Spiritual Resistance

Theology in the Age of Neoliberalism
Lorenzo Rossi / Alamy Stock Photo

The many current crises in our world all have something in common. Whether they are humanitarian or economic, whether they are threats to democracy or to creation, there is a common thread running through them. Each in its own way exploits and thrives on division—between the rich and the poor, humanity and the rest of the natural world, citizens and immigrants, the relatively safe and the deeply desperate. Each thumbs its nose at the common human dignity of all people and our joint responsibility for a secure political order, true human freedom, and a healthy natural world. Somewhere at the back of all these and other challenges is the lust for money and power. These issues are all parts of one larger, fundamental crisis: the degradation of the very notion of the human, brought on by the complex mechanism today called neoliberalism. We encounter it most directly in the triumph of finance capitalism and the arrival of surveillance capitalism, effective economically through globalization and politically through the deliberate erosion of the democratic process. To borrow a phrase from Jürgen Habermas, we are witnessing “the colonization of the life world by the system.” The crisis, then, is both global and intensely personal. The forces unleashed in the world by developments in the mode of capitalism are effectively refashioning the human person and the human community.

If “neoliberalism” is a word unknown to you, or simply one that you hear without its impinging much upon your life or consciousness, this is testimony to its sinister force. Coined by Friedrich Hayek, it referred to his belief that all reality can be explained on the model of economic competition, and that all human activity can be measured in terms of wealth, value, or price. Price in particular was a means to allocate scarce resources, and for its efficient function, the market had to be free and competitive. “The market” for Hayek was not just a term for economic activity, but one that described society as a whole. Hence, he could extrapolate a vision of human beings as creatures who would and should follow their own self-interest in competition for scarce resources. Through this human competition, we would learn who and what is really valuable.

All the ills of our contemporary world are either directly or indirectly related to neoliberalism, the globalized form of free-market capitalism that results from the impoverished understanding of a human being as a consumer seeking to maximize self-interest. One such ill is the growing gap between rich and poor nations, and between rich and poor individuals. The statistics are well known. Here in the United States, the richest 1 percent hold about 38 percent of all private wealth, while the bottom 90 percent have 73.2 percent of all debt. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Globally, the situation is far worse; forty-two individuals hold as much wealth as the poorest 3.7 billion. These are the perverse fruits of neoliberalism, the consequence of reducing human beings to “covetous machines.”

Today our biggest problems may turn out, however, to be the indirect consequences of such huge gaps in income, wealth, and prosperity across the globe. Critics of the free-market system and its attendant neoliberal ideology often challenge its excesses while reinforcing a sense of its inevitability. We, the securely affluent, have for the most part bought into the cultural and economic benefits of neoliberalism and closed our eyes and minds to the human consequences. Those who have less—and this is most of the world—struggle to survive the economic and cultural consequences of the same system. Frustration often leads to the violent rejection of the economic and political systems that accompany neoliberalism, and we end up with a politics of envy that threatens democratic culture. Look around our world today and we will see the progressive diminishment of true human agency. The forces unleashed by the global market render us seemingly impotent in the face of growing disparities of wealth and power, climate change, and a rise in nationalism that may presage a return to forms of authoritarianism or fascism that we thought the twentieth century had eradicated.

A recent call to arms against finance capitalism is contained in an extraordinary work by the distinguished American Protestant theologian Kathryn Tanner. In Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism Tanner presents a disturbing phenomenology of life under finance capitalism. Reversing Max Weber’s classic account of how Christian beliefs could be compatible with and even formative of capitalism, Tanner proposes a view of Christianity as perhaps the last best hope in the struggle against this attack on human flourishing. In the face of capitalism’s pretense to be “all-encompassing,” a return to a prophetic form of Christianity shows “the coherence of a whole new world” that can disrupt finance-dominated capitalism’s claim to inevitability.

The phenomenon of surveillance capitalism, not considered by Tanner, is even more insidious. Neoliberalism’s greatest danger is its ability to present itself as a default; it has become as invisible as the air we breathe and, for the most part, we regard it as “reality.” Surveillance capitalism intensifies this danger by threatening the freedom of human thought. In the words of philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the normalization of surveillance capitalism “leaves us singing in our chains.” If Hayek and his fellow-travelers imagined that the pinnacle of human freedom is being a consumer, companies like Google and Facebook set out to deny us even that freedom. These ultra-powerful companies gather knowledge about our experience and behavior to shape what we take to be our freedom, and sell it to those who want to profit from the chains we do not know are weighing us down. As Shoshana Zuboff puts it in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, we are not its customers. Instead, we are its sources of a crucial surplus, “the objects of a technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction operation.” Its actual customers are “the enterprises that trade in its markets for future behavior.” Even more sobering, “Our lives are scraped and sold to fund their freedom and our subjugation, their knowledge and our ignorance about what they know.”

In the struggle against the neoliberal system, there is a special role for theology. Both the individual theologian and the collective voice of the discipline must engage with the forces of dehumanization and resist their effects in the name of the God of love. Today, the form theological inquiry must take is one of active involvement in what might be a last-ditch struggle for human flourishing.

I propose that the path we take is one of “spiritual resistance.” I make no claim to having invented the phrase. We can look to the example offered by a small group of French Jesuit priests during the Second World War, whose notion of “spiritual resistance” was what they saw to be the only effective mode of engagement with the crisis brought on by the Nazi occupation of France. Their practical courage offers us some clues about how we might move forward as Catholic theologians, individually and collectively, in confronting our own human crisis and helping repair the torn fabric of creation. I first encountered many of these men in the movement of la nouvelle théologie that flourished in France in the 1940s. But I had no idea that behind their fine theological thinking lay clandestine work of enormous courage, conducted in great danger, in the struggle against Nazism.

Historian Étienne Fouilloux has commented on this development among these theologians, both the Jesuits and their Dominican counterparts like Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu. Dubbing them “servant theologians,” Fouilloux writes that each of them was “neither an agent of the magisterium nor a simple seminary professor, not an Anglo-Saxon scholar nor a German academic” but rather “an apostle whose desire to preach the gospel leads him to put his professional skills at the service of the Christian community, the most humble and the most distinguished.” In recent times much the same understanding of our role emerged in the late Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s notion of the theologian as “the professional insider.” The effective theologian, she thought, is someone rooted in the human world and its challenges, who can put the skills she or he has acquired in service of the community.

When France was overrun by the Nazis in 1940 and then partitioned into an occupied north and a so-called Vichy France in the south, French Jesuits responded with a form of resistance that suited perfectly their identity as Christian intellectuals, French patriots, and courageous activists. For four years under occupation, they regularly published the anti-Nazi journal Cahiers du témoignage chrétien, and later its more popularized cousin, Courrier français, in a fearless act of resistance. The famous opening words of the first issue of the Cahiers sounded a call to arms: France, prends garde de perdre ton âme—“France, take care not to lose your soul.” Fr. Gaston Fessard, the editor of the distinguished Jesuit journal Études and the author of this issue, and others like Henri de Lubac and Yves de Montcheuil all worked clandestinely and in fear of their lives. De Montcheuil was captured in 1944 and executed by the Nazis, and de Lubac himself recounts a number of narrow escapes from the Gestapo.

Publishing the Cahiers was, then, an act of what its authors called “spiritual resistance.” De Lubac was particularly clear in his assertion that the Cahiers was “in no way a political undertaking”; its inspiration did not come from a place on the political spectrum, but grew out of the Gospel. Yet the work they did clearly had profound political consequences. There was no doubt in their minds that Nazism was an evil they had to combat, but their cudgels were evangelical and humanistic. One can see this in the circumstances surrounding de Montcheuil’s capture and execution. De Montcheuil was paying what he called a “pastoral visit” to members of the French underground resistance (the so-called maquis) when the Gestapo made a surprise attack. De Montcheuil had been clear that he would not identify with the maquis because, as he said, their methods were often similar to those of the occupying force. He was also devoutly anti-Communist, though he recognized that some of the Communists’ values made them allies in what was a Gospel-inspired struggle for justice that aligned itself with no one political group. Though de Montcheuil was deeply involved in the Cahiers, his death was not directly connected to the journal. Instead, he was erroneously identified with the maquis because he saw it to be his priestly responsibility to offer them pastoral encouragement even though he did not approve of their methods.

There are real parallels between the psychic force of Nazi propaganda and the strength of neoliberalism.

The spiritual resistance offered by these French Jesuits and many others provide us with something of a template for thinking about our contemporary predicament. In different ways, the impact of Nazi occupation and the threat of surveillance capitalism represent attacks upon the human soul, deliberate efforts to encourage the abandonment of vital dimensions of human freedom. Had the Nazis not been defeated, Europe and perhaps the world would have entered into a dark age in which the life of the polis would have consisted of isolated individuals and the party to which their lives and fortunes would be hostage. Only by “joining the party” could citizens enjoy the fruits of the good life. De Lubac and the others recognized that the heart of the struggle was for a conception of the human that totalitarianism cannot abide. Moreover, they knew that their own courageous decisions might not in the end affect the outcome. The Jesuits who published Témoignage, along with their many co-conspirators, knew that if they did not stand up to evil, they would be complicit in a world dominated by those who had abandoned their true freedom for the swastika, and served by the enslaved hordes who would suffer under the Nazi regime.

The opening issue of Témoignage makes clear what was at stake. Beginning with the exhortation to “take care of your soul,” the journal declared that the most dangerous thing about the Nazi occupation was not the military might or the violence that was often perpetrated against French citizens, but the ideology that so stealthily entered into the souls of these citizens, seducing them into quietism or collaboration. Fessard carefully laid out how Nazism had triumphed in Germany and Austria, and showed how this applied to France. First, Nazism presented itself as not only compatible with Christianity, but also as its culmination. And so, Fessard writes, thinking now of Vichy France, if the church were to cooperate with Marshal Pétain’s call to “Work, Family and the Fatherland,” this was in effect collaboration in the aim of Nazism to rule the world. The Christian is gradually led into more and more compromises, finally accepting the vision of Nazism for world domination. Of course, the genius of Nazi propaganda was that its spurious intellectual consistency preyed upon the weakness of the human spirit. In the occupied north, one wanted to believe that “life could go on,” while in Vichy it was all too possible to imagine that one was free to continue to be authentically French. But collaboration and cooperation were in reality two forms of spiritual denial.

There are real parallels between the psychic force of Nazi propaganda and the strength of neoliberalism, in its modern guise as finance capitalism and especially—in its latest twist—as surveillance capitalism. Like Nazism before it, to get us on board—to “join the party,” so to speak—neoliberalism offers material luxuries and almost unlimited freedom of choice to many, at the cost of poverty and slavery to the rest. But its latest and most sinister form brings us quite close to the dystopia George Orwell predicted. Even those who seem to benefit may actually be enslaved to the party they have joined, unable to choose another option because there is no other option to choose. We may have abandoned true freedom, exchanging it for mere freedom of choice. In ignoring climate change and the fate of the earth, we overvalue our freedom to choose from an endless range of goods, perhaps to our eventual annihilation. In allowing democracy to seep away, we undervalue the deeper meaning of human freedom, exchanging it for short-term gains in comfort and security. And by knowing almost everything there is to know about our public lives, neoliberalism offers us a seriously debased vision of the human person, one wrapped up in our preferences and desires and given to immediate gratification. We become covetous machines, and we do not know it, or perhaps we do not care.

Spiritual resistance is not to be contrasted with physical or “real” resistance, as if it were merely a matter, say, of praying for an end to tyranny. The “spiritual” in spiritual resistance refers to the motivation rather than to the practice. As we can see in the example of Témoignage chrétien, de Lubac, de Montcheuil, and so many others took their lives in their hands daily. Spiritual resistance is resistance for the sake of the Gospel, rather than an ideological or political commitment, and motivated by a vision of human flourishing in a world that we call our home. Since the days of Témoignage theologians have learned to overcome the endemic anthropocentrism of Christian religious thought and to draw the good of all creatures into a picture of human curatorship, not ownership, of the earth. And sadly too we have come to realize the global and even perhaps apocalyptic scale of the impending climate catastrophe, something unknown half a century ago. But we have some distance to go yet in exploring the threats to the human posed by the mechanisms of surveillance, how to break free from The Watcher (perhaps a new name for Satan?) to be able to live our lives in accordance with the three marks of spiritual resistance: humility, realism, and action.

If the theologian’s task is to act courageously in defense of authentic human selfhood and the whole of creation, theologians must also bring the institution along with them. The Gospel must be the test and filter for all of our activity, and spiritual resistance will require our church to abandon its many confusions over the bifurcated spirit of modernity. There can be no spiritual resistance if we have capitulated to an anti-human culture. Today’s church still contends with the nineteenth century’s decision to adopt the structures of modernity while rejecting its positive values. Terrified of the onslaught of revolutionary ideas, the papacy of Pius IX simply dismissed all of modernity, as anyone who is aware of the infamous “Syllabus of Errors” knows. But at precisely the same moment that Vatican I defined the infallibility of the pope in a defiant gesture to the modern world, it also began to establish an ecclesial structure that came to look like any bureaucratic institution of modernity. In this, the nineteenth-century church made exactly the wrong decision. If it had been able to discriminate between the two sides of modernity and to see the human values that modernity wanted to promote as an expression of the values of Jesus in the gospels, then it would not have chosen such a structure as the antidote to the perceived threat of modernity.

The work of Catholic theology today must be one of both engagement with the church and spiritual resistance to the life-denying forces of neoliberalism. In relation to the church, it will require a thorough relativization of structure to life, to borrow a formulation from Yves Congar. In relation to society, we must challenge the neoliberal market economy and its attendant political amorality, along with the sinister trawling of our lives online in search of data with which to enslave us. The challenge will have to come from a Catholicism that foregrounds the Gospel and recognizes the close relationship between Jesus and the genuine human values modernity at its best represents.

The world of today is marked by the struggle between fundamentalisms and movements for liberation. The fundamentalisms may be secular or religious, but they are identifiable wherever their proponents proclaim them as the one, inevitable way. When Margaret Thatcher asserted that there was “no alternative” to the free market, she spoke as dogmatically as any Marxist of a previous era or today’s ugly mouthpieces of white supremacy or narrow nationalism. When Catholics proclaim Catholicism as the only ultimate account of the nature of things, they are being as fundamentalist as a biblical literalist or a Muslim jihadist. On the other hand, liberationist movements are frequently not as emancipatory as they may imagine themselves to be. They work only when they are coupled with an endgame that is defined by something other than opposition to the oppressions that they rightly resist. This is as true in the secular world as in the religious. Moreover, the ultimate objective of liberation needs to be not a political program or economic structure, but an understanding of what it is to be human that would generate new and just structures. The bishops at the 1968 Medellín conference expressed this well in their document on justice:

The uniqueness of the Christian message does not so much consist in the affirmation of the necessity for structural change, as it does in an insistence on the conversion of men and women which will in turn bring about this change. We will not have a new continent without new and reformed structures, but, above all, there will be no new continent without new people, who know how to be truly free and responsible according to the light of the Gospel.

And this, of course, was the fundamental belief of Yves de Montcheuil and the logic of spiritual resistance.

For many decades progressive religious movements around the world have learned from and espoused the cause of liberation from all forms of oppression. But today this is simply not enough. Freedom from was never enough, and freedom for has always been ill-defined. We must recreate the human world in the face of the threats to democratic life and to the earth. Moreover, “humanity” itself as a concept must also be reimagined. Neoliberalism reduces our true humanity, but Catholicism’s creaky espousal of fixed conceptions of human nature is an entirely inadequate response to this threat. Bland appeals to “human nature” in response to ethical challenges do not answer the concerns of many Catholics, especially younger ones. “I’m spiritual but not religious” is an expression of frustration as well as a gauntlet thrown down in front of the church, and at the feet of theologians. It is, to borrow from Marx, both a sign of distress and a cry of distress. But what are we going to do about it?

The task of theologians and ethicists is to be on the front lines of the struggle against the twin evils of excessive individualism and tyrannical neoliberalism. Again, the examples of Henri de Lubac and Yves de Montcheuil are instructive. They fought an evil at risk of their lives, and one of them paid the ultimate price. We are called to fight an evil that threatens our souls if we do not resist it, on behalf of those countless millions whose physical survival is at stake. Gustavo Gutiérrez defines poverty as “proximity to death.” When we ignore that reality, when we live in a virtual Paris under enemy occupation and try to carry on as usual, or we inhabit a virtual Vichy and persuade ourselves that our cowardice is for the best, we do indeed endanger our souls. Theology may at times be beautiful and elegant, but today it must also be dangerous. The defense of true humanity in a world that is our home has to confront the awful reality of the anti-human systems under which we suffer, even as we in some ways benefit from them.

 

Calling out Google and Amazon as seemingly benign behemoths is insufficient.

If neoliberalism today is truly out of control, what can theologians do? When liberation theologians were accused of reducing salvation to human liberation, they responded with this insight: The struggle against the evils of the present day, the effort to bring about the reign of God in history, is not the fullness of salvation; but salvation does indeed come to us when we enter the struggle for the values of the reign of God in history, knowing full well that the struggle will never end this side of the eschaton. Salvation comes to us when we act in weakness, when the virtue of humility leads us into the practice of kenosis. Salvation, we might say, is the personal and ecclesial transformation that occurs when we engage in spiritual resistance.

As individuals and as a society, we are called to the same spiritual resistance that inspired Témoignage. Like Fessard and de Montcheuil and de Lubac, our actions will be spiritual rather than political because they grow from the Gospel. But they will have enormous political consequences. De Lubac’s efforts were in defiance of the local Jesuit provincial superior in Vichy France. But de Lubac recognized that there are higher priorities than the preservation of the system. Vichy fell and Témoignage succeeded, though it was costly for some. De Lubac’s work demonstrates that even for a Jesuit vowed to obedience, obedience to the Gospel is a higher priority. Our loyalty to the church we love requires us to call it to account so that the deeper crises of our times will be marked by our engagement and resistance rather than our collaboration.

How are we, then, to engage Google and Amazon and the others? Calling them out as seemingly benign behemoths is insufficient. Their influence is overwhelming, but because it is here to stay, the challenge is to turn that influence to the service of the human community. The church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the Gospel. Our work internal to the church is to persuade it to embrace a simplicity of life and accompaniment of the poor that Pope Francis calls for in Laudato si’. Such a purified church will be well equipped to enter into a prophetic, head-on encounter with all that is “against nature.” The defense of the human is a confrontation with the anti-human effects of all that neoliberalism entails. And we cannot wage this war on our iPads. We may not have our Témoignage, but we have our journals and our popular magazines and even our blogs and our podcasts. How many of us are writing for them out of a sense of urgency in defense of the truly human? Can we make the connections between surveillance capitalism and the despoliation of God’s creation? Can we put pressure upon our universities and colleges and seminaries, which are so vulnerable to the blandishments of a world-system that they can neither understand nor control? Like the struggle against climate change, the amelioration of the effects of surveillance capitalism cannot wait.

Another world is surely possible, but as theologian Lee Cormie has written, the shifting shapes and the pace of change also mean that “another world is inevitable.” When we know that another world is inevitable, this may be either a warning or an opportunity. If we doze, we will wake up to 1984. But if we are awake to the knowledge that another world is inevitable, then hope is rekindled for the work that we have to do to ensure that world is one of human flourishing.

 

This piece is an abridged version of the presidential address delivered at the Catholic Theological Society of America convention in Pittsburgh in June 2019.

Published in the June 2020 issue: 

Paul Lakeland teaches at Fairfield University.

Also by this author
'A God in Ruins'

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Collections