The Poverty of Materialism

About three years ago, perhaps four, I was in the Divine Liturgy for the Angels’ feast, when, during the homily, our priest made reference to the “medieval” belief, which C S Lewis makes central to his Space Trilogy, that angels guided the planets in their orbit, and ensured the movement of the stars and galaxies, that they had charge over various locales, and of course specific angels were tasked with guarding each of us, once the waters of baptism and the oil of chrismation had dried.  He commented, that this was a common belief, not only for Christians, but even, though in distorted ways, of the pagan world.  That is to say, it was simply taken for granted that spiritual beings played a part in the moving of our physical world and watched over our social and political affairs, including taking care for us individually.  (This topic is being explored in significant depth of detail in the podcast “The Lord of Spirits” which can be accessed online here.)

This made a forceful impression.  First of all, I knew what he was saying was true.  I’d read enough Lewis, and works in medieval spirituality, to know that this was the dominant view at the time, and in the historical eras preceding it.  It was certainly, I knew, the view of the Church.  Yet, it was “new” to me.  That is to say, in that moment, I began to recognize just how secular my own worldview was.

By secular, of course, I simply mean, the dominant worldview of the society outside the Church.  More specifically, for our time, that is essentially a monistic viewpoint in which the material world is “all that is, or was, or will be” (to borrow perhaps a bit loosely from Sagan’s show “Cosmos”).  This means, simply, that the only thing moving our planets around our sun are impersonal, material forces (gravity).  Not angels.  The only thing moving our social institutions and groups of people, are specific choices and actions of material beings (humans).  Thoughts are (or if you prefer, consciousness is) nothing more than electrical pulses of energy in our gooey brains.  There is no soul.  There is only a conglomeration of various carbon molecules, held together for a period of time, until the material being “dies” due to the failure of bodily systems to heal itself of disease and dysfunction.  Once this material being’s material systems cease functioning, and once we decide to no longer further assist these systems with other machines and chemicals, then the material being is “dead.”  Consciousness ceases because the various electrical impulses cease.  The “battery” which provided the energy to run the human machine, has been drained of that energy.

Clearly, I had to rely heavily on metaphorical, non-scientific language to point to some main ideas in this secular worldview.  One could add to the above by noting that in such a mindset, there is only this life (obviously), there is no afterlife.  One can boil down ethics and morals to simply ways a material being successfully negotiates interactions with other primates so as to provide itself with the necessary elements for survival (food, shelter, clothing).  And so on.  You get the point.

But nobody, absolutely nobody, truly lives like this.  People most definitely say things that would seem to indicate they have a materialist worldview.  You will hear things like, after you die, you’re dead, there’s nothing else.  There’s no afterlife.  All we know is what we can see, taste, hear, smell, feel, etc.  True knowledge is empirical, testable, etc.  But as I say, you hear talk like this, but nobody lives this way.  So-called materialists nonetheless live as though there is a reality we call love, that is far more than the combination of hormonal responses in the human body.  (Being the victim of one’s partner’s infidelity is never simply viewed from materialist causes and effects.  Oh, well, they were hormonally conditioned to cheat on mee.  What am I going to do?)  Once one holds one’s baby in one’s arms, it is no longer a mere “clump of cells” but has become something indefinable, a person.  Once one holds the hand of a dying spouse or parent or child, it is no longer simply a machine that no longer runs, it is a loss ineffable.  Evil has no material base or foundation.  So political calls for “justice” are little more, in a materialist worldview, than calls for group preference over the power wielded by another group.  Whatever verbal commitments someone may make to a materialist worldview, no one lives that way.

Because such a worldview is the poorest of all worldviews.  It is a valley of dry bones in a desert land.  It is nothingness.  The absurdity of such a worldview is evident.  And try as some like Camus and Sartre might to live coherently within such a worldview without committing suicide, the reality is, everyone who tries to do so also has to import non-materialist ideas and commitments.

Once one opens the door, however, to non-material ideas and commitments, then one can no longer espouse materialism.  And here is where the adventure, and with it the risk of monumental evil, begins.  One may espouse an angelic worldview, but one may also espouse the most demonic of worldviews.  And once one leaves a materialist worldview, then the need, even the moral requirement, to discern and weigh worldviews over against one another is paramount.  Some worldviews are evil and must be denounced.  Relativism is one such evil worldview (because it is founded on the pride and arrogance in the belief of the supreme virtue of oneself making that relativistic determination).

The failure of materialism is that it presupposes, without any evidence and violating its own terms, there is nothing outside or other than material existence.  Our five senses are indeed, quite adept at discerning the material world.  And we have greatly enhanced those senses with amazing technological tools such as telescopes, and microscopes, radar and other technologies.  But if the immaterial cannot be measured materially, how can a materialist, absolutely limited only to discerning material reality, dogmatically assert the immaterial does not exist?  Such an assertion is not based on any evidence.  It is only based on the presuppositions of the materialist worldview.  Even Kant recognized that there were aporia which reason had no access to, among which are God and the soul.  And yet, reason required such presuppositions to be true, for reason to “work” as it does.

Which is richer, a worldview in which there is nothing but silence between the stars?  Or a worldview in which the spheres are filled with the chorus of a multitude of glorious beings?  We have the answer in the way we live.  We live as though we believed in the nonmaterial reality of love.  We hope in the face of death for a life beyond to share with our departed ones.  Indeed, we hope at all, because we inherently believe in an immaterial meaning underlying the material universe.  We have to.  If we did not, Camus’ philosophical efforts notwithstanding, there would be nothing left but suicide.

I will not answer here which worldview is the correct one.  If you’ve read my blog, you know where I stand on that.  But I will say this: my Christian faith has been rendered in grey, my universe has been depopulated, because, raised as I have been, in a materialist (or quasi-materialist) society, I have been trained, inculcated and long habituated to believe primarily in material cause and effect, in the primacy of logic over faith, and so forth.  It is long past time, to open my eyes and to allow my mind to be reenchanted with the fuller reality of this universe, one which is filled with material and spiritual realities, one in which the angels ensure the proper movement of the heavens, in which of the physical “laws” of the universe flow not from an impersonal deity, but from a grand personal designer, who is painting reality, rather than passively watching a machine operate, and adding a flourish here, a brushstroke there, aided always by the angelic and human creatures he created, in a great and beautiful symphony of love and joy.

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