Strengthening Community, Nurturing Souls, Amplifying Hope

Caring for Souls, ImageBy Tommy Airey, a review of Bruce Rogers-Vaughn’s Caring For Souls in a Neoliberal Age (2016)

It’s the economy stupid. This was the pundit-driven explanation for Bill Clinton’s victory almost three decades ago. It is also the root of our present crises. What we’ve been hearing is true. Times have changed. Not so much in the past two years. More like the past thirty. Yet as depression, addiction, panic attacks, suicide and debt have all skyrocketed, pastoral attempts to get at the roots of the pain and suffering can tend towards family dynamics, relational patterns and trauma.

These factors are real and important. However, in his recent Caring For Souls in a Neoliberal Age, Bruce Rogers-Vaughn implores readers that there are interweaving socio-political powers that shape us in destructive ways too. We must dismantle racism and hetero-patriarchy. But Rogers-Vaughn writes, “Any form of identity politics that ignores class, therefore, will be fated to support the ongoing domination of neoliberal interests” (216). It’s the profit-driven, wage-reducing, deregulating, free trading economy stupid.

From the mid-80s until yesterday, Rogers-Vaughn, the Cal Ripken of pastoral counseling and psychotherapy, has racked up more than 30,000 counseling sessions. Since his rookie season, he has witnessed “bewildering changes” in human beings. More self-blame and dread. Less connection and self-awareness. A whole lot more drinking, veg-ing out, video games, retreating into smartphones and social media. Rogers-Vaughn contends that neoliberalism is the leading cause of all of this: the most significant factor in how, why and to what degree people suffer.

Neoliberalism is a system built on corporate profit and is, virtually everywhere. It is simply accepted as what is. Rogers-Vaughn defines neoliberal society as “a culture based on competition in which every individual is an entrepreneur who must manage and promote his or her self as an enterprise” (101). Sounds exhausting. And lonely. It is. In fact, neoliberalism has become a religion unto itself that marginalizes, corrupts and commodifies Christianity. Neoliberalism embraces a hierarchical, trickle-down god who incessantly whispers to us: “You are never enough unless.”

Rogers-Vaughn is primarily concerned about soul care in a zombie era where neoliberalism is the dominant paradigm and no one is awake to it. “The horror of this age,” he laments, “is that we are not horrified” (169). In this milieu, the pastoral and therapeutic norm, tragically, is to work towards adaptation to neoliberalism and to function in accord with the values of production and consumption. In what he calls “sophisticated exercises in blaming the victim,” sessions far too often identify the source of dysfunction and distress within the individual.

Instead, Rogers-Vaughn insists that the fundamentals of healing and liberation include actively resisting the values of neoliberalism while embracing communion, wholeness, meaning-making, an interdependent reliance on the web of relationships and a focus on the ways unjust and oppressive structures deform us. What is desperately needed in this neoliberal age is a blend of social solidarity, political activity and faith.

Neoliberalism is a misunderstood concept by most. And so is the soul. For Rogers-Vaughn, the soul is not within each individual but instead is “a fabric that embeds every one of us within all that is” (5). It is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the interrelated structure of reality.” Therapist Francis Weller calls this Jungian concept “intervulnerability.” Everything is connected to everything else. When one part of the web of mutuality becomes toxic or mangled, then we all pay the price, one way or another. Neoliberalism has mangled much. Rogers-Vaughn dedicates an entire chapter to exploring it.

In Caring For Souls, Rogers-Vaughn is both compassionate and clinical. He builds his case on real stories and robust scholarship. It is an academic work that can tend towards following philosophical tangents and not as accessible as it should be (including the retail price at $75). However, it is an extremely valuable resource for pastors, therapists, community organizers, grad students and parents. Anyone who cares about healing and liberation, should be reading it, praying over it, dialoguing it and incorporating it into their work, worship and witness.

The book is organized into seven chapters. First, Rogers-Vaughn clarifies what he means by a post-capitalist pastoral theology—that human suffering is primarily rooted in a cultural neoliberalism that weakens collectives, interpersonal relationships and our own subjectivity. In successive chapters, he lays out the history and key features of neoliberalism and the social, interpersonal and psychological consequences of contemporary capitalism. Then, he convincingly argues that neoliberalism is increasing suffering and death globally, that it has its own version of intersectionality and that it creates an unconsciousness that burdens and dis-members the soul.

Perhaps Rogers-Vaughn most critical argument is about the ongoing obsession of “identity politics” on the left and how this quest for multiculturalism actually fits neatly with neoliberalism. Race and gender and sexuality matter greatly. But the dismantling of neoliberalism must be prioritized. In fact, corporations love woke culture because it not only expands markets, but keeps the focus away from any critique on capitalism. It’s like getting to the end of the Clinton Nineties celebrating the ignominious fact that a few more women and people of color have been promoted to a higher floor of the World Trade Center.

Rogers-Vaughn’s post-capitalist pastoral care is not a call to move up. It is about exiting the building altogether and laying a new foundation for our wounded healing. He works constructively by concluding with “theological postscripts,” three “inseparable and entangled activities of care:” strengthening human collectives, nurturing the soul, amplification of hope. These are more suggestive (not exhaustive) and he proposes that each deserves its own book.

Drawing on the work of critical theorists Sarah Ahmed, Saskia Sassen and Noam Chomsky, and theologians Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-Lan, he calls for communities of solidarity built not on sameness but on deep respect. The good news for faith communities is that these might be the only spaces that can actually subvert the hegemony of neoliberal values.

Rogers-Vaughn implores readers that the nurture of souls in a neoliberal age must entail massive amounts of grief, particularly establishing “deep solidarity with the already dead” (228). Many of these are suffering in ways so privatized, silenced and fragmented that it may not resemble misery. There is an epidemic of exploitation and extraction, but there is also a spiritual death that pervades vast swaths of our society. To actively mourn is a subversive spiritual practice.

To amplify hope is to transcend both the neoliberal optimism and the profound apathy that characterize this era. To differentiate hope from optimism, Rogers-Vaughn concludes by borrowing from Russell Jacoby, UCLA professor and critic of academic culture. Jacoby contrasts two types of utopianism: blueprint and iconoclastic. Blueprint is calculated, the basis for planned economies and controlling states. Iconoclastic is rooted in the faith of the Hebrew prophets and casts a vision by letting go of the need to control the process. Rogers-Vaughn writes:

Optimism depends upon calculation, and is narcissistic, the object being desired for oneself. Hope, by contrast, is open to a future it cannot control, and what is longed for is “for us.” (236)

In Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, Bruce Rogers-Vaughn has provided a much-needed framework for a neoliberal culture currently overshadowed and intensified by fascist elements concocted in the laboratories of the alt-right Republican Party. In our quest for a more inclusive society, we ought not forget that both major parties continue to bless an economy thriving on fear and shame, alienation and addiction. As we work to dismantle the system, a more compelling pastoral vocation will seek to strengthen community, nurture souls and amplify hope. These three strands, woven together, are even stronger than the economy stupid.

Tommy Airey is the co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.net and the author of the recently released Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity

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