25 August 2005

mccarraher on the enchantments of mammon

Driving home the other day I passed a billboard in a bus stop picturing a close up of greens and vegetable bits nearly bursting from a bowl. The copy read, "My salad bowl runneth over." I don't remember which purveyor of salads was doing the advertising, but I found the invocation of Psalm 23 intriguing, suggesting a kind of quasi-sacramentality to the purchasing of a fast-food salad.

In a recent issue of Modern Theology (21:3 July 2005: 429-461) Eugene McCarraher of Villanova University examines, among other phenomena, this kind of religious language in the context of marketing, corporations, and, most generally, "capitalism." One should be clear from the start that "capitalism" here doesn't mean simply a system of free exchange in a marketplace, but the particular manner in which those exchanges within the contemporary west function to encode, circulate, and reproduce a certain set of modernist cultural patterns and values.

McCarraher starts out by recounting the Enlightenment narrative he wishes to challenge, the story that begins, "Once upon a time...the earth was an enchanted place..." and then goes on to explain how "Protestantism, science, bureaucracy, and capitalism" have disenchanted the mystery of a universe once full of pulsing vitality and spiritual forces, relegating all of that to the realm of "superstition, ignorance, and fantasy" (429). This story has come down to us in various forms, from the pens of theorists ranging from Karl Marx to Max Weber and beyond.

What McCarraher wants to do, however, is to challenge this way of telling the story and instead to provide what he calls "a theological history of capitalism." On such an account it turns out that the history of the modern, including the emergence of distinctively capitalist forms of life, is not the narrative of disenchantment that Weber weaves (and there are ambiguities here in Weber's own account). Rather, it is the story of the construction of a secular parody of the sacramental, ritual, and liturgical life of the ecclesial community.

One way of beginning to construct this challenge, McCarraher suggests, is to recognize that within a creational ontology the sacramental is the not the antithesis of the material, but quite the opposite. If creation is a divine gift, the world is inherently good, a site of God-given abundance flowing from the creator God as transcendent plenitude. This abundance undergirds a basic creational sacramentality in which the material world manifests the divine in whom it participates as its source and sustenance.

The grounding of the corporeal creation in the infinite depths of God as creator, far from attenuating the materiality of the world, instead provides the only ground upon which materiality can truly be apprehended in its reality and fullness in light of God (as the horizon is only visible in seeing beyond it). Theologically speaking, then, one of the problems with capitalist critics such as Marx is not that his ontology "is 'too materialist' but rather that it is not materialist enough" (432). A Christian critique of capitalist culture, then, McCarraher urges, would not be content to "demystify" the material conditions under which capitalist ideology emerges, but would provide a sacramental and ecclesial critique.

In the remainder of his essay, McCarraher turns to a number of secular theorists, begining by recounting Weber's "tale of disenchantment," noting along the way that the tale is not so simple as it first appears or in the form it is typically retold. On the contrary, McCarraher notes how, despite Weber's claims for modern disenchantment of the material world, he nonetheless maintains that "'many old gods ascend from their graves' to become to the laws of nature or the market" (435). Moreover, some latter day Weberians even suggest that the "perpetually unsatisfied desire of consumerism" is a residuum of premodern enchantment, perhaps even a sort of "contemplative mysticism of commodity culture" (435).

More problematic in Weber's tale of disenchantment, perhaps, is his assumption that "social forces" somehow explain "religion," an assumption that John Milbank has trenchantly exposed as reducing the sacred to the terms of the secular. Moreover, the "rationality" of modern secularism cannot be secured against the "irrationality" of premodern enchantment once we realize that "rationality" itself cannot be meaningfully discussed apart from traditioned communities. Thus "the lines between the 'enchanted' and the 'disenchanted' are not as distinct and inviolable" as Weber might suggest (436).

From Weber, McCarraher turns to Marx and his version of the modernist tale of disenchantment. His focus here is upon Marx's account of "commodity fetishism" and how, despite his story of disenchantment, such fetishism nonetheless still functions paradoxically in a sacramental (and even eschatological) fashion within Marxist theory. McCarraher draws attention to Slavoj Žižek and Timothy Bewes, who both work within Marxian categories but recognize that Marx's theory deploys religious categories and that, indeed, as Bewes suggests, Christian eschatology is "structurally analogous to the Marxist promise of revolution," even if revolution remains confined to an immanent plane (440). And McCarraher especially highlights the work of Walter Benjamin who, in the tradition of critical theory, most fully deploys theological categories, for instance, interpreting urban commercial culture in terms of "pilgrimage" and "temples" to consumption (441).

McCarraher continues with a brief detour through psychoanalytic theories, particularly that of Joel Kovel, who focuses on the transformation of the psyche and its desires, so that commodities can mediate the god-like presence and power of capital. After this brief detour, however, McCarraher turns in earnest to his more positive account in which "sacramentality endows both the material world and the labor of creativity with religious import" (446). As such, "material objects and human poesis," in Milbank's words, "open up our awareness of the sacred" so that labor in its intrinsic form (apart from the distorting effects of sin) is "always a form of play" that, even now, under the conditions of redemption, liturgically anticipates "the final consummation and redemption of human destiny" (446).

In constructing this more positive account McCarraher obviously is drawing upon the insights of "radical orthodoxy" as exposited by Milbank and Pickstock (among others). Nevertheless he notes some points of divergence from their perspectives. In particular, McCarraher gestures toward Eric Gill and Simone Weil who try to envision how a more Christian liturgical notion of labor would transform persons, workplaces, commodities, and markets, as well as to understand how, for instance, consumerism breeds a kind of cynical contempt for commodities apart from a real love and enjoyment of materiality.

McCarraher's main criticism of radical orthodoxy, however, lies in its failure to sufficiently challenge "the secularist theory of secularization" that still continues to "structure their accounts of capitalism and political economy" (449). Thus, instead of seeing the modern as the "refusal of liturgy" (as Pickstock suggests), we might see it as a "parasitical and perverse reformulation of liturgy" (450). As such capitalist culture can be perceived as "religious," even perhaps "a form of enchantment, an ensemble of rituals, symbols, moral codes, and iconography" (449). Thus, McCarraher points in the direction of William Cavanaugh's presentation of the modern as a "simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ" with "an alternative soteriology to that of the Church" (450).

In the remainder of his essay McCarraher provides a nicely detailed "sketch of enchantment in American economic culture" (450). While only a sketch, it begins to demonstrate McCarraher's thesis that modern culture represents a "repression or displacement of sacrament" so that the sacramental and liturgical re-emerges "in a different but malignant form" in which redemptive hopes are redirecteed towards the market, nation-state, and consumer culture. As such, the "love of accumulation" can be unveiled as "a corrupted love of God" (450).

While I may not entirely share McCarraher's perspective on these matters (e.g., I'm not sure I'd want to embrace the description of "Augustinian socialist" that he adopts), I do nonetheless find his analysis helpful in several respects.

First, it gives us some direction with regard to how we might proceed with cultural critique from the standpoint of the Gospel, understanding that task in theological terms and seeing cultural values as misplaced parodies of what the church is supposed to be. (As an example here, one might point to Michael J. Pahls's brief but helpful essay "A Different Kind of Consumerism;" also available in PDF.) We need, therefore, to think and analyze even the secular in terms of church, liturgy, word, and sacrament, as McCarraher models along with Pickstock, Cavanaugh, and others.

But we might also extend McCarraher's methodology, drawing particularly upon the Reformed tradition, which has something important to offer here with its extended meditation on the category of "covenant." The concept of covenant implies an ultimate commitment of trust and obedience toward the covenant Sovereign, a form of organization, particular practices and activities, the exchange of signs, as well as the promise of blessing and fulfillment--a pattern we see expounded throughout Scripture in the various covenantal administrations God establishes with his people. "Covenant" is the context in which church, liturgy, word, and sacrament function.

In this light, however, secular parodies can be analyzed in terms of "idolatry" by which unbelief and disobedience pledge themselves to false covenant lords, exchanging the gracious and forgiving God of the covenant for a idol of our own making. Like the true God, these idols function covenantally: making demands, promising blessing, and embodying all of this in patterns of expected practice and ritual. Thus, cultural critique can take the form of unmasking false and idolatrous images of God, uncovering their empty promises and unrealistic demands, and unlearning the patterns by which they have bound us.

Second, at least in this essay, McCarraher is modest about what the Christian alternative might look like. If our cultural analysis must remain theological (though, of course, carefully and critically drawing upon a wide array of analytic resources, not least from the social sciences), then the alternative culture we offer must also be theological. That is to say, cultural and political change is not first and foremost a matter of meeting the culture on its own terms or engaging in politics using the tools of politicians, but rather it is a matter of recognizing that the church, when we are faithful, itself offers a comprehensive alternative polis.

But this must embody a certain modesty. We are not called to envision what that alternative will ultimately look like (and to do so likely bespeaks an over-realized eschatology), but to be faithful in the situations to which God has presently called us, trusting his Spirit to bring about the future that he envisions for his people. "Being the church," with this kind of self-understanding, is the most culturally transformative action we can take, while nonetheless maintaining the importance of the church's distinction from the world, for the sake of the world, in mission.

Finally, McCarraher's analysis alerts us to the ways in which we sometimes too easily accept the assumptions of secular analysis, whether Weberian, Marxian, psychoanalytic, or otherwise. In this regard, while David Wells's No Place for Truth is an extremely helpful analysis of the shape of contemporary (for lack of a better word) "evangelicalism," in some respects it relies too easily and uncritically upon a quasi-Weberian approach to modernization, allowing the traditional piety of evangelicalism (perhaps in Wells's own congregationalist form) to occlude the sacramental and liturgical parodies offered by modernity. As such, Wells arguably remains unintentionally complicit in the very patterns of modernization that he criticizes, allowing the secular to enter into his very mode of analysis.

While Wells's analysis and recommendations are indeed quite useful in a contemporary recovery of the properly theological, apart from a greater attention to the kinds of sacramental and liturgical analysis that McCarraher offers, one is left to wonder if analyses and programs like that of Wells might tend to re-inscribe the very patterns of modernity that they seek to resist. My intention here is not to pick on Wells, but simply to use his important work as an illustration of the kinds of problems into which we all too easily fall.

The question we are left with, in the end, is the question of our own local practices as the church. I think here of Glenn Lucke's recent piece "What's the Price Tag on Your Integrity" in its challenge to a very specific question of economic ethics (or the brief set of related questions he raises in "Following Jesus in a Materialistic World"). Of course, wider theoretical outlooks are needed as well, especially when conjoined with specific actions (as with the Acton Institute's notion of "economic personalism").

Whatever the case, we can ask ourselves (and I mean "ask" here as part of a wider conversation among believers) what it means to make choices as Christians--not only as individuals or even as families, but also as those who together live out the Christian story, who follow by faith in the steps of Jesus, who have exchanged our old identities for a new baptismal one, and who live as a new creation people, sharing together in eucharistic gratitude.