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Transcript


Jason Myhre:

Dr. Cavanaugh, it’s so good to get to sit down with you. This is a real pleasure for me, and I hope that our conversation will be a blessing to those that get to hear it. So thank you.

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Yeah, well thanks for the invitation. This should be fun.

Jason Myhre:

We are here in your home, so thank you for your hospitality.

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Sure, sure. My pleasure.

Jason Myhre:

Could you give us just a little bit of a self-introduction about your background, and what your work entails, and some of your areas of focus and interest?

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Sure. I’m a Catholic theologian. I did an undergrad at Notre Dame in theology, started out in chemical engineering and got hooked on theology. Then from there went to Colorado, taught high school, got a master’s at Cambridge in England, went to Latin America, lived in a poor neighborhood of Santiago, Chile for a couple years under the military regime, and then came back and got a PhD in theology at Duke with Stanley Hauerwas as my dissertation director.

I’ve been interested in violence, economics, politics as they relate to theology. My first book is called Torture and Eucharist, and it’s about the church’s response to human rights abuses under the military regime in Chile. I’ve done other books on the myth of religious violence. Being Consumed is about economics and Christian desire, other books on politics and so on. So those are my main areas of interest.

Jason Myhre:

I know that this is kind of a feature of your work to do historical work, rather than jumping right into the topic of the day. Can you just tell us a little bit about why that’s important for you to see this big historical picture, sometimes reaching very far back into history?

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Sure. I think the main reason for doing history is that it helps you see your way out of the inevitability of the present. We get these attitudes, especially when it comes to something that most people just think is too complex for them, like the economy. There’s this idea that there’s just this massive mysterious thing out there over which we have no control called the economy. And so it develops a kind of aura of inevitability about it, like there’s just nothing we can do about it, it’s like the weather. To do some history, then, is to look back and say, okay, what are some of the other ways that people across history have dealt with matters of money and material goods and the basic things in their lives? And once you do that, then you can begin to see that where we are now is not necessarily inevitable.

Jason Myhre:

Yeah. I’ve heard you mention before. I like the way you put it, it helps you unthink the inevitability of the way things are. So it gives you a different perspective on the present and allows you to see more possibilities.

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

That’s what’s happening in the book of Genesis in the Bible, right from the start, this account of creation and the fall, because people oftentimes think that the fall is this pessimistic idea, that things are just messed up and there’s nothing we can do about it, but it’s really exactly the opposite. Because the fall account helps you unthink the inevitability of the way things are now, because what it says is that things are messed up, but it didn’t start out that way. It started out good because we have a good God and then things got messed up as opposed to the Babylonian account of creation, which is just that the gods are violent. The earth was created from the dead body of a slain god after a war amongst the gods.

So basically things are just messed up. It’s just the way it is. It’s dog eat dog. Nothing you can do about it. Whereas Genesis is basically saying the way things are is not inevitable. It’s not the way things are supposed to be, or really are at the basis of them, because we believe in this good God. And so once you believe in a fall, then you believe that it’s possible that things can get put back together again.

Jason Myhre:

I encountered your work actually, when I listened to an interview you did with Ken Myers on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. This was I think back in 2009, and you were out promoting the book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. And you were just discussing the way in which our modern economy has really made it difficult for us as consumers to really see the producers of the things that we buy and that there’s this great distance that separates us. And you ended up mentioning an investing example there, and you talked about how investing, for example, things like mutual funds.

As investors, we often don’t know the things that we’re investing in. We don’t know how the companies we own are being operated or even what companies we own. This is actually a good jumping off point for the article that you wrote for us at the Eventide Center for Faith and Investing. You ended up talking about this separation between investors and what’s going on in our investments. And so I want to get into that, but the article doesn’t start there, actually. It starts much further back, actually pre-industrial revolution.

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

A really important change in the way that we deal with the material world happens in the industrial revolution. Before then, most of the things that people had were things that they made, or people that they knew made. People grew their own food, and it was subsistence farming and so on. So a deep familiarity with the things that we have that are embedded in social relationships, for better and for worse. The industrial revolution comes along, people are oftentimes deliberately pushed off of their land. Subsistence farming, common lands are enclosed and privatized, and so people can no longer make a living in subsistence farming and are pushed into factories. That’s one step then, where become manufactured in factories and so on and not handmade. And food then is something that’s grown by other people and so on.

So things then become kind of disembedded from social relations, and then you begin to get the whole development of advertising and these attribution of wondrous properties to material things. And some scholars suggest that these two things are related, that basically the meaning is sucked out of things in this process where people no longer make their stuff and it’s not embedded in social relationships. And once you’ve done that, extract the meaning from things, you have to refill the meaning of things through advertisements. So now these things are no longer just things that help you accomplish basic tasks, but now they take on personalities. So “My baloney has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R. My baloney has a second name, it’s M-A-Y-E-R.”

Why does your baloney have a name at all? This then begins to take place where things are branded and given personalities starting in the late 19th century, the Quaker Oats man is an early embodiment of this. So the more that people become alienated from the process of production, the more animated products become. And it’s often the case that the more humanized products become, the more dehumanized the people that are making them become.

Jason Myhre:

These relationships, however, cannot be durable, right? So we get really excited when we purchase something new, but then that relationship, we get tired of it and so we set it aside and move on. There’s a restlessness to consuming that you talk about.

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Right, right. So I talk about detachment from production detachment, detachment from producers, and detachment from products. Detachment from production, we don’t make hardly anything anymore. Detachment from producers, we don’t see the people who make our products and don’t know how they’re paid, how they’re treated. Most of them are other side of the world. And also a detachment from products, so there is this attachment to products where things take on life and the Amazon packages have big smiles on them and they dance and sing in the commercials and so on. But you can’t get too attached to them because you need to keep the wheels of production moving.

So we need to constantly be dissatisfied. An internal memo from the General Motors Corporation in the 1940s called it the organized creation of dissatisfaction. You have to change car models every year, so that people will be dissatisfied with what they’ve got and move on to the next thing, and so that’s a really important thing. You talked about the restlessness of desire. St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, oh God.” So there is this kind of restlessness in Christianity too, that nothing earthly fully satisfies. And so you move on to God, but in consumerism, you just move on to the next thing, whatever it is. You can’t have a shaver with three blades, you need four, five blades.

Jason Myhre:

Yeah. So let’s get into the investing topic a little bit. Someone else is really designing these products for us, but we often don’t know what’s going on on the inside. Some people look at this and they say, well, it’s unfortunate, but how do we begin to resist that? What are, what are the possibilities of an alternative approach to investing?

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

The first thing I think that needs to happen in investing is people need to see what’s going on. They have to be aware of how it is that they give their money to someone and then miraculously, it just grows. There is a certain kind of magical way that we think about these matters. Your money, which is a very abstract thing to begin with, goes into this account, and then you get more money. It’s magic. How did that happen? So we need to demystify some of that. There are actual things being manufactured by people and they’re being sold and the profits are in some way coming to me.

So taking the veil away from that process, then, there’s a sort of realism about it. It’s just coming down from this magical view of the world and seeing what’s going on. And I think we have a moral duty to do that. I think people need to be convinced that our economic relationships are moral relationships, because they’re relationships with people.

Jason Myhre:

After about a dozen years of working in the space of ethical investing, values-based investing, faith-based investing, lots of terms. I’ve heard a lot of objections to that idea of, we have a moral obligation to do this hard work. So one would be, “Well, I just bought this investment product. I didn’t choose the companies that are inside of it. It’s a portfolio manager who ended up making these decisions, and therefore it’s not on me, it’s on someone else, and I’m just caught in the crossfire here.”

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

If you don’t have any culpability or don’t have any responsibility, then you shouldn’t be making any profits off it. In one sense it’s true, of course, that it is hard to know, but nevertheless, people need to realize that the money that they’re making is in fact being made by somebody else, in a very real sense. So you can say, “I don’t know what’s going on. This is on somebody else,” but if you’re reaping the profits, then you’re involved. You’re, just involved, whether you want to be or not. So you need to have a realistic view and not a magical view of what’s going on. You are in fact involved and saying it’s somebody else’s doing is just not good enough.

Jason Myhre:

Yeah. Someone might agree with this ethical premise, but they would have the view that, well, you’re right, but I’m a sinner and I’m investing in companies that are run by sinners, and markets that are organized and overseen by sinners. And it’s kind of broken all the way down. So isn’t it overly idealistic, let’s say, to think that there is a more virtuous practice of investing since the whole world has fallen and these kinds of things. I actually hear this on some frequency. So what’s missing in that line of thinking?

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Jesus. By that account, Christianity is overly optimistic and simply can’t be practiced. That’s the Babylonian point of view is that well, it’s just the way it is. Things are broken. Things are messed up from the get go. What are you going to do? And that’s not what Christianity is about. The fall is a statement that the way things are is not the way things are supposed to be, or the way things really are in their ontological being, that God is a good God. God is not just an indifferent god who says, “Oh, well, things are messed up. What are you going to do”? But that we believe in salvation, we believe that a savior has come to make things right, in some sense, and that we need to participate in that. So it’s a deeply, unchristian point of view to say, “Well, things are just messed up and things are falling, so what are you going to do”?

Jason Myhre:

I love that. When we recover the humans in this system and actually, if we were to make investment decisions on the basis of a desire for communion with the other and to serve the common good, how do you think that might change our relationship to things like investment products? In other words, what does that give you? It’s not just the ethical side, but what comes with that in terms of life’s sense of fulfillment and satisfaction?

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Well, that’s a really important point, because we oftentimes think of these things only in negative terms. So the idea that all businesses are just messing people over, so what are you going to do about it? That’s just not the case. There are good businesses out there that are providing good employment for people, a dignified working environment, treating the environment well, the earth well, producing good and useful products, all of those kinds of things. And the participation, so it’s not just about avoiding bad companies. It’s about participating in good companies, which should be an act of profound joy, really. So at the heart of Christianity is this joy where it’s not just about trying to do our best to avoid bad things, even though we’ll inevitably get involved in bad things and then hope that you did enough by the end where you get into heaven after you die.

It’s much more about participating in this joyful recreation, this connection with other people and with God through other people. So it’s this tremendous opportunity rather than just some kind of guilt trip that you’re putting people on. So what you’re socially responsible investing does, then, is offer this opportunity to people to say, “Hey, come and participate in this different economy, this different world in which we bless each other with our material things.” And that ought to be just a source of tremendous joy and relief in a lot of ways for people.

Jason Myhre:

You close the article that you wrote for us by actually Jesus’s words on the last day, when he’s judging our lives and how we lived. It’s the famous passage to the extent that you did this to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me. Can you share how you concluded there? And then most intriguingly, you connect that to something as mundane as investing decisions. If you could summarize that for us.

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Right, so this is remarkable. This is what Jesus says in Matthew 25, where he’s describing the final judgment and the basis for the separation of the sheep from the goats, the saved from the unsaved, is how you treated the least of the people that are out there. So it’s a sort of ethical criterion. It wasn’t how much you said “Lord, Lord,” or how much you prayed. Not that that’s not important of course, but the main criteria is, did you see Christ in the poor, did you attend to their needs? Those who are hungry and thirsty and naked and in prison and so on. And one of the interesting things about that is that Jesus in that passage identifies himself not with the good people that do good things for other people, but identifies himself with the poor and the sick and the imprisoned and those who are hungry and so on, and so this deep identification of Christ with people who suffer.

Another interesting thing about that is the reaction of both sets of people, because they say, “When did we see you sick and hungry and naked and in prison?” and so on. They don’t remember seeing him that way. Neither said, neither the ones who helped, or the ones who didn’t, remember seeing Christ in there. And that’s when he says, “Whenever you did this to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did this to me.” And so it’s a matter of what we’re not seeing. It’s a matter of seeing Christ in these people that we’re either attending to or ignoring. So much of what we’re talking about here is the invisibility of other people in our current economic system. And Jesus puts it right where it needs to be. You’ve got to see other people, you’ve got to see Christ in other people and then attend to their needs.

Jason Myhre:

So beautiful. One of the things that you haven’t mentioned yet, that I’d love for you to just say a word about is, it’s not just that we need to see the other, the neighbor and how well they’re faring, but actually to feel. Could you share where you get this thought from?

Dr. William Cavanaugh:

Sure. I think it’s really helpful to go from Matthew 25 to first Corinthians 12, where Paul talks about the body of Christ. And he’s talking about the church, but he’s talking about more than that as well, that where Christ in Matthew 25 identifies himself, the body of Christ, with all those who are poor and sick and in prison and so on, and Paul has this wonderful thing in first Corinthians 12, where he talks about how all the members of the body need each other and how when one suffers all suffer together, and when one rejoices all rejoice together. So it’s this wonderful image of a shared nervous system that what we need to do is not just see the suffering of other people, but actually feel it in our own bodies, that when one suffers, we all suffer together, and that it makes this deep impact into us.

And that’s one of the things that I think comes with the seeing, is that then you also begin to take on the sufferings of others and feel them, and then hopefully participate in the healing. And if you go to Paul’s speech in Acts 17, it’s clear that this is not just about other Christians, but he talks about how even, he’s talking to the Pagans, even some of your own poets have said, we are all children of God. And so I think that’s a really important point that as Dorothy Day used to say, “we’re all members or potential members of the body of Christ.”

Category: Faith, Investing, Stakeholders
Disclosure
  • This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), a Registered Investment Adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.

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