ReVision

Materialism

We are more than stardust. Much more.

Worldly Winds (3)

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11.1

Inescapable faith
“Seeing is believing.” That widely-held maxim is not as venerable as we might think. It has not always been the case that people have insisted we can only believe or put our trust in what we can see. Certainly no Christian would affirm such an idea. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that true and saving faith believes in hoped-for, unseen things – Jesus and the prize of eternal life with Him in the new heavens and new earth – none of which we can see with our eyes, hear with our ears, hold in our hands, taste or touch or smell.

With Augustine, the Christian says rather, “Believing is seeing.” When we believe in Christ and the promises of His Word, and as we set our minds on the things that are above, where Christ is seated in heavenly places (Col. 3.1-3), then we “see” life and all it contains as it really is, so that we know how best to make use of our time and everything that fills it. When the sails of our soul are filled with the unseen Wind of God, and all that He brings with Him, then we see just how beautiful, good, and true our lives can be.

The Christian sees the world as it really is because He believes that Jesus lived, died, rose again, ascended to heaven, rules at the Father’s right hand, and is coming again in glory. The Christian believes that the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in Him, that the Word of God is reliable and true, and that a life of sacrifice and self-denying love is the way to fullness of peace and joy. We believe these things, not because we see them with our physical eyes, but because God has spoken them to us in His Word, and we see them revealed there. The more continuously we see these promises, and the more firmly we believe them, the more clearly we see everything else. As C. S. Lewis once wrote: “I believe in Christianity like I believe in the sun, not just because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else” (Weight of Glory).

It may surprise you to know that everybody lives exactly the same way, except that the “unseen things” they hope for are other than the God of Scripture and our Lord Jesus Christ. And because this is true, because they believe things other than God to be of ultimate importance or desirability, they do not see life or the world as it really is. Paul would say that their misguided beliefs cause them to see the world wrong, and they are living a lie (Rom. 1.18-32). Many people hope for wealth, greater ease and comfort, more prestige, a better job, a totally fulfilling life, a boat, or a home by the sea, or any of a thousand different things and combinations of things – all of which are, in one form or another, material things which such “believers” currently do not possess – and therefore these things remain “unseen” except by faith. And those who believe in such unseen things “hope for” and devote their lives to achieving them before they die.

The motto of such a materialist-centered way of life can be summed up by a bumper sticker I once saw: “He who has the most toys wins.”

Materialism defined
Materialism is the late-delivered twin of secularism. Both are the offspring of humanism; but as secularism goes further than humanism in setting aside God and religious faith, materialism goes further than secularism toward that same end. The watchwords of materialism were aptly stated by the late Carl Sagan in his book, Cosmos: “The cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be.”

Put another way, everything that exists is merely some form of matter, including energy. There are no spiritual realities. Materialism does not tolerate the possibility of spiritual realities. There is no God. There are no angels and no soul. Everything that exists throughout the whole vast cosmos is merely matter in one form or another. A corollary to the materialist view of life was also trumpeted by Carl Sagan: “The laws of the universe are everywhere the same.” That is, wherever you may be in the cosmos, the physical and mathematical laws that obtain here on earth will be just the same there as well. As we shall see, this aspect of materialism gives birth to one of humanism’s most obnoxious grandchildren, scientism.

The winds of materialism blow constant and strong across the soul. They come at us from advertising, the promises and platforms of political parties, the curricula of our schools and colleges, and our natural inclination to associate happiness and wellbeing with stuff. The devoted materialist, if asked how much more stuff would ever be enough, will answer, “Just a little bit more.”

And that “just a little bit more”, whatever it is, remains unseen, hoped-for, and devotedly pursued, making materialism as much a form of religion as Christianity.

Problems with materialism

Much good comes from valuing material things. Material things allow us to meet our needs and those of the people we love. They bring us delight and surround us with beauty and comfort. They enable us to help meet the material needs of others and to participate in the creation and maintenance of useful institutions. The Bible does not condemn material things, nor even wealth. What it condemns is treating material things as the greatest good, and allowing material things to lead us into sin.

Materialism is reductionist, especially when it comes to human life. Everything about us – our thoughts, feelings, hopes, desires, personalities, quirks, foibles, and admirable traits – is reduced to electro-chemical processes under the influence of an impersonal cosmos. We do not choose what we are or aspire to; the impersonal material world does this for and in us. “We are stardust,” Carl Sagan insisted, random, meaningless matter, wrought upon by time, chance, and our environment to make us – what?

Further, the desire for material things, as it fills the sails of our soul, can cause us to drift from the course God has charted for us in His Word. The breezes of materialism can create discontent; they can make idols out of things, lead to the misuse of time and energy, and rob God of tithes and offerings. They can lead us to mistake temporary happiness for eternal joy, and to pursue the former at the expense of the latter. They can enslave us to debt, so that we do not have adequate material resources for our daily needs or for serving others. They can also become a stumbling-block to others, as we vaunt or parade our material largesse to impress or put others in their place. The desire for material things can upset our priorities and values, pollute our affections, and mess with our minds. If even a whiff of this wind of doctrine is lingering in the sails of your soul, force it out and follow it no more.

We give thanks to God for the many material blessings with which He surrounds and sustains us. Be we must never lose sight of the fact that God is the Giver of every good gift, and therefore He is more to be desired, more to be sought, more to be loved and cherished, and more to be served than any or all material blessings we might possess or imagine. Keep the sails of your soul filled with the Wind of God, and the winds of materialism will not drive you off your course.

For reflection
1. In what sense is materialism an “advance” on secularism?

2. Materialism is an ill wind of doctrine, but material things are not evil in themselves. Explain.

3. What might be some signs that the ill wind of materialism is filling the sails of your soul?

Next steps – Demonstration: How can you use the good material gifts God has given you to bless someone in His Name today?

You can also now listen to a weekly summary of our daily Scriptorium study on the book of Jeremiah. Click here for Jeremiah 46-48.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore