STUDY FOUR: NATURALISM AND MATERIALISM
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
A. DEFINING ‘NATURALISM’ AND ‘MATERIALISM’
The philosophy of naturalism: ‘a view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.’ [World Book Dictionary]
Materialism: ‘1. the belief that all action, thought, and feeling can be explained by the movements and changes of matter. 2. the tendency to care too much for the things of this world and neglect spiritual needs. 3. the ethical doctrine that material self-interest should and does determine conduct.’ [World Book Dictionary]
Leaving aside for the time being, the second and third meanings of materialism, it is easy to see that naturalism and materialism have much in common at the philosophical level; indeed, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably as alternative words to express similar or even identical concepts. For the rest of this study the term ‘materialism’ will be used, with the possible exception of quoted material.
B. PHILOSOPHICAL MATERIALISM
Contemporary philosophical materialism is the direct result of the humanist and evolutionary mindset. Francis Schaeffer explains it this way:
‘The early modern scientists believed in the concept of the uniformity of natural causes in an open system. God and man were outside of the cause-and-effect machine of the cosmos, and therefore they both could influence the machine. To them all that exists is not one big cosmic machine which includes everything. The shift from modern science to what I call modern modern science was a shift from the concept of the uniformity of natural causes in an open system to the concept of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. In the latter view nothing is outside a total cosmic machine; everything which exists is a part of it.
‘Scientists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continued to use the word God, but pushed God more and more to the edges of their systems. Finally, scientists in this stream of thought moved to the idea of a completely closed system. That left no place for God. But equally it left no place for man. Man disappears, to be viewed as some form of determined or behaviouristic machine. Everything is a part of the cosmic machine, including people. To say this another way: prior to the rise of modern modern science (that is, naturalistic science, or materialistic science), the laws of cause and effect were applied to physics, anatomy and chemistry. Today the mechanical cause-and-effect perspective is applied equally to psychology and sociology.
‘ … this concept … arose because the scientists who took this new view had accepted a different philosophic base. The findings of science did not bring them to accept this view; rather, their world-view brought them to this place. They became naturalistic or materialistic in their presuppositions.’ [p168-169 Vol V].
In this ism the material world is all that there is.
There is no supernatural world – no God, no life after death
Everything is mechanistic – cause-and-effect explain everything
Humans are just another part of the ‘machine’
Human dignity is non-existent; any sense of human uniqueness is gone
Human life loses its value
Behaviour is the result of cause-and-effect
Morality is irrelevant; personal responsibility a non-concept
‘Sin’ and ‘ethics’ lose their meaning and become pointless.
This philosophical materialism produces a deterministic view of life – not in a religious way in which some non-material, supernatural being is pulling the strings , but in an equally unavoidable cause-and- effect way in which human responsibility is cancelled because of, for example, genetic or environmental factors.
List and discuss and list evidences of this ism in our contemporary society
We will be looking at the impact of philosophical materialism on Christianity later.
[Note: even people who affirm philosophical materialism as an intellectual concept find it difficult to live it out consistently.]
C. PRACTICAL MATERIALISM
While the outspoken popularity of philosophical materialism is relatively recent, practical materialism has a history almost as old as the earth.
As we saw from the World Book Dictionary above this level of materialism is: ‘the tendency to care too much for the things of this world and neglect spiritual needs’ and, ‘the ethical doctrine that material self-interest should and does determine conduct.’
It is the “tendency to prefer material possessions and physical comfort to spiritual values” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).
This is something we immediately recognise:
We see it all around us;
We are ourselves bombarded by it daily in the media and the junk mail.
We are constantly tempted by it as new fashions, new furniture designs, new gadgets, new cars, come onto the market.
It wars within our hearts against the contentment and peace the Gospel seeks to produce in our lives.
The desire for material possessions and physical comfort and well-being conflicts with our desire to know, worship and serve the Lord, and all too often supersedes it.
We become so busy making money, or keeping our house and yard impeccable, or making ourselves beautiful, that our relationship with God deteriorates.
We hold to Jesus Christ merely as an insurance against judgment and hell, and know very little about what it really means to believe in him, to worship him, to honour him.
The focus of our life is our own personal comfort;
We and our possessions are at the centre. Christ is pushed out to the edge.
Biblical research and discussion:
Discuss the conflict between these Scriptures and the mindset of practical materialism. What do they teach about the relative importance of material possessions and material comfort?
D. THE MATERIALISATION OF THE GOSPEL
The dominant practical materialism of our age has impacted the Gospel. In some sections of the church
It is taught that no Christian should be sick and no Christian should be poor.
Material blessings are assumed to be included in, and taught to be part of, the Gospel
Healing is in the atonement [based on a ‘literal’ interpretation of ‘by his stripes we are healed’ – Isaiah 53:5 – when the context is actually speaking of spiritual salvation.]
Christ is seen in materialistic terms; he is presented as a wealthy man, with designer clothes, who, had he lived today, would have driven a luxury car.
Poverty and sickness are said to indicate either sin or a lack of faith.
We are told that we have just to speak the “word of faith” and the power of that word will create for us the material wealth and the physical health we desire.
The fact that Jesus had “no place to lay his head”, and the fact that Paul knew poverty and pain, mean nothing.
The clear, Biblical testimony to the poverty and humility of Jesus is discarded for a proud, demanding attitude in the presence of God.
God becomes our servant, merely there to give us what we want, rather than we his servants, here to give him the honour due his holy name.
Again, we, the human ones, our physical life and our material needs and desires, are at the centre. God, the divine one, is on the edge.
We need to understand that this materialisation of the Gospel is validated by its proponents by reference to the Scriptures. Old Testament references to physical/material blessedness are assumed to be applicable to the New Testament faith community, instead of being understood to be symbolic anticipations of the spiritual blessedness that every believer has in Jesus Christ. The examples in the table below put the material/spiritual contrast into the Biblical perspective of anticipation/fulfilment.
|Anticipation – written in physical/material terms||Fulfilment in Christ – written in spiritual terms|
|The nation of Israel – the physical people of God||All true believers – the spiritual people of God|
|Blessings – described in physical terms of prosperity, a long life and many descendants||Blessings – the spiritual blessings of the riches of God’s grace in salvation in Christ including spiritual regeneration and ‘eternal life’|
|Redemption – the physical deliverance from slavery in the land of Egypt||Redemption from sin, condemnation, Satan and spiritual death through Jesus Christ|
|The Year of Jubilee – release from material indebtedness||God’s age of salvation in Christ – release from spiritual indebtedness|
|The tabernacle/temple – the physical symbol of the presence of God||The church [individually and corporately] – indwelt by the Spirit of God|
The materialistic mindset has blinded people to the symbolic, prophetic nature of the Old Testament promises. There is evidence of this materialisation of the Gospel in the response of some of Jesus’ contemporaries:
Discuss the mindset of the people in these Scriptures. In what way do they evidence materialism? What was Jesus’ response to these materialistic perceptions?
E. A MORE SUBTLE MATERIALISM
There is a more subtle dimension of materialism which is perhaps the least readily recognizable. It has arisen in the evangelical church unnoticed, and like an undiagnosed cancer silently corrupts, silently destroys. This fourth dimension is not a physical materialism, but a spiritual, religious materialism.
In this non-physical materialism
We use Jesus Christ merely as our ticket to heaven, our insurance against hell.
We believe in him for what we can get - for the spiritual well-being and eternal comfort he promises us - rather than for who he is.
We accept him because we want forgiveness and salvation, and in reality we are accepting not him, but his gift.
In reality it is not the Lord Jesus Christ in whom we are believing, but the promises he makes to us on the basis of his death.
But whether he promised us salvation or not, because he is who he is, he both demands and deserves our faith and our worship.
This non-physical materialism, in which we come to Jesus merely to get saved, is perhaps the most pernicious form of idolatry. We are still at the centre. Jesus is still at the edge. Our salvation, our escape from hell - all this wonderful spiritual ‘stuff’ - is our goal, not Christ himself. Unless we look beyond the gift to the Giver, beyond the salvation to the Saviour, we are not honouring him, we are serving ourselves.
The two Scripture passages below record the stories of two rich men. One is blatantly materialistic; the other disguised his materialism beneath a veneer of spirituality. Identify the fundamental similarities between these two.
Luke 16:19-31 – the unidentified rich man who did not even think about God and spiritual reality
Luke 18:18-24 – the rich ruler – who thought about God and spiritual realities
 Answer these questions about each of these two rich men:
How rich was he?
What aspect of his life on earth was the most important to him?
Did he submit to the authority of Jesus Christ?
At the bottom line, who was at the centre of his life?
 In what way does the rich ruler in Luke 18 express both normal practical materialism and the subtle, non-physical materialism described in this section?
Sadly, in each of these expressions of materialism in which we seek our own gain, we actually suffer great loss. The self-centredness that characterizes them robs Christ of his rightful place in our lives. What we perceive as necessary for our good stands where Christ himself should stand. Ironically, we achieve our greatest good, we reach our ultimate fulfilment, only when we cease to seek it, only when we give to Jesus Christ the honour and glory due to his holy name.
Quickly, urgently, we must stop this idolatrous centring of our lives on ourselves. We must re-orientate the whole focus of our existence. Jesus Christ, the one true God, whom to know is life eternal, must stand at the centre of our lives. Honoured. Worshipped. Served.