Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: BEING CONSUMED by William Cavanaugh [Vol. 1, #45]

“Rooted in Economic Discernment?”

A Review of
Being Consumed:
Economics and Christian Desire.

by William Cavanaugh.


By Chris Smith.

Being Consumed:
Economics and Christian Desire.

William Cavanaugh.

Paperback. Eerdmans, 2008.
Buy now from: [ ChristianBook.com ]

When William Cavanaugh’s little book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire was published earlier this year, no one could have guessed how relevant it would become with the recent economic turmoil.  This little book of four essays is a tool for helping us reflect in our churches on why we got into this economic mess.  The book’s essays are structured around the contrast between pairs of key ideas related to contemporary capitalist economics: “Freedom and Unfreedom,” “Detachment and Attachment,” “The Global and the Local” and “Scarcity and Abundance.” 

                In the first essay “Freedom and Unfreedom,” Cavanaugh uses Augustine’s concept of freedom as the basis for a Christian critique of the modern capitalist notion of “free markets.”  The thrust of his critique lies in the distinction that the capitalist concept of freedom is a “freedom from” that has no clear end, whereas Augustine views freedom as a “freedom for” which has a specific end in mind (i.e., reconciliation with God).  Cavanaugh also emphasizes that in contrast to the stark individualistic autonomy of capitalism, the Augustinian view of freedom maintains that others are “crucial to one’s freedom” (9).  Our desires, he observes, do not merely bubble up from within us, but rather our desires are formed in a social crucible, being shaped both from within and without (i.e., from our relationships with others).  Finally, Cavanaugh highlights Augustine’s notion that everything that exists is good, but only to the extent that they participate in the telos of creation – reconciliation with God.  Thus, when we desire things for their own sake, they become nothing to us.  Cavanaugh sagely observes that this provides a striking explanation for the addictiveness of consumer behavior:

A person buys something – anything – trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine. And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing, and she has to head back to the mall to continue the search.  With no objective ends to guide the search, her search is literally endless(15).

He then uses these Augustinian concepts of freedom to critique injustices that arise as a result of free market capitalism.  He argues persuasively that the intentional removal of ends in capitalism creates a vacuum in which sheer power reigns supreme.  This power is wielded most clearly, he notes, by the corporate marketers, who on the one hand offer the consumer the information needed to make a rational choice and on the other hand manipulate our desires in the direction of their products.  The supremacy of power in capitalism is also manifested in transnational corporations that destroy local businesses by their sheer size and resources.  He concludes the essay by observing that:

From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation.  This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place.  Those are the spaces in which true freedom can flourish (32).

Cavanaugh does well to emphasize here the economic role of the church community and the important role of discernment therein.  However, it is unfortunate that such practices are virtually unknown in most churches and even churches that have practices of discernment do not typically discern economic practices that shape the day-to-day living of their members.

                The second essay in Being Consumed is on the theme of “Detachment and Attachment.”  Following Augustine’s concept of the ephemerality of things described in the first essay, Cavanaugh argues counter-intuitively that consumerism is not primarily excessive attachment to things, but rather excessive detachment because things pursued for their own ends keep vanishing into nothing.  Cavanaugh goes on to note the many ways that we become detached from production, producers and products.  In contrast, he argues that the Eucharist turns consumption inside out: i.e., in consuming the body and blood of Christ, we are consumed into the body of Christ, the Church.  In concluding this essay, Cavanaugh offers a simple suggestion for how we might start to reconnect to the production of goods – viz. to start to make something ourselves.  His suggestion here reminded me of the excellent work of my friends Jason and Brooke Evans in subverting the high holy day of the consumer year (“Black Friday,” which is next week on the Friday after Thanksgiving) into “Make Something Day” (see also the post about this on the Sojourners blog).

                The book’s third essay “The Global and the Local” does a superb job of making the case that globalization is destroying the unique landscape of places.  We see the same restaurants, stores coffeeshops, etc. whether we are in Los Angeles, Little Rock or even London.  Following Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cavanaugh suggests that: “Only Christianity satisfactorily solves the problem of the One and the many, because Christ is the ‘concrete universal.’  Only in the Incarnation can an individual be universal and the universal be individual” (76).  It seems then that our response as the Church should be to be deeply and incarnationally rooted in our locations and yet recognize that in Christ we are connected as family to other communities around the globe and throughout history.  As we develop locally-rooted economic practices we will become better prepared to “resist the abstraction of globalization by face-to-face encounters between producers and consumers” (87).

                The final essay in this book, on “Scarcity and Abundance” is in my opinion the weakest of the four.  Cavanaugh does a good job of critiquing the capitalist notions of scarcity and notes that scarcity is shattered when we share all things in common in the body of Christ.  Unfortunately, it seems like his exploration of God’s abundance could have been fleshed out more fully perhaps drawing on the work of the theologian Gerhard Lohfink, the community developer John McKnight or the farmer and environmentalist Ragan Sutterfield.

                Being Consumed needs to be read in our churches to lead us toward recognition and confession of our economic idolatries, especially in the present age of economic turbulence.  Cavanaugh masterfully uses historical Christian theology to critique capitalism.  My only regret is that, although he some ideas for alternative economic practices, I wish he would have offered more in the way of constructive economic ethics for the Church.  Of course, such an ethics will ultimately have to be discerned in our local church communities, but it would have been helpful to have had more stories of economic faithfulness to energize and spur on our discernment.  Regardless, this is a potent little book, and one that would shed much light on the recent financial crises of our land and could inspire us to discern distinctively Christian economic practices.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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  1. Glad I found this blog – some really great stuff! Keep up the good work. Just thought I’d let ya know. Selah.