Author's note: these are the third and fourth parts of a four-part (plus postscript) essay that first appeared on the commentary site NewsWithViews.com. I have corrected a couple of typos and put in a few new links but otherwise kept substantive changes to an absolute minimum.
Materialism (Part Three) Steven Yates
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
It is not dying, it is not dying.
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining.
That you may see, the meaning of within
It is being, it is being.
That love is all, and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing.” ~The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)
The upshot, so far, is that in our moral lives in a material world, everything is up for grabs.
Reactions to this varied. One was the turn to mind-altering drugs, led by such writers as Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963) whose The Doors of Perception (1954) was the source of a different 1960s rock group’s name, and of course Timothy Leary (“Tune in, turn on, drop out”). Transcendent reality and values may not exist in the material world but can be found in your head! The 1960s hippies began to “drop acid” (LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide). Some would claim to “see God.” Acid rock was its musical expression, proclaiming mystical revelations of peace and love. Others, of course, experienced sometimes terrifying hallucinations caused by the drug’s radical altering of their perceptions. I recall from my graduate student days a past user telling me how he’d seen his stereo grow a mouth, as the music coming from his speakers took the form of two arms reaching his way as it tried to eat him. People with latent personality disorders, or just the anxiety-prone, were especially susceptible to bad experiences with LSD. Some users ended up with psychoses, or simply “burned out” from repeated usages with permanent brain damage: “acid casualties.” All of which makes the values-are-in-your-head route a risky one to travel down!
Many of that generation’s parents, however, had turned away from the problem, leaving them vulnerable to criticisms of them as morally shallow, having sold their souls to the corporate system. “If it feels good, do it” is a phrase associated with the hippies, but there was a sense in which the prevailing ethos was closer to this sort of phrase than their elders cared to admit. Convenience reigned. This was true in business, in government, in academia. If it’s convenient, do it. Consider abortion, which had become an issue well before Roe v. Wade (1973). Sexual license (also a problem in some communities before the liberation movements of the 1960s) led to unwanted pregnancies; simple as that. Despite the prattling about those cases when “the mother’s life is in danger,” over 99% of abortions are abortions of convenience. Abortion’s legal acceptability has led to the killing of over 50 million unborn babies and counting. I will not torture readers with the bizarre rationalizations feminist philosophy professors have produced (it is hard to call them philosophers with a straight face), except to note that the linguistic sleight of hand used has been intended to deprive the unborn and sometimes even the newly born of moral standing, and hence any claim on life that others are obligated to respect. The Nazis and other totalitarians did the same thing, removing those to be eliminated from the moral community.
But then again, if Benedict, Dewey, Rorty, and others are correct, then the only moral standing anyone has is what their society, or the state, gives them. What the state and social approval give, the state and social approval can take away, whether its targets are Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, etc., under the Nazis; those who resisted collectivized farming under Stalin; or the unborn in our own culture. It is possible, by this reading, that a future Christian civilization might regard this last as one of the largest and most insidious holocausts of all.
The tendency, as we have seen, has been to evade the issues, or to simply stop thinking about them. Many theologians would succumb fully to the “death of God” by the 1960s, even as their children were “finding Him” in recreational chemistry. Secularization was one of the manifestations of materialism having captured Western culture. Harvey Cox (1929 – ), one of the leaders of the “death of God” movement, wrote in his The Secular City (1965) that secularization “bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things…. The world looks less and less to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings.”
I recently finished one of the most comprehensive accounts I have seen of the modern, secular attempt “to live after the death of God”: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live since the Death of God (2014) by British intellectual historian Peter Watson (1943 – ). Watson’s account ranges across philosophy, art, poetry, literature, and science — or, more exactly, science-promotion, as he includes evangelical atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, which is materialism promotion in my sense of that term. Watson is a reasonably honest thinker, and those who maintain (as I do) that materialism has no hope of providing society with a sound moral foundation and direction will find support for their views in his work. So despite the title and themes (and tediousness at times), the book merits study. At the end, Watson does not endorse mere science-promotion but rather seeks to explain why many credible authors, writers, poets and artists have found the “scientific worldview” too narrow. His answer isn’t especially satisfying.
It comes down to the idea that, given God’s absence, the “central sane activity” (title of the book’s meandering closing chapter) is “sheer wondering inquiry,” and a grasping for those lonely moments of meaningfulness and life-affirmation. Different authors have given them different names. Abraham Maslow, for example, called them “peak experiences”; James Joyce spoke of “epiphanies”; Malroux, of “temporary refuges”; Yeats, of “brief moments of ecstatic affirmation”; Ibsen, of “flashes of spiritual value.” These moments, Watson insists, can be had in loving relationships, the satisfaction of various desires, the experience of hearing an especially moving piece of music or seeing a work of art or reading poetry, or in any number of other ways including just the mundane satisfaction of a job well done.
Even if you are a secularist, are you really satisfied with this?
Study them closely, and you see that these experiences, real though they may be, are private and personal; one comes away sensing the difficulty the writers have in communicating their content to others. They are more the stuff of poetry than philosophy. They are, however, pleasant — momentary “highs” — and we are inching our way back to the possibility that psychoactive drugs can be used to trigger such experiences artificially and expand them indefinitely if the results are satisfying enough to outweigh the dangers.
All this seems like denial to me. Of the obvious. By turning away from the larger picture, the one both Nietzsche and Russell were courageous enough to face, to focus on those nice little particulars we experience or arrange for ourselves, whether in our private lives or by using recreational chemicals, we evade the important consequence of materialism:
That once you’ve removed God and transcendence from your worldview, there are no binding moral values, binding in the sense of being definitive and authoritative, and suggesting a lasting, inescapable, personal penalty for their violation. There is only state authority, popularity, physical pleasure, and these ephemeral on-top-of-the-world moments — all of which end in death, which the materialist understands as the permanent extinction of consciousness and personality. You cease to exist as completely as the nonexistence that preceded your conception. Presumably after those final anxious moments before you wink out, you won’t be worried about it.
Watson correctly observes that many people in secular society seem to have no problem with this. They have either rejected “religion” without further thought, or simply grew up without it. He writes:
“We need to remind ourselves … that many people — and perhaps the quieter souls among us — see no problem in God being dead. For them his death is no source of anxiety or perplexity…. [S]uch individuals are not “metaphysical types” and seek no “deep” meaning in existence. They just get on with their lives, making ends meet, living from day to day and season to season, enjoying themselves where they can, untroubled by matters that so perplex their neighbors. They have no great expectations that the big questions will ever be settled, so devote no time to their elucidation. In some ways, they are the most secular people of all and perhaps the most content” (The Age of Atheists, pp. 532-33).
Such folks blend smoothly into the majority, the masses of humanity in advanced civilization, meeting its demands on them, and no more thinking independently today than the third or so who were content with British rule in the 1770s and another third who didn’t care so long as they had food on the table. If asked, they will say they have no time for such matters as these. They will vote for mainstream candidates without question, and only start asking questions when their supposed leaders send their kids off to die in foreign wars as cannon fodder, if even then. They are first veilers. While many are nice people and good at what they do, should we trust their collective judgment with matters as far from everyday experience, and as important, as whether or not one should believe in God as the source of moral valuation?
“Jesus, help me find my proper place
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness
Cause I'm falling out of grace.
Jesus. Jesus.” ~The Velvet Underground, “Jesus” (1968)
I confess I had a difficult time choosing an open song lyric for this final segment, if only because explicit Christian themes are rare in rock music (it does happen, however). Yet that world contains many artists who have engaged in intense self-exploration often reaching out to a spiritual reality even if by accident. Lou Reed (1942 – 2013), author of the above lyrics, is an example. He had clearly seen the seamy side of human existence including from the standpoint of a heroin addiction when he was in his early 20s. The song cited above sounds surprisingly like a prayer for someone who was not a Christian (I am assuming). Reed’s music has always struck me as that of an observer and seeker, someone commenting on the dark side of human life as if from a vantage point somewhere above.
According to materialists, there is no “vantage point somewhere above,” of course. There is just this world, and whatever neural synapses are firing in your brain. The New Atheism (Dawkins, et al) has reiterated Nietzsche’s “God is dead” by proclaiming the impending death of Christianity.
I wouldn’t hold my breath. The Soviets spent over 70 years trying to eradicate Christianity by force; the Maoists, in China, also tried to wipe it out. It is true that, e.g., church attendance is dropping on the part of millennials, a source of commentary on Christianity losing ground in the U.S. It is incompatible with the political correctness that dominates the mindset of millennial students, for sure. But Christianity is the fastest growing religion elsewhere in the world, such as (ironically) in Russia and China. Why would anyone think Christianity is going away voluntarily? What we should be thinking about is where the Christian worldview stands in the present, and what its future might be.
What is the Christian worldview? It stands, as I argue in Four Cardinal Errors, in sharp contrast to the materialist worldview. Here are some proposals.
(1) God exists, as a Being who transcends space, time, and causality. The things of God, including morality, transcend space, time, and causality. God created the world of space, time, and causality. Logos and Ethos (logicality and morality) are inseparable aspects of God’s eternal nature. God’s existence is a starting point, not a conclusion of our reasoning.
(2) There is therefore the world of space, time, and causality — the world of human experience and of science — and whatever noumenal realm exists “beyond” these, outside possible human experience. Neither reality nor God are limited to space, time, and causality. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) would say we are pushing at the limits of language. In a sense, he was correct. But limits to human language and understanding do not limit reality. In the last analysis, God’s nature as both one God and as “three persons” (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) are mysteries, as is how Creation was accomplished, how our free will operates, and possibly how consciousness itself works. Positivism and scientism disliked and distrusted mysteries. Materialists believed they had explained them. Rorty, who also admired Wittgenstein, believed the problems were artifacts of our insistence on “mentalistic” language. But some recent philosophers of mind — Colin McGinn (1950 – ) is an example — now sound very Kantian in concluding that consciousness has remained fundamentally mysterious despite decades of hard, patient, sustained inquiry and analysis … because our reason just isn’t structured so as to fathom its mysteries. If materialism is false, the mysteriousness of consciousness makes perfect sense! It just can’t be forced-fitted into the materialist conceptual straitjacket!
(3) What science does it does reasonably well, when not corrupted by politics or other sources of dollars. Again, though, science is designed to answer questions and solve problems in this world. Again as Kant showed, it cannot address metaphysical problems, any more than can reason itself. Reason, though its starting point is Logos, is human, all too human, is finite therefore, and not designed to reach or grasp an eternal God. From what successes science has enjoyed it does not follow logically that this world, the world of space, time, and causality where science and technology operate, exhausts reality.
(4) According to Christianity human beings were created in God’s image. Hence the fundamental ontological and moral differences between us and the rest of the Creation. As St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) put it, our reason is an imprint of God’s eternal nature within us. Thus we have the finite capacity to acquire knowledge of the Creation, whether through science or rational insight.
(5) The Christian worldview’s diagnosis of the human condition is not ignorance but sin: the fact that the first humans (whether we read Genesis literally or not) turned away from God. They believed they could do better on their own, autonomously. They were wrong. Sin corrupts everything, including the quest for truth. Most thinkers have sought to avoid any frank discussion of sin. The idea flies in the face of the idea of human perfectibility, or at least of indefinite improvability by our own efforts, legacies of the Enlightenment. But any honest, empirical look at ourselves ought to suggest that we cannot save ourselves, or improve ourselves wholesale as ethical beings. We can make small improvements here and there, akin to learning to bathe; most of us tend to behave better when we are comfortable and when our stomachs are full. But morality is simply not our “default setting”; it should be obvious that even children can be hideously cruel to classmates who do not “fit in.” While many of us adults doubtless mean well because we have internalized moral principles to some degree, others among us remain pretty much untouched by these niceties. We try to device systems of rules that operate under the assumption that the desire to do good should be a primary motivator, when it usually isn’t. Most of us have little interest in what does not affect us directly, or bring us benefits. All of us have our lapses, some of which are truly breathtaking! Secularists believe we can be autonomous, but absent an external moral compass, we often just act as destroyers, of others if not ourselves, whether on the grand scale of the wars of choice in the Middle East or the small but from the victim’s standpoint all-too-real one of the teenager who is bullied or cyberbullied until she commits suicide. Unless such things happen to one of our own, we drift with the herd, with the quiet secularists Peter Watson noted.
(6) Christian ethics are found in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments. Yes, there are often problems interpreting what we perceive God’s will to be, and religious communities are bound to disagree over specifics. But the problems understanding what Christianity requires of us surely pale next to the failure of secular ethical theories, and of secularism more broadly. One thing is crystal clear: Christian salvation is to be found in Jesus Christ who alone promises salvation from the consequences of sin (Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23; John 3:16; elsewhere), something we cannot do ourselves (Ephesians 2:8–9; elsewhere). Recognizing that if we try to start with ourselves we get nowhere, and that our ability to get nowhere on our own is entirely consistent with what we observe in history and society, are good places to begin one’s appreciation of Christian ethics, or of the Christian worldview generally.
Christians do not get everything right, of course. The Christian does not cease to sin nor even to suffer the consequences of sin; the most he can do is confess sins, and turn away gratefully acknowledging God’s forgiveness. What Christians get wrong could fill a separate article: failure in their families; failure to care for their neighbors and fellow citizens as God commands (Jesus did not say to treat the sick only if you can make a profit doing so); failure to care for the Creation itself, over which God gave humanity dominion, which means assuming moral responsibility, not destructive plundering; and more besides.
But these human failures do not give us an argument against Christianity and for materialism, which in the end gives us no basis for condemning any of these failures other than expedient ones.
What of other faiths? some might ask. I was born in the U.S. (grew up in Atlanta), and have been surrounded by Christians for much of my life (except for time spent in universities surrounded by materialists). Suppose I’d been born in, say Baghdad. Would I not be writing my condemnations of Western materialism as part of my submission to Allah, as a devout Muslim scholar (the word Islam means submission)? Would I not be a Hindu or possibly a Buddhist, had I been born in, say, India? Or a Confucian, had I been born in Tibet?
There are no easy answers to such questions. I do not know if Christians can have the best answers to them, as those answers (obviously) presuppose Christianity and to a logical mind, will sound circular. The fact that everyone considers his/her religion to be “the right one” is a given; no one would believe in his/her faith otherwise. Other faiths stand at the center of other worldviews, of course, non-Western ones in most cases. That means (by definition) they are not widely represented in those regions of the world identified as “the West.” High or low representation has no logical implications for truth or falsity, however.
Technology, a product of the West, has brought these different worldviews into the same meeting space as never before, however: cyberspace, which transcends the fact that some of us are able to travel anywhere and experience the cultural embodiments of other worldviews firsthand. The thing to do, it seems to me, is to encourage interfaith dialogue as never before, conducted respectfully and with an eye to seeing what is similar, and not being so eager to focus on what is different. And looking to the future rather than dwelling on the errors of the past. The world needs people both able and willing to communicate, especially with divisive and destructive personalities everywhere. We can then show how the world looks to Christians, and present what we believe is true in Christianity.
This, we must add, goes along with acting as Jesus Christ would have as act, in accordance with His words during the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere: for example, working to ensure that impoverished peoples here and afar have food to eat, whatever their beliefs, and to help them learn those practices that will help them feed themselves. Words without deeds, after all, are idle chatter. Having attended to such matters, the most constructive thing we can do is to step aside and trust God to do His work.