Letter to the Editor [Max Weber's sociology of religion]

John Thompson



May 25, 1986

Dear Margot:

Weber’s sociology of religion is one of my academic haunts. Jan Kowalczewski’s use of Weber’s asceticism and mysticism types in “Thirteenth Century Asceticism: Marie d’Oignies and Lutgard of Aywieres as Active and Passive Ascetics” [Vox Benedictina 3, 1 (January 1986): 20-50] caught my attention. I’d like to share some reflections on the location and use of asceticism and mysticism types in Weber’s sociology of religion. Weber’s constricted focus on religion as religious ethics and economic ethos resulted in a lopsided view of mysticism (contemplation) as unrelated to significant human activity in the world.

Within the article and in your comments before the translation, the terms ascetic and mystic, active and passive are mixed a bit. The title mentions two types of ascetics: “active” and “passive.” The thesis of the article (page 26) contrasts the times and the orientations of Marie and Lutgard.i Finally, you refer to “Weber’s theory of active and passive mystics” (page 29). These terms have quite different referents in the context of Weber’s work, the basis for Jan Kowalczewski’s contrast between Marie and Lutgard.

Weber employs ideal-types throughout his work. Authority and bureaucracy are his two most widely known contstructs. Within the sanctuary of sociology of religion, his church-sect typology is probably best known. Weber first developed the church-sect typology in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905). He viewed the “inner worldly asceticism” of the sect as giving birth to “rational pursuit of conduct in one’s calling,” a necessary ingredient in the origin of rational bourgeois capitalism. As the horizon of Weber’s work expanded, he came to locate capitalism and bureaucracy as instances and reinforcers of the master trend: the “rationalization of life.” Shortly before his death in 1920, he indicated this in a new preface to The Protestant Ethic.

But ideal-types are analytical tools consciously constructed in terms of a particular theoretical interest. While Weber and Troeltsch both used church and sect as ideal types, their purposes were quite different. Weber puzzled over the origins of capitalism; Troeltsch‚1 over an historical basis for a Christian social ethic. To ignore the purpose behind an ideal-type construction is to invite unintended consequences in using it, when one’s purpose is different from that of the original constructor.

Weber constructed opposing pairs -- dichotomous types -- in light of his hypothesis about the increasing rationalization of lilfe as the characterizing feature of twentieth century western culture. Asceticism-mysticism and inner worldly-other worldly orientation are two such pairs, but pairs which Weber combined, as the term “inner worldly asceticism” suggests.

Weber’s interest was not primarily in understanding religion, and certainly not in understanding contemplation. Weber described himself as “religios unmusikalisch.” He focused, rather, on unraveling the influences of a religious ethic (the Protestant ethic) on a particular economic ethic (the spirit of capitalism). Weber did not accept uncritically a capitalist market model of “economic rational man,” as other nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers had done. In recognizing the pervasive and normative character of formal rationality for modern culture, he analysed religion insofar as it contributed to or hindered the development of that culture. His controlling interest must be kept in mind, since it skewed his construction of dichotomous ideal-types about religious phenomena.

Weber’s actual use of mysticism and asceticism represents a significant skewing. As Mueller notes: “the Lutheran theology of Max Weber’s day was dominated by the Neo-Kantian Ritschl and lacked any deeper understanding for mysticism and the cultic and sacramental element in religion.”2 We can more easily see Weber’s actual emphasis by examining how he used (and didn’t use) the four possible combinations of asceticism-mysticism and inner worldly-other worldy. By combining Weber’s mysticism and asceticism types with his inner worldly and other worldly types, the following two-by-two table of four cells can be constructed:

inner worldlyother worldly
asceticism (1)(2)
mysticism(3)(4)

However Weber, in effect, collapsed asceticism into inner worldly orientation, and mysticism into other worldly orientation. For all practical purposes, this reduced the table to only two cells: cells 1 and 4 and eliminated other worldly asceticism (cell 2) and inner worldly mysticism (cell 3):

Nonetheless, these passages fall short of desired precision when Weber contrasts inner-worldly asceticism (Weber’s great discovery), not with inner-worldly mysticism (which should have become Weber’s other great discovery) but, rather, with other-worldly mysticism.

This contrast has the undoubted advantage of sharpening the distinction between Asceticism and Mysticism. The correct counterpart, however, to other-worldly mysticism, should be other-worldly asceticism. Correspondingly, inner-worldly asceticism should be contrasted with inner-worldly mysticism which Weber failed to do (Mueller, pp. 73-74).

The consequences of such a reduction are significant. Calvinism, the Puritan and Baptist movements, Methodism, Scottish Presbyterianism, American Congregationalism become the variety of religion given emphasis in light of Weber’s controlling interest in modern “rational” culture. The focus became the “typical Puritan” as an inner worldly ascetic, busy building the Kingdom of God on earth and how such an orientation metamorphosed into “rational bourgeois capitalism.” Weber seems to have “seen” this character of capitalism most clearly when he visited the United States in 1904, where he found economic activity “elevated” to the character of sport. Other forms of religion, including religious orders like the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits, Weber tended to assimilate to inner world asceticism, or ignored as not leading toward an increasing rationalization of life. Even the contemplative prayer tradition within monasticism and religious orders in the West he reduced to inner worldly asceticism.

As Robertson so tellingly noted, Weber ignored inner worldly mysticism, even for his own overriding concern: the increase in the rationalization of life.3 Robertson suggested that had Weber paid greater attention to the Quakers, he would not have been able to ignore the relationship between inner worldly and meaningful activity in the world.

Weber’s one-sided emphasis on and attention to post-Reformation inner worldly ascetic religion becomes lopsided if one is trying to understand religion more broadly than Weber’s concern about its part in the origins of “rational bourgeois capitalism.” His particular thesis, important as it has been to the foundations of sociology of religion, gives centre stge to inner worldly ascetic sects as the ideological and social roots of modern economic individualism and state domination based on legal-rational legitimacy. Forms of religion emphasizing sacraments, ritual, sacerdotal priesthood, contemplation and monasticism are considered as leading away from significant human activity in the world. They are reduced to the same significance for human activity as magic: not leading to systematic activity in the pursuit of one’s occupation as a calling. Inner worldly mysticism is a major casualty by force of neglect.

The following remarks of Mueller may be overly strong, but certainly state the case for some wariness in using Weber’s typologies for analyzing Catholicism, especially mediaeval Catholicism:

All his [Weber’s] life long he would avoid any elaborate discussion of Catholicism and medieval Christianity. This is evidenced in his essay on the Wirtschaftsethik [the economic ethos] of the great world religion. The title of these essays unambiguously indicates that they were not primarily meant to deal with the overall texture of these religions but rather with the economic ethos within those religions. Not simply because of a division of labor with Ernest Troeltsch, a close examination of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is avoided here as well. Finally, the uncompleted chapter on the sociology of religion in his work on Economy and Society again places all the emphasis on this-worldly asceticism, methodicality and rationality, while Catholicism is confined to a few, though pertinent, remarks and Mysticism is briefly dismissed as infused with magic. This suggests that Weber thought of mysticism as little more than a superstition from the Neolithic Ages (p. 72).

The analysis of the lives of Marie and Lutgard as active and passive ascetics or as “active ascetic” and “passive mystic” may be overlooking features significant to an understanding of these two religious women, as well as the relationship between mysticism -- whether without the monastery or within -- and responsible activity “in the world.” To emphasize the “active ascetic,” based on Weber’s typologies, is to invite a deity so totally transcendent as to be related to only in terms of duty to an inscrutable will. Weber sees Calvin’s doctrine of predestination as a statement of such total transcendence. The believer is a “tool” of the transcendent. Certainly, in Weber’s conception, there is no personal relationship involving love. Mol argues against this overly rational conception of Reformation religion on the part of Weber.4 He argues for the importance of “fervency,” the type and degree of attachment to the divine. This sounds (suspiciously) like overtones of mysticism. To emphasize the “passive mystic,” based on Weber’s typology, is to invite an immanent deity (or deities) in which the person is a “vessel,” revealing the divine by example, but fleeing from any meaningful involvement in or relationship to the world.

Your own use of the terms “active and passive mystics” may well indicate how to understand these women in terms of Weber’s types. However, given Weber’s de facto reduction of these two types to other worldly mysticism and “flight from the world,” you may not be happy with the implications. Considerable work needs to be done to rehabilitate these two types in light of significant activity in the world. In my opinion, an inner worldly mysticism is the type that needs careful exploration for better understanding the contemplative tradition within Catholicism, past and present.

Why do I worry about what must appear to some to be a minor, if not trivial, point? My concern comes from our present dilemmas of how to act as Christians. How are we to pray contemplatively and to act significantly? How are we to conceptualize the divine today? Surely the influence of Ignatian spirituality influences me here. And the quest of Teilhard de Chardin and Daniel Berrigan. Does the Christian make a difference in this world and in God’s sight? The lives of contemporary women like Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day and Catherine Doherty suggest the importance of this question of contemplation and activity in “the world,” especially among the poor. I think my own and many other persons’ fascination with Thomas Merton is rooted, at least in part, in this same question. Even though much of the debate has been cast into a Marxist-Christian polemic, the relationship between contemplation and social justice seems the more central issue. Not to recognize the significant potential of contemplation for relativizing socio-political arrangements, for seeing Yahweh’s special concern for the Anawim, for seeking structural alternatives is to be blinded by otherworldly, flight from the world, highly individualistic and subjectivistic conceptions of mysticism, as I think Weber was. Troeltsch, too, harboured some of these assumptions about mysticism.

I suspect that, despite Weber’s pessimism about extricating outselves from the “Iron Cage” of capitalism, inner-worldly mysticism has something to do with liberating ourselves and our society from capitalism’s stranglehold.

But in all of this the key question is how holy women and men relate their contemplative lives to the Christian imperative:

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” “You have answered right,” said Jesus, “do this and life is yours” (Luke 10:27-28).

My comments, which started out to be a few words on Weber’s asceticism and mysticism types, have run too long. Much remains to be said on this topic. But not by me here. I must stop.

Sincerely yours,

John Thompson

Department of Sociology

St. Thomas More College

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan