Being Consumed – A Review

(x-posted at IndieFaith)
Here is a review I wrote of what I think is a very significant book for the church. If you decide to read the whole thing keep in mind your own theology and practice of communion.

William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire is an excellent example of why the church needs theologians, good theologians. While Christian authors are turning increasingly to social and economic issues few are able to blend accessible language with substantial theological content. Many of the current authors addressing these issues articulate the demands of the Gospel in functional terms. Writers (and readers) look for practical ways to ‘apply’ the Gospel to our context. Most of us though with even a passing interest know what we should be doing to help our situation. We should buy fair trade products, support local economies and agriculture, plant a garden, compost, bike, buy twirlly bulbs, etc. And so much of the work of these authors is lost because their argument led entirely to doing and once we get there we realized we already knew that and so begin to feel frustrated or guilty.

Cavanaugh, while in no way neglecting what we would be doing, takes the theological and economic realities of being and of desire seriously. In the brief 100 pages of this book Cavanaugh addresses the issue of economics and Christian desire in four related areas. He begins first with examining our current economic market system, the so-called free market. Cavanaugh is not concerned with whether this system is good or bad in itself he limits himself to asking the question: When is a market free? The market is classically understood as free when employers, employees and consumers are not coerced in their choices. The system is regulated inherently by the demands of the consumer. The market is then considered free when individuals can pursue what they want without coercion within that system. Cavanaugh states that this view defines freedom negatively and carries no vision of its own telos (goal, end, purpose). In the absence of these things Cavanaugh compares the ‘free’ relationship between consumer and corporation to a poker game where you are free to play but your opponent has already seen your hand and knows your compulsion to play. So while the market is indeed based on our wants and desires and though that can provide some regulations Cavanaugh does not assume that our wants are really what we want. Leaning on the work of St. Augustine Cavanaugh introduces a positive notion of freedom which is not freedom to do anything but the freedom from everything towards God. In fact the current market promises of limitless freedoms turn out in fact to be an illusion and in the end unfreedom, restricting environmental health, fair wages, local diversity, etc. A market is free then to the extent that dignified relationships are nurtured with each other, with the land and its resources and ultimately with God which is the telos of human existence.

The second chapter challenges the notion that much of our trouble comes from greed or our attachment to things. Cavanaugh suggests that the issue is actually a profound sense of detachment. Most of us do not hoard we discard. We move quickly from one act of consumption to another. Our culture emphasizes not acquiring but shopping. We are detached from the site of production which has moved from the home, to factories, to across the ocean. Even much of the work we do is no longer related to the act of production or creation. We are therefore detached from the producers who make the products we purchase. Though we hear some stories of the work conditions of factories overseas we are not intimately connected to the particular conditions of we ourselves buy. Even companies themselves are detached as they contract out the work of production and focus on building the image that they can sell. And finally we are detached from the products themselves. We quickly discard the toy in fast-food kid’s meal that was likely made under questionable conditions overseas. Companies of course support our detachment because if we actually valued something we bought it may be longer before we buy the next version of it. Cavanaugh suggests that we are in fact not too ‘materialistic’ but that we are in fact to perversely ‘spiritual’. We are caught up in image and status so we hope that our purchases will take on a mythic quality, though the material thing itself will never satisfy. Into this cycle of endless consuming Cavanaugh introduces the Eucharist as relationship in which we consume but end up being consumed. Rather than the body of Jesus becoming just another commodity we are the ones consumed into the body of Christ. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6:56). The body of Christ is the place of abundance and unity. It is this Eucharistic reality that restores us from our detachment and brings us into right relationship.

Chapter three explores the relationship between globalization and local expressions. These expressions are argued to be the different sides of the same coin. With the rise of multinational corporations the globe has become a single marketplace in which the cheapest labor is purchased in throughout which homogenous products are offered. Along side of this we witness the celebration of diversity and multiculturalism. There are increased attempts to preserve local expressions. This however, has simply fed into the global economic model where diversity is understood as a consumer choice as opposed to offering some sort of substantial expression apart from economics. In this model we become a pure consumer, a tourist, where even locations are consumed. It is again the body of Christ and the Eucharist that Cavanaugh evokes to respond to this situation. It is the incarnation of Christ, that is always local and particular, that bridges local expression and universal truth. In consuming the body of Christ in the Eucharist and becoming the body then we too allow ourselves to be consumed. “To consume the Eucharist is an act of anticonsumption, for here to consume is to be consumed, to be taken up into participation in something larger then the self, yet in a way in which the identity of the self is paradoxically secured” (84). Here the local is not overcome by the global but participates in it.

The final chapter names the current market system and the body of Christ as representing two economies. Our current market system is based on the assumption of scarcity. In this market we are formed as beings of endless desire and hunger to consume. We live always with the threat that there will not be enough to meet these hungers. Consumption is also the answer to the threat of scarcity, consume more so that there will be more. There is again a type of perverse theology at work here that hopes for the multiplying of loaves and fishes (93). The economy of the Eucharist is one of abundance. We become part of the sustaining life of God and not only that but we are united intimately with our neighbour. They are no longer an ‘other’ to be addressed but they are a part of our very body. This is the economy of the Kingdom and it is the calling of the church.

This book challenges to revisit the relevance and role of communion in our theology and church practice. In his account it is around this faithful expression from which the abundant economy of God emerges. The question becomes whether our own theology and practice allows the same sort of critique and response. Cavanaugh has offered us a rigorously theological account of contemporary economics. He has responded not with finding out what we can do but in understanding what we are when we enter into the body of Christ. It is perhaps this reality rather than a strategy for action that we must begin to take more seriously. This means having our desires consumed in the abundance of Christ rather than having our desires war with each other to consume what cannot satisfy.

Comments (6)

  1. somasoul

    I agree heartily with the last sentence. If we look toward consuming items or services to placate a true desire to be with God we are missing the mark.

    But I disagree with the notion that free markets are not really free and that they need, uh, unfreedom to be truely free. That’s some Stalin-like newspeak if I ever saw it.

    I also agree with the idea that we don’t hoard, we discard. I think we do both but I also think that if I read the book I’d understand this better. We live in an era when it is cheaper and more staisfying to buy something new than to repair the old. Buying the new thing and discarding the old seems to make us feel some twinge of happiness.

    I’ve often said, and I truely believe it, that we are not a happy society, we are an amused society.

    The “happiness” that we feel when going to the movies or buying a new pair of shoes or going to a theme park, watching TV………this is not happiness, it is temporary and therefore amusement.

    The thing is that we can afford to amuse ourselves constantly. So our lives have gone from seeking happiness and fulfillment to seeking amusement. Why work on your marriage, or relationships, or something wrong you’ve done when you can lay down twenty bucks and go to Fridays?

  2. DavidD (Post author)

    Thanks for the feedback but I think there was a misunderstanding in how I accounted for Cavanaugh’s notion of a ‘free’ market. I abbreviated his argument to the point of losing some of the nuance. C advocates for a ‘free’ market which is still based on capital and private property he just doesn’t assume that the current expression is as ‘free’ as it is claimed to be.
    The ‘unfreedom’ that I referred to is the common result of the current market system. Infinite promises are made on behalf products and yet the result is poor labour wage, increased homogeneous expressions, and detachment from people and products. And ultimately dissatisfaction.

  3. somasoul

    “Infinite promises are made on behalf products and yet the result is poor labour wage, increased homogeneous expressions, and detachment from people and products. And ultimately dissatisfaction.”

    I agree with all of this except for “poor labor wage”. No doubt, some products are made by very, very poor people. But where capitalism exists the poor are often at least fed; where comsumerism is void the poor starve and die.

    The “poor labor wage”, if this be the case, is actually wealth to those with an empty belly.

  4. ChristianR

    “But where capitalism exists the poor are often at least fed; where comsumerism is void the poor starve and die.”

    Actually, I think any objective look at economic history and modern sociology would show that the exact opposite is actually true.

    I thought the description of the ephemeral nature of the supposed freedoms of the “free market” was brilliant.

    Pure laissez-faire capitalism creates an illusion of freedom while in reality it just disguises oppression by the wealthy as freedom.

  5. DavidD (Post author)

    I claim no authority on the status of overseas factory employment. It would be impossible to characterize it all the same way. The point C was making is that the situation is hardly ‘free’ when cooperations can shop around globally for the cheapest labour while the labourer’s themselves have little freedom within the relationship.

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