More – Not Less – Materialism

Americans are uniquely infected with “affluenza” according to authors John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor, and David Horsey.1   They claim Americans confuse “the good life” with “the goods life,” spending more than $21,000 per year on consumer goods.  This disease contributes to our credit card indebtedness tripling in the 1990s, more people filing for bankruptcy each year than graduate from college, and spending more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend on everything.  “To live, we buy,” explain the authors, claiming that affluenza is a spiritual malady resulting in runaway materialism.

But what if just the opposite is true – that we’re not materialistic enough?  What if materialism is not a disease but designed to be a delight?

If you look at life through the prism of the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, this seems to be the case.  Best understood as a four-chapter Story – (1) how things ought to be, (2) what are things really like as a result of our shortcomings, (3) what we can do to make things better, and (4) what will things be like some day – the Judeo-Christian tradition views materialism as essentially good.

But let’s begin with chapter two: the way things are.  According to John Schneider, “Christian tradition going back to very ancient times has been mainly negative in its judgments on the morality of affluence.”2 In the early church, poverty was widespread, so that is what theologians addressed.  Sadly, the church did not develop “a similarly advanced tradition on what it means to be rich.”3 St. Augustine, for example, said it was good to use material wealth but not to enjoy it.  Apparently the early church was influenced by the Greek idea of the “spiritual” life being superior to the “material” world.

That line of thinking persists to this day.  Theologian Paul Tillich described the capitalist system as demonic.  Tony Campolo, a nationally known Christian author, speaker, and host of Curing Affluenza (a video series) states “It’s not a sin to have a million dollars, but it is a sin to keep it.”  Years ago, I remember a teacher saying “The most important things in life are not things.”  I was that teacher!  But I’ve had to rethink materialism.  For example, consider what happens when the human brain is deprived of oxygen for ten minutes.  Oxygen is a material thing.  Or see how we get along without food and water… both material things.  Some of the most important things in life are things!

A proper appreciation for materialism is rooted in chapter one: how life ought to be.  As Schneider rightly points out, the two great themes in Genesis are acquire and delight.

“You may eat of every tree of the garden,” which expresses much more than mere concern for their nutrition.  The first vision of material human existence is not of just “getting by” on a diet of “daily bread,” a counsel of “just enough.”  Rather, it opens to us the vast horizon of freedom for delight that God gave to human beings in the beginning.4

In God’s created order, there is a fundamental theme of material prosperity (rightly understood) as what God desires for all human beings – what God called “delight” (which is why Schneider titled his book “the good of affluence”).  Loving your soul – along with homes, clothes, cars, and vacations – is all designed to be good.

Now, of course, this idea can be corrupted.  Therefore, we need a proper view of affluence at the core of our material life (chapter 3 – what we can do).  Our challenge is to be affluent in the right way, not to cease being affluent altogether.  We ought to have a view of capitalism that is “world affirmative” and “world formative” rather than mainly negative; leading to separation and withdrawal.5

One proponent of this view is American Enterprise Fellow Dinesh D’Souza.  He asks:  “Who has done more to eradicate poverty and suffering in the Third World, Bill Gates or Mother Teresa?”6 In his recent book, The Virtue of Prosperity, D’Souza writes

The Bible tells us that man cannot live by bread alone.  But you have to have bread to realize that.  Rich people are finding that wealth by itself does not bring meaning and fulfillment, and they are starting to search for answers.  In the past people came to God because they were suffering, because they were broken.  But increasingly, in the West, it’s going to be affluence that leads people to God.

Could it be the allure of affluence is tied to believing God is against it?  My dad snuffed out any desire to smoke when he told me to purchase the finest cigarettes and light up around the house.  Once I understood that dad wasn’t opposed to smoking, the thrill was gone.  He swapped out illicit allure for the potential of proper enjoyment.

The world would be a better place if we understood that God loves affluence; and wants us to love his material world as he does.  Unfortunately, “We are half-hearted creatures,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.” And maybe our sights are set too low.  We need to become more affluent and better materialists.

_____________________
1 Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor, and David Horsey. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2001.
2 The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth. John Schneider. Eerdmans Publishing. 2002. p.2
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid, p.59
5 Ibid, p.9
6 Ibid, p.30

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