Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Can Life in Business Still Be A Calling?
Or Is That Day Over?
Lecturer: NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF
Nicholas Wolterstorff received his BA from Calvin College in 1953 and his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University in 1956. Before taking up his current position as Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, he taught for two years at Yale, and then for thirty years at his alma mater, Calvin College.
|CAN LIFE IN BUSINESS STILL BE A CALLING?
OR IS THAT DAY OVER?
For the Colloquy on Christian Faith and Economic Life,
March 18, 2004, Richmond Virginia
My understanding is that in the next two days, those of you who are members of the Colloquy on Christian Faith and Economic Life will be reading and discussing large sections of Max Webers classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. So I decided that what I would do in this public talk is set before all of us as powerfully as I can the case Weber makes for the conclusion that in a capitalist economy, it is impossible for business to be practiced as a calling, a vocation, a Beruf; and then consider what can be said in reply.
When you and I pick up our newspapers, read about scandals at the highest levels of corporate life, and discover along the way that a fair number of those accused of wrongdoing are faithful members of churches, we conclude that these must all be Sunday Christians. In disgust we ask why the churches are not doing a better job of teaching their members that the Christian faith is for Monday through Saturday and not just for Sunday. Whatever happened to the good old Protestant idea of a calling?
Webers argument is that such a response on our part exhibits naïve ignorance of social dynamics. Christianity in the modern world has no choice but to be a Sunday and after-hours affair; it cannot shape what we do within our occupations, whether those be in business or some other sphere of life. That day is over. We must have the integrity to concede that the notion of a calling is irrelevant to modern life, either that, or consign ourselves to living out our callings elsewhere than in our occupations (professional clergy excepted); or this is the third possibility we must make the bold move of declaring that whatever occupation we happen to find ourselves in, no matter what its demands and expectations, that just is our calling. Illegitimate occupations excepted, of course; those whose occupation is burglarizing are not invited to think of that as their calling. The most powerful sermons, the most compelling church education programs, the most resolute decisions by laypeople to live Christ in the marketplace nothing will change this. Good will, resolution, devotion, are all irrelevant.
Weber would regard your colloquy on Christian Faith and Economic Life as idle chatter whose only effect will be to make you feel better or, depending on how the colloquy goes, feel worse. It cannot possibly contribute to overcoming the irrelevance of Christian faith to economic life. Nothing can overcome that irrelevance short of the displacement of capitalism by some alternative mode of economic organization. And let it be clearly noted that in the relevant sense, communism and socialism are not alternative modes of economic organization; they are simply centralized state capitalism, as opposed to decentralized market capitalism.
You and I must have the courage and the integrity to confront Webers sobering argument head-on.
Clearly what Hall means by a calling is an occupation; an honest calling is an honest occupation, makes no difference how noble or humble. Preaching and plowing are both callings.
The word calling is used in the same way in the following, equally wonderful, passage from the Cambridge Puritan theologian, William Perkins.
Here too, a calling is an occupation, be it never so base or mean.
But if a calling is an occupation, why not just call it that? Why did these Puritans speak of occupations as callings? The answer is that there is another idea hovering in the background, that of acting in obedience, and [in] conscience of Gods Commandments, to quote Hall -- or to quote Perkins, that of doing something in faith and obedience, . . . for Gods glory and in an holy manner. Notice, by the way, that there is no reference here to some mystical experience of God telling one to plow, to dig, to preach, to keep sheep, to be a magistrate no reference to anything like Augustines life-altering experience in his garden. The idea is simply that of being called to act in faith and obedience to God in all one does. No matter what ones occupation, one is called in that occupation to act in faith and obedience, in a holy manner and for Gods glory.
The point that both Hall and Perkins want especially to make is that one may perform the works of ones calling qua occupation without doing what faith and obedience call one to do; and conversely, that one can do what faith and obedience call one to do within any honest calling, no matter how mean. The person in the calling or occupation of minister may not be doing what faith and obedience call him to do; the person whose calling or occupation is digging ditches may well be doing what faith and obedience call him to do.
So when I ask in my title, Can Life in Business Still Be a Calling, what do I mean by a calling? Obviously not an occupation; of course life in business can be an occupation. I have the normative sense of calling in mind. My question is whether one can fulfill Gods call to act in faith and obedience within business. Does the role of businessperson in a capitalist economy permit such action? Weber argued that it does not. Let us consider his case.
The tone of icy melancholy in these words is not reserved by Weber for businessmen in the modern world. He adopts the same tone when he talks about professors; I will quote a passage later. He would adopt the tone no matter what sphere of modern life he was talking about. Running throughout Webers writing about the modern world is the imagery of fate, and of submission to fate; to be a businessperson or a professor in the modern world requires that one submit to a certain fate. Whenever Weber has this fate in view, and the necessity of submission to it, his rhetoric acquires tones of melancholy icy melancholy.
The point is that Webers melancholic attitude toward economic life in the modern world was but one aspect of his pervasive melancholy of modernity, as I shall call it. It is that comprehensive melancholy of modernity that we must try to understand. To do so, we must first dip our toes into Webers theory of modernization. That theory has proved to be a near-fathomless ocean. Be assured that all we will be doing this evening is dipping our toes into it, nothing more!
By differentiation Weber had in mind the emergence in modernized societies of distinct spheres of value, each with its own laws of operation. Weber often described these spheres as autonomous that is, self-normed. Examples are the social spheres of the capitalist economy, the bureaucratic state, and impersonal law, and the cultural spheres of academic learning and art. Webers thought was that in the modern world the economy comes into its own, freed from the extraneous influences of princes, bishops, pastors, and politicians so as to be free for following its own internal laws and dynamics. We call it the free market economy. In a similar way the bureaucratic state comes into its own, indifferent in good measure to the coming and going of politicians; art comes into its own, so that people begin to speak of the art world; and the academy comes into its own, shaped by the ideal of academic freedom freedom from extraneous forces and demands so as to be free for following out its own internal dynamics.
I spoke, just above, of the emergence of these spheres. Weber does indeed think of the spheres as emerging by the process that he, and countless other sociologists following in his footsteps, called differentiation. His full thought, though, is that the emergence presupposes a certain recognition of what is already there. Embedded in the very nature of things are distinct values: aesthetic values, economic values, academic (Wissenschaftlich) values, and so forth; modernization only occurs when the distinctness of these values is intuitively recognized by a society.
The second and related development constituting the essence of modernization is the ever more pervasive practice of rationalized thought and action within these differentiated spheres. Rationalization is the fundamental dynamic of action within our modern capitalist economies, within our modern bureaucratic states, within our modern science; rationalization is everywhere. By and large, it is means-ends thought and action that Weber has in mind by rationalization. His point is that rather than doing things as things have always been done, we in the modern world restlessly and relentlessly pursue what we have rationally concluded to be more effective ways of achieving the core value of a given sphere. We want reasons, not appeals to tradition.
A second root of Webers melancholy, which here I will not take time to develop, was his conviction that a persons pursuit of the distinct value served by one sphere regularly comes into conflict with her pursuit of the distinct value served by another; and that there is no rational way to adjudicate such conflicts. There is no way of rationally adjudicating conflicts between economic values and aesthetic values.
There is yet a third root of Webers pervasive melancholy; and it is especially this third root that gives to Webers thought its special bite for those of us who are religious. An implication of the foregoing is that ones personal religious convictions are either irrelevant or obstructive as motives and guides for action within the differentiated spheres of modernity. If the businessman, rather than being motivated and guided simply by the sanctity of contracts and the bottom line of profit, allows his religious convictions to shape his business practices, he shortly finds himself out of business. And should the professor, rather than following the rules and standards of the guild, allow her religious convictions to intrude into her teaching or research, she shortly finds herself either an ex-professor or an academic pariah. We do, it is true, speak of the ethic of the businessman, the ethic of the professor, the ethic of the physician, and so forth. But what he have in mind is nothing else than the requirements attached to the social role of businessman, of professor, of physician. To avoid confusion, call those requirements the ethos of the role. The ethos of a social role is fundamentally different from the ethical judgments that, for example, lay behind the denunciations issued by the prophet Amos. Imagine some wealthy businessman trying to fend off Amos denunciations by saying that he was simply following the ethos of the businessman: honoring contracts and going by the bottom line of profit!
Weber reminds us that once upon a time, before the onset of modernization, things were different; in particular, they were different in the Christian West. Once upon a time everybody could, and some did, shape their lives as a whole in accord with their religious convictions; once upon a time there were people whose lives had the wholeness and integrity of being an expression of their religious identity. Weber always presented himself as a religious skeptic; and no doubt he was a skeptic intellectually, however, not emotionally. For there can be no doubt that what contributes to his melancholy of modernity is that he found himself, in the course of his vast historical research into the history and sociology of religion, identifying emotionally with those medieval monks and nuns, and those early Protestant laypeople, who struggled to conform their lives as a whole to the call they heard issuing from God. Inner-worldly asceticism Weber called their style of life using asceticism in its etymological sense of self-discipline. Rather than disciplining themselves to escape from this world into the transcendent, they disciplined themselves to obey the transcendent in all their actions within this world. Hence, inner-worldly asceticism.
But though he identified emotionally with the inner-worldly ascetics and their lives of religious and ethical wholeness, Weber was persuaded that modernity has made such lives impossible. Hence the melancholy. Along with many other people in the modern world he finds that he can no longer share the convictions of the inner-worldly ascetics; he finds those convictions intellectually untenable. But the main point he wanted to make was never that point, but rather that modernization has made it impossible to act on such convictions even if one has them. There may still be people with the mentality and spirituality of the inner-worldly ascetic; but there is nobody acting as an inner-worldly ascetic in the business world, the art world, the political world, the academic world. Such action is impossible. [T]he ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.3
Now let me quote the passage in which Weber speaks about the fate of the professor in the modern world, in a lecture that he called Wissenschaft als Beruf. The writing is considerably more dense than in that famous passage about the fate of the businessperson; but the tone of icy melancholy is just as unmistakable perhaps more so.
Recall Richard Baxters insistence that ones care for external goods is to be worn like a light cloak to be thrown aside at any moment. What Baxter meant, of course, is that care for external goods is to be thrown aside whenever obedience to God requires that it be thrown aside. There is every reason to suppose that in this fallen world of ours, there will be such moments. We must expect that the occupation and the corresponding ethos of the modern capitalist businessperson will not always snuggle up nicely to the obligation to render single-minded and single-hearted obedience to God. Call them both callings, if you want, the occupation and the obligation. But keep clearly in mind that a persons calling qua businessman is not the same as that persons calling by God, and expect that God will sometimes call the person in business to violate his calling qua businessman call him to shape his actions by something else than the bottom line of profit. The implication, in the modern world, of Gods thus calling a businessman to ignore the bottom line, is that God calls him to pay the price of being forced out of business. So too for the professor: we must expect that God will sometimes call the professor to violate the ethos of the modern professor, to go against the standards of the guild. What that implies, when it happens, is that God is calling him to pay the price of never becoming tenured, or if already tenured, of becoming marginalized.
Every now and then someone comes along proposing to set up an alternative business in which it is not the bottom line of profit that is determinative but the flourishing of the employees at work, pay that enables the employees and their families to live decent lives, and the provision of genuinely worthwhile products and services to the public. Likewise every now and then someone comes along proposing to set up an alternative academy in which the participants pursue wisdom and debate the meaning of life. All such Romantic experiments have their brief day and cease to be. They go buzz and die like gnats. The modern economy, the modern polity, the modern academy, all follow their fated courses.
The prophet, looking about, always finds something about which to say, This must not be. But there is no room in the modern world for enacting the word of the prophet. No room for inner-worldly ascetics. This has nothing to do with bad will or weak; it has to do with the dynamic and logic of a differentiated and rationalized society. The only religious people for whom there is room in the public life of the modern world are those who bestow their blessing on what everybody is doing anyway. Modernity gives religious people of that sort no problem. It is those who seek to act on the word of the prophet who are squeezed out. Some people still speak with a prophetic voice. You will hear such a voice in church on occasion, and now and then as a jolting, discomfiting, and embarrassing intrusion into some sphere of public life. But outside of church and family, it has no effect. It cannot have an effect. The cloaks we wear in the academy, the economy, the polity, the halls of justice, the art world, are too heavy. We cannot throw them off. Our cloaks are cages.
Weber assumed that for capitalism to emerge in any part of the world, a victorious struggle against the traditionalism already in place had to occur traditionalism is his word. One feature of what he had in mind by traditionalism is the presence of a wide variety of ethical prohibitions against a wide variety of economic transactions. For capitalism to emerge, these had to be removed and replaced by a rationalized legal system whose centerpiece is laws enforcing the sanctity of contracts freely made between non-deceiving parties; and the view had to gain currency that all that is ethically prohibited in business is deceiving or coercing ones contracting partner and breaking ones contract.
A second feature of what Weber had in mind by traditionalism is explained by him in these words: A man does not by nature wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour (ibid., 60). The structure of a capitalist economy is that of the rational utilization of capital in a permanent enterprise and the rational capitalistic organization of labour (ibid., 58). For this structure to become operative, people must acquire the habit of working whether they have to or not -- in case they are on the owners side of the enterprise, the habit of ceaselessly making and investing profits. Weber regards such behavior, viz., working hard to make ever more money, as exceedingly unnatural. He speaks vividly on the matter; let me quote him at some length:
His famous answer was that the later Puritans provided the crucial link, with respect both to the unnaturalness and the amoralism, by collapsing without remainder the normative idea of doing what faith and obedience call one to do, into the descriptive idea of ones calling as an occupation. Working in the role allotted one by the capitalist economy and in accord with the ethos of that role just is ones divine calling. If the role expectation for the businessman is to do whatever is necessary, short of the illegal and the grossly immoral, to turn a profit, then that is what faith and obedience call him to do. The businessman obeys Gods call by working hard to make a profit, investing that profit, working hard to make more profit, and so forth. Webers thesis, in short, was that the Puritans propounded the audacious claim that no matter how unbrotherly ones actions in the roles of the capitalist economy might be, God nevertheless calls one to play those roles. It is God who calls one to disciplined work within these hard-hearted roles in pursuit of the impersonal goal of making money!
My own view on this particular historical matter is that though the ambiguity in the concept of a calling that I noted at the beginning might make it easy to slide into this view, as a matter of fact neither Weber nor, so far as I know, anyone else, has ever cited a passage from any of the classic Puritans in which this thesis is actually espoused. The classic Puritans all join with Hall and Perkins in warning that one must not assume that what God calls you in faith and obedience to do is simply to fulfill the standard role expectations for the occupation you happen to find yourself in. They do not collapse the normative sense of a calling into the descriptive occupational sense of a calling. Perkins says, for example, that when the ethos of ones particular calling or occupation conflicts with Gods call, then the particular calling must give place; because we are bound unto God in the first place, and unto man, under God. No matter how religiously they may attend church, yet if they practise not the duties of godlinesse within their own callings, al is but hypocrisie. And therefore, unless they repent the greater their gifts are, the more shal they make to their deeper condemnation at the day of judgment.5
Be that as it may, however, it was Webers view that now that the strange and unnatural capitalist system is in place, it reproduces itself without the need for any religious basis. By participating in the system we acquire the necessary habits; no need any longer for moral or religious justification.
I feel acutely that at this point I am moving outside my area of competence. What we need here is either the testimony of businesspersons or the analysis of those who study business -- economists and business theorists. I belong to neither group. I am not a businessman, obviously; nor is it my business to study business. So I will make this concluding part of my talk brief.
Though not myself a businessman, I have friends who are businessmen. And every now and then I talk with them about these matters. So let me present to you the testimony of one of them. It came about in the following manner..
About fifteen years ago I received a call from the personnel manager at the Herman Miller Furniture Corporation in Zeeland, Michigan, inviting me to serve as a consultant for a day. This took me completely aback. A philosopher is rarely asked to serve as consultant to anybody, let alone to a fairly large and highly successful business firm. I was apprehensive, fearing that I would be a fish out of water for a day. But the person on the other end of the line offered a fee that was, for me, of a size hitherto unheard of; so I took the bait and accepted.
The situation, when I arrived, was this. In addition to myself there were four other consultants: an architect, a physician, a journalist, and a free-lance furniture designer. Max de Pree, the head of the company, warmly welcomed us; and explained that twice a year he and four or five of his top managers took a day out to discuss basic issues along with a small group of consultants. We, the consultants, were not to worry about whether what we said proved useful to the Herman Miller people; they would get together afterwards and deal with that. We were just to let the discussion flow and say what we thought.
Max had written down ten questions that were on his mind. It didnt matter, he said, whether we got to all of them; and maybe there were some we wanted to discuss that he had not thought of. But these were ones that he had been mulling over. Let me give you the three I remember.
What is the purpose of business, Max asked. Some of his young managers had been telling him that the purpose of business is to make a profit. That was not his view of business, Max said; but he wanted to talk about it. Second, is there a moral imperative to good design? Since depression days, the Herman Miller company had committed itself to being a leader in contemporary furniture design. Should they continue that commitment? Was it some sort of imperative? And third, is growth compatible with intimacy? The company had for many years prized itself on intimacy within the company, it had devised a number of innovative strategies for securing intimacy, some of them having becoming widely known in the business world. But recently they had gone public; and their shareholders were clamoring for growth. So was growth compatible with intimacy?
I was thunderstruck. I had expected to be a fish out of water. But these were philosophical questions, though ones I had never before seriously thought about. If anyone was out of water, it was the others.
If Max did not think the purpose of business was to make money, what did he think its purpose was? Slowly it came out mainly in the form of stories he told about decisions he had made over the years in running the company. One of the purposes of business is to provide good and fulfilling work for the employees. At one point Max even talked about work being a healing experience for some of the employees. Another purpose of business is to provide customers with well-made products that serve a genuine need, doing so in such a way that one secures customer satisfaction. It was when he talked about products that Maxs ideas about good design entered the picture. And thirdly, the purpose of business is to pay the employees enough to support themselves and their families with decency. Those, said Max, were what he saw as the purposes of business
But if these are the purposes of business, where does making a profit come in? Profit, Max said, is like breathing. We have to breathe to live, but we do not live to breathe. Profit, to put it more flat-footedly, is a condition of a company remaining in business. If the Herman Miller Company was to achieve those three purposes, it had to turn a profit. But turning a profit, as Max saw it, was not itself one of his purposes as a businessman; it was no more than a means to his purposes.
Let us now suppose that de Pree was neither deluding himself nor deceiving us. That is to say, let us suppose that those three purposes really did shape the decisions he made in running the company. I suggest that one of the reasons Webers argument comes across with the force it does is that he systematically blurs the distinction de Pree made that day, between the conditions for successfully operating a business in a capitalist economy, and the goals that the businessman sets for himself. Consider, for example, this passage from Weber. Capitalism, he says,
The claim of the last sentence is certainly true: the business that does not make a profit is doomed to extinction, sooner or later. But that is very different from the claim Weber makes in the first sentence, that capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit. The conditions necessary for achieving some goal are not to be identified with the goal.
Put the point a bit differently: Weber assumes that the structure of capitalism forces the entrepreneur into functioning as so-called economic man more precisely, as a certain version of such a being. It forces him first into adopting profit as his sole interest when working in business; and it forces him secondly into adopting rational choice strategies for maximizing that interest. What I learned from de Pree that day is that this is just factually false. The mere system of capitalism leaves it open to the businessman to decide whether he will pursue profit as the one and only final goal of his business activities, or whether he will regard it merely as a condition to his achieving other goals. There is, of course, the third possibility of adopting profit-making as one among other final goals.
What should be noted is that de Prees goals were extra-systemic in origin. Whereas to learn a trade in the old guild system was to learn ones moral rights and duties vis á vis other members of the guild and society generally, it can scarcely be said that to learn the role of entrepreneur in a capitalist economy is to learn ones moral rights and duties vis á vis ones workers, ones customers, and the general public certainly not if one understands those rights and duties as de Pree did. One has to learn those elsewhere. In de Prees case, the relevant fact is that he has always been a loyal member of one of the American derivatives of the Dutch Reformed Church specifically, the Reformed Church of America. But of course the important point is not where the businessman learns what he is called by God to do in business, but whether he learns what he is called by God to do.
It appears to me to be true that, unlike earlier economic arrangements, if there is to be ethical action within the structures of capitalism, such action must either be taught and sustained from outside the system, or taught and sustained from within the system by those, such as de Pree, who go beyond what the mere system requires and, in so doing, provide a model for others. It is at this point that the church comes into the picture. But that, then, is the thing to say, not that the capitalist system as such makes it impossible to practice business as a normative calling.
But I have talked more than enough. I will let you take it from here.
1. Quoted on p. 224 of Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Harvard University Press; 1989). Return to text.
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