Catholic Methods for Addressing Consumerism (3/3)

The Synthetic Model

I believe the synthetic model as described by Bevans can be summarized with two words: dialogue and dialectic. These words point to the both/and quality of this model, which puts the tradition of the church and human experience in constant conversation. “Revelation is both something finished, once and for all, of a particular place—and some- thing ongoing and present, operative in all cultures, and uncircumscribable in every way.” Because of the constant give and take between the “experience of the past,” “experience of the present,” and “other contexts, thought forms, etc.,” it is difficult to articulate the successive steps of a synthetic method. However, as exemplified in Constructing Local Theologies, we can see that this method often begins with listening, next forms a “thick description” of the culture at hand, and finally, as a community of insiders and outsiders, it develops an “authentic” way of being Christian in the local context.

Consuming Religion by Vincent J. Miller and Re-Visioning Mission by Richard Cote clearly utilize this synthetic method. Both of these works epit- omize the conversational component of the syn- thetic model, though they dialogue with different partners. Miller interacts with a dazzling array of theologians, sociologists, economists, and political theorists. For instance, by using Kathryn Tanner’s postmodern critique Miller can state the crisis of consumerism is not “that some coherent, holistic Christian culture has been shattered but that believers practice and use Christian doctrines and symbols in a way that prevents them from influenc- ing their everyday social practices.”Cote chooses a different though equally viable conversation partner, the American people, as he searches for the root metaphor, dynamic myth, and fundamental values from which he can develop the meaning of the gospel.Despite this difference Cote arrives at a similar place as Miller, and believes fragmentation is the greatest challenge facing North America.At this point, however, Consuming Religion diverges with all the other works we are examining.

With the concept of fragmentation in hand, Miller moves to give a complex analysis of how our culture, religion, and faith are being consumed. Like Cavanaugh he highlights the role of desire in consuming (which he understands to function through seduction and misdirection), but also uses the thought of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau to analyze the power roles involved. Using this analysis Miller calls for using the concept of bricolage as a way to combat the consumption of fragmented religion, meaning the people of God need to become handymen/handywomen, or active agents in the space available, to re-connect their faith lives and “everyday lives.” Miller views the Catholic Church as one of the few, if not the only, institution capable of cultivating such resistance, and focuses on “tactics” rather than the renewal of doctrines. What might those tactics be? He focuses on the sacramental tradition, liturgy, hierarchical structures, and means of communication as avail- able “spaces” by which the Church can steward its religious resources, while steering clear of systematic theology.

Here, I believe, Miller comes dangerously close to utilitarianism in his treatment of the Catholic faith tradition. While wanting to stress the positive points of engagement that the Church can offer, Miller sometimes speaks of Christian practices devoid of the beliefs they traditionally embody or communicate, and focuses on their experiential impact. He makes this explicitly clear in his treatment of the sacraments. Furthermore, this could be considered a consumerist stripping of the practices, which Beaudoin questions Miller of elsewhere in regard to his use of Michel Focault.

Re-Visioning Mission, on the other hand, provides a more traditional response and asks the question, “Is the church ready or able to undertake this exodus journey [from modernism to postmodernism] with its people or will they increasingly have to fend for themselves and go it alone . . . ?” It utilizes the ambiguity found in the cross of Christ to formulate an affirmative answer. Still, despite this difference, both works rely heavily on the fundamental doctrine of the analogia entis in order to find a way beyond fragmentation. Their deep reliance on North American culture or Western social and political thought as a source of inspiration displays the belief that if we are to find a way through consumerism, we will find it revealed by God in the culture itself, by listening.

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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