The Protestant Guilt: On Subjectivity & the Market from an Ecumenical Perspective

August 13th, 2012 1:49 pm

Marta Helena Gustavsson


This is the keyword to the growth of global capitalism, starting with reformation and increasingly growing with the development towards enlightenment and modernism and perhaps escalating in the post-modern world. The economy has grown into something which is even more difficult to control, a power which is also increasingly referred to as a transcendent divinity. “We can do nothing about it” people say when crisis is striking the world, “it is the finances”.

How did it get this way?  According to Mark C. Taylor, in his book After God (2007), the wish for self-power when all other authorities have vanished is met by the two new-found areas of enlightenment; democracy and market. The subject for this is the extension of the divided subject in the teachings of Martin Luther; the Christian human being is both justified and sinner simultaneously. This is a deeply personalist view in which the human who moves closer to the mystery of the Self-God relationship also will reveal more of his or her own self-contradiction and complexity.

So we shop to make an impact, to feel powerful and identify ourselves (our Selves). Vincent Miller, in his book Consuming Religion (2009), he explains how even religion became a commodity to be bought and sold, explaining the use of consumption as twofold: First of all, we are seduced by the possibilities of the goods, by the pleasure they give us and the horizon of possible further satisfaction they promise. But we are also using them to misdirect other feelings, like anxiety, in order to feel better. In the act of consumption, we try to gain certain values – and when the purpose fails, we turn to new acts of consumption.

That is to say, we do not experience a submission to the market. On the contrary, we use our participation in it to feel powerful. But in this move we also increase the biggest source of powerlessness; the global economy and the world-wide injustice it has created. The possibility of power in the area of democracy is, so to say, weakened because of the wish for power manifested in market participation.

The reason for the contemporary globalist situation can, as mentioned, be explained as a development starting with the reformation, and its development has followed and depended on the teachings of the church and tradition of Protestantism. In the reformatory attempts, the “I” of the Credo shifted from the collective self of the Church, an “I” that actually meant “we”, and was individualized to an “I” of the individual self, confessing own personal faith and trust. When the subjective relationship between God and private-Self was stressed, the road towards enlightenment and modernism was inevitable and the conditions set for an increasingly important and globalized market.

I am not saying this subjectivity is not affecting you if you belong to a Catholic, Orthodox or Oriental church. The meaning of globalization is not only that the commodities and money are transferred all over the world, but with them also the capitalistic logics and values. This article does not propose to be a call for my fellow Protestants only, but is addressing a common problem that we have as humans, regardless of tradition. I am, though, not unaffected by the idea of a “Protestant guilt” – something which I will return to later.

But let me first, as a born and raised Protestant, let you see the other side of this terrifying subjectivity, this important reason for what I myself consider a highly problematic global order. Let me point out to you the beauty of the subjective teachings of my beloved Church.

The church I grew up in was not an evangelical tradition underlining the personal experience of once-and-for-all salvation. Still, the relationship to God was often talked about as individually experienced. God was often, in the songs of worship, referred to as “mine” and grace was, at least partly, communicated as your own sanctification in front of God’s face. For me, the personal encounter, the devout relationship and the stress on personal trust is not a bad thing. It is the pulse of my tradition, and at the heart of my faith.

What else would this subjectivity mean in positive terms, I think, it is a valuing of the personal experiences of the divine, which can mean an allowance for non-conformist theological thinking and personal theological views. I think we can see today, that the Protestant tradition of individual faith has also been a good space for rethinking many of the new challenges of modern and post-modern times, such as interreligious dialogue and gender struggle. Being a church originally built on “heresy”, formed after vivid theological debate and finally exclusion from the mainline, has also been fruitful when the need has come to rethink and regret. This has not least been true about the Protestant view on Jewish people after the Holocaust.

But when it comes to global capitalism and its challenges, I don’t think it’s enough to rethink or regret. I believe true repentance on this topic has to understand the complex intervening of the market and Protestantism and has to be done somewhat outside Protestantism. The Protestant guilt is not necessarily a guilt of today’s Protestant churches but should be an essential part of Protestant self-criticism.

I do not suggest erasing all personal encounters with God (which I think would be to underestimate those features in the older traditions) from the Protestant churches. Neither do I intend to convert or to encourage others to do so. But from the angle of my tradition and with the teachings of history, I think we should be ready to learn from the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental ways of thinking collectively in terms of wholeness and salvation. The Protestant guilt may be a fact but the Protestant challenge – to go beyond Protestantism and order ourselves of subjectivity into belonging and a communal-self, thus regaining something of what was lost in reformation, may actually be a repentance, a plight and a solution for us.

There is also a challenge that global capitalism gives us as a universal, ecumenical Church. I believe that the closeness of the Protestant teachings to the values of globalization must be embraced by our sister churches. Even if they might have caused the problem, rather than a withdrawal from the actual world, will help us find the solution. Together, we need to find a tradition-crossing way to communicate an alternative to the individualized and subjective selfhood and the needs to delude oneself into consumption in order to escape anxiety and face the demands of self-fulfilment and self-power. That is not to create uncritical, non-reflecting fundamentalists but to offer interdependent and ecumenical belonging as the fulfilment and the possibility of democratic, responsible servant-hood as the gain of power.

Marta is a student of Theology at the University of Gothenburg and also a former board member for the Swedish SCM, KRISS. This winter she finished her bachelor thesis in Systematical Theology exploring the theological and existential background to and challenges in global capitalism. Marta is, in general, very interested in politics, feminism and the strive for justice, but she is equally passionate about good food, music, dancing and beautiful things.

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