The struggle against materialism is one many of us (but for the weakness of our flesh) are happy to join. Consumption has become something of a cultural obsession, a sick habit that eats away even at those of us who admit its depravity. More deeply, ours is a culture that measures value according to consumption, in both directions: the more valuable you are, the more you should be allowed to consume (so CEOs and entertainers deserve the money they make); the more you consume, the more attention you command. Most on this blog are past denial: we confess our sickness. And at least we work hard to check ourselves against reckless buying.
But I want to suggest that another materialism has pervaded our perspective, a much more insidious philosophical materialism which only admits of a theological solution. This materialism is visible precisely in our inability to speak theologically about the world, and in our refusal to recognize higher values than the material ones. As much as we oppose the idea that material is the measure of human worth, we nonetheless rarely allow anything other than material criteria into our discussions of what is good and right. “Justice-talk” is separate from and outweighs “God-talk”–because justice, which has to do with the right ordering of human society towards the good, has been reduced to a material condition. Theology is dismissed as abstract rather than concrete, but only because we’ve been trained by modernity to think that only the material is real and that talk of God and grace is just theoretical.
The only way to counteract this deeper materialism–which is the root of all crass consumerism–is to regain a sense of theological realism. The point is not to denigrate the material as unimportant, but to re-situate it in a theological context. The point is to refuse to allow the material the last word, as if it created its own meaning. Rather, the goodness of the world comes from the God who created it, and God is truly at work in the world.