William T. CAVANAUGH, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008. pp. 103. $12.00 pb. ISBN-13 978-0-8028-4561-0.
Reviewed by Benjamin BROWN, Lourdes College, Sylvania, OH 43560

Cavanaugh’s short and clear little book could not have come at a better time. As the United States and the world struggle with the current economic downturn, we are forced to face fundamental questions of the meaning and purpose of economic life. Dueling temptations exist, on the one hand to throw capitalism out as defunct, on the other to cling all the more tightly to the plethora of goods it has produced as we struggle to maintain our comfortable ways of life. Christians have long suggested a middle path, grounded in a deeper philosophical and theological worldview, and Cavanaugh reminds us of that wisdom.

Cavanaugh begins by questioning a commonly accepted notion that freedom exists wherever there are no intervening laws or parties directing someone’s actions. This is a negative view of freedom, what Servais Pinckaers calls “freedom from.” Cavanaugh suggests with the help of Augustine that true freedom is teleological, directed towards a goal, an end, without which we are largely pushed and pulled about by mostly false desires. True freedom exists only when the real purpose for which we act is being achieved, that is, when all people find fulfillment through such actions. This means that economy must be founded in objective goods, not in a relativistic view which crowns the individual consumer’s desire. Thus, economic philosophy needs theology to point to that which is the ultimate fulfillment for human beings, God.

More immediately, one’s relationship with God is lived out in relationship with others, in community. Therefore, any economic system which fails to ensure the flourishing of all (insofar as a system by itself can insure such a thing), fails precisely as an economy. When you remove objective goods from the picture, the landscape quickly blanches and freedom itself disappears. Instead, 1) freedom itself atrophies into the following of desire (though where desire comes from is anyone’s guess), 2) the many workers are subjected to the economic power of the few and 3) the desires of all are subjected to the conscious manipulation of advertising.

In his second chapter, Cavanaugh makes the counterintuitive claim that the problem with consumerism is not so much over-attachment to things as lack of attachment to anything in particular. The problem is not that we buy things that we want and need, but that in our buying we restlessly shift from one thing to another, aimlessly pursuing no aim (telos) at all. Not only is having touted over being, but having itself wanes in the rise of getting. The subsequent analysis of consumerism is filled with insights as Cavanaugh describes it as a state of moral and spiritual formation. He contrasts such consumption with that of the Eucharist, in which the consumer is consumed in a sea of abundance which grounds one in real, particular goods and thus empowers the consumer to reach out in self-sacrificial action for others. This is exactly the opposite of the disengagement fostered by a consumeristic culture. The key to Cavanaugh’s analysis once again lies in a rich view of human flourishing.

Cavanaugh next turns his attention toward globalization, pointing out a variety of concerns, particularly the loss of particularity even in the midst of its proliferation. We are saturated with diversity and variety – products, holidays and people from all over the world – while yet a definite flavor is given to them all as they are “Americanized” and thus lose their particularity. Once again, the solution to this problem lies in being grounded in a center around which the abundance of particulars can be gathered cohesively without being cramped into uniformity. Cavanaugh draws upon von Balthasar’s theological insight that Jesus is the “concrete universal,” that catholic center that enables each to be its own in the other.

Finally, Cavanaugh tackles another basic of introductory economics: scarcity drives economic activity. Unless we can find a way of acting out of abundance instead of the fear and greed that lies behind the assumption of scarcity, then our economic life will continue to be self-centered and individualistic. The Eucharist opens up such a possibility, for it tells a story of the overflowing of God’s own life given freely to all, of the greatest giving to the “least” because in the end there is no least. Thus, because the Eucharist grounds us in a superabundance of the one thing necessary, as opposed to the economic “war of all against all,” it enables us to act out of that secure center in generous self-giving.

Cavanaugh’s treatment of a complex subject is filled with insights, careful analysis, and helpful suggestions. His examination is grounded in sociological research illustrated by dozens of real stories. The writing is clear even when the ideas are complex. He does not stop with analysis; practical suggestions are offered and examples of successful endeavors and communities are provided, however briefly. This book is a must for Catholic and Christian college libraries and might be used well in moral theology courses, particularly in the area of Catholic social teaching.


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