(From the archives. Originally posted in June of 2011 as “Materialism: It’s Probably Not What You Think.”)
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.