Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Protestant Ethic

I want to elaborate on a point that Doug raised below, namely, about whether we value people in society less when they earn a low wage. Recently, I've been doing some reading on the issue of the "Protestant Ethic" which comes up repeatedly in the "culture and values" readings we've been doing in the Theory of Moral Sentiments Readings Group. There are a lot of people who use the term "Protestant Ethic," but what ethics about economic life did the Protestant Reformers really have?

This is a large topic, because there's no doubt that the Reformers thought a lot about issues in what we might call today the marriage of ethics and economics. Typical is John Calvin, who tackles the ethics of personal consumption in his Institutes on the Christian Religion. In the part of his book dedicated to the life of the Christian, Calvin offered rapid-fire the following analysis. I'm going to summarize his ideas, but not offer a lot of commentary here.

From Book III, Chapter X :"How to use the present life, and the comforts of it."

1 ) Calvin rejects the extremes of asceticism on the one hand and of unbridled license to excess on the other.

2 ) He asserts that God has given tastes and smells and colors for our enjoyment.

3 ) "Where is the gratitude if you gorge yourself with feasting and wine as to be unfit for offices of piety, or the duties of your calling? Where recognition of God if the felsh, boiling forth in lust through excessive indulgence infects the mind with impurity?... Where thankfulness to God for clothing, if on account of sumptuous raiment we both admire ourselves and disdain others?"

4 ) "He who makes it his rule to use this world as if he used it not, not only cuts off all gluttony in regards to meat and drink, and all effeminacy, ambition, pride, excessive show, and austerity in regards to his table, his house, and his clothes, but removes every care and affection which might withdraw or hinder him from aspiring to the heavenly life, and cultivating the interests of his soul."

5 ) Christian liberty admits of no strict laws, but it must be our constant aim "not only to curb luxury but to cut off all show of superfluous abundance, and carefully beware of converting a help into a hindrance."

6 ) He argues that envy and sumptuousness are two sides of the same coin...that it is the same value system that causes us to be annoyed when our clothes are frayed as when we are vain that we are wearing a splendid garment.

7 ) Scripture declares that all of our gifts come from God, and are appointed for our use as under a kind of trusteeship. "We must therefore administer them as if we constantly here these words sounding in our ears: 'Give an account of your stewardship.'"

8 ) Calvin, like Martin Luther, put a great deal of emphasis on the idea of a "calling" from God. We should constantly remember that "in everything the call of the Lord is the foundation and beginning of right action....In all our cares, toils, annoyances and other burdens, it will be no small alleviation to know that all of these are under the superintendence of God."

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