Book Review: Being Consumed

“Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire” by William T. Cavanaugh

This book by Bill Cavanaugh, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, is short — weighing in at a mere 5 ounces and 103 pages — but packed with well-reasoned thoughts regarding the crossroads of economics and theology. The book is actually a collection of four related essays, where the author investigates four different pairs of perceptions of economics: Freedom and Unfreedom, Detachment and Attachment, The Global and the Local, and Scarcity and Abundance.

Cavanaugh does not seek to answer the question of whether or not “the free market” is right and proper. Instead, he asks, “what kinds of economic practices can make the market truly free?” This can only be answered, from a theological viewpoint, when we have defined freedom by God’s Word. That is, we are only truly free through our inclusion and participation in the Body of Christ. On the surface, he is absolutely right. Because of our different understandings (Cavanaugh is Roman Catholic) of what inclusion and participation in the Body of Christ (displayed and experienced especially in the Eucharist/Communion) truly means, though, we come to different conclusions.

Cavanaugh begins by challenging the traditional capitalist/free-market definition of “freedom” — derived from the writings of prominent economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman — as being a purely negative definition. For instance, he says, capitalists generally understand freedom as being free from coercion and governmental interference. He contrasts this by quoting Augustine to demonstrate that the Christian understanding of freedom is that we are freed by Christ for good works. How then should this Christian ideal of freedom be reflected in our transactions?

At the core of economics, he says, is desire. Desire, in and of itself, is good. We are created to desire God. As Augustine said, we are passionate, desiring creatures, and the constant renewal of desire is what gets us out of bed in the morning. After all, God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23)! Unfortunately, our sinful human nature replaces this desire for the Creator with a desire for created things. Thus, our ultimate purpose in life — our telos — shifts from desiring God and seeking to please Him, to pursuing our own desires, seeking always to please ourselves.

Cavanaugh goes on to describe ways in which our current economic system thrives on — and even depends on — the constant renewal of our desires. The “having” is not nearly so addictive as the “getting”. We are bombarded with media and marketing which is designed to create and manipulate our desires through “the organized creation of dissatisfaction”. In fact, he even goes on to say, rightly, that “the economy, as it is currently structured, would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough. I am happy with what I have.’

It is the responsibility of the Church, according to the author, “to be a different kind of economic space, and to foster such spaces in the world.” This is to be accomplished through the changing of our desires back to the things of God. Thus far, I am in agreement. The way in which these renewed and proper desires are to be obtained, however, is where I would begin to differ greatly from the author.

He expends a great deal of effort and many words to paint a picture of how our capitalistic system has been driven by our corporate desire for consumption to seek the lowest prices, greatest variety, and ease of access for all of our goods and services, with no thought given to the ramifications this has on our work force (as jobs are exported) and on the lives of exploited workers overseas. Cavanaugh spreads the blame for this fairly and evenly among corporations, unions, individual workers, and consumers. Everything in our society is geared toward the ultimate end of consumption.

He does not believe that any (or at least not many) of us consciously choose to satisfy our own desires at the expense of others. “The problem is a much larger one: changes in the economy and society in general have detached us from material production, producers, and even the products we buy.” Over hundreds of years, we (especially in the West) have seen our society change from a time when the home was a center of production (nearly everyone made/grew everything they needed) to a time when labor is much more specialized, and very few people own anything that they have made themselves. Because of this, we give no thought to how things are produced.

Even here I am in agreement with Cavanaugh’s assessment, and his identification of the problems. His solutions, though, are completely wrapped up in human effort. His portrayal of current efforts such as Fair Trade and Church Supported Agriculture as ideal, even if they have the noblest of intentions, are simplistic solutions that do not sufficiently answer all the questions he has raised. In fact, they don’t even support his earlier (true) statement that freedom is found only in Christ!

Our best efforts — and I would agree that all of us, myself most of all, could and should do more to understand the plight of the poor and work to meet their needs — can never free people from their enslavement to sin. Those actions must always be secondary to our primary mission of taking the Gospel of Christ around the world. Of course, the manifestation of being the body of Christ in the world is the feeding of the poor and the pursuit of justice, so on the practical level our ends are very similar to those proposed by Cavanaugh.

The main reason for this distinction is the difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant (particularly Reformed) interpretation of God’s Word. For instance, Cavanaugh frequently (and almost exclusively) quotes from 1 Corinthians 12 as the biblical foundation of his ideas. However, this passage is relating to members of the Body of Christ, meaning those who have been regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Cavanaugh believes that everyone is a member of Christ’s body. If this were the case, then he would be correct in believing that the greatest unmet need of the poor would be their physical well-being.

I am certainly no expert on Catholic theology, and I don’t want to speak from ignorance, so I will go no further into our theological differences other than to make one final comment. What frustrated me the most reading this book was that the author has asked all the right questions, and provided all the logical (even most of the theological) groundwork for arriving at what I believe are the “right” solutions. Unfortunately, when it comes to answering the question most critical to the entire book — determining an objective telos of mankind and all creation in order to form an economic framework around that ultimate purpose — Cavanaugh finds his answer in all the wrong places. His references are nearly always to “church tradition”, “papal teaching”, and the writing of historic theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, rather than to the Word of God. Even when these traditions and teachings ARE based on sound doctrine, his choice to base its authority on human words rather than on the Word displays a reluctance to give the final glory to God alone. Similarly, if our ultimate purpose is to feed and care for the poor, then we are basing our charity on human effort. If, on the other hand, our ultimate purpose is to desire and serve God, and we are faithful in doing the things that he desires for us to do, then the physical needs of the poor are still being met, but the glory goes to God. Again, it’s a subtle distinction, but it’s one that makes all the difference.

Most of what I have discussed here comes just from the first two essays… as you can see, there is a TON of food for thought crammed into a small, easy-to-read book! I don’t want to go into nearly so much detail on the other sections (and there’s a lot I’ve left out that you’ll have to read for yourself), but I do want to touch on some of the highlights.

One point Cavanaugh made that I found particularly interesting was the connection between capitalism and postmodernism. Since consumption is the engine that drives capitalism, and purchasing is necessary to stimulate economic growth, then without an external basis of moral values on which to base our purchasing decisions, there are no “wrong” purchases. Gambling and pornography can contribute to the growth of the economy just as much as purchasing food and Bibles. In a purely economic sense, there is no ultimate meaning in our choices. All that matters is pleasing yourself. This pervades everything about our consumer culture, and when this “anything goes” economic philosophy is applied to all of life, we begin to see that all choices have no meaning, and there is no objective source of Truth. This is obviously a very cynical view of capitalism — and I happen to believe that, within a Christian understanding of Biblical morality, free-market capitalism CAN conform to the Bible’s teaching about economic transactions — but the logic of his point can’t be denied. Our society does NOT, in general, have a Christian understanding of Biblical morality, so our unchecked desire to consume results in much corruption and the type of postmodern thinking that we see everywhere today.

I also found the final and shortest essay to be very good. He shows how our current economic system is built around the idea that resources are scarce. Therefore, our desire to help others is always in competition with our desire to meet our own needs. Because we have been taught to believe that the solution to scarcity is trade, we convince ourselves that additional consumption meets the needs of others. Our purchases stimulate the economy, leading to jobs and more money and resources being available for others. Ironically, we begin to feel that our increased consumption is sufficient to feed others! This is built around the false notion that we can generate abundance for everyone… which is really placing our hope in the manifestation in this life of things that have been promised for Heaven, and fulfilled only in Jesus Christ. In reality, our problem is not scarcity. If we consume only what we need, placing our trust in God to provide for our needs and our hope in the Kingdom to come, we will always have an abundance from which to give to others.

Overall, this is a book that I do recommend for anyone with an interest in economics. I must caution you to read it with discernment, however. There is much to be learned from this book, but I can’t affirm the author’s conclusions. You can buy it here.

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