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.