Max Weber on Religion: Beyond Secularization – By Johannes Zachhuber

The dismissal of Weber’s worth as a theorist of historical and contemporary religion is premature.

Peter Ghosh, Max Weber and “The Protestant Ethic”: Twin Histories, Oxford University Press, 2014, 424pp., $49.95
Peter Ghosh, Max Weber and “The Protestant Ethic”: Twin Histories, Oxford University Press, 2014, 424pp., $49.95
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The so-called secularization thesis — the notion that the world is becoming ever less religious — has been subjected to some rough handling in the last fifteen or twenty years. To many, a principle that once seemed axiomatic now appears as little more than an ideological postulate disguised as an historical and sociological theory. This shift has inevitably affected those who are regarded as the originators of the thesis, including perhaps most notably Max Weber.

Weber — who was born just over 150 years ago in 1864 and died prematurely of the Spanish flu in 1920 — remains unquestionably one of the most influential figures in today’s academy and beyond; but his views on religion have fared less well. His interpretation of seventeenth-century Protestantism has been criticized by historians and theologians alike; and his decision to present the Puritans in particular as the privileged ancestors of modern secularity has often appeared idiosyncratic at best.

It may be, however, that the dismissal of Weber’s worth as a theorist of historical and contemporary religion is premature, and it is one indisputable merit of Peter Ghosh’s superb and eminently scholarly Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic to put this issue squarely on the table once more. The book’s subtitle is Twin Histories, indicating that for Ghosh, an historian teaching at Oxford University, the full story of Weber’s landmark analysis of the Protestant ethic, first published in 1904/05, is ultimately co-extensive with the story of his intellectual life as a whole. This critical pairing of text and life is provocative as it suggests that religion was much more central to Weber’s intellectual pursuit than conventional presentations of him as solely a sociologist would suggest.

Misunderstanding of the religious side of Weber’s work issues in part from Weber’s inability and indeed unwillingness to adapt to the rigid disciplinary divisions that have come to determine academic work — and which, ironically, few have described with as much rigor and insight (and indeed foresight) as Weber himself did. Weber was certainly not a despiser of modern Wissenschaft, but he resisted aspects of its demands by moving incessantly between economics, law, history, and theology, to name but a few. It is this “untimely” mode of intellectual production that, in spite of Weber’s enormous influence across a range of disciplines, has hampered the appreciation of his oeuvre as a whole, and — as Ghosh informs his readers — of the true significance of religion for his thought in its entirety.

But why should we believe that Weber’s interest in religion was so foundational for his thought? One of his most well-known statements, after all, is his admission that he was religiously tone-deaf or — as Ghosh says, staying closer to the original German — “religiously unmusical.” This metaphor, however, was evidently carefully chosen and indicative of a personal position that was equally remote from that of the traditional believer and from that of the secular atheist.

Weber, who had grown up with an agnostic father and a deeply religious as well as progressive mother, had known from his adolescent years that in spite of his close bond with his mother he was never going to be a believer himself. This recognition, however, did not instil in him any hostility towards religion, or if it did, it was uniquely directed against the particular, North-German version of Lutheranism with which he was confronted as a child and which is frequently singled out for some of his most dismissive and harsh judgments later on, from Luther’s “peasant distrust of capital” to modern Lutheranism’s paternalism and failure to develop an ethic suitable for the impersonal nature of Capitalist society.

Weber himself may well have thought that his particular attitude to religion and his historical location specifically qualified him as an analyst of Christian culture. Hegel famously suggested that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, which is to say that historical phenomena become comprehensible only as they are passing away, and the freight of this notion was surely not lost on one of the most creative German thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century. Ghosh at any rate is keen to present Weber as seeking to understand religion from the vantage point afforded by Weber’s unique position between faith and unbelief.

For Ghosh, Weber’s thinking about religion arose precisely from the vanishing point in which religion and its denial meet. On these terms, Weber can hardly be understood as a theorist of secularization. Though Ghosh concedes, as he must, that Weber thought of modern Western culture as cut off from the root of its Christian heritage, the discontinuity of this cutting off cannot mean a great secularizing rupture, for the premise of the historicism that Weber inherits is the rejection of radical discontinuities and stark oppositions in favour of more fluid transitions and continuities.

Analogous considerations may also help explain Weber’s decision to take seventeenth-century Puritans as the paradigmatic objects of his interest in religion. The prominence of this group in Christian history has not been apparent to the vast majority of church historians either before or after Weber; Ghosh subtly suggests a tantalizing yet inevitably speculative explanation for Weber’s interest. From the opening pages of the book something of a leitmotif emerges in the author’s observation of parallels between Weber and the Puritans. For example, we are told that Weber’s disdain for revealing anything about his private thoughts and feelings “was absolute” and corresponded to the Puritans’ “command to keep silent.”

More significantly, Ghosh goes on to invite the reader to perceive similarities between Weber’s own alienation from God and the terms that Weber used to describe the Puritans’ peculiar religiosity. Weber, Ghosh points out, says of himself that “wholly and utterly remote from God, one lives against God, wholly and utterly alone.” Similarly, Weber argues that the Puritan lives in “inner isolation,” in “utter remoteness from God.” The Puritans were remote from God, on Weber’s telling, because they understood God to be hidden and to require of human beings nothing but to follow a series of seemingly incoherent commands. For them, no personal religious feeling is possible or legitimate. Analogously, the intellectual at the turn of the twentieth century is alienated from God because he lives in a world governed by anonymous and abstract economic and political laws that appear ultimately as arbitrary as capricious divine commands.

The peculiar borderland between religion and antireligion that Weber inhabited thus appears to mirror in some ways the conditions of Puritan religiosity itself. On these terms, it may be that Weber supposes the Puritans to be instructive, not because they were religiously typical or representative, but rather because they occupy a margin that borders on the irreligious. Their particular brand of predestinarian Calvinism took religion to its extreme, to a point where it practically ceased to be religion with a deity so transcendent that the believer could not hope to sway him, a totally disenchanted world, and prescriptions for religious life unlike those of all more traditional cults. This precisely makes them valuable and indeed paradigmatic for those seeking to understand religion today.

Is this what Weber himself thought? The answer to that question may ultimately be decisive for determining the depth and the extent of Weber’s interest in religion. But it does not determine the value of the Protestant Ethic. The latter could be significant in other, more conventional ways. It could, for example, indicate Weber’s concern with the emergence of the modern, capitalist, secular world. It has, after all, often been understood as a genealogical study of this kind. In such an interpretation, Weber’s choice of seventeenth-century sectarians would be accidental to religious history except in the specific sense that this particular product of the history of religions brought about secular modernity. Alternatively there could be a quasi-Darwinist reading, according to which the significance of the Puritans derives from their ability to adapt to and cope with a novel kind of social world in which personalist ethics no longer operate.

These interpretations of the Protestant Ethic may well not be mutually exclusive, and several of them find support in Weber’s own text. It is arguable, however, that Ghosh’s thesis, according to which the Protestant Ethic is the centerpiece of Weber’s oeuvre marking him out as a major theorist of religion, represents the most ambitious reading of the text . It derives its plausibility not merely from an impressive collection of Weberian statements from throughout his intellectual career that indicate the significance of religion for his overall thought, but also, and more importantly, from a synthetic reading of the Protestant Ethic in conjunction with practically the entirety of Weber’s corpus, and in particular his essays on the Economic Ethic of the World Religions, on which he worked from 1912 onwards.

For Ghosh, it is crucial that these extensive articles do not represent a fundamental shift or new departure for Weber, but only extend ideas that are already contained in the Protestant Ethic. This is clearly significant as it would gesture at a vision of a universal account of religion revolving around the very notions that had underlain the Protestant Ethic.

It is intriguing to think that Weber had such a vision; and especially so from the point of view of historical theology. For theologians throughout the nineteenth century worked on a formally analogous project. Following inspirations by Hegel and Schelling, theologians such as F.C. Baur and Albrecht Ritschl sought to combine an historical investigation into the entire history of religions with a normative theology by showing that religious history moved towards Christianity (and usually Protestantism) as its proper culmination. By means of such a teleology, theological historicism avoided (or was believed to have avoided) a relativistic outcome. Weber’s friend, Ernst Troeltsch, once called this “the great programme of all scientific theology.”

This project was ultimately abandoned at the turn of the twentieth century partly because the assumption of Christianity as the “absolute” religion had lost its plausibility and partly because the religious-historical frame seemed to stand in the way of constructive theology. Yet there is prima facie no reason why Weber should not have been a post-theological heir to this particular tradition, as long as it is allowed that for him the modern world took the place previously held by Protestantism, that is, of a persuasive historical end-point of religious and cultural evolution. On these terms, markers on the way towards the ultimate goal were not arbitrary at all, and Weber’s decision to illustrate fundamental truths about religion by way of seventeenth-century Puritans would have made as much sense as the choice of Protestantism made to earlier nineteenth-century theologians: an historical phenomenon shows its true colours towards the end of its historical development.

Yet there is also a strong argument against such an interpretation, and Ghosh’s book presents it in equally if not more pronounced form. In brief, Weber could never have presumed to aspire to that kind of universal theory of religion in history simply because he was totally steeped in the recognition of what Troeltsch has called the “anarchy of values,” in other words the impossibility of establishing a set of ethical or epistemological principles that would find universal recognition. As a matter of fact, Ghosh goes to extraordinary lengths to show how deeply this insight informed Weber’s entire thought, not least on religion.

Once again Puritanism is central, as the Puritans — exposed as they were to a hidden and arbitrary deity — prefigure modern devotion to one’s profession as an end in itself. This does not, incidentally, make either them or Weber “relativists” or indeed “pessimists,” as Ghosh rightly protests. Quite the contrary, Weber strove to demonstrate that and how the individual’s acceptance of values in the absence of a universally agreed code could be both stable and fulfilling. For the same reason, Weber was so affirmative of seventeenth-century “sects” who in a significant way are the forerunner of the characteristically modern “voluntary association,” the social formation whose basis is irreducibly individualistic.

All these observations ultimately amount to one and the same insight: Weber took it that the time for grand syntheses and major systems was over. Meaning was pluralistic and dispersed; no single vision could put Humpty Dumpty together again. Consequently, Weber did not write the “thick books” his wife Marianne always wanted him to pen, but instead produced a huge assemblage of fragments, some published, many others not. There was, therefore, no point either for any individual to hanker after what was lost whether religiously or politically or intellectually. Instead, it behooves the moderns to accept that they live in a new and different kind of world in which those aspirations are no longer realistic.

This imperative was true for the academic as much as for the politician; it applied to religion as much as the economy. Weber was as dismissive of the neo-romantic German longing for an organically conceived nation as he was critical of the idealist hopes of his liberal theological friends who believed that sufficiently modernized Christianity could once again serve as a unifying bond to society.

Which of the two interpretations, then, is correct? Was Weber aiming at a novel form of historicist theory of religion conceived from the vanguard of its radical transformation into modern post-religiosity? Or was he content to assemble fragments of irreducibly diverse phenomena which could only be assigned meaning on an individual and transient basis. Was Weber modern or was he post-modern? Ghosh’s book remains strikingly ambivalent at this point, and in the concluding section he writes of religion and history as “comprehensive and universal frames of reference” only to assert subsequently that the modern world was “indeed fragmented and infinite.”

The fault for this ambivalence, however, may ultimately not lie with the interpreter but with Weber himself who, we should recall, both espoused in the most uncompromising terms the inevitability of specialization and the acceptance of “meaninglessness” in the modern academy and found it personally impossible to commit himself to such an existence. If it is conceded that he understood religion because of his existence on the borderline between faith and unbelief, he may have been similarly competent to understand modernity precisely as someone who was exposed, but never totally taken in, by the way of life that came to dominance in the West during his lifetime and has not been superseded until this day.

Weber, in other words, may well have been a man of paradoxes, and the tension between the tendency in his work to construct an overarching structure illuminating religion on the basis of its most rationalized form and the recognition that such a claim cannot possibly be upheld under the conditions of historicist value pluralism may turn out as yet another instance of that personality trait.

Much of the attention Weber has received among theologians and among scholars of religion more generally has been related to his association with Ernst Troeltsch. Ghosh, whose awareness of Weber’s theological background is generally outstanding, weaves an account of their relationship into his overall narrative which deserves to become canonical. Without taking anything away from the deep respect and friendship between the two men and scholars, his analyses of their relative views effectively remove any legitimacy of the label “Weber-Troeltsch,” frequently used in the sociology of religion, as their divergences are ultimately decisive and their concurrence more often than not superficial.

Weber believed the seventeenth century produced modern religion in the form of the Puritan sects, whereas for Troeltsch neo-Protestantism really was a product of the eighteenth century with its tendency towards individualistic forms of religiosity. While Weber saw Lutheran attempts to reconcile Christianity with the modern world on the basis of personal responsibility as doomed, Troeltsch’s own vision clearly tended in that direction. While Weber felt that acceptance of the “anarchy of values” was inevitable, Troeltsch worked towards a possible new Christian theological and even metaphysical synthesis.

Given these fundamental divergences, however, it is all the more remarkable how far Weber was apparently willing to let Troeltsch fill in the blanks of his own religious scholarship. According to Ghosh, Weber stopped work on the Protestant Ethic after 1905 not least because Troeltsch was now writing the Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (published in 1912), and while this may remain to some extent speculative, it is evident that Weber frequently referred to Troeltsch’s work as if it were an extension of his own. The most obvious explanation for this lies — apart from Troeltsch’s evident willingness to be influenced by Weber in some of his judgments — in Weber’s eagerness to bow to the expertise of the “specialist;” his academic deference to Troeltsch’s work on the social dogma of Christianity is usually justified along those lines.

This set of intellectual relationships merits attention because of a considerable, and possibly dual, irony. First of all, Troeltsch himself could hardly be called a specialist even by early twentieth-century standards. While he may not have moved between quite as many fields as Weber did, his oeuvre contains little that conforms to the rules of what Weber famously termed “science as vocation,” the specialized, rigorously disciplined, collectively executed and hence nearly anonymous research practiced in the modern academy. Within theology, moreover, Troeltsch was marginalized; the fact that eventually he accepted a chair in the Philosophical Faculty bears testimony to that. Barth’s notorious statement that Troeltsch was a theologian only in an “accidental” way may be a typically Barthian mix of hyperbole and slander, but it was not without its grain of truth.

Secondly, however, Weber’s regular reference to theology and theologians as “experts” is in itself worthy of note. Surely, he must have realized that theology as a subject in the modern research university was controversial and indeed problematical, not merely because of its perceived or real confessional bias, but also because it was far from clear how it could be integrated into a system of specialized disciplines.

The problem of the theologian in general, one might say, was not so different from the problem of Weber as an individual. Or, to put it somewhat more provocatively, Weber in some ways evidently worked like a theologian himself. It is this realization that gives an interesting note to his constant reference to theologians as “specialists.” They had better be specialists since otherwise it would be much more difficult for Weber to engage with them and their work!

While Weber can hardly be criticized for this positioning of his own enquiry vis-à-vis theology, it does matter for today’s theologians in their use and assessment of his ideas. It would be quite wrong for theologians to read Weber as the representative of a largely extraneous discipline. Instead they are dealing with questions and problems that are akin to those with which their own field of enquiry is tasked and should be approached as such.

At this vantage point, finally, it is possible to return to the original question: what is the place of religion in Weber’s work? Ghosh must be right in his fundamental intuition that religion is absolutely central. Thus far, his analysis is superior to a strictly social-scientific reading of the great thinker that is restricted to his empirical and methodological work. The latter is, of course, supremely important, but Ghosh’s study demonstrates that it rests on a foundation without which it could never have existed. This foundation is a profound concern with religion as a fundamental human and cultural reality that is vital for deciphering meaning in past and present.

To what extent Weber’s assumption of the centrality of rationalization and asceticism can stand the critical test of historical and theological study, must be regarded as an open question at this time. It would, however, certainly be wrong to overlook the contemporary significance of this and other insights of a thinker or reduce to a theorist of secularization a man who may well make a return in our own, oft-called post-secular age.


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