Routinization, Rationalization, Renunciation: Max Weber’s Account of Christian Asceticism and Critical Theory

Below is a slightly modified version of the paper I delivered at AAR last weekend for the Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group. The panel was titled “The Frankfurt School: Foundations and Fixations.” My paper perhaps falls under the former more than the latter of that pair, though I think it addresses some “fixations” as well, namely the commodity form as the central point of critique in most analyses of capitalism under the heading “Critical Theory.”

 In Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism we find three different types of rationalization at work in the construction of this ethic and the subsequent spirit, which arises from what Weber calls the “inner-worldly asceticism” of Reformed Protestants. This reading of Weber, while I think quite plain from a careful examination of the text, complicates the more or less standard intellectual history which reads “rationalization” as co-terminous and interchangeable with “instrumental reason,” and, perhaps even more germane to the Frankfurt School, also complicates Georg Lukács’ appropriation of the term in History and Class Consciousness in the formation of his concept, reification. The aim, then, is to show that Weber’s analysis can offer an important supplement to what has become the dominant way of reading capitalist economy in critical theory. My conclusion is that though reification is indeed a modified version of Weber’s “rationalization,” the construction of the concept such that it subsumes all “logics” of being-in-the world to the commodity form, reduces Weber’s concept to one “type” and flattens the complexity of “rationalizations” at work in the formation of contemporary capitalism in Weber’s view. In other words, where Lukács identifies a single ideology that must be overcome, Weber sees a complex web of calculative moves, none of which are necessarily ideological in the sense of being epiphenomenal of capitalist economy and all of which contribute to the logic of contemporary capitalism.

Reification, as Lukács defines it, is the calculative process by which something that is non-commodity becomes objective commodity. Lukács’ primary example is Marx’s reading of the commodification of labor as the commodification and thus objectification of a social relationship—something that, prior to capitalism, would have been irrational. All subjectivity is removed from labor in order that it might be quantifiable, calculable, and exchangeable. However, Lukács’ rendering of the term extends beyond Marx’s reading in positing this phenomenon as the universal structure of modern capitalist society. In other words, not only are social relations reified, but everything is subject to reification via the objective, calculative logic of the capitalist system. In “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Lukács writes that the commodity itself “can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it.” In other words, via reification, commodity has become “the form of objectivity” itself, the “natural” logic of existence within the capitalist system, subsuming all spheres of life to itself.

The “logic” of reification in Lukács and Weber’s rationalization run parallel to one another in their rejection of that which falls outside their scope as irrational. For Lukács, the reason reification has become so successfully dominant in modern capitalist society is its ideological dominance over all other ways of being in the world. That is, all activity and ways of viewing the world which do not cohere with the “rational calculative” practices from within the closed logic of the rational-reified system, are rejected. Weber’s concept, as we shall see, does contain a very similar aspect; however, at the outset, it is important to note a few crucial differences between these two accounts. First, unlike Lukács who is very clearly drawing from both Marx and Weber (as well as Georg Simmel) in synthesizing a precise definition of reification, Weber himself is not entirely clear on what he means by rationalization. Indeed, interpreters of Weber, perhaps most famously Talcott Parsons and Anthony Giddens, have noted the inconceivability of any attempt to systematize Weber’s methodology across his corpus. Thus, my claims in this second part are not an attempt at a systematization of Weber’s thought, even regarding this one concept.

It is clear that one can always use the word “calculation” in describing Weberian rationalization. It is a psychological calculation aimed at bringing seemingly disparate parts from the various spheres of life into coherence with one another. Furthermore, we must also note that these types need not be mutually exclusive. Especially in The Protestant Ethic, they appear to work in concert with one another, which perhaps adds to the difficulty of distinguishing them in this text. Though Weber does define rationalization in The Protestant Ethic, our best definition of rationalization comes from Weber’s essay “The Social Psychology of the World’s Religions.” Weber writes,

We have to remind ourselves in advance that “rationalism” may mean very different things. It means one thing if we think of the kind of rationalization the systematic thinker performs on the image of the world: an increasing theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts. Rationalism means another thing if we think of the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means. These types of rationalism are very different, in spite of the fact that ultimately they belong inseperately together. […] The rationalization of life conduct with which we have to deal here can assume unusually varied forms.

We should first note that Weber’s concept has a different type of universal character than Lukács’. While reification is an ideological universal calculative process, which subsumes all spheres of life, rationalization as Weber describes it here seems to be a calculative feature which, as Weber writes in the Protestant ethic, has “existed in various departments of life and in all areas of culture.” In other words, the type of rationalization implemented is not necessarily dependent upon the cultural sphere in which it appears; the aesthetic, religious, or political spheres, for example, do not require their own specific types of rationalization. Rather, each type may take a different form if implemented in a particular sphere.

Weber’s first “type” is instrumental rationalization, which he describes as theoretical mastery of reality. This is the type with which we should be the most familiar at this point: the instrumentalization of nature in order to meet needs, the justification of belief in the untrammeled and inevitable progress of science, or even the objectification of subjective social relations into commodities. While there is nothing inherently religious about this first type of rationalization, the next has explicitly religious origins. Teleological rationalization is oriented toward ultimate values and ends but as they are explicitly salvific and thus ultimate in a religious sense and is what Weber means by “the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end.” It is the reorientation of the world toward this practical end, viz. salvation, and involves the working out of a theodicy such that the promises of the savior (the ultimate values) cohere with the evil that the believer encounters. One must be able to know one is saved despite the apparent evil of the world.

Weber sees this developing in Calvinism first from a revised conception of God, writing that, for the Calvinist, God is “[A] transcendental being, beyond the reach of human understanding, who with His quite incomprehensible decrees has decided the fate of every individual and regulated the tiniest details of the cosmos from eternity.” This totally irrational conception of God, in the sense that human rationality can never approach the will of God, demands the teleological rationalization that Weber describes. Therefore, though salvation itself is a gift of grace from God, assurance of salvation is a thoroughly rationalistic endeavor with specific practical consequences. Weber still has one more mode of rationalization in mind however because the teleological type neither prescribes nor proscribes the proper behaviors necessary in order to secure this assurance.

This third type, ethical, can “assume unusually varied forms” for Weber it is simply the organization of life around the particular values one holds; a behavior is rationalized as ethical if it coheres with the values present in one’s life. These values are derived from all spheres of life and from both instrumental and teleological rationalization. This is perhaps a frustratingly nebulous way of defining “ethical rationalization;” however, reading this definition into Lukács’ account brings to light a deficiency in the latter. For Weber, it is ultimately the ethical rationalization of particular patterns of behavior in Calvinism on the basis of a previous teleological rationalization that is the driving force behind the development of the Protestant ethic that creates the spirit of capitalism. Calvinist teleology demands that all activity in the world be rationalized such that it can point one to the assurance of salvation. In light of the absence of sacrament, this must be done through moral behavior, a recasting of Christian activity as “solely activity ad majorem Dei gloriam.” This final move necessitates ethical rationalization in order to have psychological certainty that all one does brings glory to God. One’s activity must be constantly morally justified in order to cast oneself as a “tool of the divine will.”

The assurance of salvation is demanded at all times since, for Weber, one is from eternity either elected or damned. Thus this creation of assurance “cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one’s credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen of damned. […] The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system.” This system is ultimately what Weber is attempting to explicate through the employment of rationalization as a conceptual tool. Teleological rationalization gives Calvinism the form for the relationship between believer, God, and salvation while ethical rationalization provides the specific content that helps the believer cohere his personal relationship to this structure. Weber calls this system “inner-worldly asceticism.” This is a double asceticism in the sense that one is simultaneously rejecting and remaking the world in order to rationalize one’s being-in-the-world as worthy of God’s glory. Once the teleological concern drops away from Weber’s structure (as in his example of Benjamin Franklin in The Protestant Ethic) we are left with an ethical “spirit of capitalism.” Weber defines this as the accumulation of money for the sake of money itself. This occurs via a set of rational, ethical calculations, which include the rejection of greed coupled with value of hard work reflected in how much one is able to earn. This brings into a unity all economic activity operating according to this spirit regardless of religious belief.

We can now see the relationship between these two structures and the difficulty of drawing a straight trajectory from Weber’s concept through Lukács and into the analysis of later figures such as Horkheimer and Adorno. The primary difference between our two structures, of course, is that the center of the structure for Lukács is the commodity form under the logic of reification rather than money itself. The dominance of instrumental rationalization in Lukács’ structure, is intended to highlight a problem which Marx had already explicated with regard to liberal democracy in “A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” namely the illusory non-normativity of the structure of contemporary capitalism. In other words the reification of subjectivity into the commodity form introduces a kind of non-normative (i.e. non-ethical) relation between subject and commodity, commodity and other commodities, subjects and other subjects, and subjects and the structure of society as a whole. This calculative move serves the function of concealing the true, exploitative relationship between subjects and subjects-become-commodities. If labor is merely another commodity with exchange value, there is no necessary ethical imperative—except to protect the rights of subjects to reify other subjects into commodities, rights that are themselves taken to be “natural.”

It is in this moment that Weber’s analysis provides an interesting compliment to Lukács. Weber introduces a different imperative, another rationalized calculative move that is not a non-normative operation, but a radically ethical one—the cultivation of particular virtues whose sole end is the accumulation of money for money’s own sake. If we read Weber’s analysis of this ethic back into Lukács, then we achieve a much more complex picture of the motivations behind ways of being in contemporary capitalist economy. Not only are laborers trapped by their reification into commodities, but they perhaps willingly accept this reification on the basis of an ethical belief in hard work, frugality, honesty, punctuality, etc. strictly as a means of accumulating money. In other words, what Weber’s account gives us is a much more textured analysis of the functional attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of capitalist economy. It is a starting point for understanding how capitalism has been so resilient in the face of impending collapse: strong ethical attitudes that tie together money and morality.


Pedagogy and Theology II, Or Sean’s Bullshit.


As Luke’s first post alludes, theology is—as an academic discipline—in some pretty serious trouble. The general commodification of university discourse, the fideistic reproduction of confessional identity, and the un-rigorous appropriation of other academic disciplines (especially philosophy and social theory) each threaten the credibility of theological work in an academic setting. This situation is not, I think, a new one; in my (extremely cursory) analysis, theology has been hobbled with just this sort of limp ever since the death of any serious traction held by the ontological argument for the existence of God.⁠1 With the severance of any sort of organic linkage between God and the basis for knowledge as such, theology necessarily turns elsewhere for authority. Because this situation is not new, I don’t think we should mistake this limp for a sign that theology’s days are coming to an end; theology has continued to be studied, and I think will continue to be for the forseeable future.⁠2 Luke, as I said, has offered a pretty coherent introduction to these problems in the way theology is done, and while I could expound further I’ll save that for another time. For now, what seems to me to be the more interesting question is: how does a theological discipline perpetuate itself so thoroughly baselessly? In other words, if we examine theological thinking as a certain sort of production, by what means do the relations of production reproduce themselves? How can theology have continued this long without needing to know what it is thinking for?


In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci makes a distinction between what he calls “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. Roughly, traditional intellectuals are those cognitive laborers whose professions imply membership in a kind of distinguished class; the intellectual class is like one giant subject-supposed-to-know, imagined to be, in a sense, ‘unaligned,’ outside and objective with regard to the bourgeoisie and proletariat. “The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the “true” intellectuals.” As one might imagine, the traditional intellectual is, in the last analysis, far from a neutral figure for Gramsci. Because the traditional intellectual is bound to a certain relations of production (the university, etc) that are themselves indebted in feudal Europe to the landed aristocracy and in capitalist societies to the wealth of the urban bourgeois (distributed either directly or by the state), traditional intellectuals are always materially tied to power. That this tie would color the inquiry of the traditional intellectuals is thus, pretty obvious; and we could talk about the rise of economics as a prominent and esteemed discipline as just that sort of obvious effect. What’s less obvious, but also at play, is that it is in the best interest of the hegemonic order to flatter the traditional intellectuals; as subjects supposed to know, they offer an air of legitimacy and necessity to the order that depends on their appearance of freedom and objectivity. If there are no non-functional, or dissenting disciplines and opinions among the traditional intellectuals, the spell of the traditional intellectuals are broken; their freedom to think against an order is, paradoxically, precisely why they never actually do anything to bring down that order.

If Gramsci’s discussion of traditional intellectuals teaches us one thing, it’s that the relations of production (capitalist, marketplace of ideas, etc) have already factored in the fact that many of us attempt to think against them. This is The Matrix Reloaded’s one good idea; (spoilers for a godawful movie) when Neo fulfills the function of the One, it turns out that the function of the One is, in fact, part of the setup of the Matrix; it is a kind of release valve on inevitable dissent. The ‘outside’ of the present set of relations is always already factored into the ‘inside’ or else the system could not have reproduced itself for this fucking long.

What does this have to do with theology specifically? Theology as a discipline depends on material ties to the academic apparatus, on the one hand, and denominational legitimation on the other. Most formal training in theology takes place in institutions (seminaries, divinity schools, etc.) that train pastors alongside researchers, and so, for most students, even work that questions or attacks confessional identities is done in the midst of material practices that are explicitly designed to reproduce those institutions and identities. Note, by the way, how neatly these two institutional demands (academy and denomination) map onto Lucas’ original divide between sets of resources (theoretical and traditional) that students in theology are expected to utilize. Note also that the more comfortably seminarian the learning environment, the less emphasis will be placed on the “theoretical” toolkit, and vice versa. That these two toolsets don’t mesh—don’t come with with a relation that is built into the grounds for theological inquiry itself—is just the kind of inconsistency that should alert us to the presence of ideology. It is precisely these inconsistencies that provide both the tensions and the release valves by which ideology can fully interpellate its subjects.


If we want to understand the material pressures to become certain kinds of theology students without need of a recourse to ‘why,’ we will also need to remember Louis Althusser’s treatment of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs). To be wantonly brief, ISAs are those institutions and practices which reproduce ideology by interpellating subjects who recognize themselves in ideology; they act (mostly) invisibly, without any explicit threat to those who don’t conform. Althusser’s prime example is, of course, the school; it’s in school that you learn skills to interact in the world that shape your interactions for the ideological order. RSAs, on the other hand, are things like the police, militaries, etc; the hanging threat of force and consequence by which an order disciplines its subjects. To anyone who’s read my other blog posts here or elsewhere, this might come across as harping, but [1] I think we forget Althusser too often at our own peril, and [2] what I want to highlight here is what seems like it should be most obvious, but seems to go most unnoticed; when the theological academy’s function as an ISA begins to slip, when ideological interpellation doesn’t work quite correctly, the ISA will become an RSA pretty damned fast.

There are any number of repressive pressures that threaten the theology student who would question the basis for theological inquiry. Any student who gives enough of a shit to be studying theology at the graduate level probably has, or has had, some significant level of confessional investment. Thus, there’s a certain amount of threat inherent involved in probing the basis—or lack thereof—of theology; threat of psychological trauma due to loss of faith, loss of identity, altered relationships with friends, family, peers, and colleagues, all of which are heightened by the amount of time and money that has been poured into study; the student simply has a lot to lose. Additionally, success in the theological academy is contingent upon the approval of professors and other figures. There is a real and manifest power over student thought wielded by professors that shapes the bounds of legitimate inquiry for students. It’s frankly much easier to reproduce variations upon existing lines of thought then it is to question the basis upon which professors think, for fear of rejection.

The Theology Studio facebook exchange around Phillip Blond’s proposal of military academies in the UK is, unfortunately for my purposes, no longer accessible⁠3. Among the choice exchanges in that thread was a peculiar attempt at public shaming executed by a more academically, err, powerful, theologian against Craig Keen, one of my academic mentors. This theologian (I’m sure you can figure it out) used me, Craig’s student, as a sort of built-in audience for the shaming, directing his grand pronouncements about the vapidity of Craig’s thought towards me, as if he was showing me, rhetorically, just how out-of-bounds a thinker can get as a kind service. Craig and I actually found this strange encounter sort of hilarious, and I still remind him of the comical extremity of the insults hurled from time to time, but this was a very real attempt at shaming and thought policing, and one clearly directed at a student in order to keep them from following similar lines of thought.⁠4


Obviously, if you’re buying any of this, it’s pretty debbie-downer. I plan to follow this post up in the next few days with another, detailing possible modes of engagement with these institutional relations and pressures, along with my own working answer to Luke’s question: “why theology?” Since this post is already 1600 words, I’ll leave it for another day.


1 So, probably since about Kant, although it’s certainly not a clean break. I want to be clear, too, that I know there are still people who take the ontological proof seriously; I just think that those people are essentially equivalent to six-day-creationists or flat-earthers; at a certain point, only the most extreme partisans can place any weight on this sort of thinking.

2 By most accounts, affluent Western capitalists are getting less religious, of course, but these numbers aren’t playing out that way much of anywhere else. Why that means academic theology has a long life ahead of it even if it looks patently ridiculous is a long argument I’ll have to make at another time.

3 All those angry posts will be lost in time like tears in rain.

4 “You imagine you are a fallen astral being from the realm of the archons somewhere up in the supernovas. Thus civilisation washes over you from the outside like an earthquake.” Gotta give the guy credit for a robust insult.


Luke’s Bullshit Reflections on being a Student…Or, Introducing our New Series on Pedagogy and Theology

On Commodizing thought (even though we are all “Marxists”…)   Image

The word “performance” is quite appropriate to the world of academia. Such a world exists often to perpetuate itself in its cloistered conferences, panels and endless need to produce for consumption publications in order to justify continued funding for whatever department in whatever school of a university one finds oneself. In such a context, it is difficult to avoid seeing the commodization of thought which Horkheimer and Adorno seek to combat in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment. This production and consumption logic permeates even discourse that seeks to ground itself in whatever reinvigorated neo-Marxist theory is “sexy”, making what once was of true utopian significance another “it” to which one may come to identify and perpetuate. Thought as commodity and we, the academics, have not an idea of what we are as that entity which enquires nor what exactly it means to enquire or what we even are enquiring about. Rather, we perform and construct programmes for others to consume, conceptually, but more narcissistically, in the construction of a picture of the academic.

This is the person defined as that bourgeois individual who seeks not the betterment of humanity as their impetus for study, but some trifling selfishness hidden behind an excuse of blunt “curiosity” or because they find that they have a knack for writing. There is no revolutionary potential in this person, this person who most assuredly wishes to write and speak and publish about freedom and emancipation with no courage to affect the change their poetic prose suggest. This is a dangerous person, insofar as this academic squelches the fiery passion what enquiry can be, namely, a rigorous pursuit of truth as that which empowers and frees individuals from the oppression of delusionary ideals and material oppression.

The question posed to someone studying in the humanities “why does this matter?” cannot be written off as rooted in simple ignorance. To so relegate the realist concern for what and why this or that discourse is to continue in an oppressive programme of hegemonic domination of thought by this constructed picture of the academic. Someone is always deciding, deciding what thought matters and what thought can be dismissed. The power to decide is associated with the picture the academic projects of her/himself. This becomes the real truth insofar as the projected individual or group of individuals makes the ultimate decision through their perceived credibility, whether or not their followers really understand the conceptual frameworks being advanced.


            As I reflect upon my own situatedness in academia I am taken with the idea that for my own discipline to survive we must continually be revisiting what it means to be self-reflexive about who, what and why we are. I am specifically situated as a postgraduate student working at the intersections of theology, philosophy and literature. The previous paragraphs of this brief post reflect the fact of my own wrestling with the reflexive task insofar as I have in mind specific interactions born of this place within academia. In particular, it seems that theology can formulate no clear direction for itself as a discourse among discourses in the academy. This is certainly a broad statement but I want to continue in my assertion if only to spark conversation here and in the following weeks posts.

Theology students are given a variety of reasons with regard to the “why” question of their education. However, two poles seem to suspend the spectrum of theological education. On the one instance, the student is fed resources proper to whichever denomination lays claim to their academic soul. On the other, students are given a myriad of theoretical resources, usually in the realm of sociological and continental theory, and then told to not only understand these resources, without rigorous historical training in philosophy, but also told to apply them somehow to theology (which usually nets the very underwhelming sort of writing I myself exemplify in my first post about Badiou and theology…fuck my life).

In the former, theology appears to justify itself by appeal to an internal logic. The bible or the creed or whatever authoritative idol provides the definition for the who, what and why of discourse. Other modes of enquiry must simply learn that theology dictates their own functionality and, by way of some sort of genealogical analysis of history in which the theological becomes secularised, their very existence. This is what some might call a textbook version of fideism, as it cannot but recourse to itself for its justification. In the latter instance students are not given any clear vision for why they are using the various theoretical resources and the end result appears just as fideistic. They are given a common sense of political involvement and social concern appropriate to the Democratic National Convention and told that the god of Christianity not only exists but exists in something that looks very much like this pseudo-activist. This is true even when they say god is not this sort of liberal-democratic citizen given his apocalyptic transcendence or whatever.

In reality, theirs is a hoped for god who resembles very much the bourgeois academic described above. Theirs is a god both radically other yet still somehow immanent enough to warrant the bastardised usage of theory that has nothing to do with their theological disposition. In short, students associate with trends and construct their own projects in line with the motivations mentioned above. Some jettison belief but insist that they do not by speaking of Christian atheism or radical theology. Others dig into the apocalyptic, utilizing it as a trump card similar to those who appeal to the internal validity of theology’s “logic” as authority.  The apocalyptic in this sense functions for the student as a means to avoid realist concerns and becomes a means by which the theologian seeks psychological comfort. This is understandable, albeit regrettable, since who would want to admit that the “academic” life they have been leading is really a fantastical projection?

            Given this state of affairs, and it is ‘given’ insofar as I am the one giving this as the state of affairs out of my own perspective, the state of theology as a discourse in the university seems to be one of confusion. If theology cannot dialogue with other disciplines without either subsuming them or abusing them, if theology cannot account for itself in a way that is intelligible to the thinking person who seeks to understand from the outside of this particular language game (to say nothing of how delusional we are if we really think that relativizing language by abusing Wittgenstein and Gadamer in this way is legitimate), then “why does this matter”?

The Humanities

             “I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to start.” Ernst Bloch’s refrain, penned in his work The Spirit of Utopia, I take to give us the beginnings for how to begin to reflect upon what/who we are as enquirers, what/who we enquire about and the initial why for our continued participation in the educational process. The humanities can only be justified if we retrieve its namesake, if we again and again come back to the human. Regardless of the overarching metaphysical trappings we may gravitate toward, our ontical existence gives us our starting point and it is here that we can discover our camaraderie as fellow sentient beings living with one another. In this sense, the self-reflexive task for the academic in theology is both deeply phenomenological and deeply social.

Thus, the reason for the current rant/introduction to a new series of posts here on FoT. In the following weeks Sean, Joel and I will be exploring the nature of pedagogical theory as this relate to the humanities in general and to theology in particular. My hope is that this will inspire some real conversation on the blog about what the fuck we are all doing in our respective places in academia. Furthermore, I am hoping that our conclusions, differing, as I am sure they will be, will point toward a basic responsibility to society. Academia must account for why it matters and we as students and future professors must be so in order to affect difference in society, even if this turns out to be a futile and tragic process.