The Bourgeoisie and the Frustrations of Theology: Part 3, The Saints of Ordinary Life

Gregory Clark in his book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World states that if you want to tell the history of the world one graph would tell most of the story. It is a plot of average personal income across history (p. 2):

As discussed in the last post, economies before 1800 (from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to stable agrarian city-states) were remarkably stable, dancing around the subsistence income. Kingdoms may have have come and gone and great persons may have lived and died, but the lives of 99.9% of all people were remarkably similar from generation to generation and from culture to culture.

Then, in 1800, something remarkable happened. Average personal income began to rise and it has yet to stop rising. Our world looks nothing like world of the late 1700s. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by candlelight. I now type on a Mac and you read this over the Internet. What happened between 1776 and 2009?

One of the things that has happened is a profound shift in the modern Western identity. Charles Taylor has called this modern identity the punctual self (in his book Sources of the Self) or the buffered self (in his book The Secular Age). Labels aside, we know the modern self to be individualistic, independent, and interior.

Along with this punctual/buffered self was a new emphasis upon the "ordinary life" of work and family. Further, ordinary life was governed by self-discipline. As Taylor writes in Sources of the Self the ethic of the 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."

According to Taylor, the rise of this "disciplined society" was the result of changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation. During the Reformation the division between the clergy and the laity was dissolved. The clergy/laity fusion had the effect of increasing the moral burden upon the laity. In Medieval Christianity holiness was an occupation carried out by church professionals: The clergy, the monastic orders, and the saints. The "holiness professionals" built up reserves of merit that could be appealed to, purchased, and relied on. These "merit reserves" carried the laity, spiritually speaking. But with reform holiness specialists were dissolved. Everyone was now a saint and was expected to behave like one. This moral pressure upon the common person was unprecedented. As Taylor writes in The Secular Age with the rise of reform there was "an attempt to make the mass of the laity...shape up more fully as Christians." This led to a breakdown of the spiritual/monastary versus world/town distinction:

"[Now] all valid Christian vocations are those of ordinary life, or production and reproduction in the world. The crucial issue is how you live these vocations. The two spheres are collapsed into each other. Monastic rules disappear, but ordinary lay life is now under more stringent demands. Some of the ascetic norms of monastic life are now transferred to the secular."

These trends were a part of what Taylor calls the modern "affirmation of the ordinary life" and the rise of discipline in Western consciousness:

"In a sense, one might argue that reform, re-awakening, re-organization, re-newed dedication and discipline has become a part of the standing culture of all the churches which have issued out of Western Christendom...Around 1500, this drive begins to take a slightly different direction. It begins to take up a more ambitious goal, to change the habits and life-practices, not only religious but civil, of whole populations; to instill orderly, sober, disciplined, productive ways of living in everyone. This is the point where the religious drive to reform begins to become interwoven into the attempts to introduce civility, thus to 'civilize', as the key term came to be. This was not a simple take-over, a deviation imposed on the drive to religious reform; because religious reformers themselves concurred that the undeniable fruit of Godliness would be ordered, disciplined lives. They also sought to civilize, for good theological reasons." (The Secular Age)

Obviously, the rise of the disciplined "ordinary life" helped to fuel the rise of market economies:

"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..." (Sources of the Self)

Taylor's sociological analysis converges on Clark's economic analysis. Specifically, Clark writes that:

There were “…profound changes in basic features of the economy within the Malthusian era. Four in particular stand out. Interest rates fell from astonishingly high rates in the earliest societies to close to low modern levels by 1800. Literacy and numeracy went from a rarity to the norm. Work hours rose from the hunter-gatherer era to modern levels by 1800. Finally there was a decline in interpersonal violence. As a whole these changes show societies becoming increasingly middle class in their orientation. Thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent, and leisure loving.” (Farewell to Alms)

Clark differs from Taylor in that Clark believes that the rise of the middle class--as a psychological type--was due to natural selection pressures operative during the Malthusian Era. Clark writes:

“Why was Malthusian society, at least in Europe, changing in this way as we approached the Industrial Revolution? Social historians may invoke the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, intellectual historians the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century or the Enlightenment of the eighteenth...There is, however, no need to invoke such a dues ex machina in the Malthusian era, given the strong selection processes [selecting for] a more patient, less violent, harder-working, more literate, and more thoughtful society…”

For our purposes it doesn't matter if the rise of the bourgeoisie was sociological or biological in origin. What matters is that there is broad agreement that the rise of the bourgeoisie identity and ethic profoundly changed the world.

Why should this make any difference to us, theologically speaking?

As I have noted, the bourgeoisie tend to get a bum rap from a lot of contemporary religious thinkers. To be bourgeoisie is to be a kind of spiritual sell-out. The bourgeoisie are the engine of commerce and capitalism. This stains them. Plus, morally speaking, the bourgeoisie tend to focus on personal self-discipline and family stability. That seems narrow when we look at calls for social justice. Plus, the bourgeoisie identity is autonomous and individualistic when we want Kingdom living to be communal, relational, and Trinitarian.

So many people struggle with the bourgeoisie, trying to squeeze more out of them. The trouble is, being bourgeoisie, they don't have a lot more to give. They work too much. Spend too much time with family. Water the lawn. Stuff like that.

But I'd like to argue, at least for this post, that the bourgeoisie changed the world and we should pause in every theological conversation and give them credit for that. More, theological conversation should be a bit awed by the bourgeoisie. What the church had struggled with for 1800 years the bourgeoisie remade in 200. So when we criticize the bourgeoisie we have to keep in mind that their revolution, as nerdy as it was, because that guy watering his lawn in black knee-high socks doesn't look like Stanley Hauerwas or Che Guevara to me, has been remarkably successful in reducing poverty and violence. More so than any other class or Christian motivated revolution. Might the bourgeoisie, as the Protestant Reformers hinted, be closer to the Kingdom of God than their Christian critics?

We should be more thoughtful and more respectful before we criticize the bourgeoisie. Because where some people see a sell-out to the Powers of Empire and capitalism I see the mighty revolutionaries, the Saints of Ordinary Life, who changed the world the way the church never could.

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19 thoughts on “The Bourgeoisie and the Frustrations of Theology: Part 3, The Saints of Ordinary Life”

  1. I seem to recall something I read in one of John Dominic Crossan's books a while back that supports your general idea by reference to economic life in the Roman Empire. Perhaps an unlikely place one would think. I'll check later. Must get to work.

  2. Richard,

    The Protestant Reformation secularized the patterns and routines of the monastic orders and did away with celebacy. Such among other things was basis of new habits of organization and work. Monks were the first to do anything 24/7, taking Paul's admonition to pray without ceasing around the clock and so developed their own clockworks for that purpose. Eventually, the town clock replaced the town cryer. It took the 150 years of religious warfare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to lay the foundations of the Enlightnment. There are previews of such in the Venitian Republic and the Netherlands--though these were more commercial than industrial. It took Henry VIII and the phlegmatic English and Scots to get the Industrial Revolution started. More of the incarnation than anyone ever thought possible.


  3. Hey Richard
    Thanks for your thoughts. I have been thinking though some similar issues for a while, and attempting to apply them as I decided on a career post grad school.

    In many ways, there seems to be an attitude prizing the tangible micro over the more intangible macro. So, if you volunteer with a poor community on the side, that is seen by many as more 'meaningful' than if you were to start a company that employs individuals in that community. In addition, I don't think this is just an external critique from those in a church community; rather, individuals can feel the pressure to be more micro-relevant from the inside. Hence the mid-life crises when people feel called to do things of more 'significance'... a value often embodied in more tangible, often relatively micro, ways (volunteering in a community, giving money away, etc.).

    I wonder about two things:
    1) Do you think it is worth restoring the 'meaning' of the ordinary life in these communities>
    2) What form would this restored approach take... e.g. what 'stringent norms/ aesthetic demands' would be in focus?

    I know from an earlier research project that there is a big push in many churches for faith/work, or somewhat stereotypical men/work programs as a way to address this identified crisis of meaning in many communities. However, in form, it almost always takes the form of ethical decision-making classes or evangelism, things that arguably are somewhat micro still in focus.

    Anyway, interesting series... keep it up!


  4. Dr. Beck, you wrote:
    ...who changed the world the way the church never could.

    Interesting statement. Do you think that the pre-1800 church was incapable of changing the world, or was it unwilling? IOW, might you restate it, "...who changed the world the way the church never [w]ould..."?

    I wonder at this, myself.

  5. Hi Steve,
    If you do find the reference let me know. I've not read a book by Crossan yet and this might give me a reason to pick up one of his titles.

    Hi George,
    Protestant Reformation secularized the patterns and routines of the monastic orders...

    This made me wonder if the bourgeoisie are the ones who can lay claim to the title the "new monastics" over against those who want to own the title over against the bourgeoisie.

    Hi Peter,
    Your thoughts are right in line with my own musings. I actually think you framed the issue better than I have as a macro- versus micro- disjoint.

    And your comment about the loss of meaning seems important. If the virtues of middle class existence are macro- effects then I become dislocated from those effects. I don't personally own them. Thus, Taylor's term the "malaise of modernity." You can see some attempts to address this problem with books like Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. I'm not saying that book is the answer, but its popularity is symptomatic of some itch that needs scratching.

    Hi Justin,
    Before posting I looked at that sentence a few times trying to decide if I was pushing it too far. But in the end I went with the provocative ending. Hey, its a blog, right?

    But to defend the claim, I'd go back to what I wrote in the prior post: The values the church promoted were Malthusian vices. That is, although the values of the church are good, spiritually speaking, they could not transform society due to the Malthusian Economy dynamics. They were counterproductive in the long run. So, the church very likely was willing to change the world. It just couldn't until we escaped from the Malthusian Trap.

  6. The rise of individual identity is a good thing. Because though individuals do identify with social groups, to become or truly own one's convictions, one must struggle against what was assumed and then come to terms with it. The thinking self is a part of becoming and being in the world, as nature (god) intended.

    Traiditon is useful for certain purposes, but is not the epitome of the moral, although it is necessary for the moral to be seen...

    The "middle class" is not "ugly", as all of life is seen by what we value most. The sacred/secular distinction was a false one. One's vocation is to be understood as using the gifting...and honing the talent, etc.

  7. But, the political realm is where we choose to play out our values, and convictions. And because we are all different, it becomes mandantory that there be a separation of Church and State. This doesn't mean that holiness is only found within the church but that political freedom is a necessary one to help further moral development...

  8. Thanks for the follow-up

    I think in addition to the micro v. macro dimension, there is a difference in causal power. e.g. if I leave the capitalist machine it will continue to operate... however if I stop volunteering at this shelter, this child will no longer get service.

    Thus, our attempt to recover this is to reassert of our own causal agency in this dynamic... perhaps because of our own fear of causal impotency (the denial of death all over again).


  9. I don't really understand economics but can't help thinking that this is a way of rationalizing away the guilt of capitalistic sucess :)

    We who are using macs (me too) and watering our lawns have a duty as christians, I think, to help those less fortunate, to reduce the huge discrepancy between those like us and those with less, and it seems to me that the goals of capitalism and the bourgeoisie life are the very opposite.

    There may be less crime and poverty now but it's like a by-product of self-interest. Does that matter? It may not, to those who benefit, but to try to reverse engineer holiness leaving out intent seems like it should matter.

    But as I said, I don't really get this stuff, so maybe I'm not understanding.

  10. With regard to 1. "the rise of the bourgeoisie is giving theologians fits," the call for "community" in churches is often in the muting of individuality, the practical end being a Borg sheeple collective who works church programs and doesn't talk back. But with the rise of education (and perhaps the internet?), people have discovered that each person has from God a heart, a mind, a soul, and strengths, to voice and engage. Rather than "community" being a call to something greater, where each enriches the others, it seems to work out to be a reduction, conducive to management. Hence, the exodus from churches that previous generations would never have questioned.

  11. Richard - been a while but as usual you're tackling some profound and constructive issues. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that market-based economies living in an institutional matrix of representative gov't can and has done more for human well-being than any other in human history. There are a couple or three paths one can take from there: review and affirmation, critique based on the same sorts of evidence and asking so what or what's next. These questions happen to have absorbed a great deal of my time and energy over the last several years so let me chime in.
    On the first deeper later but you might consult Jay, "The Wealth of Man", Cameron, "Brief Economic History", North, "Structure and Change..." (particularly given some of the other comments.
    That said the West didn't really succeed in vastly exceeding the rest of the world until ~1850 and Industrialization grew out of a Smithian commercial revolution from the late 1600s to 1700s; in particular a key enabler was the creation of modern capital markets (McNeil, Pursuit of Power, Fergurson, Cash Nexus). A similar commercial revolution occurred under the Song Dynasty in China around 1000 a.d. and persisted for centuries. Song nautical engineers built ships that allowed Adm. Zheng He to have a fleet of 30,000 with his major ships around 300" in the late 1300s and early 1400s. For other "counter-examples" one can point to the Meiji Restoration and/or modern Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
    It's not just the Protestant Ethic's values that underlie the efficacy of the modern socionomic system but a set of P-like values of discipline, hardwork, honesty and respect for the civil order.

    SO....o what are those values, how are they engendered and reinforced, what role do they play in socoionomic health and how (this is THE question imho) do we adapt them for modern times.

    Thanks for raising them and doing such a wonderful introduction.

  12. Hi Angie,
    You wrote: The rise of individual identity is a good thing.

    I'm in general agreement with this and much of what you say.

    Hi Peter,
    That is another very interesting angle, the way causality is distributed making me feel less vital, central, and consequential. I think the entire psychological system you are diagnosing needs some investigation.

    Hi Crystal,
    I'm with you on this. My goal is less about dealing with guilt than about complicating the too-easy conversations we tend to have about capitalism. Because capitalism's effectiveness is a data point that needs to be reckoned with, I think. It doesn't legitimize market economies nor does it ignore the damage they do. It just suggests that any criticism of capitalism is going to be difficult, much more difficult than what I see on many theology blogs.

    Hi PJ,
    You make a good point and I agree with it. I've always been a strong believer in individualism. But, then again, I'm American. But my theological defense for that claim is that prophecy is an act of protest by the individual against the group. Too many calls for "community" ignore the fact that groups tend to be more immoral than individuals (for a host of social psychological reasons from social loafing to the bystander effect to group think).

    Hi dblwyo,
    Thanks for that comment and pointing to other sources. My thinking on this is, as always, rudimentary and fragmentary. (I'll read one thing and then post thoughts on it.) I do think it important, as you point out, to examine the issue globally and not lean too much, from an explanatory stance, upon the Protestant Reformation hypothesis.

  13. RB

    No denying the power of the bourgeoisie. The question is how is theology related to the concrete conditions of the world, or how is it implicated in human societies. If theology is thought of as a container of ideas or a particular immutable ethic or set of values, then you can bracket theology off from the success of the rise of the bourgeoisie. This is perhaps where a social rather than evolutionary account makes a difference. Taylor's account implicates theology at every level (he views the Greek philosophers as theologians, for example). And as I said in a previous post, pulpits have been providing cover for this project for the better part of this history, for better or worse.

    If you see the task of theology as always creating a metaphysic that stands over/against or above the conditions on the ground, than theology will always be a spectator to any social experiences which move quickly across the synapses of actual human connections. But if theology is interested in naming God in the actualities of human experience, then theology need never be a spectator to any of this or think that God is somehow removed from human experience that has not yet been accounted for. The theological question would not be, how does this social movement conform or not to our prescribed system? The question would be more properly, how do we account for the Spirit of God in the midst of what we are experiencing?

    The shift in these two approaches is related to our understanding of God. Monistic understandings of God, typically centered in a heavy Christology, tend to think of theology as a fixed container. God is only or primarily over/against. If God is seen more dynamically (socially, for example, or eschatologially), which tends to be more pneumatically oriented, then the actual details of human experience are more likely to be seen as some of the raw material for doing theology. This problematizes the world in a different way. Unless you think that God is equivalent to human progress or simply immanent to social movements, then theology is always going to have a yes and a no relationship to something like the rise of the bourgeoisie.

    So, I guess I'm making two points, neither of which depend on denying the incredible power of the rise you describe. First, theology was never at some safe remove from this. Descartes didn't invent the introspective conscience of the West, he inherited it largely from theologians and theology adapted itself to the developments of the Western consciousness. It's a mutually implicating relationship. The accomplishment of the rise of bourgeoisie would have to be seen as the accomplishment of theology as well, though not always as a willing or knowing accomplice (perhaps not the accomplishment of certain metaphysics or ethical accounts).

    Second, not all, but many theologians who have moved toward more social trinitarian positions would have to say both yes and no to this. God is at work in the world, but God is not another name for what is already happening. Some theologians are better at saying yes, and some at saying no, but the good ones say both.

  14. Hi Mark,
    I appreciate that frame. I think we agree on some key points.

    First, I agree that theology has been implicated and involved in all of this. Descartes followed Augustine and the bourgeoisie followed the Reformation. So I guess I'd say I'm in favor of owning and reclaiming those spiritual impulses, seeing them at play in workaday living. Maybe I'm wrong in seeing these as forgotten voices, as my theological reading is limited.

    Second, you say The question would be more properly, how do we account for the Spirit of God in the midst of what we are experiencing? I think I see what I'm doing here as very much in the spirit of that question. That is, trying to note aspects of modern life that don't get their due, spiritually speaking. I think what I'm trying to do is find God in all this. Finding God inside the office, raising kids, paying taxes, and being a decent neighbor.

  15. Richard,

    If you haven't seen James Burke's marvelous interpretations in his "Connections" series, it's worth the hours of viewing. The first was done in the late 1970s or early 1980s to be followed by sequels. The theme of connections is highlighted as the source of the creativity of the bourgeosie. Burke is a descendant of Edmund Burke. (Youtube gives short segments to give you an idea.)


  16. Well, after all of this here's hoping I'll be able to get myself approved, being then able to make a blog now and then. Until I do I don't think there to be much to chat about. As for myself I'm a full time writer and also an ordained minister. So, i have much to chat about in time of course.

    William Dunigan
    Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009

  17. I just left a comment, but I don't seem to find it. That's ok though as it was not an important one anyway. I did leave a url and it seemed to stay round. For how long I don't know but it's still there now anyway. I've written two books both are Christian oriented. One which is named: Reviving the Dead Chrurch by reminiscing the day of Pentecost is highly advertised on my new book to be published is: Beyond the Golden Sunset and by the Crystal Sea. It can be found on
    both are adventure stories that lean toward Christianity.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2009

  18. John Dominic Crossan discusses the sociology of the Roman World and their disdain for middle class occupations in Chapter 3 Slave and Patron of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

  19. We now live in a world which is totally different than any and every past circumstance (even to that of 30 years ago, prior to the various micro-electronic revolutions).

    And in which, tragically, nobody has a clue as to what is really happening.

    We are all like the fragments of Humpty Dumpty's broken shell trying to make sense of the whole. But all the kings horses and all the kings men (including the theologians) wouldnt really have a clue as to how to put things back together again.

    We now live in a globally inter-connected world wherein every thing is instantaneously connected, and in which EVERY ONE is in one way or another affected by what happens any and every where on the planet. And in which one false move could easily trigger off world war three, or a global disease pandemic, or a devastating world-wide ecological disaster.

    It is also a world which is totally embedded or entangled in a secular world-view. Every minute fraction of our culture is patterned by this secular paradigm.

    THE dominant "cultural" formative force is TV. The TV created mentality is what now rules to here.

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