Catholic Methods for Addressing Consumerism (1/3)

The Counter-Cultural Model

We begin with the counter-cultural model, because, as Bevans has noted, it is often utilized in Western societies as a way to combat what is perceived to be secularization. While the model can be accused of “anti-cultural” tendencies, when the method is followed properly it both respects culture and attends to its needs. The difference between this model and others is its willingness to identify where a given culture has fallen into opposition with the Chris- tian faith. This is because, “[More] than any other model . . . it recognizes that the gospel represents an all-encompassing, radically alternate worldview that differs profoundly from human experiences of the world and the culture that humans create.”

As is the case with all Bevans’ models, there are slight nuances or emphases of the method used by various authors, but nonetheless we can articulate some basic characteristics of each here. In the case of the counter-cultural model, the method flows in three steps: (1) it views the biblical witness as supplying the “meaning” of all history; (2) it views our lived experience through the biblical “lens,” thus identifying the ways in which society is in or out of line with the biblical vision; and (3) it chal- lenges society to return to the biblical vision of life where the fullness of meaning can be found. Here return is the key word, because as opposed to the anthropological model (to be explored below) the goal is not to find a new way to live in the current context but rather, to conform the context to the previously received biblical witness. This is done primarily through “concretization” of Christian values in the lived witness of the people of God. Following Christ in a Consumer Society by John Kavanaugh and Being Consumed by William Cavanaugh use this method. For instance, Kavanaugh tells the reader that the commodity form of consumerism stands in opposition to the personal form proclaimed by the gospel.

Likewise, in Being Consumed we read, “The church is called to be a different kind of economic space and to foster such spaces in the world…The goal is indeed revolution, to transform the entirety of economic life into something worthy of God’s children.” The two are clearly in opposition to consumerism, and the biblical witness takes priority in developing a meaningful way of life. An example of this is found in Cavanaugh’s articulation of freedom. First, he ex- plains the commonly held economic explanation of freedom espoused by Adam Smith which is still the modus operandi for many today, including the late Milton Friedman. Smith’s understanding is that any economic choice is free insofar as outside influences do not force someone into an economic exchange. Second, Cavanaugh finds this negative definition of freedom weak, and opposes it with Augustine, for whom “freedom is not simply a negative freedom from, but a freedom for, a capacity to achieve cer- tain 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.”Thus while many use the economy to dominate others, Christians are called to use the market for the common good.

In both works the authors define consumerism in largely negative terms. In Following Christ, Kavanaugh asserts consumerism leads to the commod- ity form, which “is a full-blown philosophy and way of life,” in which “all social depersonalization, whether in violence or degradation, carries a common theme. Women and men are reduced to the status of means and instruments…”Also, both authors view this crisis through a reading of tradition that focuses on the prophetic. Kavanaugh mines the older and newer Testaments in order to understand God’s kingdom and reign, and highlights verses such as Luke 4:18- 20 to prove his point. His interpretation of this pericope is an apt example of this: “Jesus proclaims liberating news in the midst of our very poverty—not by denying our poverty, but by set- ting us free from the oppression and blindness which would have us deny it and enslave our- selves. Like his own generation we can reject him, just as we can reject our humanity, our neigh- bors, our very selves.” Being Consumed follows much of the same route, but utilizes a broader array of the tradition, such as Thomas Aquinas and modern trinitarian theology, to critique consumerism. From here both works call for a return to the biblical vision of life by means of highlight- ing Christian traditions that embody the personal form. Among these practices the Eucharist is central.

Being Consumed states, “Many kinds of religion—or more commonly, ‘spirituality’—are largely about self-help, using God to cope with the stresses of modern life. The practice of the Eucharist is resistant to such appropriation, however, because the consumer of the Eucharist is taken up into a larger body, the body of Christ. The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself, but is taken up into Christ.”John Kavanaugh also believes the Eucharist embodies all aspects of Christian life. The Eucharist is important not only in light of its meaning, but because by participating in the Eucharist individual members and the entire people of God are changed. The desire is that this change would take effect in our economic lives.

Source: Setmeyer, A. P. (2010). Consumerism, Catholicism, and Hall’s Theology of the Cross. Dialog: a Journal of Theology, 49(4), 306–314.


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