Wednesday, October 13, 2010

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.

The freedom of the free market is defined negatively, Cavanaugh says. Acts are thought to be free when they are not coerced. Against this,

Freedom in Augustine's view is not simply the absence of external interference. Augustine's view of freedom is more complex: freedom is not simply a negative freedom from, but a freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals. All of those goals are taken up into the one overriding telos of human life, the return to God. Freedom is thus fully a function of God's grace working within us. Freedom is being wrapped up in the will of God, who is the condition of human freedom. Being is not autonomous; all being participates in God, the source of being.

Autonomy in the strict sense is simply impossible, for to be independent of others and independent of God is to be cut off from being, and thus to be nothing at all. To be left to our own devices, cut off from God, is to be lost in sin, which is the negation of being.


Sin is not subject to free choice, properly speaking. The alcoholic with plenty of money and access to an open liquor store may, in a purely negative sense, be free from anything interfering with getting what he wants; but in reality he is profoundly unfree and cannot free himself. In order for him to regain freedom of choice, he cannot be left alone. He can only be free by being liberated from his false desires and being moved to desire freely. This is the sense in which Augustine says "freedom of choice is not made void but established by grace, since grace heals the will whereby righteousness may freely be loved."
(pp. 8-9)

Consumerism isn't about greed, he says.
Most people are not overly attached to things, and most are not obsessed with hoarding riches. Indeed, the United States has one of the lowest savings rates of any wealthy country, and we are the most indebted society in history. What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.


The detachment of consumerism is also a detachment from the things we buy. Our relationship with products tends to be short-lived: rather than hoarding treasured objects, consumers are characterized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods. This dissatisfaction is what produces the restless pursuit of satisfaction in the form of something new. Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that's why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism. This restlessness - the moving on to shopping for something else, no matter what one has just purchased - sets the spiritual tone for consumerism. (pp. 34-35)

Consumerism and the Eucharist.
The act of consumption is thereby turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it. St. Augustine hears God say, "I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me." In the Christian view, we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation - appropriating, consuming, and discarding. In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body. The small individual is de-centered and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life. (p. 55)

If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all, then that is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ. We are not to consider ourselves as absolute owners of our stuff, who then occasionally graciously bestow charity on the less fortunate. In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available to be communicated to you in your need, as Aquinas says. In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely "the other" to each other. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others. (p. 56)


DrLeoMarvin said...

Amen, Kyle.

Thomas said...

Good quotes. I am puzzled by the second block of quotes though. is "hoarding treasured objects" his alternative solution? I think I understand his meaning, but is he proposing 'more attachment' to things? It seems like this is a false dilemma.

Kyle said...

Well, if I read him right, he's not offering a false dilemma. He says that the element of detachment that is latent in consumerism also has a corollary in Christianity (e.g. the rich young ruler). The difference is that Christians may be detached from things while also recognizing that good things have a purpose. The difference is that Christianity recognizes proper things to have a telos, while consumerism does not. All things properly bear marks of their Creator and ought to point towards God and ought to be recognized thus by human beings.

One of the problems of consumerism is that it sees no goal (or telos) in things themselves while conversely greed doesn't recognize that things point toward creator God. Augustine makes this point, I think, in On Christian Doctrine: there are things that ought to be enjoyed on account of the thing itself (God) and there are things that ought to be used to point to things that ought to be enjoyed. Christianity is a third way above greed and consumerism.

If I'm making sense.

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