The Bourgeoisie and the Frustrations of Theology: Part 1, The Western Identity

What is the most vexing problem in theology?

In the next few posts I'm going to argue that the rise of the bourgeoisie is the most problematic development in modern theology. Behind just about every theological call for community or missionality or Trinity or anti-Empire ethics sits the problem of the bourgeoisie. In these posts I'd like to explain how the bourgeoisie are the rock theology is banging its head against.

In this post I want to talk about identity, specifically the rise of the Western bourgeois identity.

Behind every call for church to be "community" or a reclaiming of the "Trinity" or for an ontology of "being as communion" sits a background assumption. Community, Trinity, and "being as communion" are preached over against a prevaling norm. And that norm is the Western notion of identity and personhood.

As most are aware, the Western notion of personhood stresses autonomy, individualism, and interiority. This view of the self is relatively new and many theologians have noted its pernicious impact upon both theology and the life of the church. The recommendation is to reclaim a more ancient and more healthy notion of self, where people are not isolated individuals but persons who gain identity through communion with others. For example, God's very being is defined communally. Thus, the Western notion of selfhood flies in the face of the very fabric of existence.

The point is, almost every pernicious spiritual practice we see today has its root in a notion of selfhood that prioritizes individualism over relationality, autonomy over interdependence, and interiority over community. So the question is: If this Western notion of identity is so bad where did it come from? And why is the Western identity so hard to exchange if such better options are available?

Think about it. How often have we heard sermons or read theology blog posts extolling a more communal and relational existence? How often have we heard sermons or read theology blog posts calling for a church life defined by communal participation in the life of the Triune God? A lot. We've heard all this a lot. Well, let's pause to ask a simple question: If these calls are such great options why are they not more effective? What has the Western notion of identity got going for it that makes it feel like the better option, despite theological claims to the contrary?

To answer these questions we'll need to back up and trace the rise of the Western identity and how it is intimately tied up with the rise of the bourgeoisie.

To trace this history I'm going to borrow from Charles Taylor's analysis in Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.

In Sources, Taylor argues that modern identity began to take a turn inward starting with Plato and Augustine. Eventually, this turn inward was furthered through the work of Descartes and Locke. As Taylor summarizes:

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it was Augustine who introduced the inwardness of radical reflexivity [Taylor's term of art for a strong first-person stance] and bequeathed it to the Western tradition of thought. The step was a fateful one, because we have certianly made a big thing of the first-person standpoint. The modern epistemological tradition from Descartes, and all that has followed from it in modern culture, has made this standpoint fundamental--to the point of aberration, one might think.

Taylor goes on to discuss how this turn toward individuality was linked to another development of Western identity, what Taylor calls the "affirmation of the ordinary life":

'Ordinary life' is a term of designate those aspects of human life concerned with production and reproduction, that is, labour, the making of things needed for life, and our life as sexual beings, including marriage and the family.

This focus upon the "ordinary life"--the life of work and family--created a new ethic, a bourgeois ethic that claimed that civic order and peace is built upon decent, disciplined folk:

The ethic of the bourgeois ordinary life displayed a "horror at disorder: at a social disorder, in which undisciplined gentry and the unemployed and rootless poor, the underclass of rogues, beggars, and vagabonds, pose a constant threat to social peace; at personal disorder, in which licentious desires and the hold of intemperate practices make impossible all discipline and steadiness of life; and the connection between the two disorders and the way they feed on each other.

What was needed was personal discipline first, individuals capable of controlling themselves and taking responsibility for their lives; and then a social order based on such people.

This bourgeois ethic was one of the engines of capitalism and the technological revolution:

Weber thought that the Puritan notion of the calling helped to foster a way of life focused on disciplined and rationalized and regular work, coupled with frugal habits of consumption, and that this form of life greatly facilitated the implantation of industrial capitalism...A spiritual outlook which stressed the necessity of continuous disciplined work, work which should be of benefit to people and hence ought to be efficacious, and which encouraged sobriety and restraint in the enjoyment of its fruits surely must be recognized as one of the formative influences of the work ethic of modern capitalistic culture...

Importantly, the bourgeois ethic states that work and family life are worship, the vocation one is called to in service of the Lord. What one owes both God and Society is an orderly and disciplined life at work and at home.

This, the modern bourgeois identity, is the big theological boogieman. It's a boogieman because the bourgeois identity has been so productive, sociologically speaking. As Taylor notes in his book The Secular Age the rise of the bourgeois "disciplinary society" created massive changes across the whole of Latin Christendom. The bourgeois identity and ethic brought both social stability and prosperity.

The question theology must ask is: Can the bourgeois ethic be replaced with anything of comparable effectiveness?

Let me be concrete. Christian and Marxist revolutions are often being preached at the bourgeoisie. But it is very unclear what the bourgeoisie are to do on Monday morning if they are to pay the rent. So they get up and go back to work. And that is the root dilemma of modern theology. People go back to work. If you want to change this, to offer a true alternative, you need to carve out a new mode of living, one not contingent upon participating in a bourgeois career. Few people lambasting the bourgeois identity actually make an offer of this kind. A few cults do.

So in the vacuum of this offer people head to work on Monday morning. And if they go back to work, church life is going to have to fit in around the edges of bourgeoisie existence. Church life or missional living is always going to be fighting over the scraps of what is left over from the bourgeois work week.

And, as I'll argue, that might not be such a bad thing.

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18 thoughts on “The Bourgeoisie and the Frustrations of Theology: Part 1, The Western Identity”

  1. This series is going to hit on an issue that has vexed me for a long time on a very personal level.

    Looking forward to it, even if it does turn out to be a little painful...[g]

  2. I'm looking forward to this too. Source of the self is one of my favourite books. If you can find a way to worm Alisdair MacIntyre's work into this too, that'd be good!

  3. Richard

    As one of the theologians banging my head against a rock, I'm anxious to see where this goes. I'll just say initially (not preemptively) that the directions charted by more communal ontologies are hopeful for me precisely because they solve problems related to Monday morning.

    It's the reason I like Taylor. He is able to account for so much because he has changed the angle of interpretation. If the issues of the buffered self, etc, weren't problematic at some level, Taylor has no story to tell. He gets the relief, the distance, to narrate the way he does precisely because he's reading with a post-substantialist lens. He's a phenomenoligist.

    And, I think there are people making very constructive proposals about what this would look like even as you go to work on Monday mornings. The literature is pretty thick around Christian practices these days. I think it is the missional move and social trinitarianism, in many cases, that has given impetus to this (see for example, Bass and Volf, Practicing Theology). The move away from a substantialist ontology in theology has led precisely to the recovery of the everyday as the habitus for theology. These books simply weren't being written 50-100 years ago. Work was problematized, something adjunct to salvation, even opposed to it. Spirituality was limited to inwardness. You can't get published in this area these days unless you are using the words embodied, enacted, engaged.

    This is also a very lively discussion in the area of civil society. And the move away from substantialist categories is also a move away from idealism in this field. It is a move away from both Marxist and democratic utopias for the recovery of the everyday, civil society.

    So, you've put your finger on a boogieman. It is precisely what Latin Christianity couldn't account for, which is why the usefulness of other directions are coming more clearly into view. This is the way Latin theology emerged as well (its usefulnes in relation to a Christian empire), the way theology always happens. I just think the constructive options are bigger than crumbs around the edges.

    I don't think the issue is one of replacement (an imperialist kind of move)or withdrawal as much as engagement or transformation (always the task of theology), or even providing a more realistic account for what is actually taking place.

    I love the way you bring a variety of literatures together. You're genius. But I've passed you as a guitar player, so I have that going for me.

  4. You presuppose that the only way to do theoloty is pre-modern or post-modern, as in identifying with a "moral model figure", such as Jesus, and "his community". What about the science/religion interface?

    While social context includes every aspect of one's existence in interacting with others, it is imperative, when you talk of "communion" that there be an inclusive environment for there to be an identification with community. Otherwise, you require the individual to identify with what brings him "death". This is why we do segment ourselves socially, in every area from church, to social clubs. We identify on many levels and in many ways. This is not abnormal it is civilization. You are describing a tribal mentality and using theology to do so! I don't think that is "progress"..or progressive...that is not saying that we do not need social contexts, but that these contexts are chosen by the ways in which we identify ourselves...and what we value most...
    I believe that setting "spiritual contexts" apart from any other types of context, is problematic, because there is no distinction between the sacred and secular, when it comes to identification factors. This is where interiority is important to the develoment of the self.

    I know that your blog site is entitled "experimental thelogy' so, obviously you are biased in a certain direction...

    I don't think that confoming to a certain tradition is the eptiome of human development. yes, we all have to co-operate and learn ways of compormise, but free societies do not determine the individual's way of life...and even though spiritual gurus would think theirs is a superior "way"...their understanding disconnects the personal from the social, because it just becomes the social...the individual is dissolved into the communal. That is not wholistic and healthy psychologically speaking...and yes, that is "Western". I am biased!

  5. Hi Mark,
    I think I might come out in a more pessimistic place about what theology can or cannot accomplish here. But I don't know the newer work you are talking about very well. So I'm eager to follow along as you unpack things on your blog.

    Regardless, I think you and I can find common ground by noting that the bourgeois work week is a big problem, if not THE problem, facing theological reflection in the church.

  6. This makes me think of Ignatius of Loyola. He suggested an interiority in spiritual life with the Spiritual Exercises, a persoanl relating between God and a person, and also a "finding God in all things", which means you don't have to go to church or live in a religious community to be with God, though I'm not sure he'd agree with my take on his work.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman discusses the concept of "ordinary" in his blog, Glory to God for All Things":

    "The creation of “ordinariness,” is itself a bit of a problem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary - the word comes into its present meaning in the 16th and 17th centuries, having had much more technical legal and ecclesiastical meanings prior to that.

    "But the rise of the new meaning of “ordinary,” meaning “common” or “just the usual,” was thus a modern, or post Reformation event. Howard argued in his book that the rise of the ordinary was the mark of the fall of the sacramental. As the world became rid of sacramental presence, it became something else - the ordinary world. And, of course, with a word like ordinary or usual, it was presumed that the sacramental was thus somehow extraordinary and unusual. As goes the sacrament, so goes God. Adam and Eve had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. With the 16th and 17th century, man returned the favor. ...

    "Not until we cease to divide the world into ordinary and extraordinary, into usual and unusual, into sacred and secular, will we have either the possibility of knowing God, much less living the Christian life. What substitutes for both is a second-storey belief system that is held up either by rigid abstract dogmatics or various fundamentalisms, or by fear of the abyss of atheism and meaninglessness. The first is not necessary and the second is our own creation."

  8. Kirk, this is why "Christian vocation" should not be in the vocabulary...
    But, what I do digress from in certain 'segments of Christondom is that others determine what our sacrament or vocation will be. This is communistic, not sacramental, because we, as individuals must choose and commit ourselves to whatever we one else can "be sacramental" for us...

  9. It occurs to me, reading your post, that Erich Fromm has a nice take on Marx's concept of alienation. He says (or something like this anyway) that idolatry and alienation are similar beasts. The problem with both of them is that humans start worshiping something they have created themselves. They give power to something which should not have power over them and thereby they are impoverished as human beings. I wonder if part of the trouble might be conceptualized in such a way that for so long now we have created an idol out of bourgeois values, worshiping a lifestyle that has only alienated us from what is truly life-giving? A major problem then would be how is it possible for an alienated people to stop the process of idolatry and alienation?

  10. Thanks for the many insightful comments. You have given me a lot to think about.

    Contrary to what one might think, I often launch into these series will only a sketch of a direction. In this series I'm beginning with the barest hint of an idea.

    Basically, thinking through some of the issues you all have raised, I think I'll end up arguing that spirituality, in the face of the bourgeois work week, has one of two options:

    1. Try to infuse bourgeois existence (the ordinary life of work and family) with spiritual depth.

    2. Call people out of bourgeois existence into a non-capitalistic existence.

    The problem with #1 is that the spiritual is easily subsumed under the demands of bourgeois existence.

    The problem with #2 is that it is difficult to create and maintain over time which means these efforts tend to be small-scale and transitory. It's hard to be a Revolutionary and pay the rent.

  11. Richard,
    I really want to know your answer to this question
    If #1 (living a sacramental bourgeois life) is problematic because it is subsumed "under the demands of bourgeois existence, then are you claiming that there should be a way to gauge "sacramentalism" (the heart of faith), or are you dismissing accountability groups?
    If # 2 is problematic because it cannot be done on a broad scale, then aren't you affirming that the "world's systems" are not changeable in the long run?

    And is this whole question of yours on the lifestyle of everyone else because you think
    1) all should live with equal means and what means are important to life?
    2.Is your concern for the morality of all?
    3.)Or is your difficulty that "god's kingdom" as you define it (please define it) impossible when there is poverty in the world?

  12. Hi Angie,
    Let me try to answer your questions.

    If #1 (living a sacramental bourgeois life) is problematic because it is subsumed "under the demands of bourgeois existence, then are you claiming that there should be a way to gauge "sacramentalism" (the heart of faith), or are you dismissing accountability groups?

    Well, first, I don't think the bourgeois life is problematic. In fact, I'm going to try to argue that it doesn't get the credit it deserves in theological discourse.

    I'm unclear about what you mean by my "dismissing accountability groups." I don't know where in my post I "dismissed accountability groups."

    If # 2 is problematic because it cannot be done on a broad scale, then aren't you affirming that the "world's systems" are not changeable in the long run?

    My claim in #2 is simply that people are not going massively defect from bourgeois existence.

  13. #2 is more interesting when it is framed as a question, as in, "what set of conditions is necessary and sufficient for the society described in Acts 2 and Acts 5 to persist indefinitely in economic, ecological, and intellectual isolation from other societies?"

    (With this new series, you start to bring us full-circle, back to Malthus' ghost and the elusiveness of justice wherever it/he lurks.)


  14. BTW, Richard, thanks belatedly for pointing your fawning readership toward game theory. I'm now the discipline's most highly motivated student; it is the theory of the transaction, which is to say, it is the theory of ethics (any kind) expressed in quasi-deterministic, mathematical form. Having a ball devising a "special topics" class for the PhD students in our Systems Agriculture program at WT. Total blast!


  15. I just got to thinking about the bourgeoisie phenomenon in the context of game theory. Is it possible that some sort of bell-curve distribution of wealth (cf. Charles Murray) is actually pretty close to the Nash equilibrium for a game in which currency is theoretically unlimited, hard natural resources are finite, information transfer is purely efficient, and the payoffs are defined in strictly fiscal terms?

    In other words, when you throw Malthus, Nash, and Adam Smith into a smoke-filled room and leave them to their collective devices, does Charles Murray come walking out? What happens if you substitute Jesus for Smith and a creator God for Malthus? What if you substitute Jesus for Smith but keep Malthus in there?

  16. 1. Try to infuse bourgeois existence (the ordinary life of work and family) with spiritual depth.

    2. Call people out of bourgeois existence into a non-capitalistic existence.

    I think having an ordinary life of work and family can have spiritual depth but there would always be a tension between protecting and supporting one's own family and sharing oneself and what one had with those less fortunate. I wonder how some of the liberation theology base communities work?

  17. I think you're making some very pertinent connections here. I find myself sort of torn. I agree, in theory, with John Zizioulas; but I find within myself, and certainly in the church community I serve, that, when community and Monday morning lock horns, Monday morning tends to win.

    I posted in my church blog site a questionnaire about 'The Biggest Challenge for the Church', and one of the options was 'I'm too busy firefighting'. I think that's true for many people:

    I have referred in detail to your posts at this same web site:, and at my own personal web site:

    Intriguing stuff!

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