Tuesday, April 19, 2011

God's economy: Consumed by Christ

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Mo' money, mo' problems
Way back in late September of last year, early in the fall semester, I read a short op-ed piece in The New York Times that has stuck with me like a pesky grain of sand in my eye. The piece is called Economics Is not a Morality Play and was written by liberal economist and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, appearing on his NYT blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal". The title of the post itself was enough to catch my attention and a few choice quotes from the piece helped form my rebuttal in a blog post called Economics is ALWAYS a morality play. My counterpoint took the shape of telling the story from Acts 16, in which a Philippian slave girl possessed with a spirit enabling her to see the future - making her owners a lot of money - begins annoying Paul and Silas. After a few days, Paul gets sick of this and casts the unclean spirit out of the girl, thus making her far less lucrative to her owners. The owners get irked and got the the two missionaries flogged and thrown in prison at the hands of the authorities.

Granted, the economic systems of the first century Roman empire and that of the contemporary U.S. are quite different, as are the slavery systems of the ancient world and what most Americans think of when they hear "slavery" (the terrible 19th century American kind), but my instinct from last fall remains intact, that economics is always moral. It is also always theological in a sense, or as William Cavanaugh puts it in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, "There is an implicit anthropology and an implicit theology in every economics." That Krugman asserts our "market economy is a system for organizing activity...with no special moral significance" simply won't hold up to the scrutiny of a theopolitical critique such as the one Cavanaugh conducts in Being Consumed. In fact, this little book of Cavanaugh's had been on my list for a few months already when I saw Krugman's piece, and it only strengthened my resolve to read it, but it took me another six months to actually find the space in which to fit it and justify it as being for a class. Oh, and I had to wait for my mother-in-law to give it as a gift for my birthday! (Thanks, Becky!)

Economics is an important topic in any age but might be especially important now in light of globalization and the recent global economic crisis. There is much a neo-Anabaptist and theopolitical Catholic reading of current economic systems and trends can do to help us see more clearly and engage more faithfully as Christians amidst the economic systems in which we're embedded. Cavanaugh's own goal for Christians is worth stating here, for we are to "discern and create economic practices, spaces, and transactions that are truly free... concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space - the space marked by the body of Christ" (viii). The economy of God will indeed have special moral significance!

Whose freedom? What choice?
At the core of our market system is a cluster of Enlightenment philosophical commitments, attitudes, and habits that create immediate problems for Christians with any social/political sense of what it means to be church. First and foremost is a fundamental individualism followed by its sociopolitical outworking, Rousseau's social contract. In an atomistic, contractual economy, exchanges between parties must be "voluntary" and "informed" and therefore the "freedom" in the free market system is described as "the absence of interference from others," especially, Cavanaugh later remarks, "the state" (2, 5). But it's not freedom for the parties the market demands, rather freedom for itself to do its work properly, to work its magic, which is where Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market" image operates. And the market does its work, as economist Milton Friedman states, "impersonally and without centralized authority" (quoted on 3), which illustrates in an institutional way another Enlightenment commitment, that of idealism, which sociologist, James Davison Hunter, describes in To Change the World as "a principle and tradition in metaphysics that maintains that something 'ideal' or nonphysical is the primary reality" (TCtW, 24). A sort of "pay no attention to the man behind the green curtain" attitude.

For the human as consumer, then, freedom is allegedly the right to choose. But what motivates choices? What motivates consumer desires? Cavanaugh describes economists as being largely "agnostic" on this question since the market purports itself to have "no telos, no common end to which desire is directed" (5-6). The witting ignorance toward motivations, desires, and telos is how economists like Krugman can get away saying with a straight face that "economics is not a morality play" and that times of national economic depression are ones "in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn't particularly wise." Cavanaugh sees this clearly in stating that "(w)hen there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake" (13). Statements such as Krugman's do declare an implicit telos: the market qua market, which is illustrated in Timothy Radcliffe's statement that "all human societies have markets... Western society differs in being a market" (quoted in John Thomson's Living Holiness, 143). It is to the market that the market pulls us, and our choice in the matter is mostly an illusion and therefore hardly a freedom.

This beneficent system and its lovingly invisible hand even works its way out to altruism. Because the market system is based on individualism and has no ends per se, "charitable giving is (not) forbidden, but it is relegated to the private realm of preference, not justice" (91). For Adam Smith, though, "the needs of the hungry are addressed by the providential care of the market," which results in "an eschatology in which abundance for all is just around the corner" (93). As we've seen in modern market economies, though, this simply never comes to pass because of the system's intentionally myopic anthropology. There is no account of greed or elitism which will always manifest to trample the poor and yet somehow still look to the system as the rational self-interest it demands to function properly. Or as Thomson puts it, the post-Enlightenment story "has no place for the weak or 'abnormal'" (Thomson, LH, 32). What is freedom to those who cannot "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?"

And what, then, is freedom Christianly understood? Cavanaugh turns to Augustine to articulate a theology of both freedom and desire. For Augustine, freedom is not freedom from, but "freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals," namely those that are "taken up into the one overriding telos of human life, the return to God" (7-8). With regard to individual choice, Augustine seems to recognize that it's not all that liberalism would have us believe, for as Cavanaugh points out, "In (Augustine's) Confessions he says of his own condition, before his conversion, that he was 'bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else, but by the iron of my own choice'" (8, emphasis mine). In consumer culture, then, choice for its own sake and desire for its own sake develops into a kind of consumerist nihilism. Contemporary musical pop theologians, The Avett Brothers, have put it brilliantly in their song Ill With Want: "Free is not your right to choose. It's answering what's asked of you. To give the love you find, until it's gone." (Yes, I've used this line recently in another post. It's so good I can't help it.)

Ecclesial economics: Consumed by Christ
The small Iowa town in which I grew up was much like those around it in the sense that they were highly Protestant in their Christian traditions. Dutch Reformed is an especially strong tradition in that area of central Iowa. The closest Catholic church was in the next town north, five miles away. A few of the families in my hometown were Catholic, including two of my friends. Even still, most of my non-Catholic friends regarded the Catholics with some degree of suspicion on the rare occasion we would wax theological. We weren't quite sure they were Christian. But the few Brethren scattered across Iowa tended to be an ecumenical bunch, so I was open to entertaining the possibility that they were, indeed, faithful Christians.

But old habits die hard. Even as recently as my first year of seminary, just two years ago, when we covered the eucharistic theological battles in the Reformation, we highly rational and urbane Anabaptists couldn't help but snicker when it came to talking about transubstantiation, or even the Anglican teaching of the "real presence." So it was no small moment for me to be reading Cavanaugh's Catholic eucharistic theology as an antithesis to the a priori capitalist commitment to scarcity, when suddenly thinking to myself, "You know...this is right!" It's been a somewhat strange path to trace on the way to arriving at such a thought. Starting last year I began taking spiritual warfare more seriously than I had in the past, thanks in part to evangelical/almost-Anabaptist Greg Boyd's book, God at War. This challenged me to not be so overly rational in my understanding of the Christian faith and indeed the cosmos. Later, another tradition that I had previously looked upon with some suspicion and condescension, pentecostalism, started to challenge my rationalism yet further, thanks mostly to a self-described "Reformed charismatic" philosopher, James K.A. Smith. So perhaps I was ready to read this kind of theological account of the Eucharist and not lapse into judgmental thinking and snickering at its "magic talk."

Cavanaugh precedes his talk on scarcity/capitalism and abundance/Eucharist with a discussion on the spiritual goodness of God's material creation, to guard against any Platonic matter-bad/spirit-good dualism. This is a helpful lead-in to talking about the body of Christ and he touches on the Incarnation and the kenotic (self-emptying) character of Jesus' life and mission as paradigmatic for discipleship. For even as "Jesus' knowledge of himself (especially in John's gospel) coincides with his knowledge of being sent," so "(o)ne's very identity is discovered in one's mission" (82). The kenotic/self-emptying and missional character of Christian discipleship stands in stark contrast to, say, the nihilistic/self-nullifying character of mall discipleship. As we saw earlier, contemporary consumerism isn't necessarily breeding a desire for more stuff, but rather a desire for more of the more. Indeed, Cavanaugh adds to the "religious" character of consumerism when he states that "It is not the desire for any one thing in particular, but the pleasure of stoking desire itself, that makes malls into the new cathedrals of Western culture." (91; also, James K.A. Smith's lecture on Desiring the Kingdom is worth a watch in this regard.)

As I've mentioned, this theological antithesis to consumption and scarcity is most strongly articulated in Cavanaugh's account of the Eucharist, which makes use of twentieth-century Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Eucharist, Cavanaugh suggests, is an act of great paradox and reversal, unifying as it does the universal (God) and the particular (Jesus Christ). By us consuming the Eucharist we are in turned consumed. In the context of kenosis, it is an act of "anticonsumption," and in a Johannine christology turned on the Eucharist, Cavanaugh channels Balthasar in stating that the "'flowing' of Christ into the Eucharist is 'the glowing core about which...the cosmos crystallizes, or better, from which it radiates'" (84). I haven't focused on the scattered examples Cavanaugh provides of how this recapitulation of Christian economics works out, but they are helpful to check into. In the light of this radiant eucharistic theology, he suggests that "In the eucharistic community...the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours by relativizing the boundary between me and you" (97). He cites concrete expressions both small-scale and corporate that exhibit such an upside down view of humanity and materiality in God's economy. Here are just two that he names:

Perhaps where a neo-Anabaptist voice would be welcome in this discussion is how the church is to be church in such circumstances. Cavanaugh's work here does not exhibit a radical ecclesiology and mostly accepts the (Roman Catholic) church in its current state, which seems problematic. Perhaps this is due to the Catholic sacramental view of the world, which Anabaptists tend to have a few more reservations about. While I certainly don't wish to perpetuate a myopic church/world dichotomy that some Anabaptists have tended to hold, I do think it has some value. So while there is much going for Cavanaugh's work on theopolitical economics, I'd like to see more ecclesiology integrated. I don't have space or energy to do it in this post.

In summary, Cavanaugh's Being Consumed, is a short book but one packed with good critique and great theology from his Catholic tradition. Published in 2008, it was written and released just before the global economic crisis. But as that started to play out, Cavanaugh delivered a lecture which took the insights of the book and weaved them into the unfolding crisis. It's a fantastic lecture, so give it a listen: Grounded: Creation and Economic Crisis from the Ekklesia Project's 2009 gathering.

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