Market and Eucharist


William T. Cavanaugh - Being Consumed

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), £6.99, pp103, ISBN: 978-0-8028-4561-0.

Cavanaugh argues that a eucharistic account of everyday economic life provides Christians resources to resist capitalistic pathologies of desire. Challenging presupposed conditions of neo-liberal economics, Cavanaugh provides a nuanced, yet accessible theological analysis of consumer culture. Rather than blindly condoning or condemning free markets as such, Christians bear witness to a different kind of economics through the creation of imaginative alternatives truly free and just; that is, concrete practices, spaces, and transactions that participate in the life of God.

In four short chapters, Cavanaugh first exposes the illusory claims of the free market, arguing that genuine freedom must be ordered towards good ends. Absent transcendent telos, only the arbitrary power of one will against another remains. Second, he describes consumerism as a spiritual disposition that perpetuates a vacuous desire for desire itself. Its logic is not fundamentally a greedy grasping for possessions, but a hollowing detachment from production, producers, and the products we consume. Third, despite globalization’s claim to accommodate the local through diversity, difference often gets absorbed into the universal gaze of multinational corporations. Finally, Cavanaugh contends that scarcity, the axiom of contemporary economics, is not based on empirics, but the assumption that human desire is inexhaustible. This failure to rightly order desire resigns us to the reality that there will never be enough to feed the world’s hungry.

Cavanaugh engages these challenges through a robust theological account of the Eucharist as the normative embodiment of the church’s life and practice. Throughout, Cavanaugh points to tangible exemplifications of this eucharistic economics. Christians are consumers, but of a radically different sort. In consuming the Eucharist, Christians are consumed by it, re-made, re-membered into Christ’s body and given again for the life of the world.


About Ben Kautzer

I am currently dwelling in the intangible space of the between. Having finished my MA in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham, I decided to take a bit of a break, return to California, and start applying for PhD programs. That process is finally drawing to a close. This Fall I will be commencing my doctoral research in political theology at either the University of Nottingham, Durham, or Bristol. As of yet, that future still remains (uncomfortably) uncertain. My recent academic pursuits tend to focus on political theology (ecclesiology, ethics, politics, liturgy), biblical theology (scriptural narrative, hermeneutics, philosophy of memory and historical method), and Continental Philosophy (especially phenomenology). View all posts by Ben Kautzer

5 responses to “Market and Eucharist

  • Alex

    I’m very much attracted to many of the things Cavanaugh says (in particularly his anti-capitalism being grounded in actual anti-capitalism, ie anti-corporate activism etc rather than some aristocractic critique), but with regard to ‘scarcity’ juxaposing this, like Steven Long with the logic of the inexhaustable logic of the Eucharist, I begin to worry.

    This is because we do live in a world which has genuine scarcity and limits – the ecological limits of the Earth to absorb our carbon emissions, the (now suppassed) limits of peak oil, the limit to growth in terms of GDP and population that are the result of these two things. While I am certain that resources are sufficient to feed the poor when desire is rightly ordered, scarity is real and while sensitive to what Cavanaugh is saying, any economics must take these realities into account with a seriousness mainstream economics does not. While capitalism assumes only the false scarcities needed to engender desire for stuff we do not need (consumerism), a proper economics would be false it it repearts the error of the mainstream in assigning such real ecological limits to the place of “externalities” to the economic process.

    My own solution to this problem takes another element of the Christianity as it’s starting point (though one my note it is also found in most other religious traditions) – the ethics of kenosis, gift-giving, self-emptying. This is an inversion of economics that seems to me to be more potentially interesting – rather than assuming self-interest, one attempt to give away as much as one possibly can – freely as you have been given, freely give. This allows one to consider real limits, but simultaneously to deny the central institution of capitalism – self-interested actors and private property. I haven’t quite worked this out yet though, obviously.

  • Alex

    So I guess what I’m saying: on one hand, I agree with the call to solidarity with all members of the church, gift exchange, all parts of the same body kind of stuff Cavanaugh talks about as being the proper logic of the Eucharist, but at the same time, he doesn’t connect it up that we do live in a world with real scarcity of resources. It’s fine to point out there is a kind of sadness to the vision of the world of scarcity offered by Smith and the hope offered by the solidarity/unity/consumption of the Eucharist, but the oil really is running out…and wars are being fought over this fact.

  • Ben Kautzer

    You raise several important points here: (1) that narrowing a Christian perspective on economics exclusively to a Eucharistic paradigm is not without problems, (2) that any economic agenda must take seriously the empirical crisis manifested in our manifold limitations, and (3) that additional tools might be found elsewhere in the resources of the tradition to move us forward in a more faithful direction.

    I am all for each of these moves. Of course, I have a feeling that Steve Long and Bill Cavanaugh wouldn’t object to them either. I have a sneaking suspicion that something is not being put quite right in your criticism at the point where it suggests: the “inexhaustible logic of the Eucharistic” thereby IMPLICITLY ignores the externality of “scarcity” in terms of such things as oil, drinkable water, arable land, ice caps, species diversity, and the like. Absolutely, these must be taken with the utmost seriousness. I guess I don’t understand why Long or Cavanaugh would disagree.

    From my reading, it seems like Cavanaugh is trying to point out some of the root causes behind our current race to depletion. For him they stem from several perverse methodological (and even theological) assumptions grafted into the very heart of the capitalist project itself (hence the genealogical pointing to people like Smith). On the one hand, a shift occurs from the Christian understanding of the human relationship to creation itself wherein God’s free giving of all things is returned back unto God in worshipful thanksgiving through our care and stewardship, to one of a radically different nature. In the logic of capital, the created gift is rendered a material for subjugation, for possession, and for the accumulation of wealth. It is a “resource” that we NEED in order craft the world to our likings. I think that the question of what constitutes need in the first place is something that often falls through the discussion. Perhaps it would be a fruitful exercise to radically interrogate our needs as well as our perception of value.

    Linked to this, then, is the question of desire. Here, both Cavanaugh and Long (through Augustine) mount their critique of the vacuous, limitless desire that not only makes the world of scarcity profitable, but that also fuels “the very wars being fought over this fact.” This perverse limitless desire guarantees the reality of genuine scarcity.

    I guess I don’t think either Cavanaugh or Long would be comfortable with equating the “inexhaustible logic of the Eucharist” with unbridled excess or with ignoring the real limits of our growth, capacity, etc. What they are also going after is the theological/metaphysical move that suggests that the logic of scarcity is ontological, the very fabric of the being of the world (and consequently God’s relation to it). Such an ontological competitiveness is implicitly violent (as Milbank and others like to constantly remind us). Thus, Cavanaugh wants to clear the space, if you will, for the genuine and concrete alternatives facing our world. For example, in the introduction of Being Consumed he points to the possibility of alternative “consumer choices such as buying local goods, supporting producer-consumer cooperatives such as church-supported agriculture and Fair Trade, investing in banks that support grass-roots development, supporting gospel-inspired business models such as Focolare’s Economy of Communion and the Mondragon Corporation, and attempting to overcome the passivity of consumption by making products of one’s own” (xii).

    Granted, none of that is dealing with the massive, large-scale crisis of scarcity that you might be hinting at, but they seem to be moving in the right direction.

    Which brings me to my last comment. I find your suggestion about the “ethics of kenosis” very interesting and would be very keen to see where you go with that. I think it would be an (unnecessary) mistake to step into Cavanaugh’s error and ONLY talk about kenosis as a paradigm for a Christian economics. Of course, I’m not suggesting that’s what you have in mind. However, I think that all the good aspects of a “Eucharistic model” can mutually inform the project you are sketching out here.

    • Alex

      Fair enough, though I would add that you can’t trace this back to Smith, as I argued in my paper for the Rome conference.

    • Ben Kautzer

      And that is critical work that certainly needs to be done and I’m looking forward to hearing more of what you’ve found thus far. Obviously, one can’t ignore Smith, but I agree that it is a gross oversimplification to have the degree of historical/philosophical tunnel vision that normally accompanies such inquiries (at least when done from a more explicitly theological perspective).

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