Don’t Blame Calvinism

In his daily set of links to items of interest, Michael Sean Winters commits this drive by:

we as a culture used to know money was corrupting, but have forgotten that fact in recent years. There is something to the argument, to be sure, but there was a fascination with the robber barons and the Newport elite longer before “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” came along. And Calvinism, the strongest religious influence in our culture, has always had a soft spot for wealth, seeing it as evidence of divine approval, rather than as the devil laying his traps.

Notice the either-or perspective on wealth — either it’s from God or from the devil. And Winters thinks Roman Catholic conservatives are guilty of dualism.

What Winters reveals is that Rome has never caught up to Protestants on vocation and how to understand work in the world (whether you make a lot of money or not). Imagine if Rome had taught about secular work as part of the priesthood of all believers. They might have helped Protestants who tried to hold back the tide of acquisitive (or status seeking) participation in the market.

Consider the way that Rod Liddle in his review of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy describes middle-class English Protestantism of a generation or so ago:

I was of J. D.’s mum’s generation, the people who made fecklessness a lifestyle choice, and were somehow encouraged to do so. We jettisoned almost everything our parents believed in and made ourselves much worse off—just as did J. D.’s mother. I tried to make sense of this generational shift in a book—Selfish, Whining Monkeys—which attempted to explain the reasons why my generation had managed, in such a short space of time, to let down their children and their parents. Some of it accords with what Vance has to say, even if he does not spell it out. Gone, for example, was any notion of deferred gratification and work ethic—just one of the many consequences of the diminished importance of religion in our lives.

Protestantism inculcated a simple and perhaps confining moral code: work hard, invest, don’t steal, look after your community, put your family first, wait for reward—always wait for reward. Don’t sleep around, don’t lie, don’t spend more money than you have. For my parents’ generation, divorce was a stigma and vanishingly rare, at that. But recently I stood outside a Middlesbrough job center interviewing one hundred or so people who were seeking work. Every single one of that hundred came from a broken family. Every one. And of those who now had children themselves, every one was no longer with the partner with whom she’d had the child. And this state of affairs had not made them happy; it had wrecked them. They were all J. D.’s mum now.

What’s so bad about that approach to work and economic considerations? Granted, those middle-class virtues are not the sole possession of Protestant creeds and confessions. But it is hardly a recipe for “the lives of the rich and famous.”

And what did Roman Catholics offer as an alternative?

Within the early Christian community through the medieval period, a similar attitude toward work in the world as associated with the body and the lower elements of human nature prevailed. Through the influences especially of neo-Platonic thought, the emphasis was upon a life spent in contemplation, as reflected in these words of Augustine in the 5th century, “the contemplation of God is promised us as the goal of all our actions and the eternal perfection of happiness,” or Aquinas in the 13th century, “the contemplation of divine truth . . . is the goal of the whole of human life.” Work which meets the needs of the body, then, has “no lasting religious significance.” As theologian Ernst Troeltsch notes in his monumental study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, “An ethic which starts from the point of view of an original equality, and which holds that the differences that do exist are due to sin, and which at its best regards the division of labour as a Divine arrangement adapted to the needs of fallen humanity, is inherently unable to see any value in ‘callings’ at all” (Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 121).

The monastery or the nunnery, places of withdrawal from worldly activities, exemplified the most valued state of life, and even while bodily work occurred in those settings, the work was a means of purification and the development of virtue, not an activity to be pursued for itself. Furthermore, in the later medieval period as liturgical practices took up more and more of the roles and time of the monks and nuns, they no longer worked to support themselves; many lived off the wealth of the aristocracy through gifts in exchange for prayer. Even the wandering mendicant friars lived off the good will of those whom they met along the way.

In the Catholic understanding, vocation was a response to God’s calling by removing oneself from the cares and concerns of this world. Sociologist Max Weber notes that in Jewish traditions, among the Greek and Roman classics, or in the medieval world of Catholicism, vocation had none of the contemporary meaning of a fulfillment of one’s duties to God by active engagement in the world. Further, in the medieval world someone who engaged in the work of business was certainly suspect; today’s business state of mind “would both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.”8 “Business was only possible for those lax in ethical thinking.” According to Aquinas, there is “something shameful about it [commerce], being without any honorable or necessary defining goal” (quoted in Tam).

Instead of blaming Calvinism, Winters may want to look in the mirror. He may also want to think, as Liddle encourages readers, about economists on the left and the right who have no dog in the hunt for the church Jesus founded:

But it’s not just the retreat of religion, or more properly, our retreat from religion, that caused this shift. It was also the rise of two supposedly oppositional doctrines that grew up in the early 1960s. First, the post-Marxist Frankfurt school of sociologists (Habermas, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al.), which posited the overthrowing of those old, discredited notions of respect for authority, of capitalism, of anything that could be considered bourgeois, in favor of rampant individualism and free expression—sexually, morally, politically—which unpicked the fabric painstakingly woven by our parents and their parents before them. And then the Chicago school of economists (Hayek, Friedman, et al.), which also posited a rapacious individualism at the expense of the larger society. A deregulated economy in which homes were not places in which one lived, but another form of collateral. An imperative to strive to make money and to spend, to consume and consume without the constraints which had previously attended.

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The Amazing Holy Spirit – He Goes Wherever You Do

Does word-and-sacrament ministry (or Sunday worship) have a shelf life? Put differently, do you go to church to have your spiritual batteries recharged? If so, will the charge last for an entire week? Or do we need a mid-week service to revive our spiritual energy?

This may be one reason for spiritual retreats or mid-week Bible studies. It may even explain the reason some people have daily quiet times. You never want to be too far away from the spiritual outlet.

This is not simply an evangelical Protestant problem. Turns out the mechanical calculations of the Mass’s effects also turn up among those loyal to the Bishop of Rome:

How long does the fullness of the sacramental presence last? To assert that it perdures for life would be to deny that the Holy Eucharist is our daily bread, and would be inconsistent with our nature as finite, mutable mortals. If one Holy Communion sufficed for life, our time of trial would be an anticipation of Heaven, when our souls will be so transformed, so glorified in the rapturous consciousness of their eternal union with God, as to be invulnerable to change.

At the moment of Holy Communion, we have a very definite sense of the complete possession of Christ — a calm, heavenly absorption of His divine life quickens our souls. But if this condition continued, it would not accord with our spiritual development, which, because we are finite beings, is gradual; and the Holy Eucharist would not be the pledge of eternal life.

Does union with Christ in the Mass totally transform the believer? It better not since humans can’t handle a full blast of grace (or one that makes purgatory unnecessary). It needs to be partial, even daily, if it is going to sanctify the ordinary work a Christian does:

Even if we are not vividly conscious of the presence of our Divine Guest during the performance of our daily duties, it will influence us both interiorly and exteriorly, sanctifying the most trifling commonplace of our unobtrusive lives. It will urge us to imitate His eucharistic life, cost what it may, for the spirit of Christ will sustain us, and His light will not only illumine our own souls, but will also enlighten those “sitting in the darkness and shadow of death.”

Maybe it’s just mmmmeeeeEEEE, but the Protestant doctrine of vocation sure looks a lot less complicated and a whole lot more compelling. By the Holy Spirit Christians offer up sacrifices to God through the duties they perform as part of God’s providential care for his creation. By the Holy Spirit, Christians are priests. By the Spirit, they perform a small imitation of the priestly responsibilities that God gave to Adam in garden when work was synonymous with worship.

No need for a pit stop at the parish before going to the office. Family worship will do.

Mencken on Life and Death

Yesterday, January 29, 2017, was the sixty-first anniversary of H. L. Mencken’s death. He contemplated mortality frequently and even considered suicide. For the last eight years of his life, after suffering a massive stroke, he lived like a kind of dead man, since he was so incapacitated that he could not do what made him tick for most of his life — read and write. His candor about the meaning of life is still remarkable:

All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating animo acids. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worked so hard for years and years, desperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I was after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleasant to me, and I avoid it as much as possible. Then is it a yearning to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convinced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste.

Once I ventured the guess that men worked in response to a vague inner urge for self-expression. But that was probably a shaky theory, for some men who work the hardest have nothing to express. A hypothesis with rather more plausibility in it now suggests itself. It is that men work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life – that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily, are illusions. Neither serves any solid or permanent purpose. But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eyewink called fame. He founds a family, and spends his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

Imagine what such candor would do to claims of American greatness or critics of presidents who claim to be great. It would take away the pump that inflates so much of American life into a cosmic struggle between justice and injustice. Don’t most hyperventilators on the left at least agree with Mencken that no God exists. Do they continue to walk with Mencken and conclude that without the divine, no meaning is left either to esteem U.S.A. or berate President Trump. It’s all folly. As Mencken also wrote:

The basic fact about human existences is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that is it lacking in sense. . . . The end is always a vanity, and usually a sordid one, without any noble touch of the pathetic. The means remain. In them lies a secret of what is called contentment, i.e., the capacity to postpone suicide for at least another day. (Prejudices, Sixth Series “The Human Mind: On Suicide”)

That’ll Work

How to have a happy marriage:

First, divide all the work of running your family – from job to shopping to doing the dishes to feeding the dog — into three categories: Paycheck Work; House Work; and Childrearing Work. With scrupulous honesty (men, this means you!), calculate how many hours per week each of you spends doing these things; then add the two totals together. For instance, if Husband’s numbers are 45 hrs + 5 hrs + 10 hrs = 60 hrs total, and Wife’s are 40 + 21 + 21 = 82, then the combined total family work hours = 142. Now divide your individual numbers by the total to get the percentage of total work that each of you does: in this case, 60/142 = 42% (He), and 82/142 = 58% (She). Finally, multiply your respective percentages by two. The resulting final percentage compares you with the theoretical full contributor. Think of it as the percentage person your family setup is requiring you to be — or allowing you to be. In my hypothetical case, for instance, the husband is 84% of a fully contributing person, while his wife is 116%.

Is this part of Roman Catholic social teaching?

Labor Day Is a Holiday that Isn’t Holy

Tim Challies shows the classic confusion of redemption and providence by calling everything grace:

It is God’s grace that you can be industrious instead of idle. Flavel says, “Sin brought in sweat, but now not to sweat increases sin. He that lives idly cannot live honestly.” The Bible’s warnings about laziness and idleness are many and stern. So when God puts you into a vocation that is legal and moral, he has done you a great benefit. He has given you the blessing of allowing you to earn your own living. Your hard work allows you to avoid the temptations of idleness and to care for your own needs rather than having to rely upon others. Further, through God’s provision to you, you have enough to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. It is, after all, more blessed to give than to receive.

But what if I am not as industrious as H. L. Mencken or Woody Allen who seemingly have not lived in a state of grace?

It is God’s grace that you have a job that is lawful before God and men and especially suited to you. There are many people who are employed in jobs that are sinful or even illegal. “They do not only sin in their employments, but their very employments are sinful.” To have a job that dishonors neither God nor men is no small mercy. To have a job suited to your passions and skills is a double mercy. Then, if your job allows you to provide for yourself and others without working you to the bone, without consuming all of your waking hours, you have more reasons still to thank God for what he has given you.

My skills as a historian, such as they are, did not come through the means of grace or conversion. I studied and learned from lots of non-redeemed historians.

It is God’s grace that he has directed you into the kind of job that neither you nor your parents may ever have expected. You may well be involved in a job that your parents did not plan for you to do, and perhaps one that even you did not plan to do. Just like a compass needle turns this way and that before settling on true north, so “a child is designed for this, then for that, but at last settles in that way of employment to which Providence designed him.” Many of us can attest that “Not what we or our parents, but what God designed shall take place.” This is certainly the case with me and I owe God great thanks and praise for his kindness and his wisdom in giving me a passion for writing and then allowing me to do it.

I say it’s providence but it’s also the accident of growing up at a time when college education became wildly available and when graduate schools were opening their doors wide. That kind of economic development is not grace. It is providence.

It is God’s grace that he secures what you have earned. God’s favor toward you is what has allowed you to earn what you have. That same favor is what has allowed you to keep what you have earned.

Let’s not forget civil magistrates and police many of whom are not living in a state of grace. Their non-sanctified labors maintain my security and property.

It is God’s grace that your vocation is sufficient for you. Some people have work, but not enough strength to complete it. Some have strength, but no work to commit it to. Some have both strength and work but even then not sufficient to provide for themselves or others. If God blesses your labors to give you enough or even more than enough to meet your needs, you ought to give him praise and thanks.

If I am content with my vocation — some days — that is partly a function of sanctification. But I know lots of non-believers who seem to have as much job satisfaction as I do.

Tim either needs to get out more or needs to read more on providence (preferably without Petra blaring in the background).

Another Coincidence?

Islamic Calvinism.

Religion in Kayseri plays a central part in people’s lives. The city has a traditional reputation; the only place to get a drink is at the international hotel. But where in the past in Turkey business was dominated by the country’s secular elite, which firmly kept religion out of the boardroom, in Kayseri it has a central role.

And it seems to be a winning combination. Kayseri is booming. It holds the world record for the number of factories opening in a day – 190. The city boasts 50 out of 500 of the wealthiest people in Turkey.

But you would use never guess it walking on the streets of the city. There are few expensive cars, as ostentatious behaviour is frowned upon. Kayseri does have a rather puritanical feel to it. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, according Gerald Gnaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI).

Gnaus recently published a report which draws a parallel with the 19th century Calvinists. Gnaus argues Kayseri buries the widely held belief that Islam and capitalism are incompatible.

“Many people in Western Europe — very serious thinkers too — have held that Islam is a fatalistic religion and that it suits a trading economy but not an industrial economy,” Gnaus says. “What we found in Kayseri is that on the contrary, the kind of characteristic traits that Max Weber attributed to the Calvinists – very hard working, very sober, not given to ostentatious displays of wealth – are the characteristic traits you find in businessmen in Kayseri.”

The term “Islamic Calvinism” caused a bit of a stir in Turkey, being angrily denounced by some in the Islamic media. But in Kayseri, most seemed quite happy with the label.

Mustafa Boydak is the head of the Kayseri chamber of commerce. He also runs one of the largest companies in the city Boydak. He also sees parallels with the 19th century puritans:

“In Calvinism there is this understanding that work is a form of worship, and Kayseri people share that understanding. Islam also teaches us to be tolerant, and open to new ideas, which is very important in business, and to people living here. But Christianity shares this ideal, and the influence of Christianity here is important. For centuries many Christian Greeks and Armenians lived here and were very involved in business, and this too has shaped people’s ideals.”

I’m not sure about the tolerance bit, though Mustafa Akyol makes as good a 2k case for Islam as any Western 2ker does for Calvinism. But when it comes to work ethic, the Turks would put many residents of Massachusetts to shame.