Materialism: It's Probably Not What You Think

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Aaron Blumer's picture
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Materialism: It's Probably Not What You Think

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Ask most people to describe materialism and you’ll hear references to big screen TVs, computers, SUVs, big houses and overpaid CEOs. A few might mention “consumerism” and “greed.” Most would agree with the idea that materialism has been a major obstacle to relieving world poverty. Some would say it’s the cause of that poverty.

Four myths of materialism

But what if materialism isn’t really what most people think? We could fall prey to materialism unawares or reject good ideas we have misidentified as materialism. In seeking to help the poor, we could waste our efforts opposing what really contributes little to the poverty problem.

So what is materialism? I’ll pursue a definition by countering four popular myths.

Myth 1: Material things are not important.

A widespread attitude, especially among Christians, is that materialism involves attaching value and importance to material things—and that these things are not truly important.

But wouldn’t that make God the first materialist?

Consider creation from a before-and-after perspective. Before Genesis 1:1, there was nothing—no material at all. Apparently, God considered this situation and decided that He wanted material to exist. He created matter, energy, time—an entire, mind-bogglingly huge universe of material. Before He created it, He invented it. After He created it, He repeatedly declared it to be “good” (Gen. 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, etc.).

Clearly, material is good. Material has meaning. God invented material.

But even creation was not enough. God devised an amazing plan “for the praise of His glorious grace,” and that plan focuses on redeeming fallen beings who are—for a while—united with material bodies. As part of that plan, God the Son Himself “became flesh” (John 1:14).

God has a very high opinion of material.

Myth 2. Materialism has to do with luxury items.

It’s funny how you never hear anyone associate materialism with organic food co-ops. It’s always “big box retailers,” “shopping malls” or “Wall Street.” But a pile of organic mushrooms is just as material as a pile of cool electronic gadgets or a garage full of well-engineered automobiles. Trees are material. Baby seals are material. The confusion we see today about materialism begins with confusion about material.

Jesus offers us helpful insight in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21), where He describes “a certain rich man” who had recently been very successful. The man’s harvest is so plentiful he can’t store it all. His plan is to build bigger barns, then, having stored up enough to live on for years, take it easy for a while, live a little (12:19).

At that moment God rebukes him, calls him a fool and announces that his life is over and all his goods will go to someone else.

What does the story mean? The key to getting the message is to look at how Jesus frames the story—what He says before and after it. He prefaces the story with a warning against greed (12:15), explaining that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” He follows the story with a call to be “rich toward God” (12:21).

The rich man was not a fool for being extremely productive and planning to build bigger barns. The case could be made that he was a fool for thinking he should stop being productive and building bigger barns—but that wasn’t Jesus’ point either. Rather, the rich man was a fool because he was so dazzled by his stuff, he neglected the true essence of life. He allowed material things to distracted his attention and affections from the non-things that are of ultimate value.

So it makes little difference whether the things involved are luxury items or technologically advanced, nor does it matter much how expensive they are. People can become distracted and confused by antiques, pets or endangered species just as certainly as by computers, clothing and cars.

Myth 3. Materialism is pretty much the same thing as greed.

The “greedy materialist” stereotype appears everywhere in popular culture, but why don’t we ever hear about the generous, self-sacrificing materialist?

They do exist. Bill and Melinda Gates have given away billions, and though Melinda is Roman Catholic, Bill apparently believes only in what can be verified by science (google “Bill Gates religion” and you’ll see what I mean). Since science can only verify material things and processes, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be more materialistic than Bill Gates.

In reality, greed has to do with excessive, distorted or inordinate desire. The result is that people can believe very strongly in the supernatural or “spiritual” yet be dominated by greed (Eph. 4:17-19), and, conversely, people whose lives are focused on the material can be disciplined and generous.

The case of Bill Gates and other “non-religious” philanthropists seems paradoxical. Though they officially believe only in the observable, material world, they devote much of their energies and resources to bettering the lives of beings who are actually much more than material. So are they truly materialists? Are they philosophical materialists but practical “spiritualists” (in the sense of “believing in spiritual reality”)?

Since they believe the human beings they are helping are merely material, these philanthropists should be viewed as true materialists. Any impact they have on the soul or spirit is unintended. Though they believe in the human mind, they do not understand what a mind really is. (A brain is temporary. A mind is eternal.)

Myth 4. Materialism is inherently opposed to poverty relief.

By now it should be clear that this popular idea is unlikely. If several of the top donors in the world are materialists, and some leading poverty-relief thinkers are materialists (Peter Singer is a likely example), it seems probable that materialism itself contributes no more to causing poverty than it does to curing it.

But seeing how this could be so requires that we nail down a definition of materialism. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (2003):

…the practice of valuing such possessions more highly than they ought to be valued, especially when this results in the misalignment of one’s priorities and undermines one’s devotion to God.

The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Vol.3, 1999-2003):

Materialism…traces all reality to a single explanatory principle. In distinction from subjective and objective types of idealism, it monistically…finds the basis of all reality, including intellectual and moral, in physical matter, with its attributes, states, causal products, and functions.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003):

1 a : a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter

b : a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress

c : a doctrine that economic or social change is materially caused — compare HISTORICAL MATERIALISM

2 : a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things.

For my part, I’d sum it up this way: materialism is either the belief that the material is all that exists or matters, or the condition of improper devotion to the material—or both.

With that definition in view, which of these is more materialistic?

  • one who believes humans are amazing products of natural evolution and devotes his life to improving living conditions for poor people
  • one who accumulates a fortune with the goal of helping his posterity obtain an excellent education to best fulfill their God-given vocations

Many observers would the judge the latter to be a “greedy materialist” and the former to be something like “a rebuke to us affluent American Christians who hoard our wealth.”

But they would be wrong.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

Dick Dayton's picture
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Materialism

Aaron, Just as legalism is making value judgments about people based upon external standards, it seems that a part of materialism is making value judgments about people based upon their positions or possessions. I used to think that people who had a lot and flaunted it were materialistic, but the Lord challenged my thinking on that quite a few years back. I was driving an ugly, orange Chevette that was a bit worse for wear. The Lord brought to my mind that my pride in my frugality was just as materialistic as if it had been envy of someone driving a luxury car. Having possessions does not make a person materilistic. Abraham and Job were wealthy men in their cultures. The question for us is "What kind of steward am I of these things ?" God gives to us that we might use our resources to serve Him and others.
Thanks for your article stimulating our thought.

Dick Dayton

Aaron Blumer's picture
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Envy and other stuff

Thanks, Dick.
I do think we're in danger of falling prey to materialism, but even more so because we tend to define in reference to what other people have rather than what we have. You can be dirt poor and be a materialist. If you believe your life will be complete as soon as you have "more money" or more of any thing, you are thinking materialistically.

We're also extremely vulnerable to envy. I saw a lot of this growing up. Because my dad was a GM engineer and eventually in management, we always had a "company car." So we drove around in a brand spankin' new Buick most of the time. Living, and attending church in a farming community made that a bit awkward at times. In those days I was too young to understand what the hostility I sometimes felt was... I know it's name now because I've felt it myself when somebody else was able to acquire something really I nice I wish I could afford.
(As a kid, what made matters even worse was that we believed in the tradition of dressing up for church and just about nobody else in that rural setting did... at least, not for anybody under 18. The kids didn't envy my having to wear suits to church, but it was part of the mix that gave some the impression we were rich. In reality, we had less disposable income than many of them after paying school tuition... to these things are often not what they appear to be)

Another thought struck me last night... related to what I've written here: many involved in poverty relief around the world believe that what primarily ails the human race is the fact so many grow up in poor conditions. So to them, the lack of good health, good education, and the lack of abundant stuff itself are the answer to the human condition.
So their view of "what's wrong with humanity" is material and, not surprisingly, their view of the solution is material.
These are materialists, plain and simple.

RPittman's picture
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Confusing matter and materialism . . . . .

Aaron, this was a pretty good obfuscation of matter and materialism. ;) Materialism is a word probably overused for its connotation but it is nonetheless defined by its context and usage, not philosophical ramblings. Most folks, referring to materialism today, are not speaking of some mind-body or spirit-matter dualism. Very simply put, they are referring to people's attitudes toward things. In other words, they are observing that people are more attracted to physical things in the here-and-now rather than spiritual truths of an eternal nature and a heavenly reward. The materialist's purpose and behavior in life are driven by the accumulation of things and the pursuit of affluence.

This was precisely Jesus' point when He said: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:19-21)."

Furthermore, materialism is

  1. Lack of focus on God and His kingdom (Matthew 6:33)
  2. Lack of faith and trust in Divine Providence of a loving Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:32)
  3. Lack of contentment (I Timothy 6:6-8)

On the other hand, you can call those people, who do not believe in God and think that matter is all there is, materialists as well, although this is the more obscure and less often used meaning of the word. And there are probably some spirit-matter dualists around too. This, however, is not what most people, except for the academics, mean by the word materialist. Why make it difficult and complicated?

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Material or immaterial?

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Thanks, Dick.
I do think we're in danger of falling prey to materialism, but even more so because we tend to define in reference to what other people have rather than what we have. You can be dirt poor and be a materialist. If you believe your life will be complete as soon as you have "more money" or more of any thing, you are thinking materialistically.

We're also extremely vulnerable to envy. I saw a lot of this growing up. Because my dad was a GM engineer and eventually in management, we always had a "company car." So we drove around in a brand spankin' new Buick most of the time. Living, and attending church in a farming community made that a bit awkward at times. In those days I was too young to understand what the hostility I sometimes felt was... I know it's name now because I've felt it myself when somebody else was able to acquire something really I nice I wish I could afford.
(As a kid, what made matters even worse was that we believed in the tradition of dressing up for church and just about nobody else in that rural setting did... at least, not for anybody under 18. The kids didn't envy my having to wear suits to church, but it was part of the mix that gave some the impression we were rich. In reality, we had less disposable income than many of them after paying school tuition... to these things are often not what they appear to be)

Another thought struck me last night... related to what I've written here: many involved in poverty relief around the world believe that what primarily ails the human race is the fact so many grow up in poor conditions. So to them, the lack of good health, good education, and the lack of abundant stuff itself are the answer to the human condition.
So their view of "what's wrong with humanity" is material and, not surprisingly, their view of the solution is material.
These are materialists, plain and simple.

ummmmmmmmmm . . . . I have always supposed envy to be immaterial . . . . like a thought, feeling, or emotion . . . . well, maybe not if one is a reductionist who believes that everything is just chemical anyway . . . . 8-)

Aaron, I'm not sure that I can go all the way with you here. You're doing a kind of reductionism and behind the scenes psychoanalysis of one using material things to meet a need. Materialism is not the use of material things necessarily. No, God is not a materialist just because He created and manipulates matter. The Creator is not controlled or influenced by the things created. God is absolutely sovereign and beyond materialism.

Not being a materialist in the sense that matter is all there is, I would argue that one out of compassion using material things to relieve poverty is qualitatively different from the government official rationing out food to the famished because it is simply his job to do. It is, I think, qualitatively different from those, such as the Pharisees (Matthew 6:1-4) , who use philanthropy and material things to bring attention and honor to themselves. Although I don't have the time and space to include all the Scriptures and their discussion here, it is apparent that this idea is compatible with the teachings of Scripture.

Where you are headed, I think, is that it is inescapable NOT to be a materialist because we all live in a physical, material world. This results from the reductionism that you are performing. Well, that pretty much destroys the meaning of materialism. It is all inclusive. Meaning must differentiate between what is and what is not. So, materialism is useless. But, I don't think we are compelled to go there. If we go back to Christ's basic teachings in Matthew 6, we can preserve the concept of materialism. Matthew 6, IMHO, is the definitive text on materialism. This is the passage that made a change in the direction of my life.

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questions

Roland, I think the structure of the essay is pretty simple and I'm not sure how you're missing what I'm saying, but it looks like you are. A few questions might help.

1. Are "things" bad or unimportant because they are material?
2. Are only expensvie/luxury/high-tech things material?
3. Is materialism the same thing as greed?
4. Is materialism inherently opposed to poverty relief?

These were the main ideas. I'd add one more question: do the Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, dictionaries I quoted have no clue what they're talking about? I could easily list half a dozen more (and these are not books on philosophy!)

I think anybody who tries to separate "matter" from "materialism" is the one who is misinformed.
As for how "most people" use the word: see essay title. I believe many (most?) people do not know what materialism really is. That was kind of the whole point. The result is that lots of people use "materialism" vaguely, inconsistently, and in a way that generally misses the real problems in beliefs and affections.

As for envy.... Where did I say envy was material? What I did say....

Aaron wrote:
I was too young to understand what the hostility I sometimes felt was... I know it's name now because I've felt it myself when somebody else was able to acquire something really I nice I wish I could afford.

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A thought

that came to mind while reading the essay- if a typical lemon-sucking Baptist had been involved in the Creation process, there'd be no duck-billed platypus or fish that glow in the dark. That would be considered excessive and frivolous. We have a problem with delighting in beauty sometimes, but just contemplating the exquisite structure of our universe, and it's a cursed universe!- is mind-boggling to me.

[img ]http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4050/4555514219_085c827176.jpg[/img ]
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Misunderstood or not persuaded?

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Roland, I think the structure of the essay is pretty simple and I'm not sure how you're missing what I'm saying, but it looks like you are.
What didn't I understand? Just because I disagree doesn't mean that I didn't understand. Your essay was not that logically compelling and persuasive. It's just that I think you went to explore the barn and left the barn door wide open. Now, all the animals are out.
Quote:

A few questions might help.

1. Are "things" bad or unimportant because they are material?

Of course not! As I clearly said that we are not arguing about spirit-matter dualism. As for importance or priority, the temporal (material) is certainly less important than the eternal (spiritual). Seems to me that Jesus made this point several times (Luke 12:20).
Quote:

2. Are only expensvie/luxury/high-tech things material?
Obviously not! Children are very materialistic over small, less expensive items.
Quote:

3. Is materialism the same thing as greed?
Not necessarily but they do overlap and are related. Are both materialism and greed wrong? Are greed and covetousness related? I think so but they are not synonymous. So, what are you trying to prove?
Quote:

4. Is materialism inherently opposed to poverty relief?
As a generalization, yes, it usually works out that way. There are exceptions but the love of things (i.e. materialism) tends to hoarding and keeping for one's self. The driving force behind materialism is satisfying the self. On the other hand, voluntary distribution is the result of obedience to the Biblical injunction to love one's neighbor as one's self (Mark 12:31, I Timothy 6:18, I John 3:17).
Quote:

These were the main ideas. I'd add one more question: do the Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, dictionaries I quoted have no clue what they're talking about? I could easily list half a dozen more (and these are not books on philosophy!)

Aaron, quoting from sources does not make or even necessarily support your points. Sources are variable and their meanings are contextual. It's how you marshal and use the material to make your points. Yes, you "could easily list half a dozen more" but IMHO, herein lies your problem. You tried to cover too much territory from too many divergent sources to make your points. One must delimit his territory to cover it adequately and make his points.
Quote:

I think anybody who tries to separate "matter" from "materialism" is the one who is misinformed.

LOL . . . and if I was lacking arguments, I would say that anyone who amalgamates the two is being superficial. Under the old mercantile economic system, wealth was measured by accumulation of silver, gold, or jewels, which were later replaced by property or goods in the age of industrialization. Infatuation with the accumulation of wealth was evidently matter-based materialism. Today, the materialist's heart is in his portfolio, which may not even be represented by paper stock certificates but digital data. Digital data? How non-material can you get? The materialistic stock-holder has no physical property or goods that he owns. So, where is matter? Yes, some are materialistic about their expensive houses, cars, etc. but are not they equally materialistic about their digital wealth?

Certainly, there's some contact and overlap between materialism and matter but materialism does not encompass matter. We (i.e. our bodies) are composed of matter as well as the universe around us. Yet, we are not only matter because we are also spirit (I Corinthians 2:11). But, materialism is not just about matter because it is something in the heart and mind of man. Two men may own identical boats and for one it is materialistic but for the other it is not. Materialism is not the mere owning or possessing things but it is the infatuation with things. As the Scriptures are rightly divided, it is not money that is the root of all kinds of evil but it is the love of money (I Timothy 6:10). Materialism and the love of money are roughly parallel here. Likewise, materialism is not things (matter) but it is the love of things. How much simpler can we say it?

Quote:

As for how "most people" use the word: see essay title. I believe many (most?) people do not know what materialism really is. That was kind of the whole point. The result is that lots of people use "materialism" vaguely, inconsistently, and in a way that generally misses the real problems in beliefs and affections.
No, I disagree. People know what they mean by materialism although it may not be bolstered by dictionaries and philosophical definitions. Simply, they mean the love of things. What more would you add?

My use of the word obfuscation and my argument with your essay is that you have muddied the waters. Now, folks think, "Well, materialism can mean this . . . or this . . . or this . . . . no my consumerism, my BMW, my MacMansion, my electronic gadgets, etc. are not materialism." My other metaphor of leaving the barn door open is that you have exacerbated the problem by providing excuses for marginalizing materialism. Let's face it. Americans, even Christians, are materialist as evidenced by their lifestyles and out-of-control consumerism. Now, I know this is a broad generalization but I think all of us, including myself, feel the tug occasionally.

Quote:

As for envy.... Where did I say envy was material? What I did say....

Aaron wrote:
I was too young to understand what the hostility I sometimes felt was... I know it's name now because I've felt it myself when somebody else was able to acquire something really I nice I wish I could afford.
Oh, Aaron, are you also humorless? BTW, I think you missed a very good Biblical word--covetousness. Now, that's a good word that relates to materialism!

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The War on Materialism . . . . .

This family found their own peace and contentment in the battle with materialism. View the video and tell me what you think. In a well summed statement, the lady said, "It's not focusing on what you don't have but on what you do have." Well said.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Y15dxUZN3s&feature=aso ]War on Materialism

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Trying to get at where the disagreement is

1. Are "things" bad or unimportant because they are material?

RP wrote:
Of course not! ...

2. Are only expensvie/luxury/high-tech things material?

RP wrote:
Obviously not! ...

3. Is materialism the same thing as greed?

RP wrote:
Not necessarily but they do overlap and are related.

4. Is materialism inherently opposed to poverty relief?

RP wrote:
As a generalization, yes, it usually works out that way.

...do the Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, dictionaries I quoted have no clue what they're talking about? I could easily list half a dozen more (and these are not books on philosophy!)

RP wrote:
quoting from sources does not make or even necessarily support your points.

Well, it doesn't appear that we disagree about much here anyway, Roland.
But if one's point is that term x has a generally accepted meaning among those who would know, citing sources definitely does support the point.

It looks like we only differ on #4, though maybe partly on #2, since I think you can be materialistic without ever buying anything. And maybe partly on #3 (the object of greed's desire is often a relationship, some kind of pleasure, fame, power, etc. rather than any material thing. But is greed more often focused on material than not? I don't know. Maybe.)

Edit: I don't think we really disagree about #4 either, based on your qualifiers. Something is either "inherently opposed" to something or it isn't. Something can't be sometimes inherently opposed and sometimes not. So I think your "generally works out that way" means, perhaps, "no not inherently, but usually"?

Perhaps what we really disagree about here is why this matters. In brief, it matters because (1) poverty is an enormous human problem and (2) convictions about its causes and cures has a huge influence on our social ethics, our politics and--right or wrong--our theology, including our thinking about the responsibilities of churches.

But (3) I am also seeing, pretty often, Christians who arbitrarily despise some material things while devoting enormous amounts of time and money to others. We need to have a consistent view of matter (which is just another word for material) rather than picking up our "materialism" club and randomly whacking at things we think people shouldn't care about.

Closely related, (4) it's sort of an assumption of our culture these days that one particular political and economic philosophy is "materialistic" and that the alternative is not. In reality, conservatism has historically leaned heavily on the unseen realities of human nature and divine providence (not to mention a transcendent moral order) and liberalism denies that human beings are anything more than a series of fortunate accidents over millions of years as well as denying the idea of a transcendent moral order. This is certainly not a view of reality that is less materialistic than conservatism.

So getting at what materialism really is is far from trivial.