Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

20150104_coin_blogAs we've moved through Coin, we pointed to a few books as helpful resources and catalysts for thought and conversation. This week, I (Dave) will be posting a few thoughts from these books and summarizing the contribution they make to the wider conversation about following Jesus with our money in an economically-driven world. If you've picked up either book or have thoughts on what's posted here, please jump into the conversations (in the comments section below, over email, or a cup of coffee!). William T. Cavanaugh is a Catholic scholar who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago and has written extensively about formation, liturgy, and the way we are shaped by the culture that surrounds us. His book Being Consumed is an incredibly helpful guide for thinking about how we're shaped by economies and what faithful discipleship looks like in the 21st century world. It's a bit heady at times but constantly moves back to practical, everyday questions, examples and stories of an economic way of being faithful to God in the world.

Freedom and Desire

In Being Consumed, he addresses the way capitalist, consumer-driven economies shape and form those residing within it. He explores the ideology of free-market economics, and suggests, contrary to their name, free-markets are not actually free. Because they create, shape, and perpetuate desire in such a way that maintains a certain status quo, their end goal is freedom, but only in a very limited sense of the word fitting within the market-shaped and -enforced rules and norms of society.

In contrast, Cavanaugh explores the work of early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, who (Cavanaugh suggests) names that true freedom is "fully a function of God's grace working within us. Freedom is being wrapped up in the will of God, who is the condition of human freedom" (8).

Connecting freedom and desire, Cavanaugh distinguishes between arbitrary desire and intentional desire. Arbitrary desire is desire for desire and consumption's sake (e.g. the economy is in trouble, buy something - anything!) or for a shallow end (I have a deep longing and no idea how to fill it, I'll try television). Intentional desire is shaped by a vision for the ultimate purpose or goal, a desire not divorced from a vision for greater/ultimate meaning and purpose.

Consumption and Participation

"Consumerism is an important subject for theology because it is a spiritual disposition, a way of looking at the word around us that is deeply formative" (35). Unique to our American context is detachment. As a country, we're more in debt than almost anyone else and, as individuals, we save less than almost anyone else. We continue to, ourselves, produce less and less of our own 'stuff' and instead consume what others are producing, and our system is designed such that those who are doing much of our producing are invisible to us.

Yet Cavanaugh recognizes "there is no question about whether or not to be consumer. Everyone must consume to live. The question concerns what kinds of practices of consumption are conduce to an abundant life for all" (53). So the choice is not whether we consume or do not consume. Instead, we must ask the right questions about what our participation and consumption in the world looks like.

Abundance and Our Place the World

Cavanaugh suggests our default way of interacting in the world is as a tourist - "detached from all particular times and places...[craving] what is different and authentic...the tourist can go anywhere, but is always nowhere" (74). In contrast to the always-but-never-present tourist, Cavanaugh points to the paradox of Jesus who is both fully universal and particular: "Christ is the infinitely integrating one who makes room in himself for everything truly human" (78).

Cavanaugh writes that, as followers of Jesus, "we cannot stand back from the world and survey it; we must simply take our role in the drama that God is staging and give ourselves to it" (81). We do not become fully universal/particular in the same way that Jesus is, but we point to him with actions that "'realize' the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange" (88). Examples given include types of co-ops, fair trade, and community-supported agriculture.

Miscellaneous Snippets and Quotes

What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things. (34)

Many people do not see their work as meaningful, only a means to a paycheck. One's labor itself has become a commodity, a thing to be sold to the employer in exchange for the money needed to buy things. For many people, work has become deadening to the Spirit. (38)

We desire because we live. The problem is that our desires continue to light on objects that fail to satisfy, objects on the lower end of the scale of being that, if cut off from the Source of their being, quickly dissolve into nothing. (90)

Possession kills eros; familiarity breeds contempt. That's why shopping itself has taken on the honored status of addiction in Western society. It is not the desire for any one thing in particular, but the pleasure of stoking desire itself, that makes malls the new cathedrals of Western culture. (91)

The Eucharist tells another story about hunger and consumption. It does not begin with scarcity, but with the one who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly...The Eucharist effects a radical decentering of the individual by incorporating the person into a larger body. In the process, the act of consumption is turned inside out, so that the consumer is consumed. (94-95)