie: we are literally the hands and feet of Christ. the incarnation was a historical event and is also an ongoing reality we are called to embody.
"on what can we rest?" you asked. i find rest in knowing that the Spirit of Truth will guide those who follow Jesus. the Holy Spirit isn't "second best"- leaving us in theological darkness. Christ ascended so that the Spirit of Truth could come and we could all live as if he continued among us.
But because we "see through the glass darkly" theology is about the interplay of your hermeneutics with mine- emphasizing the importance of an interpretive community (midrash), and not only with those who have the same views.
in lieu of the text in the post, i would applaud calvin for his contextal hermeneutics, most likely appropriate for his time and place. the way i see it, the error consists in assuming any arrival at absolute truth. we must continue to do theology in context because that is what the incarnation means.
we have the Text, the Spirit is with us. We must read our story (tradition, church history, God at work in the world) and align ourselves with the trajectory of redemption.
(ok, i've said too much...)

notso-swift said...

"the error consists in assuming any arrival at absolute truth" ???
How then do you disagree with someone who "blends" his Christianity with Budism or heads off into liberation theology or any of the thousand wrong turns that modern christianity has taken? They would simply argue that that is where the Holy Spirit has lead them because it is the most relevant to the Church today. When modern theologies differ with the faith handed to us by the Appostles it ceases to be Christian. I'm certain you wouldn't go as far as I'm saying with any developement in your theology - as you said, I know you, and I know you stick to orthodoxy but, take what you said to it's end without the respect for orthodoxy (and I intend the lower case) that you have and you have millions heading off into one "relevent" developement of christianity after another.

notso-swift said...

I'm not scared for you or Chad or any other mature Spirit lead disciplined Christian - I'm scared for those like one trench-coat-donning-chainsmoker gone Daoist Catholic friend of ours. He must have taken his direction thinking it the most relevent syncretism for today. There are far more milk-fed Christian infants out there than there are those who are spiritually discerning. And I don't say that because I think I am either, that's precisely the point - we're never more discerning than the Church that's why it's so important to submit to a spritual father.

elnellis said...

perhaps what our friend lacked was the hermeneutic community. the road he took was by himself and that is never wise. i agree with you in that we need the discernment of the church to guide us, that is essential for life together, towards God in this world.
this dialogue makes me long for a trip to moody's pub with you (preferably on bicycles in the rain) to split a pitcher of sangria! peace brother.

notso-swift said...

Wish we could - I have few fonder memories than that - what I remember of that, I should say.

We'll probably never agree on this, but it's great to have a friendship that can stand up to such strong disagreement.