Displaced Asceticism

This is what is really inadequate about Weber’s treatment of Protestantism and capitalism. He confines himself to the vague, unhistorical level of ‘elective affinity’ between religious belief and economic practice, and sees Protestantism’s uniqueness as lying in its transference of asceticism to a totally ‘this-worldly’ sphere of activity. However, the ‘this-worldly’ is a category assumed by Weber a priori, as the boundary of finitude traced by the ‘natural’ character of economic, political or erotic activity. By contrast, the point about theological influence on modern economic practice was not the transference of asceticism to ‘this world’, but rather (as I tried to show in Part One) the theological invention of ‘this world’, of the secular as a realm handed over by God to human instrumental manipulation. It is this invention which establishes the possibility of a new kind of asceticism, one no longer concerned with the relative ordering of ‘goods’ towards our ‘final end’ as in all previous Christian tradition, but rather only interested in the formal exercise of self-control, treating the realm of ‘discipline’ as a field for the ‘testing’ of grace and election — ultimate truths to which the ascetic practice is now only extrinsically related. (91-92)

John Milbank | Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason


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