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What’s Wrong With Materialism?
August 25, 2008, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Christian Doctrine, Christian Experience, Ethics | Tags:

At church we’ve been talking about materialism and consumerism.  We watched Into the Wild and then engaged in some scriptural reflections on some of the issues raised by it.

In an important scene in the movie, the main character rejects the offer of a free car from his parents.  He says something like, “I don’t need anything.  I don’t want any more things.  Things, things, things.  I’m so tired of things.”

What’s wrong with things?  Should I share his attitude towards things?

We need things, right?  We need water, air and food.  These are things.  I definitely want medicine and the best shelter I can get.  Cold Canadian winters all but makes this a necessity.

I enjoy music, and music wouldn’t be possible without things.  What of the arts?  Try being artistic with literally nothing at all.

Adam and Eve were created as consumers of material goods.  They tended and garden and ate its fruit, right?  And God said this was good, right?

So what’s wrong with materialism?

What is it for something to be material?  Wood is material in more than one sense.

The wood used to build a house is material in the sense that it is the ‘stuff’ the builders assemble into a certain structure/shape when they build a house.  The house is a wooden structure.  (Most houses are made of more than wood, but you understand what I’m getting at.)   When the wood is successfully formed housewise by the builders, the result is a house. In this sense the wood is material.

The wood is also material in itself, in the sense that wood is basically carbon atoms (or whatever) arranged/structured/formed in a certain way.  We can analyze wood as matter/form composite.  Wood is a certain kind of ‘stuff’ arranged into a certain kind of ‘structure/shape/form’.  In this sense all wood is material.  It is a kind of material (carbon atoms) arranged in a certain form.

If that’s what we mean by the material, then we Christians have no reason to look down on the material, do we?  Christian piety does NOT require us to reject the material or look down upon those who deal with the material.  God is not displeased with the house builder simply because he deals with the material. God is not displeased with the house owner, simply because he deals with the material.

Would we be holier if we refused to deal with the material?  What if we didn’t eat well, let our clothes go ragged and never washed?  What if we roamed the desert and lived like hermits?  Would that make us holy?  Would we be closer to God?

How could we possibly love our neighbors as ourselves if we lived that kind of life?

We shouldn’t love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t love ourselves, right?  We must love ourselves.

Is God happier with the preacher than with the farmer?  The farmer, after all, deals with the material: with soil and plants, tools and trade.

Isn’t this kind of anti-materialism something utterly foreign to Christianity?

Is there any sense in which we need to worry about materialism?

What if we stake our happiness upon the acquisition of material goods of various kinds?

Well, I stake my happiness, in at least some sense, upon the acquisition of clean water, nutritious food, shelter and other kinds of material goods.  God made us this way.  We need these things and we needn’t be ashamed of it.

What if we get caught up in the endless pursuit of finer and finer material goods?

Our satisfaction in the fineness of our material goods always levels off.  There is always better food, better water, better shelter and better clothing to be had.  And as soon as we get it, we can bet our satisfaction with it will level off and we’ll want the next best level.

That poses a huge problem for Christian discipleship.  A problem I know all to well.

But why call this materialism?  Why not call it unthankfulness?  Why not call it greed?  These are much better names, right?  These names make it clear that the problem is with us and our attitudes, not with the material goods themselves.

What if our entire life is taken up with our pursuit of material goods to the neglect of other kinds of goods.  What if our pursuit of better shelter destroys our relationship with our family and friends?  What if our pursuit of better and more affordable food leads us to neglect matters of justice and mercy?

That would also pose a huge problem for Christian discipleship.  But why not call it disordered priorities?   People first, then things, right?

Concupiscence is the love we have for things.  Our love for chocolate is concupiscence.  We love it in the sense that desire to take it for ourselves and enjoy it.  We DO NOT love it in the sense that we wish the chocolate well.

Philia is the love we have for people.  We love our true friends with philia.  We wish them well and are ready and willing to do good things for them.  Sure, sometimes we love our friends with concupiscence.  We love being with them because they are fun.  But if that is the only sense in which we love them, we aren’t true friends.  True friends love each other in the sense that they desire the good of each other and are ready to act on it.

If our life is characterized by concupiscence, we need to reprioritize.  But even if our life is characterized by philia, we will still want to acquire material things so we can share them with the people we love, right?

Christian discipleship doesn’t rule out the love of things.  But it does require us to rightly order our love of things in view of our love of people.


1 Comment so far
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Extreme asceticism, and hyper-Luditism are simply the other side of the pendulum swing Christians are so wont to live by: if not unabashed consumerism, then zealous asceticism. And if not practically (which is rare, to be sure) then certainly principally and emotionally (which seems quite common).

Like you said, however, Ed, there should be a balance between what is gathered around one’s life, and what is kept from it. Christians would do better, like you said, “to rightly order our love of things in view of our love of people.”

Comment by Christopher

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