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I have been looking forward to Lyndon Shakespeare’s Being the Body of Christ in the Age of Management for some time now (found here and here). Lyndon and I have been in brief contact over the years, mostly with Lyndon graciously taking the time to answer my questions about Herbert McCabe. So when Lyndon reached out to ask if I’d like a review copy of his latest book, I jumped at the chance.

Rather than present the standard book review, however, I’d like to try something different. I plan to offer brief snippets and quick reflections on the book as I make my way through. I think that this mode of review syncs with Lyndon’s approach to ecclesiology with its emphasis on the social, living body. And so, I’d like my reflections to follow suit, more akin to joints and sinews rather than a static, single-sheet recap.

But before I begin, a brief summary:

Lyndon details how managerialist ideology has crept into contemporary ecclesiological thought and practice. The gospel of efficiency, marketing, branding, and bureaucratic rationalization have usurped sacramental forms and traditions. Although this technique-based approach purports to offer a more efficient church structure, the net effect is anything but. As Lyndon explains, functional managerialism is “supremely impractical when examined in the light of the church’s fundamental orientation to the kingdom of God” (13, emphasis mine). It’s important to note at the outset that Lyndon does not offer a simple declension narrative. Rather than pining for the good ol’ days when Bishops ruled, Lyndon offers instead the critical distance necessary to examine how and why management theory holds the ascendancy that it does.

Admittedly, there’s nothing quite new in critiquing management theory. But Lyndon’s reflections take us a step further. Where Lyndon parts ways with his predecessors is that he comes “at the reality of the church in the same way Aquinas comes to the reality of any existing thing, through examining the particular way the items in the world and our understanding of what constitutes our world (i.e., how we talk about it as existing and having a purpose) hangs together in a coherent way” (3).

This unique approach allows Lyndon to detect, specifically, where the rot begins: with the metaphysical biases of physicalism and managerialism – two sides of the same dirty coin. As Lyndon argues, if the body, social or individual, is nothing but an assemblage of mechanical parts or a “Cartesian machine” (96), then so too will be one’s ecclesiology. Cast in this light, the only appropriate response then is to exercise managerialism on the lump of dead ecclesial matter (5).

I’m glad that Lyndon’s book arrived when it did. With the election of Donald Trump, Americans just witnessed one of the most colossal failures of the pundit class, the liberal intelligentsia, and the so-called experts. A consistent theme emerging from post-election data shows that a immense swath of the electorate (particularly, the “white working-class”) was largely driven by their utter disdain for the liberal managerial class incarnated in Hillary Clinton. Going deeper, a recent Harvard Business Review article found that what specifically motivated this class to vote against Clinton was the onerous experience of everyday managers and bureaucrats. About this pervasive resentment toward professionals, Joan Williams observes that “most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day.”

Given that so many Americans clearly detest the mechanisms of managerialism, why does the church even think about dabbling in this strategy? What does it signal to our congregations when leaders bring in church growth experts or consultants?

Part of me doubts that the tradition Lyndon and I share will read the election results in this way. The steady diet of experts and managers rather than theologically astute bishops or deacons will likely continue, at least in the near future. But I hope that as more and more peoples around the globe continue to reject neoliberalism’s hegemony and it’s ugly spawn, managerialism, our church leaders will also “get the memo” that the business strategy of applying managerial techniques is doomed from the get-go.

I highly recommend Lyndon’s book and look forward to sharing more thoughts as I continue reading. More to come very soon.

Is Christianity compatible with Marxism or materialism?

According to Terry Eagleton, yes.

As far as religion goes, it is worth pointing out that there have been Jewish Marxists, Islamic Marxists, and Christian Marxists who champion so-called liberation theology. All of them are materialists in Marx’s sense of the word. In fact, Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, reports that Marx once told her mother that if she wanted “satisfaction of her metaphysical needs” she should find them in the Jewish prophets rather than in the Secular Society she sometimes attended. Marxist materialism is not a set of statements about the cosos, such as “Everything is made out of atoms” or “There is no God.” It is a theory of how historical animals function (Why Marx Was Right, 157-158).

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Well, nothing like the reality of a Trump presidency to get one writing again.

In times such as this blogging is a small comfort, something to help one sift through the fog. And so, in order to kick it in gear after a long hiatus, I’m planning to share a few block quotes from some of 2016’s best reads.

I’ll start with Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Mason certainly isn’t right about everything, but I think he is spot on when it comes to the future of work and how technology or the “network society” is undermining the price system and so, ultimately, capitalism itself.

According to Mason, we are in a state of transition. Further,

It can be a shock to find out capitalism has not always existed. Economists present ‘the market’ as the natural state of humanity. TV documentaries re-create in fantastic detail the Egyptian pyramids or Beijing under the emperors, but gloss over the totally different economic systems that built them. ‘They were just like us,’ dads confidently tell their kids as they wander around the Herculaneum exhibition in the British Museum – until confronted by the statue of Pan raping a goat, or the wall painting of a couple having a threesome with their slave.

When you realize that capitalism once, did not exist – either as an economy or a value system – a more shocking thought arises: it might not last for ever. If so, we have to get our heads around the concept of transitions, asking: what constitutes an economic system and how does one give way to another (217)?

What motivating factor drove the very first Christian Socialists?

The Eucharist.

What is the root of the Eucharist?

Thanksgiving.

At the heart of Christian Socialism is thanksgiving for the very presence of Christ, here and now.

The presence of Christ in the bread and wine, in the body of the gathered faithful, and all creation.

In “The Idea of Perfection,” Iris Murdoch – who channels an interesting amalgam of Platonism, socialism, analytical philosophy, the idea of God, virtue ethics, and atheism – explains why progress in the moral life is slow.

Moral change and moral achievement are slow; we are not free in the sense of being able suddenly to alter ourselves since we cannot suddenly alter what we can see and ergo what we desire and are compelled by. In a way, explicit choice seems now less important: less decisive (since much of the ‘decision’ lies elsewhere) and less obviously something to be ‘cultivated’. If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. This is in a way the reverse of Hampshire’s picture, where our efforts are supposed to be directed to increasing our freedom by conceptualizing as many different possibilities of action as possible: having as many goods as possible in the shop. The ideal situation, on the contrary, is rather to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience’ (Existentialists and Mystics, 331).

Moral achievement or advancement is not, contrary to a large portion of the analytical tradition, a result of choice or act of will. It is rather a redirection of the gaze, the focusing of attention on an object, in such a way that choice or volition soon falls to the wayside.

From Eugene McCarraher’s, We Have Never Been Disenchanted:

[The] sacramental critique of Marxist metaphysics would not be that it is “too materialist” but rather that it is not materialist enough—that is, that it does not provide an adequate account of matter itself, of its sacramental and revelatory character. Sacramentality has ontological and social implications, for the “gift” that [Rowan] Williams identifies is “God’s grace and the common life thus formed.”

Romantic Sacramentalism, as McCarrher continues, reminds us “that our capacity to act well relies on our capacity to see what is really there. For there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.”

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Terry Eagleton once remarked that Marx made “the characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism” (After Theory, 143).  For many on the left, morals, being good, let alone following the Good, should have nothing to do with economics and politics. Such talk is illusory at best and ideological at worst.

Yet Marx himself was profoundly concerned about morals. Writing about the degradations of capitalism was not simply an intellectual exercise for Marx.

So why is such a confusion between morality and moralism a “bourgeois” mistake and not just a mistake in general? In Christianity and Marxism, Denys Turner offers an explanation:

It is an error of substance to call by the name ‘morality’ what has been done under that name by philosophers from Kant to Hare. For what we now call morality is in radical discontinuity with that classical conception – of which Marxism is the inheritor – which was of a scientific investigation of the social order that can generate norms of action. The discontinuity of the contemporary bourgeois with the classical conception is, therefore, important at the very least from the point of view of the studies of ideologies… It is… a conceptual response governed by the social pressure of a class society that we have to bifurcate the ‘moral’ from the ‘scientific’. It is very important, therefore, that Marxists recognize what has happened: that ‘morality’ in its bourgeois sense has abandoned the role which was once assigned to it on the classical conception and has been redefined so as to work against that role (85).

According to Turner, Marx failed to grasp the nuances or historical situatedness of moral philosophy, regarding all instances of morality as prototypically Kantian; that is, as abstract, universal, etc. Marx seems to have missed the fact that the separation of facts or scientific investigation on the one hand, and morals on the other, is itself a product of a class-based society. The “bourgeois” mistake, then, is to fail to see that the proper study of morality – the classical conception – has nothing to do with abstract rules and everything to do with the political order and concrete social relations.

Regardless of Marx’s mistake, both Eagleton and Turner point out that Marx was certainly right to disparage the Kantian morality of his time, which sadly infected so much of Christian moral philosophy, even up to present day.

Speaking to Christians in general, Turner writes that “in the bourgeois world moral views come exceedingly cheap.” He continues:

It is worrying for a Christian that all too often it is Christians themselves who are in practice the meanest buyers in the moral market. They, who talk so readily and unproblematically about (of all things) ‘love’, seem quite to have forgotten that Christianity, embodied in the life of its founder, came not so much with news about love, but rather about its price. And if Christians have forgotten what that price is, they may reasonably doubt whether they have been trading in the genuine article, rather than a counterfeit. Marxism may perhaps serve to remind them that the price of love is revolution and, ultimately, death (x).

One of the best books of the year to come across my desk was Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Fraser argues that America is living through nothing less than a new gilded age. But unlike the first gilded age, an age characterized by mass uprisings, powerful unions, robber barons, Christian Socialists, and a whole host of vociferous groups and lively characters, our age, by contrast, is one of stark acquiescence.

This is not to say, simply, that we’ve become lazy. Rather, Fraser makes a case that we’ve lost the logic of resistance. The moneyed-class has become so formidable in our second gilded age, that we no longer possess the language of how to reinvigorate the common good in the face of concentrated private power. This includes the notable loss of religious language condemning the desire for riches and Mammon worship.

Fraser pulls no punches. The left, with its preoccupation of identity-politics at the expense of working class values, played right into the hands of the moneyed-elite. “The social liberalism of identity politics also set in motion a logic of fragmentation that could chisel away at the fragile solidarity of an earlier era,” writes Fraser (360). The rise of the individual – a product, by the way of the right – perpetuates the myth of achieving inner psychic freedom at the cost of social solidarity and the common good. The new Left has bought into this myth; hence the rise of the “creative class” and the gig economy, whereby liberals champion “flexible” schedules and employers. Thus so, “professionalism serves as a psychological wage,” writes Fraser, “compensating for economic deterioration” (335).

What really stands out in Fraser work is his profound grasp on the dignity of labor. With this, Fraser is perfectly in line with the late Christopher Lasch. In fact, Lasch’s greatest work, The True and Only Heaven, is footnoted throughout Fraser’s analysis; so much so that Lasch’s diagnosis forms the bedrock of Fraser’s main criticism: the ascendency of market society corresponds to the demise of dignified labor.

In order then to once again regain our cultural and economic foothold, the mass of people will have to regain the dignity of work. As Fraser writes,

Work itself had lost its cultural gravitas. What in part qualified the American Revolution as a legitimate overturning of an ancien regime was its political emancipation of labor. Until that time, work was considered a disqualifying disability for participating in public life. It entailed a degree of deference to patrons and a narrow-minded preoccupation with day-to-day affairs that undermined the possibility of disinterested public service. By opening up the possibility of democracy, the Revolution removed, in theory, that crippling impairment and erased an immemorial chasm between those who worked and those who didn’t need to, and by inference this bestowed honor on laboring mankind, a recognition that was to infuse American political culture for generations.

But in our new era, the nature of work, the abuse of work, exploitation at work, and all the prophecies and jeremiads, the condemnations and glorifications embedded in laboring humanity no longer occupied center stage in the theater of public life. The eclipse of the work ethic as a spiritual justification for labor may be liberating. But the spiritless work regimen left behind carries with it no higher justification. This disenchantment is also a disempowerment (363).

Astute readers will recognize the implicit theological currents operating here, including “laboring humanity”, references to the spirit, and of course, “disenchantment.” That Fraser relies so heavily upon religious or spiritual concepts to make his point should give us pause. Elsewhere, when criticising identity politics and personal “rights,” Fraser says,

Hibernating inside this “material girl” quest for more stuff and self-improvement is a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be, a “transubstantiation of goods, using products and gear to create a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment” (305).

Fraser’s language here should sound familiar (at least for readers of this blog), as the “transubstantiation” observation is from Terry Eagleton.

The Age of Acquiescence give us much to think about. It seems fair to say that if we are serious about the reinvigoration of dignified productive labor, the Left is going to need to add some theological tools to its arsenal. Henry Demarest Lloyd once said that only a restoration of ancient truths, particularly, that the first will be last and the last will be first, can bring back “the republic in which all join their labor that the poorest may be fed, the weakest defended… Not until then can the forces be reversed which generate those obnoxious persons – our fittest” (Quoted in Fraser, 162).

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From the great heterodox economist and Catholic Social thinker, E.F. Schumacher:

Above anything else there is a need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something “decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul” [Pixus XI]. Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If the foundations are unsound, how could society be sound? And if society is sick, how could it fail to be a danger to peace?

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 38.

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Do we best organize society by changing structures or by changing individuals? These two poles dominate today’s political climate, yet rarely is the dichotomy questioned, either by the Left or Right. As the 2016 Presidential election season continues to ramp up in the United States, we’re likely to see this either/or become more acute.

In order to get past this political stalemate, Luke Bretherton, in Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, draws on the wisdom of Martin Buber. As the great Jewish philosopher writes,

Two views concerning the way stand irrevocably opposed to each other. The demands that one begin by changing the “relations” [structures of production or power], for only out of their being different can a change of men and their relationships to one another arise. The other explains that the new orderings and institutions in the place of the old will not change one particle of life so long as they are carried by unchanged persons. This alternative is false. One must begin at both ends at once; otherwise nothing can succeed. What new relations really are, even in their operation, depends upon what kind of human existence is put into them; but how shall a new humanity persist on earth if it is not preserved and confirmed in new orderings? The world of man without the soul of it in addition is no human world; but also the soul of man without the world in addition is no human soul.

Buber then discuss the need for “a third:”

At both ends at once therefore – but that it may avail, a third is needed that cannot be among us without the breath from another sphere: spirit… To me, it is as if two choruses stride about the arena there, the chorus that calls for the orderings and the chorus that calls for the men; their call will not reach its goal until they being to sing in one: Veni creator spiritus.” (Bretherton, 208-209).

Veni creator spiritus, indeed.

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