Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Max Weber comes around regularly in my teaching. We've just read his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in Theorizing Religion, surely at least the dozenth time (is that a word?) I've taught it. I suppose it's always valuable to read a classic, and there are probably few books on religion which have been so influential in so many non-academic contexts: Weber's role as the anti-Marx during the Cold War (value-neutrality and the importance of ideas vs. materialisms); the "Protestant Ethic" model in economic development work (only religious ideas like the Protestant ideas of vocation and predestination were thought capable of uprooting the religious traditionalisms which constrain economic rationalization); the "Protestant work ethic" as the secret of America's WASPy heart; Weberian "disenchantment" as a template for understanding the effects of modern science and inevitable secularization; etc.

Each of these is either a partial reading, indeed a kind of misreading, or based on parts of Weber's argument no longer thought to be valid - but in the case of so important a book it's valuable to learn to see through these interpretations, too: Weber's a lot closer to Marx than was thought half a century ago, not the anti-Marx but Marx-plus; the Calvinism-capitalism connection has been historically discounted; many of us wonder if the heart of America was ever as uncomplicatedly WASPy as all that, and if it hasn't always been as much a normative as a descriptive view; the star of Weber's "disenchantment" story isn't science but "rationalization," which interests him primarily when it's played out in practice - ascetic, economic, bureaucratic... and is the world really disenchanted?

I used to love Weber. A paper on his theory of theodicy - the idea that it's the encounter with the intractable "practical irrationality" of the world that fuels the rationalization of religious ideas, which also dooms every religious tradition to move toward utter world-rejection - my first semester in grad school set the rails for a dissertation on the problem of evil: there was to be a chapter on Weber in the original plan, and I even got a grant to spend a year in Japan trying to understand Weber's views on Asian religious ideas, especially karma. In Japan I learned to savor the existentialism of Weber's views - Japanese Weber scholarship is mediated by Karl Jaspers' essay on Weber as the first true existentialist - and met a scholar who connected Weber's views on Indian religions with Schopenhauer's sexy pessimism; another scholar took Weber's disappointed conclusion that the Chinese world never "got" the problem of evil and so would never suffer disenchantment as a program for resisting rationalization.

If one could stay the disenchantment of the world, I could see how one might want to. But for the West, surely, it was too late. The light cloak of Protestant "inner-worldly asceticism" has "become an iron cage" and "the idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs." Elsewhere, Weber speaks darkly (and excitingly) about the ideas of vocation as "old gods ris[ing] from their graves" but in disenchanted form, as incompatible ways of leading a life. The picture was grim but dramatic, even tragic. To face the fact that your life could never make sense because your culture had wiped out all merely magical consolations was to be truly alive, to assume the responsibilities of authentic life. And paradoxically but also thrillingly, facing the abyss as a modern disenchanted westerner was the way to play one's part in a unified history of the human effort to make sense of reality.

I don't get that buzz anymore. Why is that? Is it that the world, even this western one, doesn't seem quite as disenchanted as all that? Or that human history no longer seems a meaningful whole anymore? More the former, I think. But the Weberian call to honesty remains a valuable one, and it's worth asking oneself if one's openness to religion is really merely a refusal to face what one takes to be the facts.

We're discussing this in class Thursday: students had over the last week to visit a "post-1799 religion" and prepare a description of the tradition and their experience there. Are "new religions" (religions which have formed since the rise of capitalism and the nation state, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the separation of church and state, etc.) disproof of secularization theory, or a confirmation of it...? I've asked the students for Thursday to consider if the new religion they looked into "is nostalgic delusion (Sigmund Freud), secular religion (Saba Mahmood) or something genuinely new."

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