Materialism

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
16th March 2007

Tagged: materialism

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Materialism is like air. We breathe it continually. It surrounds us. We cannot see it. We live on it. It can be contaminated. It can kill us.

The Bible teaches materialism. There is no ascetic anti-material teaching in the Bible. God is the creator of all things. And God saw that what he had created is good. So we are instructed that: “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving”. In that same passage we are taught that it is the “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, … who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Indeed, God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy”

So Christian morality is practiced in the material world. We work hard to provide for our families and ourselves. We are generous and give to the poor and those in material need. We seek justice and work for the material prosperity and provision for the whole of society.

There is no virtue in poverty itself. Impoverishing oneself does not reflect the character of our rich Creator. The silver and gold are not evil—they are His. It is not “money” but “the love of money”, which is the root of all evil.

So why are Christians so often against materialism? Because there are two related forms of materialism that, like contaminated air, are poisonous even deadly.

Materialism can be a religion: a godless religion but a religion. It is a religion in the sense of “a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by”. For there are people who believe that nothing exists other than matter. For them materialism is “the theory that physical matter is the only reality and that psychological states such as emotions, reason, thought, and desire will eventually be explained as physical functions”. This is classic atheism.

With this atheistic materialism comes the other connected form of materialism—economic materialism. That is the “devotion to material wealth and possessions at the expense of spiritual or intellectual values”. For if everything spiritual, emotional, reasonable, are just the twitching of material atoms and particles—then there are no values, no virtues, no morals, no judgments. There are just pleasant and unpleasant sensations in our bodies.

So out of the religion of materialism comes the life-style of materialism. The Christian response is not to deny the value of the material world and its pleasures but to place the material world under the rule of the Creator.

Unfortunately both our main political parties have bought into economic materialism. Be it in the concern to create more wealth by the tradition of one party or the more even distribution of wealth by the other. They are still dominated by the subject of wealth. Other virtues like family, community relaxation, happy relationships are only even given lip service. The implicit motto of both is “more wealth, better distributed—is the good life”. Most of the minor parties are singing different parts on the same hymn sheet.

But of recent times Ross Gittins the Economics writer of the Sydney Morning Herald has been writing of the importance of non-economic values, in particular: relationships.

In May last year he was warning that “we sacrifice family relationships on the altar of a higher material standard of living.” and that “our priorities are up to putty.”

In this last month he has warned us further against his own profession. We need to keep “economists in their place.” “Economists are experts in one important but limited aspect of life: the material.” he wrote but then added: “most economists know little about the question of fairness and, for the most part, ignore it. Press them and they'll tell you frankly that it's outside their area of competence. Likewise, they're largely oblivious to the social and spiritual aspects of life. Will the policies they advocate damage family life, for instance? Sorry, never given it any thought. Why don't you consult a social worker or a priest?”

In this last week he has given concrete suggestions on how to “reverse the trend towards more weekend work and pressure on family life” for he feels that “our economic success is coming at the expense of family life.”

We do not have to deny the reality and advantage of material prosperity to say that there is more to life than prosperity. Because we know that there is more to life than bare material existence. We only have to acknowledge the Creator and His wisdom on how to life in His world. For His son who told us that we cannot serve God and money, has also told us not to be anxious about food and drink and clothing like the nations are but “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6).