Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 self-indulgence [1].

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 [2].

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 following:

  • Heraclitus (about 500 BCE) proposed that everything changes all the time. Plato [3] 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" [4].

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 be identified. 

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 background.

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 from.

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. [5]

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 completed.

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 [6]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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 material terms.

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 within it.

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. 

In particular:

[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 argument.

[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 [7].

[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 [8]. 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 to nonsensical.

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.

[1] Materialism in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, 1983
[2] This is the central theme of Dr Rowan Williams' 2002 Dimbleby Lectures
[3] Thaetetus  
[4] History of Western Philosophy, 1946
[5] Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, quoted by Russell
[6] God, Humanity and the Cosmos, Ed. C Southgate, 1999, p.154
[7] See Thought Map - Faith
[8] See Why God Won't Go Away

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