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The Pernicious Domination of Choice

In various discussions of ecumenism and ecclesiology one of the elements that often comes up is the issue of the church’s givenness, or non-givenness.  One of the standard lines is that the Roman church is a structure that is greater than the sum of its parts, it is a “given”, whereas Protestant churches are self-made fabrications of a group of individuals who “create” a church by their own choosing.  And prima facie, such a description seems plausible, given the state of a great many evangelical churches in the West.  However, such a diagnosis of Protestantism as a volitonal fabrication versus Roman Catholicism as a stable rock of givenness is more than naive.

The more pressing and real issue behind these often rhetorically charged discussions is the dominance of choice in the social structuring of the modern world.  Modernity and late-capitalism have constructed a world of transience, illusive immediacy, and hypermobility in which it is fundamentally the choices and preferences of individuals (provided that they possess enough capital) which determine the activities, affiliations, and practices of personal life.  While various ecclesial traditions quibble about who is “voluntaristic” and who is “given”, the truth of the matter is that late-capitalism has constructed us all as persons who approach life on the basis of the sovereignty of choice.  Whether we are Roman Catholic of Protestant, we are all constructed as self-contained individuals whose concrete religous practices, geographic locations, and social affiliations are determined by the capitalist economy, rather than the ekklesia. 

This is why Roman Catholic theologian Tracey Rowland is absolutely right to argue that the pressing issue for Christians concerned with the integrity of eccleisal life, practice, and witness is “not so much whether one is a self-described Protestant or Catholic, but that of where one stands in relation to the cultural formation described as ‘modernity.’”  The problem is that the integrity of our ecclesial traditions have become so fragmentary under capitalist discipline that they either have little ability to cultivate any sort of ecclesial ethos at all (many Protestants), or they maintain the ethos of tradition while losing the socially formative power of that tradition to the domination of the market, which structures and regulates the lives of its Christians (many Roman Catholics).

What Christians, whether they are Roman Catholic or Protestant are called to, is intentional devotion to and appropriation of their rootedness in the historical tradition of the church, begining with the story of Israel, climaxing in the history of Jesus, and carried on historical church in the power of the Spirit.  The reality of choice, as constructed in late-capitalism as the all-powerful arbiter of shaping life, must be met head-on by Christians.  The simple fact of the matter is that choice goes all the way down, whether we like it or not.  We all have the option of leaving whenever we want.  The market has given us this power.  The vocation of Christians who wish to stand against the economic forces of fragmentation which seek to tear asunder the body of Christ is, more often than not to refuse to make the choices which capitalist order places in our laps.  What is necessary is for Christians to take on an inherently self-limiting posture regarding their vocational and economic “options” in the world.  One way in which this is being done, and has been done throughout the church’s history is the monastic practice of vow-making, particularly embodied in the Benedictine vow of stability.  Such modes of covenanted life, which limit, curtail, and stand against the proliferation of choice in the capitalist order are absolutely central in the cultivation of the kind of alternative eccleisal consciousness the church is called to be.  In short, what is necessary if Christians are to embody an alternative to the economic hegemony of modernity and capitalism is that we be willing to be fools


  1. Bobby Grow wrote:

    How dare you . . . tis, tis! Don’t you know I have a couple of theological degrees that I have paid good money for ;-)!

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    This is an insightful post, but I’m going to press you on one of your statements:

    In what since is “[having lost] the socially formative power of that tradition to the domination of the market, which structures and regulates the lives of its Christians” particular to “many Catholics” as opposed to Christians generally? Unless you are implying that Protestants don’t have enough of a “tradition” to have been lost to the domination of the market. I’ll be the first in line to have a discussion about the ways in which various aspects of the Catholic Church have been complicit in or insufficiently attentive to the development of bad “modernity,” but I find the general rhetorical structure of “Protestants may have X going against them but Catholics have Y going against them, so it’s a wash” to be pretty unconvincing. The substance of your point is completely independent of that trope. Also, in spite of what may have come out of previous discussions, the characterization of the supposed givenness of the Catholic church which you offer in the first paragraph is more polemical and oversimplified than someone like me would be willing to take as my own. You have formulated a naive argument and then called it naive. This is all just to say that if the point of this post is to say that we must transcend polemics so as to present a unified front against a hegemonic capitalist modernity (a worthy and important goal), you have some closet polemicism still at work.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I guess I’d have to be shown that it really isn’t a wash in terms of how modernity has compromised Christians from both the Roman and Protestant segements of the church. In terms of the socially-formative power of both Protestant and Roman churches to engender a counter-consciousness in modernity, I find successes and failures on both sides of the divide neither more overwheleming than the other.

    And I’m glad you wouldn’t subsribe to the rhetoric of givenness that I describe. That’s exactly what I want. It enables the discussion to proceed in the direction that I’m pressing for. My point was not a critique of Roman Catholicism, but rather a particular form of triumphalism in which Roman Christians look at Protestants as say “See, look how they’re just children of modernity, we’re nothing like that.” My point is that we are all “like that”, if we are honest enough to see it. Therefore discussions about the cultural formation of modernity are more central to the task of Christian witness than Catholic-Protestant polemics. That’s at least what I was trying to say.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    Thanks for the response. I’m not trying to be snarky, just trying to get some interesting discussion happening. I will hopefully be able to work up something a little more substantive. In the mean time, though, what Rowland are you reading or have you read? I’m part way in to Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II, which I’m enjoying. She supposedly has a book coming out on the theology of Benedict XVI that looks promising.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I’ve read very little Rowland. The statement I quote is from the begining of her Culture and the Thomist Tradition After Vatican II.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  6. andrew wrote:

    i would have to agree with you, halden. there wasn’t a substantive response to modernity on the part of either catholic or protestant christians until at least close to the end of the nineteenth century (thinking of chesterton or perhaps newman)or even perhaps until barth disembowled schleiermacher in the 1920′s.
    it is frustrating, though, to attempt toward articulating any clear response now, as we all are so entrenched in the current market system itself, christendom is just another ‘market’ or ‘demographic’. that is hard to outmanouver or begin to respond to.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

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