Ours is often called a
"materialist" age. By that is usually meant that we're more concerned with
material things than with "spiritual" matters. If anyone is labelled
materialist, it's frequently with a superior tone - as though
non-materialist people are somehow superior.
Nicholas Lash writes:
In the sense of acquisitiveness or carnality,
materialism is a practical problem of limited theoretical
interest: most morally serious people disapprove of undisciplined
In this sense, materialism is thought of as first, a
focus on things; and second, as a lack of self-discipline in that there is
a sort of unbridled lust to possess and enjoy physical things. "Morally
serious" people, on the other hand, are supposed to possess and enjoy
physical things in moderation. They devote at least some of their time and
energy to things "spiritual" such as poetry, the arts, prayer, meditation,
worship, religion and the like.
So when an entire nation becomes what the Anglican
Archbishop of Canterbury calls a "market state", over-focused on getting
and spending, this is bad because national morality is lost at the
individual level. It is replaced by a hollow consumerism, a lack of depth
and spirituality which reduces humanity to mere users of things
The background to this version of materialism is
difficult and confusing. This is partly because of a long history, and
partly because various kinds of materialism tend to be lumped together.
In a philosophical sense, it should be no surprise that
the division of our world into "material" and "spiritual" goes back some 2
500 years and probably much further.
Exploring the thoughts of Greek philosophers can be
tedious. But in relation to materialism, it's helpful to note the
- Heraclitus (about 500
BCE) proposed that everything changes all the time. Plato
reports Heraclitus' famous phrase, "You cannot step into the
same river twice; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you." The
mere fact that we live in time requires that everything change from one
moment to the next, if only because this moment isn't the previous one.
- Parmenides at the about the same time thought that
nothing changes. Bertrand Russell puts Parmenides central argument
like this: "... if language is not just nonsense, words must mean
something, and in general they must not mean just other words, but
something which is there whether we talk of it or not"
Plato sought to resolve this conflict by dividing
reality into two parts. One part does change. This part is the physical
world - including ourselves - which we all experience as a matter of fact
day-by-day. It's clear to all that this world does change and decay.
The other part doesn't change. This part is "ideal" in
the sense that it is perfection. A wooden chair in our world can break. In
the other world, the perfect chair can't break, since it is the
Chair. Just as all varieties of chair are reflections of an ultimate
"chairness" so must there be an ultimate "person" of whom (or which) we
are all, as it were, copies or representations.
A materialist, then, denies the reality of a spiritual
dimension to life. For such, there are no dimensions other than those we
can identify with our senses. Likewise, humans don't comprise both
material and spiritual elements. No matter how far you reduce a human
being to his or her elements, says the materialist, only the physical can
The supposed existence of both the material and the
non-material has proved an incredibly powerful construct for all humanity.
My guess is that until 15th century Europe, very few (if any) people
anywhere would have contested the idea. And, of course, it persists to
this day - as strong as ever in the minds of the vast majority.
This is not to say the Platonic scheme of things hasn't
undergone mutations. A major mutation was effected by the Christian Church
in the first part of the first millennium. It revised Platonism to help
make sense of what early theologians thought about Jesus of Nazareth. In
Jesus, they said, God intervened in human history by coming to earth (from
the "spiritual" dimension) and becoming human. Hence, for example, the
doctrine of incarnation or "enfleshment" of God in Jesus.
Underpinning all traditional Christian teaching is
therefore an assumption that God intervenes from "outside" our world in
various ways. God acts from a spiritual dimension into our material one.
In Christian terms, it's but a short step from there to
condemning materialism. It's perceived as a way of life which contradicts
all that is good and true about God's creation. It does so by asserting
that the world consists only of material things and nothing else. It's the
enemy of the best type of truth - Christian doctrine.
The history of the rise of scientific materialism is
complex. It's enough here to say that from the 16th century onwards, by
various steps both practical and conceptual, there arose a new way of
regarding the world. It gradually squeezed out the idea of something
"spiritual" lying behind or outside the real world. Humans increasingly
became physical entities without a soul or spirit somewhere in the
The proper way of knowing anything was, by this
approach, to study the material world. By breaking up material things into
their constituent pieces, it was thought, we would eventually understand
entirely how they work. Analysing the physical world would thus be
something like reducing an alarm clock to its component parts to discover
how it keeps time.
In effect, instead of things just "being" as God made
them, we are able to act upon them. By doing so we change what they are.
We become instruments or agents who can remake our world the way we want
it. It seems to me that this is where the modern idea of development comes
Things as subjects of human action are the basis of Karl
Marx's "dialectical materialism". Because we interact with things, they
become mere raw material for our intentions.
The question whether objective truth belongs to human
thinking is not a question of theory, but a practical question ... The
truth, i.e. the reality and power, of thought must be demonstrated in
practice. The contest as to the reality or non-reality of a thought
which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question ...
Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but
the real task is to alter it. 
Materialists regard knowing anything about the world as
a constant process of discovery and adaptation. That is, there is no final
revelation of universal truths as claimed by Christians. We discover the
truth not by prayers and meditation, not by rituals and morality, but
fully and simply by doing. Matter, not spirit, is the driving force
of human history, says Marx. The historical process is "dialectical"
because, like a discussion between two people, it is never entirely
Interestingly, many would say today that we make God in
our own image (through metaphors and symbols, for example). Plato and
traditional theologians hold that God makes us in his image.
This serves to illustrate, I think, how radically the
Western, scientific, materialist perception of things has changed. Perhaps
"materialism" isn't the best word to use for this change of perception.
One possibility is to describe contemporary interpretations of reality as
physicalist "... because matter itself is described by physics in
terms of energies and forces .
Neither the universe nor we ourselves are generally now
perceived in dualistic terms.
- The search for something "inside" us, a soul separate
from what is usually termed "material" has more or less ceased.
 Neurological experiments are increasingly
confirming that what we call thoughts can be broadly identified with
physical states in our brains. This is not to say that we are yet able
to say that any one behaviour (say the ability to wiggle a finger) or
any one thought can be identified with any one set of electro-chemical
events in the brain. But many behaviours can now be observed in terms of
general brain events. So-called Logical Positivists (like Rudolf Carnap
and Otto Neurath) adopt this type of materialism.
 Philosophers like Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of
Mind) have persuasively argued that to separate "mind" from the
physical is a category error, similar to proposing that someone can
literally drown in a flood of tears.
 Some propose that what each of us experiences as a
subjective state (i.e. what used to be called "mind") is merely an
aspect of a complex physiological system you and I call "me". It
appears separate from the rest of us only because it's just another
way of perceiving the total system. It's rather like an airline
passenger who experiences the airplane as a warm, relatively safe place,
compared to a hypothetical observer sitting outside on the fuselage.
Each one would experience something so totally different that, when
asked to report on their separate experiences, they would tell
apparently contradictory stories.
- Similarly, the universe is increasingly being
perceived (interpreted) as an entity without boundaries. Alternatively,
it's thought to be one of an infinite number of "universes" or
dimensions. Both interpretations are entirely materialistic. In neither
can we behave as though our physical world is paralleled by another
type of reality as proposed by Plato. If we are to talk about a
difference between "material" and "spiritual" we can only do so in
In other words, everything we experience is a
continuum of cause and effect, ultimately governed by physical
realities. Perceived as a system, our world is like any other system. It
is by definition changed every time it interacts with whatever is
external to it. If the world is open to God's interventions on either an
occasional or a constant basis, then history as we know it is destroyed.
This must be the case since we can never know if any historical event
has been caused by preceding events external to the universe, or by one
If that is the case, then Christianity's doctrines
probably can't survive since it is essentially an historical religion.
Without an historical Jesus, the Christian faith becomes merely a
self-contained religious construct. Its survival then depends not on the
person of Jesus, but on how satisfactory an explanation of the universe
it is. And if that's the case, it doesn't fare well against materialism.
Materialism is rightly feared by Christian authorities.
Its theses contradict a large number of theological teachings and
assertions. Theology has been, and is, backed into a tight corner.
[A] Christian theology must now demonstrate better
arguments for the existence of God (or a "necessary being", to use
philosophical parlance) outside the material framework of reality. My own
impression is that this is unlikely to prove either possible or effective.
Proclaiming revealed truths like "God exists" is one way out. But such
truths can only be flatly denied, since they don't depend on reasonable
[B] Contemporary arguments and evidence about the nature
of the universe are extremely powerful. Equally powerful arguments must
now be presented by the "faith communities" about why excellent
materialist explanations of the universe should be abandoned or modified.
It is no longer sufficient to claim merely that faith leads us to a
certain class of truths which lie beyond reason .
[C] Physical explanations for so-called "spiritual"
experiences are rapidly becoming more definitive. This is true at both
personal and social levels. It is now possible to propose neurological
explanations of mystical experiences .
Similarly, increasingly persuasive explanations of religion as a social
phenomenon are being advanced and backed up with good evidence . Those who
think such explanations are unsatisfactory must meet materialist
objections to traditional Christian formulations.
[D] Almost universally accepted is the principle of
parsimony when arguing a case (Ockham's Razor: literally "Non sunt
multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem - Entities are not to be
multiplied beyond necessity"). That is, when arguments appear more or less
equally persuasive, the simpler is to be preferred. Materialist
explanations for the nature of the universe are, in my view, both better
supported and simpler than traditional Christian explanations.
It should be clear from the above that my sympathies lie
with the material nature of humans and the universe. But please note that
I don't discount the existence of God or of another reality besides our
own. It's just that I have no way of knowing that either God or a
"spiritual" dimension exist.
God may intervene in the world's affairs. Clouds of
angels and devils may surround me. But I for one have no experiences which
I can't more clearly and simply attribute to material causes. And I find
that arguments presented for such things by others range from unconvincing
Whether or not I like it, I find I must relate to the universe in all
its facets without the help of a Platonic or neo-Platonic explanation.
 Materialism in A New Dictionary of
Christian Theology, 1983
 This is the central theme of Dr Rowan Williams' 2002 Dimbleby
 History of Western Philosophy, 1946
 Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, quoted by Russell
 God, Humanity and the Cosmos, Ed. C Southgate, 1999, p.154
 See Thought Map - Faith
 See Why God Won't Go Away