“In a materialist age like ours,” writes Malcolm Muggeridge, “nothing is real except what is false. People believe in money, for instance, but not in God, whereas money is a fantasy, but God is the living truth.” It’s hard to disagree. Inflation, federal deficits, stimulus spending — we might as well be keeping the accounts with Monopoly money. But Muggeridge’s overarching assertion is more important than this particular example.
The real subject is spiritual blindness and our inability to see with the eyes God has given us.
Ignoring the spiritual
Having knowingly or unknowingly accepted materialism (or naturalism) as the lens through which we see the world, we suffer from an inability to take seriously the role of the spiritual in our lives. We increasingly find fantasies and delusions more compelling than many truths we lamely confess because we decreasingly believe that the spiritual in any way obligates the physical.
What God says about, say, poverty or work or morals or money or relationships only matters to us insofar as we think God actually speaks and thereby obligates us. But did God really say? If not, then we can act as we please.
Of course God’s Word bears down regardless of our acceptance or realization — precisely the reason there’s a final judgment. But that’s preaching to the choir. For those that disbelieve, the specter hardly raises the pulse.
The trap of fantasy
Muggeridge mentions money as an area where fantasy rules, but he might have mentioned any number of other examples. Concerns about status and style, for instance, slip into delusion pretty easily. And tellingly, the freedom we seek from the truth of God finds its own way to bind and entrap us.
We invest a great deal of power in the appraisals of others when their opinion either doesn’t matter or they don’t. This isn’t just the plight of pimply-faced teenagers. We adults get caught up with concerns about the model and year of car we drive, the size of our paycheck, the relative behavior of our kids, the cut and color of our clothes — feel free to run the list out as long as your anxieties will allow.
Who are we trying to please? And who gives a rip? We end up enslaved to the estimations of strangers. My wife always says, “Nobody’s thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about you.” And she’s right. For those few that are looking and judging, risk the further embarrassment to tilt your head and pray for them; they obviously have bigger problems than what you are wearing or the car you’re driving.
This isn’t a flippant or minor concern. Ultimately it has an impact on Christian witness in the world.
The foolishness of God
The church celebrates certain saints as “holy fools,” people like Francis of Assisi in the West and Andrew the Fool for Christ and Procopius of Ustiug in the East.
The idea is rooted in various New Testament passages, particularly the writing of the Apostle Paul. Take, for instance, this passage from the first letter to the Corinthians:
[S]ince . . . the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1.21, 25-29)
It’s part of a larger biblical message that reveals God upending the world’s high and mighty and elevating in their place the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek. As James says, for instance, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (2.5)
Getting it right
As we struggle to take seriously the claims of God, his Word, and his church, it’s easy to miss this focus and try to seek the approval of our wider world. But the values and evaluations of our materialist culture are almost exactly opposite the values and evaluations of Christ and his church, the pillar and ground of the truth, as Paul tells Timothy.
Anthony the Great famously foresaw a time “when people will behave like madmen, and if they see anybody who does not behave like that, they will rebel against him and say, ‘You are mad,’ because he is not like them.” Our whole culture is somewhere over the cuckoo’s nest, angrily accusing people still on the ground for being airborne.
Materialism ensures that we will not only miss participating in the divine. It means that we will see the world two-dimensionally, and by missing the true height and depth of things we will weigh them wrongly. We will get the world wrong, ourselves wrong, and ultimately God wrong. The world will think we’re sane, but we will live trapped in a false cage of fantasies.