Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Materialist Bet

I have been re-reading Armond Nicholi’s outstanding book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life. Next to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, this is the best work of Christian apologetics I have read (to date). When Lewis was an atheistic but searching student at Oxford, he felt himself torn between the “material” and “spiritual” worldviews. The “materialists” believe that physical matter is all that exists – there is no spiritual or supernatural reality. When we talk about “materialism” these days we usually refer to an excessive interest in clothes, cars, flat-screen TV’s and the like, but underneath this lies the deeper material worldview.

I have found it helpful to reflect on this as I spend time in Matthew 6:24-34, from which I am preaching this week. Jesus teaches his followers not to be anxious about what we are to eat, drink or wear. He tells us that our heavenly Father knows that we need these things (6:32) so we should trust in His provision while giving our best attention to God and His work and His ways. In short, “seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33).

Back to the material worldview. It makes sense that if the world of matter is all there is, then we ought to “make the most of the time” and try to experience the best of it and as much of it as we can in our short life – clothes, cars, boats, TV’s, jewelry, beaches, mountains, casinos, golf, food, drink. But if we believe that there is a deeper spiritual reality in this life, and furthermore that this life is both preparation for and prelude to the full experience of this spiritual reality, then we ought to be careful not to put all our chips on the materialist bet.

I am often wary of zero-sum arguments, but it seems to me that Jesus teaches us here and elsewhere that we can’t have it all – if we try to load up on all the material things and experiences and squeeze them for all the pleasure we can get from them, we will miss out on the spiritual riches available to us. There simply will not be room in our heart and soul for them. This is why Jesus says “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (6:24). Mammon does not refer to money, per se, but to possessions and stuff, the things which money purchases and which demands our attention.

Jesus says something striking: “The pagans run after all these things” (6:32). Well of course they do! They are materialists! If I were a pagan I would run after them too because that is all I could count on for fulfillment and happiness in this life! Jesus’ point is that those who believe in Him, His resurrection, the Kingdom, the Spirit, the spiritual reality of God at work in the world and in the lives of His people, ought to know better than to run down this road, which is a dead-end as the Bible reminds us so often (see Ecc. 3:10-11, Luke 12:13-21; I Tim. 6:6-10, et al.).

Listen, God’s creation is good and there is much to enjoy. The opposite of materialism is an unhealthy asceticism which eschews all pleasures-of-this-world in order to focus only on the “spiritual.” But for most of us that is not where our challenge lies.

I believe Jesus calls us to a simplicity that makes room for God’s will and his work in our lives. It is not simplicity as an end in itself, but to let God in. He will not force himself in. He wants to know that we believe He is there and He loves us, unlike the extra TV or outfit.


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