Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William T. Cavanaugh. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008.
Summary: An extended essay in theological reflection from a Catholic perspective on the economic realities of the free market, consumer culture, globalization, and scarcity.
There is something more than vaguely disturbing in the word consumer as it is applied to human beings. It suggests an idea of “I shop, therefore I am” and calls up reminders of the biblical warning that we risk our souls when we define our lives by the abundance of our possessions.
In a mere one hundred pages, William Cavanaugh explores four aspects of our economic activity and how Catholic theological resources might more richly inform our lives in these areas. He explores the free market, our consumer culture, the phenomenon of globalization and that of scarcity.
Each of his four chapters explores one of these issues under a pair of opposing terms:
- Freedom and unfreedom. Moving beyond classic definitions of the free market he considers the question of the end or telos of transactions as crucial in defining freedom, drawing upon Augustine and the idea of human flourishing as critical in defining whether a transaction is truly “free.”
- Detachment and attachment. Here he explores the relation of the consumer and producer and how we are often detached from the product we are consuming. The Eucharist calls us into deeper attachment as it both consumed, and consumes us in union with Christ.
- Global and the local considers the phenomenon of globalization and the false ideal of the many and the one that loses the individual in the global market. He draws upon the Triune God and the incarnation of Christ as God and man as well as the Catholic Church in properly modeling the life of the many and the one.
- Scarcity and abundance discusses the basic reality of many economic transactions that assume scarcity and that some gain at the loss of others. Much of this has to do with the hunger of human beings who gain and yet want more. Once again, Cavanaugh appeals to the Eucharist and the offer of abundant life found in Christ that bids us into a culture of communion with the poor.
This is not a book on economic policy for the nations. He describes his book as “a contribution to a kind of theological microeconomics.” While at points he cites examples of the inequities that result from free market economics, rather than to attack or attempt to change the structures, he commends personal and communal practices for Christians from purchasing fair trade products to Community Supported Agriculture and other efforts that connect buyers and sellers directly and the Economy of Communion Project where businesses dedicate one-third of profits to direct aid to the poor, a third to educational projects, and a third for business development.
The strength of this book is that in quite a concise way, Cavanaugh introduces those from outside that Catholic tradition to the rich body of theological resources from which one may draw in economic thinking. However, the book does seem to be short both on application, and some of the resources like a bibliography or “for further reading” other than the works cited in the text. The one merit is that most of the concrete applications come out of the author’s own experiences or other existing programs rather than untested proposals.
Cavanaugh does not address how Christians might engage the larger issues of globalization and capitalist economics, and one senses his approach is actually more of a “Christ against culture” one of personal and communal economic alternatives to the system. For a somewhat different take, one might read this alongside Just Capitalism (review forthcoming) by Brent Waters, which offers a defense of economic globalization and capitalism, while being aware of its shortcomings. It seems to me that Waters addresses what it is to be in the world; Cavanaugh what it means to be not of it (cf. John 17:14-16). Since both seem to be the call of a disciple this side of eternity, then both of these voices may have important words for us.