Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

  • William Cavanaugh
  • Jul 9, 2009
  • Series: Volume 12 - 2009
book-Being Consumed

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. 103 pages. Paperback, $12.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-4561-0.

Like it or not, the Christian faith in 21st century America is frequently read, understood, and practiced through the grid of consumer culture, rather than the reverse. Virtually everything, including the faith itself, has become a commodity to be consumed according to a prevailing, if implicit, view of the faith as a useful component on the journey of personal self-fulfillment. Let us not delude ourselves: Shopping malls are the religious temples adorning our cultural landscape, drawing true believers in the renewing properties of consumption into its Holy of Holies of endless novelty. Christians committed to a faithful orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the light of this cultural scourge need a sound grasp of the inner dynamics of consumer culture, as well as depth of insight with respect to being the church in such a setting.  

In his deeply profound book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, theologian William Cavanaugh addresses four basic realities of contemporary consumer culture in four essays: the free market, consumerism, globalization, and economic scarcity. Throughout the book Cavanaugh keeps his theological reflections grounded in the economics of everyday Christian existence, as he aims to articulate a deeply Christian perspective that draws upon distinctly Christian resources for the purpose of living out an alternative vision of economic life rooted in the gospel. Far from simply calling the church to condemn or copy the economic patterns surrounding and infiltrating her, Cavanaugh recognizes that there is “simply no alternative to the actual creation of cooperatives, businesses, and other organisms that behave according to the logic of the gospel” (x). To this end, Cavanaugh calls the church to create and cultivate her own alternative culture informed by the riches of the faith, rather than taking her economic marching orders from the world.

The first essay addresses the issue of free market ideology, not by rejecting it altogether, but by asking the crucial question: When is a transaction truly free? In this essay, Cavanaugh locks horns with free market theorist Milton Friedman and takes Friedman’s purely negative definition of freedom to task. Friedman views a transaction as free when an individual pursues whatever one wants without interference from others. Cavanaugh draws on Augustine’s extensive work on freedom and desire in response to Friedman, by pointing out that true freedom must also concern itself with the end to which the will is moved. An alcoholic might be free from external interference in desiring alcohol, but is moved by false desires and, thus, not truly free. True freedom, according to Augustine and Cavanaugh, involves receiving grace from God, which is necessary for the cultivation of right desires. Without this grace, we with Augustine might say, “I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation. I was dust going to dust” (14).

In the second essay Cavanaugh addresses what he takes to be the heart of consumerism: radical detachment from producers, production, and products. This view stands in contrast to the common intuition that greed, or an undue attachment to material goods, is the spiritual core of consumerism. In our consumer culture, marketers specialize in creating artificial needs and an attendant sense of dissatisfaction with what one has and is. This sense of dissatisfaction creates in consumers a restless spirit that must constantly pursue the novelty parade put forward by marketers, and in this way consumers become increasingly detached from the material things themselves that fail to ultimately satisfy. Cavanaugh believes this dissatisfaction is not abated by having, but by continually shopping, and adds that consumerism is a competing spirituality in which “things and brands must be invested with mythologies, with spiritual aspirations; things come to represent freedom, status, and love. Above all, they represent the aspiration to escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things” (48).

The third essay finds Cavanaugh engaging the worldwide integration of economics, politics, and culture known as globalization. Cavanaugh illustrates a basic problem brought about by this phenomenon by pointing out that one can travel from Florida to Oregon and “eat the same food, stay at the same motel, shop at the same mall, hear the same music on the radio…hear the news delivered in the same accent, see the same cars, see the same clothes, and hear the same narrow range of political opinions” (64). Again, citing detachment as the fundamental problem, in this case from the local, Cavanaugh argues that the mobility and universalization of transnational corporations has had the effect on culture of absorbing the particular into the universal—in other words, we are witnessing the homogenization of culture in a parody of true catholicity. Cavanaugh utilizes the work of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar on theological aesthetics, in a slightly esoteric section, to make the case that it is only in the Trinitarian solution of viewing Christ as the “concrete universal” that the problem of the one and the many, which Cavanaugh believes globalization surfaces, finds its proper solution.   

The final essay, titled “Scarcity and Abundance,” contains Cavanaugh’s Christian reflections on the conditions of scarcity that are presupposed by modern economic theory--as well as functions as a sort of conclusion to the preceding essays. The giving up of something in order to get something else, or trade, is a reflection of the assumption of scarcity, and because goods are not held in common, Cavanaugh asserts that consumption remains a largely private experience. In its efforts to constantly create a sense of dissatisfaction among consumers so that consumption matches production, marketing distracts us from seeking the good of others and instead turns us inward in order to attend to our own endless desires, which is an easy shift given the private nature of consumption.

Cavanaugh invokes the father of free market economics, Adam Smith, to address the question of how disinterested moral concerns could ever trump self-interest; Smith answers that the “invisible hand” of the market eventually covers all wrongs as human beings pursue self-interested consumption. This sort of prescription ought to sound familiar to us as we are continually exhorted to stimulate the economy via consumption without regard to what it is that we are consuming. Cavanaugh rightly dubs this view of the market as miracle worker a false “contemporary loaves-and-fishes saga” (93) and turns our attention to an alternative view of economics informed by consumption of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the individual consumer is de-centered and becomes part of a public body, as taught in such texts as chapters 10 and 12 of I Corinthians. As a member of the body, the individual no longer remains detached from the pain or joy of others, since “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (I Cor 12:26).” This alternative Eucharistic economics descends from the lofty realm of theory and calls the church to concrete practices of provision for the hungry, for as the apostle Paul tells us: “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (I Cor 11:29).”

Being Consumed is a powerful antidote to consumeristic Christianity in both its assessment and prescription. Cavanaugh utilizes many concrete examples throughout to illustrate his theological reflections, which is a wonderful feature of the book that sparks the imagination for Christians and churches that want to witness faithfully and wisely given our current context. Being Consumed should be required reading for survey of theology courses and church book studies, as the gravity of the problem demands an engagement as deeply profound as Cavanaugh’s.      

Anthony Lombardo, M.Div.
Denver Seminary
July 2009



Daniel Seatvet

Stellar review of a stellar book on an important and overlooked topic. Cavanaugh's Catholicism stands firm in this book as well, as you mentioned with the essay discussing the Eucharist. In many ways a person's ecclesiology preconditions their engagement toward culture. I too hope that more American churches adopt less of a consumeristic approach to culture and giving in to the surrounding depravity. Christians and churches ought to be distinct from the world, so as to witness to this ever-watching world. In my opinion there is no better example of a church's cultural engagement than Cavanaugh's Catholicism represented by the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in downtown Denver. Right in the heart of culture and depravity lies the beauty, the grace, and the truth of a church that cares more about the presence of the Spirit in liturgical forms rather than how much your worship band can rock the roof off the place. Distinction from, not accommodation to, is a necessary condition to cultural engagement.