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.

Comments (15)

  1. James McGrath

    Although I have a lot of sympathy with your overarching point, I’m not persuaded that philosophical materialism is the root of consumerism and other ills. That’s because I’m not persuaded that being able to speak about these realities theologically involves introducing ‘another substance’ into the material world in order to be able to do so.

    Biblical scholarship and scientific research have largely converged in viewing consciousness and the mind/soul as emergent properties of our physical beings, rather than a separate substance inserted into it (see the work of Joel Green, Nancey Murphy, and others). But the disappearance of ideas like vitalism (i.e. the idea that for something to be alive, it must have some supramaterial essence of life inserted into it) has, as you are aware, often led to the denigration of living things as ‘mere matter’, merely mechanical.

    This is the heart of the problem: the inability to appreciate that, just because something is matter, that doesn’t mean it is merely matter. Plenty of objects we own are more valuable to us than the price we’d get for them on eBay. Why anyone would consider that, if our ability to love, compose music, and appreciate beauty result from emergent properties of our material existence, rather than something supramaterial being inserted into the material world, that makes these things any less precious.

    So I’m very much with you on the need to emphasize the appropriateness of other levels at which we can view the world and ourselves, but I don’t think we need to view these as competing alternatives but as complementary. We are not either matter or spirit, or a mixture of the two, but both simultaneously. That, at any rate, is the way the language is used in the Hebrew Bible, and it is quite remarkable how well it fits with our current scientific understanding of things.

  2. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    To value the material theologically is indeed exactly what I’d like to do, and recognizing God in and through the material is part of it. The two are complementary, absolutely, just as you say. But if by calling the material and the spiritual complementary you mean to say they are one and the same, or that ‘spirit’ has its source in (emerges from) the material rather than the other way around, I will heartily disagree. My point is that we need to recognize that something more is at work in the world than the material, something that can’t in any way be called another “substance” but that is also decidedly not material–namely, God and God’s grace, who is the source, power, and end of all the created world. And my point is that if we deny this truth, we make material alone the measure of itself and ultimately human material the measure of human worth. If philosophical materialism–most basically, the idea that material reality is all there is–doesn’t necessarily lead to its vulgar consumeristic version, it is at least its precondition.

    As to the point that there is something more at work in the world than the material, I think I can claim the entire Christian Bible in defense. Neither the Old nor New Testament thinks that God’s work is at odds (rather than complementary) with the workings of the world, or that the spiritual and the material are somehow separate substances that coexist and compete for space. On this, you’re right. Of course, neither does any part of the Christian theological tradition. But the Old and New Testament alike are quite insistent that God is at work in the world around them–not just metaphorically, but truly. This is what I mean by theological realism: being willing to be believe that God is truly at work, and allowing God to be truly God.

  3. DevanD

    Is this Young Anabaptist Radicals or Young Anabaptist PhD’s? I just read this post three times and barely understand what either of you are getting at, yet both of you seem to know what you both mean.

    For those of us not working on the final draft of our systematic theology, would you mind explaining to me a little better what it is that you are trying to say?

    Not to mention you both managed to talk about matters spiritual and material without once referencing scripture.

  4. JUnrau

    The problem I have with Brian’s position is its assumption of truth rather than exploration of truth. I don’t think adding scripture references will do a lot to change that.

    I think there’s a lot more interesting thoughts to be thunk in examining if/how God could work in the world as a metaphor than there is in assuming she’s there “truly at work” which to my mind connotes manipulating people in a very material kind of way.

  5. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    No need for sarcastic or ad hominem arguments, Devan; I’m happy to try again at explaining whatever it is I didn’t say clearly in the post. (This is a soft spot for me, I confess. Since I spend so much time around academics, it’s sometimes hard for me to discern where I’m assuming too much prior knowledge.) James’s disagreement and my response are admittedly a bit more involved, but was my initial post understandable enough?

    My positive point is quite simply that God is truly at work in the world. The common tendency to dismiss theology (“God-talk”) as ‘theoretical’ rather than ‘practical’ suggests to me that many of us no longer believe this to be true, and that we instead think that for something to be practical it needs to be explained materially. Examples: what ‘really happens’ in prayer is that we remind ourselves who we intend to be, or what ‘really happens’ in baptism is that somebody officially joins a community, or what ‘really happens’ in the person of Christ is that we see someone more committed to justice than the rest of us usually are. God as God is erased from all these examples–which implies a practical atheism. And my argument is that this tendency to think that the material is everything is the same tendency that drives modern consumerism: the material is the measure of all things. Does that restatement make any more sense?

    As for biblical references, the entire argument springs from the recognition that we differ from all the biblical writers fundamentally in our way of seeing the world. Abraham, Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus of Nazareth all share this perspective in common: God is truly at work in the world.

  6. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    J, forgive me if I’m too blunt–but yours is exactly the perspective I’m reacting against. For Christian theology, the idea that God’s work is only (or ever) a metaphor for human work is completely untenable. A certain humanistic spirituality is undoubtedly conceivable, and I suppose it has the right to attribute its greatest achievements on a projected ‘God,’ but such a perspective has nothing at all in common with biblical faith or any part of the Christian tradition.

    I do not, of course, deny that I’m ‘assuming’ the truth of God; I’ll do you one better and actually confess it.

  7. DevanD


    There absolutely is a need for the sarcasm, being that you and James both assumed that all of us would understand these theological terms you all were throwing around. Sarcasm is a natural reaction to presumption. Though, as you note, it is sometimes hard for you to come down from the academic language being that you are in an academic environment, so I sympathize and apologize if I offended.

    But as well, I’m from Buffalo, and for those who don’t know Buffalo, we have sarcasm down to a science, it is our basis for communication – you need it when you can’t feel your face for 3 months out of the year.

    Now, on to the point: Brian I agree with your basic point as stated in your response above (#5). But I think it’s a leap to say that the “material” world – which you seem to imply is the visible, tangible stuff around us, or the “real” or “practical” – is the same description we would use for the “material” when referring to stuff you buy or consume. I hardly think that buying a Mercedes is the same as watching horses graze. But is this what you are trying to say in order to get to that next step of pointing out that God is being removed from the real? Maybe I’ve missed something. Please elaborate.

    Now, you made a big claim that the biblical writers see the world differently than us. Mind explaining what that difference is, maybe through a scriptural reflection? I’d actually love it if you’d elaborate that point in a “Bible Verse of the Day”, as we have had those only infrequently.

  8. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    Surely buying a Mercedes is nothing like watching horses graze, you’re right. The connection I’m pointing at is deeper than that. When God is removed from the real, as you say, material values become the highest values. At its ‘best,’ this just means that good and evil can be described in a purely material way–hurting people or the world is evil, helping those things is good. But the vulgar form of materialism–where having things is good, and not having things is bad–depends on this ‘philosophical’ materialism, and has the same principle: material values are the highest values. Does that make more sense? Consumerism assumes this deeper materialism, so the only complete response to consumerism will be theological.

    In contrast, material values are manifestly not the highest values for any of the biblical writers–though this certainly doesn’t involve devaluing the material world in any way. A Bible Verse of the Day is a good idea, I’ll think about it–but now that the week has started it’ll have to wait a few days.

    Sorry for any presumption. I assure you it was accidental.

  9. JUnrau

    No worries, Brian. I figured my perspective was the one you’re dismissing. I just think your perspective leaves too few gaps for inquiry. I don’t mind thinking of god working in the world as a conscious being, but there are other options as well. Something more panentheistic, say. And shutting them down, saying they’re untenable seems wrong.

    I mean, if you’re testing things and seeing what is and isn’t tenable, isn’t that part of your scientific materialist viewpoint anyway? Shouldn’t god be allowed to decide whether to be a metaphor or a guy in a robe pushing people around or whatever? If you say “God isn’t a metaphor” and I ask “Why?” then is that question to be dismissed as the materialist perspective, because it looks for some sort of human reasoning? It seems like a bit of a dodge to me, and one that shuts down other possibilities.

    I’m just saying. And I’m not trying to defend materialism in its consumeristic form. I’m not trying to say that people are mere sums of their parts. But I don’t think those statements lead as directly to your theological vision of the world as unerringly as you seem to assume.

  10. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    J, thanks for your considered response. Just briefly for now: I hope I don’t give the impression that I’m unwilling to argue that God isn’t a metaphor. It is indeed a formal possibility. But what I’m going to argue is that it’s not a possibility for Christian theology, since it stands in fundamental disagreement with the biblical witness and with every Christian tradition. That’s an argument we could have, exegetically and historically. Of course, that argument also assumes that fundamental disagreement with the biblical witness and every Christian tradition constitutes a decision against Christianity–which we can also argue. I don’t deny that there are arguments behind every argument, and I am by no means assuming the answers are self-evident. I am saying (here’s another argument) that both the Jewish and Christian traditions have always argued (or better, again, confessed–since the question for these traditions was never first of all philosophical) that God is truly at work in the world.

  11. Skylark

    I agree with Devan–plain language is much appreciated.

    Sure, we need to talk about God and recognize when God, not just humans, have an impact. I don’t think avoiding talking about God is the same thing as consumerism. Otherwise, how would any atheists be anti-consumerist? It would be a contradiction in terms.

  12. Jon A

    I hope I’m not too late to jump in here, because I have a question:

    Could you elaborate on your point that ‘justice … has been reduced to a material condition’?

    I’m going to risk weighing in prematurely here and raise a couple of points based on my reading of what you have written here.

    First, I partially disagree. Justice, as understood by those acting for ‘social justice’ (which I assume is the context to which you are referring–and again, forgive me if I’m wrong) does contain both the material and the theological/philosophical. Access to the basic material needs is central to the movement. Food, shelter, access to education and medical care, are vitally important, because what do freedom of though, the right to vote, or self-determination matter to someone who is starving to death? ‘Let them eat their right to vote’?

    I would agree that we often neglect that larger point. The debate around S-CHIP, for instance, and the swift-boating of the Frost family illustrate this quite well, as does the larger debate over universal healthcare. The left has failed to make the case that universal healthcare is a material need that serves a deeper moral need. I don’t mean in the easy sense that Michael Moore suggests that we refer to it as ‘Christianized medicine.’ Rather, people who have guaranteed access to healthcare have an increased right to self-determination because they aren’t chained to the jobs that provide them benefits. If they want to start their own business, stay at home with their families, or devote themselves to their God, they can.

    The second point I’d like to make is that the religious community in the US bears much of the responsibility for the confusion between the material and the theological. (I don’t mean to lay blame here, and perhaps should revise that sentence for danger of distracting from the larger point.) There is a long history of linking material success with moral rectitude. (Perhaps it goes all the way back to the divine right of kings.) The argument, which I’m sure you are familiar with, goes ‘The poor are poor because they are lazy, thriftless, gluttonous …’ etc. etc. And in that way, the needs that those arguing for social justice want to address are made (wrongly) into ‘moral issues’.

    I guess the larger point I’m trying to make is that the moral and theological issues around social justice have been perverted–perhaps irrecoverably.

    Again, I’m not sure that we disagree much here.

  13. Spencer

    I wonder if what Brian is concerned about is adequately described as “materialism.” After all, a Gnostic worldview in which the material is completely unimportant (or even evil) could engender an attitude toward consumption that is just as contrary to Christian thought as does free-market capitalism. Not being a materialist is not enough – one must have the right spiritual values, as well.

    This is an important distinction with respect to Jon A’s post, in which theology and philosophy are easily alided into the “theological/philosophical”. This alision is concretized later on when Jon includes both self-employment and going to church under the one value of self-determination. Without wanting to dismiss Enlightenment philosophy altogether, I think this alision is an example of the kind of “materialism” that Brian is worried about (in the expansive sense mentioned above).

    Tacking on the right to free speech would not be enough, I take it, to answer Brian’s concern. The problem is that if we only talk about the right to free speech without a theological index, our speech is not being judged by God’s speech in Christ. If the right to free speech were the last word, then creation would still be giving itself its own meaning, in the way that worries Brian about materialism in his original post. To adapt Jon’s very nice phrase: “Let them pray to their right to vote.”

    Incidentally, I think Jon is exactly right to lay the blame on the doorstep of the religious community in the US. After all, it is the Church that is supposed to proclaim the gospel rightly and in its fullness. Blaming the poor for their poverty is simply bad theology and is a failure to proclaim the good news of Christ. So, in other words, don’t be tentative in laying the blame where blame is due, Jon!

  14. Jon A


    Thank you for your thoughtful response. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    My conjunction (as I prefer to think of it) of the theological/philosophical reflects my point of view as a Buddhist. I hesitate to use the word ‘theological’ because of the baggage it carries; I fear that it implies a kind of dogmatism divorced from experience. To coin another phrase, ‘Who ya gonna believe, this book or your lyin’ eyes?’ On the other hand, I think you are right (if I read your underlying assumption correctly) that using the word ‘philosophy’ can (does?) imply materialism in that it is read to be a Godless (in the sense of amorality rather than immorality) alternative to theology.

    That said, I do see the need for a bridge between the two, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that we all need to make our way in this world, even if we are not of this world. (FWIW, this issue is one of the central struggles of Buddhism, too. In the Buddhist tradition of the Noble Eightfold Path, right livelihood is as important as right vision and right intention.) And, to me, asking which right of self-determination I’d want to give up really doesn’t leave me with much choice. If we’re free to go to church, but not free live our lives in a manner consistent with my conscience or your faith in Christ, what value is in that? (Perhaps that’s not really much of a rhetorical question because you may have an answer that I haven’t considered.)

    But, then, I think I’ve just wound my way back to Brian’s point: “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.” :shrug:

    As for the issue of blame, I think it’s counter-productive because it tends to focus on *who* is wrong rather than on *what* is wrong. I’m conflicted, and let the sentence stand, because the first step to addressing the problem is admitting that you have a problem. Besides, I would readily acknowledge that the phrase ‘religious community’ is too broad and too inaccurate. I’m not trying to pick a fight with everyone, after all! ;)

    Again, thank you!

  15. carl

    Brian – I have no problem with your positive point about consumerism and the need to acknowledge deeper realities than the visible/material. The Christian tradition (and pretty much every other pre-modern worldview) are clear enough on that point(though I might question whether the two can even be separated as much as it seems you do). But where I really take issue is in your attempt to twist this into a response to previous critiques of your YAR posts:

    we… 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… has been reduced to a material condition. Theology is dismissed as abstract rather than concrete…

    No. I think you grossly and unfairly mis-characterize “justice-talk” among radical Christians: in my experience it frequently emphasizes the spiritual dimensions of oppression and injustice and the liberating work of the Spirit (as Jon A already pointed out). And I think you also misunderstand the variety of possible reasons for critique of your academic version of God-talk. Perhaps the problem, as demonstrated in this very thread, is that it is academic, abstract, and divorced from apparent connection to human experience (whether spiritual or material).

    Basically I think you err in conflating “material vs spiritual” and “real vs abstract/academic” into one continuum: they are separate questions. I find abstract academic theological discussion to be frequently useless, but that does not mean that I am unwilling to recognize spiritual realities. On the contrary, I think “theology” that is truly grounded in human experience is absolutely essential: another word for it is “wisdom.” But I think that wisdom, as opposed to rhetorical cleverness, is generally obtained by hard and painful real life experience, not by academic study.

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