Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Speaking of Social Justice: William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

I haven't been doing a lot of book reviews over the last year, so I thought I'd do a brief one on a book that had been in my head while I was writing the last entry of St. John Chrysosthom: William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. For those who haven't read any Cavanaugh, you should. He's a relatively new Catholic theologian who has been doing some interesting work, especially on the Eucharist and its interconnection with ethics/politics. His first book is the oddly titled, Torture and Eucharist, which discusses Catholicism in Pinochet's Chile, discussing the potential of the Church to serve as the only permissible alternative society to the state and why so many Chilean Catholics failed to take advantage of that alternative and underwrote the Pinochet regime. I'm not doing justice to it, of course, but it is a fascinating study.

In Being Consumed, Cavanaugh considers what the legitimate Christian response to the current economy should be. This volume is designed to be accessible and is clear and concise. It is, also, pleasantly removed from the conventional questions of right vs left, capitalist vs socialist dichotomies which bedevil Christian responses on economic questions. Cavanaugh is interested in developing a Christian (Catholic) response to such things as the market, materialism, globalization and scarcity. His responses are surprising sometimes, but compelling.

What particularly struck me in Cavanaugh's discussion is his point that, really, our problem isn't so much with materialism (that is, the stuff!) as with distorted desire. That is, he argues, rightly, I think, that the consumer economy is designed to encourage desire for things, not so much the things themselves. Indeed, the value of the things we buy isn't so much a factor of acquiring more and more things as to satisfy the desire for what those things represent: status, power etc. In that sense, we are actually surprising detached from the physical realm so much so he sees a comparison with asceticism in its rejection of the physical. We simply don't know (or, in many cases, care) who produces our products or how they are produced or, even, what they are produced from. We are detached from this because the physicality of the product is simply not the point- consumption is. It is an interesting point and explains much about the compulsive over-consumption that we in the West are notorious for.

Cavanaugh's argument doesn't just criticize our consumer economy, but it suggests that the Christian response is, ironically, greater attachment. That is, community and, particularly, that sacramental expression of community, Eucharist, gives us the valuable clues for overcoming that almost Gnostic separation of matter and spirit. We are (or should be) connected to those who produce our foods or other products. We are (or should be) connected to our neighbour and to our own environment. We are (or should be) connected to each other through the anticipation of God's extravagant feast, the Eucharist.

In this analysis, Cavanaugh jumps over the much debated issues of free markets or globalization. He offers a coherent Christian view on the economy- one which we all need to consider. As Cavanaugh points out, we can't avoid being consumers. But we can seek to bring our consumption into line with what our faith teaches us.


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