Taking a Stab at Explaining Weber

I started my lecture yesterday by scanning the faces in the classroom and scrutinizing a few as a I panned across. Then I declared, “Wow. Someone in this room is going to be really, really embarrassed when they discover the spiderweb in their hair.”

Of course about half of the class nervously glanced at me, then at each other, and then reached up to run their hands through their hair.

“Just kidding,” I say, “I’ll explain why I did that in a minute. Maybe it will make sense—maybe it won’t!”

Then we launch into Weber’s argument about the psychological effects of the doctrine of predestination on Calvinists and their work ethic, as argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s argument is counter-intuitive to students without prior familiarity with predestination—“but why,” they ask, “would you do anything at all if you’re already predestined and can’t do anything about what God has planned for you? If you’re elected, there’s nothing to be done. Why not just sit back and chill?”

I respond: but!—according to Weber—you don’t know and you want to know. If you had a spiderweb in your hair and were going to be embarrassed, nothing you do can change that—but you still want to know if you’re the one. You reach up and check your hair; the Calvinists worked hard to find out whether or not they were elected by God.

In both cases the end result is determined: either you have a spiderweb or you don’t; either you’re elected or you’re not. But what’s already determined is completely separate from your interest in finding out for yourself—and the open question spurs you to action.

Not sure how well this worked, but I have to do something to keep them on their toes …

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