Being Consumed

The other night I finished the book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. It’s a short book, and a mighty quick read. Cavanaugh is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, but he has geared this book to a more popular audience.

I think this is an important book for several reasons. Cavanaugh approaches the issue of consumerism from an explicitly theological viewpoint, and he reads it as an implicitly theological problem. In doing so he draws on Christian thinkers from throughout the tradition, which gives his discussion a richness most other discussions of Christianity and economics lack. In treating economics and consumerism as theological problems, Cavanaugh avoids the banalities of many approaches to “Christianity” and “economics,” which tend to treat the two as static entities that, when compared, match up in some places and not in others. Cavanaugh, rather, sees economics — or, more accurately, the modern Western economic situation of late capitalism — as a competing theology, with its own morality and its own eschatology. Thus the areas where the kingdom of God and the ultimate goals of capitalism seem to coincide are all the more sinister for the latter’s perversions of the former. Cavanaugh’s book, though is not a critique of capitalism per se, but a critique of consumerism. (He does, however, provide a substantial critique of capitalism itself in his other books.) Nevertheless, this all provides a backdrop for the discussion in Being Consumed.

I don’t want to summarize his whole argument, but I just want to point out some themes that I think make the book compelling. He turns several ideas on their heads: freedom, desire, consumption, and scarcity. He starts out the book by engaging Milton Freedman, economic theorist of late capitalism par excellence. Cavanaugh argues that Freedman’s definition of freedom (which I think most of us simply take for granted) has little to do with the Christian understanding of freedom. Freedom, rather than being unencumbered and uninhibited choice, is the freedom for our corrupted, power-seeking desires (what Augustine calls the libido dominandi, “lust for domination”) to fulfill their true longing in participation with God. This calls into question the individual’s ability to choose what is good to consume. The free market isn’t free; it is just as subject to the power structures of the libido dominandi as the rest of creation. And there is a heavy imbalance of power in favor of giant multinational corporations. The libido dominandi needs the healing effects of grace.

Now this might all sound kind of socialist. And it is. But here Cavanaugh takes a turn away from the very unappealing idea of state-run socialism, which is just as subject to corruption as the individual will, to a more robust Christian socialism that has as its center the church’s consumption of the Eucharist. The title of the book is actually a nice little play on words. We are not just consuming beings (though we are not less — we are by our nature desiring, consuming beings), but our being is consumed by God when we take part in the Eucharist. Here he draws on Augustine’s idea that in consuming the Eucharist, we are in fact consumed by God. Here is where our true desire is met–at the altar, where we consume Christ’s body and blood. And in this process, just as Christ is poured out for us, we are freed to pour ourselves out for others.

This is the basic argument on which the rest of the book is built. There is a chapter on the nature of consumerism, one on globalism, and one on scarcity and abundance. There are a lot of passages detailing the usual suspects in criticisms of global capitalism: sweatshops, McDonaldization, Wal Mart, etc. These are the more rhetorical, anecdotal, and unoriginal passages, though maybe they’re necessary for a book of this nature. There is a fascinating passage in the chapter on globalization that draws an analogy between the paradox of the global and the local and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s solution to the philosophical conundrum of the One and the many. Balthasar’s argument in itself is a work of philosophical and theological genius, but I think the analogy — and Cavanaugh’s application — is a bit strained.

A more insidious potential weakness I see in Cavanaugh’s book is not a failure of argument or candor but is in the nature of its reception. It has, due to its content, the potential to be received primarily and most vocally by certain social enclaves that trumpet a more “authentic” lifestyle but tend, in the end, more toward the smug bourgeois, hipster faux-individuality so effectively dismantled on the blog (and now book) Stuff White People Like. I think Cavanaugh even forsees this possibility. In the introduction he writes,

I have no doubt that many, if not all, of the practices I mention in this book can be written into the grand narrative of capitalism. “Fair Trade” coffee, for example, can be read as simmply showing the genius of the market to accommodate all kinds of preferences, including the preference to pay a bit more to support a poor farmer.

Christians, nevertheless, will narrate the Fair Trade movement differently, as the pursuit of one of the chief ends of human life, that is, communion with other persons. This is not the mere expression of a preference but the pursuit of an end that is objectively valid — that is, given by God, not simply chosen.

I think it is entirely up to readers to make Cavanaugh’s alternative a success. And I think part of this must take place by the Christian disciplines of humility and silence. (The irony of this being trumpeted on a blog is not lost on me. But I suffer under no illusions of grandeur. I read my blog stats.) These disciplines practiced well and applied to the “theological microeconomics” Cavanaugh outlines in the book could, I think, better create the Christian community he hopes for.

Again, this book is important because it treats the reality of modern economics as a theological problem instead of a given reality to be dealt with on its own terms. Rather, it deals with these problems at their root. I’m not convinced at every point, but I think if a failure to imagine a reality other than the one presented to us keeps us from appreciating Cavanaugh’s oppositional stance, we’re much worse off for it.


2 comments so far

  1. Tim on

    glad you are back!

  2. jeffreimer on

    Thanks, Tim. It’s good to be back.

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