There are two types of materialism:
In the 4th century BC Greek philosophers such as Democritus and early East Indian thinkers, as well as later Roman philosophers, developed what was called the Atomist theory to explain life and the universe. The word "atom" comes from the Greek word Atomos which means indivisible. This theory held that all matter consisted of different arrangements of a limited number of indivisible particles or atoms, and these made up the "fabric" of the universe.
As time went on, however, different thinkers added the idea that matter (made up of atoms) was the only thing that existed, and that there was no life or existence beyond matter. And so, secular materialism was born when people began to think and promote the idea that not only was the universe made up of matter, but matter was all that existed.
This basic principle gave rise to several philosophic and then political movements. For example in the modern era:
Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher of the 19th century argued that if all is matter and there is no God or spiritual world - then the best and brightest in society, the super-men, should make the rules and provide leadership for society. Thirty years later Adolph Hitler reshaped these ideas to suit his purposes in building the Nazi party in Germany and plunged the world into World War II.
Karl Marx, another German philosopher of the 19th century, believed that since everything was matter, the best thing to do was to guarantee that everyone shared it equally; and the government's role was to enforce this classless society. His ideas were the basis for the Communist movement that swept across the world in this last century leaving in its wake untold suffering and death.
William James, another philosopher whose ideas had a tremendous impact, especially on American society. He was the brother of the famous novelist, Henry James, and lived in the 19th and 20th century. His philosophical thought was summarized in a theory referred to as Pragmatism.
Pragmatism believed that if all was matter then whatever worked best was best. In other words, the end did justify the means. This way of thinking led one to go with what produced the best results; in politics, in business, in every field of endeavor.
He even applied it to religion with the idea that if religion made you happy, then by all means be religious, because this works for you. Everything was still matter, but if believing it wasn't making you a better person, then be religious!
This "pragmatism," as this theory/philosophy was called, influenced American thinking in many ways:
- Much of our foreign policy is based on the idea that what is best for America is what is right.
- Our economic system promotes self-interest as the priority and measure of success. Whatever works best for me is what I should pursue. The measure of what works best is usually calculated in dollars.
This has been the dominant idea that has propelled America to the top ranking among countries with the best standard of living.
Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution has been seized upon by secular materialists as the modern scientific basis to explain how matter became life. Darwin himself was not a secular materialist but his theories on how life evolved were used to support the godless idea of secular materialists.
Today, secular materialists have used Darwin's theories to:
- Deify nature - if matter is all there is, and nature is matter, then we have to protect nature at all costs because it is all that we have.
- Deify humanity - if humans are the highest form of life, then they are at the center of existence and their evolution is of the greatest importance. Any attempt at improving life through genetic manipulation is justified because man is at the apex of the evolutionary ladder.
The few examples that I have mentioned demonstrate that there are many ideas and social manifestations that come from the basic philosophy that everything that exists is matter. I suppose the thing that most people are referring to when they say "materialism" or "materialistic" is the problem of focusing too much attention on physical things, and not enough on spiritual things.
This penchant for material things over the spiritual comes from somewhere, we're not just born craving material things. We say that our society is so materialistic, and there is a reason why. From earliest times there have been philosophers and writers who have promoted the idea that there is no God (even in pagan societies where God was some form of idol or they worshipped the sun), there were those who rejected any form of deity claiming that the material world was the only world.
In recent centuries these ideas, because of the rapid development of mass communication, have seeped into the public consciousness. Marx's ideas were adopted and promoted by many nations leading to the repression and suffering of millions of people enslaved under communist rule. James' pragmatism helped create a society where personal well-being became the criterion for what was best or right.
In America, where the dual engines of Democracy and Capitalism have created an incredible amount of wealth (that's what the Secular Materialists think), the temptation to obtain and value one's worth and well-being with things is great.
The various philosophies I've described simply explain how people relate to matter when they believe that there is no God:
- Communists say that society should share all matter equally.
- Nazis say only the best ones should control the matter.
- Capitalists say everyone should get as much matter as they can.
- Environmentalists say we have to preserve matter.
Each new philosophy reaches to find a new or better way to interact or deal with matter, since the material world is all we have.
There is also another kind of materialism:
Obviously people in the church are not secular materialists, even though they are influenced by the ideas and social pressures caused by those who hold to this godless belief.
We believe that the world is made of matter that we can perceive, measure and study. However, we also believe that there is another dimension. We believe that over and above the material world there is a spiritual world that cannot be perceived by physical senses, but is real nevertheless. Furthermore, we believe that the material world was originally created by a spiritual being we call God, and that both this world and everyone in it are subject to physical and spiritual laws set in motion by Him. And yet, even though we believe that we live in this dual reality (material/spiritual), we fall victim to the same materialistic impulses that secular materialists do.
This is what the Bible calls worldliness and it manifests itself in two main ways:
1. Religious hypocrisy
This happens when people talk about spiritual things or make a show of their religion but demonstrate by their actions that they love the world and everything in it more than they love God. The Pharisees, who were Jesus' chief opponents, were the quintessential spiritual hypocrites of their day because not only did they make a great show of their piety, but they imposed a great number of man-made religious rules on the people while ignoring these in their own conduct. We have many examples of this in the 23rd chapter of Matthew's gospel:
- Greed - They used their religious office to profit from the misery of others (verse 14).
- Dishonesty - They took back their oaths to God with tricky word plays (verses 16-21).
- Hardheartedness - They refused to help the poor thinking that their fastidious religious exercises (like tithing their seasonings) were sufficient service to God (verses 23-24).
- Violence - They violently opposed anyone who spoke the truth, especially about them (verses 29-36).
All of these things were motivating their lives, but they covered these sins with a show of zealous piety. So religious hypocrisy is a form of worldliness where a person is motivated by sin but hides this with a show of religion.
Another form of worldliness:
2. Love of the world
This is the most common form of worldliness that affects Christians, and what the Bible warns against repeatedly. It is probably what most people meant when they wrote in the surveys that they were having trouble with materialism.
Love of the world is the lingering desire to be part of this world after one has been rescued from it by Christ. It's a little like what psychologists call the Stockholm Syndrome. The Stockholm Syndrome is what counselors refer to when a kidnapped person develops an affinity, even a love, for the person or cause that has kidnapped them. Christians are sometimes afflicted by this. They become seduced again by the very things that once held them captive and condemned.
It makes no sense because returning to the world is always destructive, but many are trapped when they return to the sin from which they once were freed. The Bible has many warnings about this danger, and John summarizes them well in I John.
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
- I John 2:15
John gives the definite reasons for not returning to the "love of the world" or "worldliness." The love (desire) for worldly things (possessions, power, pleasure) is not a feeling or motivation that comes from God. This feeling comes from below and means that someone other than God is motivating you. Those who love the world will perish with the world when God does away with the present world when Jesus returns. (II Peter 3:10-13).
To summarize, there are two types of materialism or worldliness that affect the Christian:
- Religious hypocrisy - where we pretend to be religious but are no better than secular materialists in our hearts (sometimes even using religion to profit personally).
- Love of the world - this is where we do believe in Christ but continue to yearn after the things we left behind to follow Jesus.
The Antidote for Materialism
How are we to deal with materialism in all of its forms?
We answer secular materialism in the same way that we have responded to all the other "isms" in the past and in the future: with the glorious gospel of Jesus. Paul says that:
For I was not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes..."
- Romans 1:16
Theories and philosophies about the world and how it got here come and go, but the gospel and its power to enlighten, to save and to sanctify remains as strong now as it was on Pentecost, and will do so until Jesus comes.
The temptation is to be ashamed of it in the face of each new and brighter theory, but we must remain firm (as Paul was) that what people need to hear is the gospel!
Our task in the 21st century is the same as the task in the 1st: to spread the good news to as many as possible. This is our answer to secular materialism, it always has been and always will be.
As for spiritual hypocrisy, the only way to deal with this is to denounce it, point it out and rebuke those who practice it.
Jesus did this when He chased the money lenders out of the temple, when He denounced the Pharisees and when He rebuked the priests.
Paul the Apostle denounced even Peter the Apostle when Peter hypocritically refused to associate with Gentiles in order to appease the Judaizers in the church at Galatia (Galatians 2:14). Paul was not that concerned with religious imposters outside the church, but quite pointed in wanting to unmask hypocrites in the church:
For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.
- Romans 16:18
So the way to deal with religious hypocrisy is to show it for what it really is.
Love of the World
The love of the world is something all Christians are going to have to deal with all of their lives. In the past, many have tried to neutralize this allurement by joining monasteries or practicing strict asceticism. The Bible says that severe treatment of the flesh is not the way to deal with worldliness.
20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)-in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
- Colossians 2:20-23
Much of the time this approach leads to spiritual pride which is one of the worst sins of the flesh. The Bible gives us a proactive approach to dealing with the problems of worldliness:
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
- James 4:8
The world has a drawing or magnetic affect on you but so does God; which way will you allow yourself to be pulled? You draw near to God and away from the material world in two ways:
- You actively deal with the sin in your life. Whatever it is (lying, addiction, bad language, laziness), you make dealing with these things a priority in your life.
- You decide each day who you are going to serve. You actually do it in your Bible reading, service, prayers - re-commit each day to your Lord, to your faith, to your ministry.
If you do this, you will be drawing away from the allurements and hold that materialism/worldliness has over you, and you will come nearer to God and His power that will begin to work in and for you.
The goal, in the end, is to be fully powered by the Holy Spirit and totally dead to the lusts of the world. This does not mean that you cannot enjoy and participate in the blessings that God gives us in this material world; it means that we are not possessed by these material things, and our flesh is resistant to the evils in the world.