The Calvinist work ethic

Calvinism has become proverbial, even for people without any idea of religion or faith. Calvinism and work ethic actually coincide for the common understanding. This makes the title of this blog sound like a pleonasm. After all, Calvinism is work ethic!

When people want to explain why such is the case, they always revert to Weber. Weber explains the Calvinist ethic from a pietistic attitude: how do I get to heaven? According to Calvinism, he explains, you could never know that for sure, because before the foundation of the world God decided who would be admitted and who would not. And that doesn’t depend on faith or achievement. But, Weber points out, the Calvinists had found a way to get around that. You can never know it for sure, but if you were able to achieve a good life through work and effort, then that was a good indication; a sign that you belonged to the elect.

Here Weber, as a German, shows himself to be more familiar with the Lutheran tradition that asks the question, “How do I get a merciful God?” This pietistic attitude also had its influence in Calvinist countries, but it is not really the origin of Calvinist work ethic. The Calvinists were not individualists. Nor were they pietistic individualists.

For Calvin and his followers, the congregation was central, the community from below. So in England and the Netherlands where Calvinism was strong you see a recurring emphasis on cooperation and trust. That led to the first joint stock corporations, where people put their investments under joint management. That demanded a high degree of trust. And that trust came about not through anxiety about individual salvation, but through the covenant with God and the human community that was called into being by this divine covenant. That was going to realize God’s Kingdom in this world.

Both in England and in the Netherlands one sees coming about the construction of canals, the draining of marshes and the development of the land in a common effort. In a certain sense the Calvinist congregations continued the work of the guilds. The guilds too were not only labor organizations but also religious organizations, and why? They, too, had to constantly cultivate their religious beliefs together in order to keep each other in line and guard the common morality. They had to prevent individuals from being more focused on their own advantage, or that of their own family, and thus harming the common cause, even if only by stealing the treasury and that sort of thing.

Cooperation was thus surrounded by religious sanction and motivation. Therefore, in Calvin’s Geneva, where this new commitment was first put into practice, entrepreneurs had to be on their guard. Those who made exorbitant profits could expect the church council paying a visit to them! Profit was allowed and even required, but it was to serve a common goal: social welfare and justice.

Certainly, as success increased a kind of secularization occurred. Instead of the congregation and the covenant, the idea of the social contract emerged. In this conception, God is not needed and people make a covenant with each other for mutual benefit. It is rationalistically motivated: well reasoned self-interest and commerce. But that should not lead one to underestimate the original religious motivation! Weber likes to denigrate the religious anxiety that led to such great labor achievements. For him, it is a paradoxical ironic fact: heavenly salvation leads to earthly success.

The pursuit of heavenly salvation leads to earthly success: in fact, it always works like this. A new economy can only come about by high inspiration. In this sense, economics is always salvation economics. In our time this is just as true. Innovation never comes from the selfish, but always from people who act with self-forgetfulness. Why is this so? Innovation always requires excessive commitment. And it is not a question of religious people being better able to exercise such commitment (after all, this is not true for the average churchgoer), but of recognizing that this this excessive effort itself inescapably has a religious character! Religious here means: high words are invoked and evoked for which people are willing to pay a price, and they are leading.

This is also visible in the field of entrepreneurship. The pioneers often fail. But they pave the way for the success of others, and from then on it just seems to be all just human effort.

Posted by Otto Kroesen, 0 comments

Generations and climate change

Dwarf and giant

We receive the world we live in from the previous generation. We do something with it in our own time. We pass on this new world to the next generation. – That insight has been lost. We live in our own time. In our own world or our own bubble, as it is called nowadays. Therefore, it is no surprise that climate change is knocking at our door and calling for a change in our way of making a living.


A continuous present

We live in a continuous present. We are no longer connected to multiple times. The farmer and the shoemaker used to have to work on the transfer of their profession themselves. They employed and taught people who took over the trade. They spent perhaps a third of their time doing so. That gives a completely different sense of reality. You know much better that there will be a time after you. We have lost sight of that.

An organization benefits most if you do one thing without ambiguity, efficiently and repeatedly.

The fact that we have lost that insight is not only due to one-sided education. This one-sided education itself is caused by a one-sided way of life. The core of this is a one-sided way of working and earning a living. Most people work in large organizations and are deployed on some sub-process. They continuously do so, if possible throughout their career. It is no longer part of the work that you also think about and work on changing the content of the work itself. An organization benefits most if you do one thing without ambiguity, efficiently and repeatedly. At least that works in the short term. In the short term, this provides the most efficiency, and therefore generates the most revenue. In the long run it is always a problem, of course, because if you have only learned one trick, then what about your ability to learn new tricks?

Dwarves and giants

As a result, modern organizations are producing spiritual dwarfs. They are very good at one thing, but they can no longer think outside or beyond it. Of course, changing and learning always hurts, but if one dares to do so, it brings gross. In the organization in which I work, the TU Delft, satisfaction surveys are occasionally conducted, as is the case with many others. That fits well with this existence of dwarfs: you have to keep them short, but also satisfied. Such little people live in their work like cogs in the machine and in their spare time they are allowed to create their own bubble.

They are very good at one thing, but they can no longer think outside or beyond it.

The managers in such organizations try to achieve the greatest possible efficiency and pull the strings of the people to this end. If you want to be successful, you have to go with the trend and get as much out of it as possible so that the organization grows, and with that the prestige of your position grows, possibly also your income and influence. An organization that thinks in the short term thus creates spiritual dwarfs on the one hand and clumsy giants on the other. Giants are always clumsy because they don’t see where to put their feet. They don’t know what they exist for. They know of success, but not of succession.

Living in generations and sustainability

If an organization has to change, if a new world of institutions and practices has to be created for the time after us, this continuous present no longer works. In a world of dwarfs and giants, the human dimension is lost. It is typical that such a term now suddenly becomes part of the social debate: the human dimension.

What should the world of the next generation look like? What should we do so create? Nobody knows in detail. Managers should therefore become leaders. That is to say, they must take the lead in a process of change. That makes them smaller than they were. Because one cannot lead if one cannot listen. After all, you don’t know how to do it yourself. We all make an attempt. But that also means that all employees become more than just employed. The change must take place at all levels and it is a challenge for everyone to find a way which does not yet exist. That requires a lot of mutual discussion and communication. That makes the employees bigger.

After all, you don’t know how to do it yourself. We all make an attempt.

Such talk and speech between management and employees is an absolute necessity. That also takes time. And so in the short term the least efficient is what yields the most in the long term. Not only does it deliver better results in the long run. But only those people really grow who also make sacrifices and make an effort to transcend themselves. That demands that we live in a larger time perspective. This requires that we can draw on a broader repertoire of values and words by which we interact with each other. That requires us to ask more explicitly the question: what should we inherit and where should we go? Responsible people desire less to get confirmation within their own bubble. Instead they want to test their self-evident views in order to make progress.

In short, no sustainable world if people are not prepared for the long term.

Posted by Otto Kroesen, 0 comments

Tom Holland – Dominion

Amid the other books of Tom Holland, the book Dominion is a remarkable book. In other books he is often the skeptical contemplative academic, even if he is nevertheless a strong storyteller. However, this book is not only interesting, but it also has a message. He tells how the message of the Christian faith has changed the world.

A different Tom Holland

But in order to be able to tell that story, he first had to go through a change himself. He tells about it in the introduction and in the epilogue. Although he had already departed from the faith of his childhood, when he visited the Middle East, at the front, during the time of Islamic State, and saw and heard of the crucifixions they had carried out and the selling of women and children like slaves he got a different view of history. The Christian faith has changed society, public morals, manners. Not that no major crimes have been committed within the Christian world and by Christian civilization itself. But both with naming the achievements and criticizing the crimes – we actually are participating precisely in the tradition of Christianity itself, according to Tom Holland.

It is therefore not surprising that Tom Holland starts his book with the meaning of the cross as punishment and as a fearsome threat to slaves. That was already the case with the Persians. In a society of 90% slaves, such as the Roman Empire, it is the way to frighten and keep the slaves calm. In that world the church, Paul especially, comes with the message of faith in the crucified Christ as a new way of life. This belief involved an intensive form of charity that was unusual in society at the time. Taking care of foundlings, burying the dead, who often were left unburied and disposed as garbage if they were poor, sharing of food. The Roman Empire increasingly found these forms of charity in opposition to it, firmly organized. Many martyrs, especially those of the highest rank, who had become Christians, but also ordinary soldiers, were willing to suffer death and persecution.

Wherever this belief went it instituted a new morality, and it also influenced the Western European tribes, while at the same time this belief was attractive to the leaders of these tribes, as a moral power that legitimized their authority not only over their own tribe, but also over other tribes. Once their rule had been supported by the authority of Christ and the Church, it gained in credibility, but in turn this was also due to the fact that, according to that same belief, they could no longer serve merely their self-interests.

A broader perspective

The book provides many stories that actually require to be understood within the broader perspective of Western history. For those who do not see that thread, the storyline of the book becomes somewhat anecdotal, because Tom Holland does not always, usually not, provide that broader perspective. Why are there martyrs, and saints, who even spend that time sitting on a pillar in the desert sometimes? At another time there are revolutionaries, such as the Albigensians and the Hussites, who take up arms not only against the worldly powers but also against the church. Why? Certainly, he wants to point out the ambivalence of Western and Christian history and he does so throughout the book. The Christian faith has been used to justify power and control, as much as to justify opposition to it. But he leaves the question open, why at different times people also face different challenges. Hermits and saints who lived in the desert were needed to convince the people that the power of the demons had been broken. But once that is successful, new tasks emerge. The world now abandoned by the demons must be ordered and organized. That is almost an unavoidable next step. These kinds of insights are missing in the book.

Secularization is internalization

Nevertheless, there are two important points he makes. The first is particularly evident at the beginning of the book, and I just described it: Christianity and its morals have made sure that we finally (hopefully) departed from the violence and horrors of ancient times (and their religious legitimation!). That is one.

The other is his view of the post-Christian secularized world and morality that is now prevalent. It has been introduced since the French Revolution, step by step. We leave the Christian faith and its morals behind us, we are beyond them – at least our culture is to a large degree committed to that conviction. But is that really the case? If enlightenment puts rationality in the place of faith and proclaims human rights, is that a departure from Christianity, or a continuation of it? If Lenin and the communists impose a strict regime of scientific socialism and planning economy on society, does his revolution not breathe the same spirit as the revolution of the pope against the emperor in the Middle Ages? In both cases a cynical power game takes place in which all means are permitted to achieve the (good) goal, that from now on things since we really take a different shape. Christian spirit? Such questions are asked by Tom Holland and he does not get tired from pointing out how, in secularized form and despite the explicit rejection, the achievements of the Christian era are also continued by the greatest atheists. He mentions the #MeToo movement as a final example at the end of his book. Apparently we have a culture in which the brakes on public morality have been released, such as monogamous marriage and lifelong loyalty, but under the label of self-determination and women’s rights, the puritan morality of inner self-restraint and respect for the other still returns.

Should the Christian faith step out of its shadow?

A beautiful and important insight from Tom Holland lies in a single comment he makes almost in passing. Earlier in the book, he pointed out that in the abolition of slavery, western politicians and religious leaders deliberately pointed to innate human rights as a motivation, and not to the Christian belief that was really behind it. In this way, according to Tom Holland, with respect for the Islamic religion (the Quran unambiguously allows slavery and Mohammed himself had slaves), or Hinduism, one could prevent others from feeling they had to bow to Christian values. The end of slavery was not motivated by Christian values, but on the grounds of a generally valid human nature. It was better to keep the Christian motivation anonymous. Now the situation may look a bit different. Almost casually, Tom Holland notes that a rethinking of Western European history stamped by Christianity is now necessary as we are about to see other superpowers take over the leading role in world history. Again, Tom Holland only mentions that in passing, but it may nevertheless be an important message from his book. Indeed, in order to keep the modern world of states from falling back into pre-Christian times, it is more necessary to recall the way in which we got where we are now. The neoliberal adage of everyone for himself and the market for us all is slowly coming to an end. Too many people are offside. Neo-liberalism ignores the deeper values ​​that are the secret of Western democracies. Those values ​​are not so obvious. They have been introduced into society through the Christian faith, through Jesus, Paul, Peter and the other apostles. The Christian attitude towards to life is the supporting force and the lasting inspiration behind it. And it will remain so, as long as people feel the need to see the world through the eyes of the victims, and powers that be through the eyes of the underlying, and as long as ordinary people create forms of cooperation independent of family and state, in order to give to society a more human face. This history still sets the normative standards for the future.

Tom Holland, Dominion, The making of the Western Mind, Little, Brown, 2019.

Posted by Otto Kroesen, 0 comments

Observations (Blog)

Plastic language

Our language has become a plastic product. I do not want to say anything to the detriment of plastic, but plastic is for daily use. What is used on a daily base must be manageable. The language we use is an instrument in our hands and we shape it ourselves at will. It is our construction. We are the ones who “frame” language.

It is the language of the store and of the company. In the store and in the company you have to be able to point at things and what you can point at is what you mean. What does not fall under this category does not exist. What you cannot point down is not there. It is therefore customary in society to speak in the indicative form, the indicative. I need that hammer. I want to buy that coat. It is also possible to say: I like that! But that is about it.

Yet that is not enough even in the store and in the company. There too people have to rise above the flat surface. You can also be touched or be addressed by something. Then something poetic creeps into the language used. Not only are you the one doing things, but things “do something with you” as well. Do these kinds of “things” that do something with us, really exist? We do not only live, but we are also lived, by powers that appeal to us, by faces and values ​​that we cherish. Names and words that are of a bigger format than we.

The words also grow bigger at the occasion of great events. You will find that in titles of address, in solemn terms and big names. “Do you take as your wife…” and so forth: A just society! A sacred call! Promises! “In the name of …”; … yes of what, of the law, of a higher power, the name above all name …Love, suffering, mercy… With the use of bigger words somehow we enter the realm of religion and religious discourse. Because now words are no longer our instruments, but the one who pronounces these words becomes the instrument of the words pronounced. You are no longer at the center. You are no longer the one who moves, but you are moved.

But for daily use we also need relaxation. Everyday language needs flattened words. To love your work – that expression is just fine, but you are not married to your work. In a company, we speak of involvement or connection instead. In fact, we also mean that we care about our employees or colleagues , but Love is too big a word in that context. The theme of this website is the tension between the daily language (where there is little tension) and the big words that occupy our whole lives. The intention is for big words to descend and daily words to become somewhat more elevated and for them to meet halfway. The adage of the Benedictines was “ora et labora”, pray and work. The little things that return every day must be dealt with in the light of the big names and words (or values) we ultimately live for. Only then will religious words not become empty and the daily language not become flat.

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