Materialism and The American Soul

Materialism and The American Soul March 13, 2023


Materialism and the American soul

For beings who spend a considerable amount of time in the world, humanity is notoriously bad at living in reality. Anyone who has spent time as a child will understand this experience well. I vividly remember the night I discovered my Dad was not the invisible man of steel I believed he was. Or that time near the end of my adolescence when I learned that actions don’t always come with a second chance.

These cold showers of reality shape the people we grow up to be. And although they are confusing and painful for a time, they are an aspect of maturing that we never truly grow out of.

A Paradigm Shift 

One of the most impactful paradigm shifts I have ever lived through would undoubtedly have to have been during university. I went to a small Christian School that was very focused on the Bible and mission work at large. Throughout my first year of study, I felt as if I was in the center of God’s strategy room, surrounded by giants of the faith. At the time, I took whatever they said as the Gospel truth. Consequently, you may be able to imagine my surprise and confusion when I overheard the school’s president talking about the best way to keep homeless people off the property.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim his statement was objectively morally or Biblically incorrect. I know most people don’t find his words as earth-shattering as I did back then. It’s not that he said anything wrong; it’s that he contradicted my understanding of authentic Christianity. A view I had primarily gleaned from the men sitting around the large faculty table, dressed in nice suits, stoically nodding in agreement.

Ignorance is Bliss

Our understanding of reality is often like this. As intelligent as we like to think we are, the most basic part of our lives can often be shrouded in artificial allusions and deep misconceptions. Sometimes these perceptional problems can be easy to uncover and address. While other times they are so integrated into our lives we feel motivated to protect them.

At its most innocent, our flawed view of the world can simply mean we waste time or go about something the wrong way. However, at its most insidious, it can become something like a cancerous tumor that kills us as we protect it from the truth.

Materialism in America

Recently my perspective of the world has once again found itself under fire. The origins of this mental conflict began six months ago when I, somewhat impulsively, moved to a little town in the mountains of Honduras called Yamaranguila. The people in this town are poor. However, I have rarely been surrounded by a community so full of love and life. For instance, they had a three-day festival this winter to celebrate the cold weather simply because it would be fun. Living here has opened my eyes to the potency of Materialism in the States.

What is Materialism?

According to Webster’s dictionary, Materialism is defined as:

“a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter”

Although this is the technical definition, the secondary description is what most people are familiar with.

“a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress”

Materialism in The States

Aside from, being the land of the free, the home of the brave, and the realm of the empirical measuring system. America is also known for its cultural materialism.

Materialism influences every corner of life in the States. From the way we celebrate holidays, to the way success is measured. If you want an excellent example of this, you need not look further than the concept of “The American Dream.”

This ideal America promises to its citizens and immigrants claims they will have the opportunity to be whomever they want to be and chase any desired dream. This ideal of the quintessential American life is centered on “material well-being” and “furtherance of material progress.”

Materialism in American Christianity

Materialism has even wormed its way into the culture of Christianity in the States at large. The most in-your-face example is undoubtedly the unreasonable prominence of the prosperity gospel. Another good example is the way Christmas is generally celebrated. Although the holiday is about the birth of Christ, the big focus of December 25 is typically the things we bought each other, even in Christian households. Culturally, it’s more of a time to give one another the things we’ve wanted all year; then, a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

In its more subtle forms, it reveals itself in the way wealth is often associated with church position. For example, have you ever seen a church leader (elder, priest, deacon, or pastor) whose lifestyle is below their community’s standard of living? Even in poorer neighborhoods, they tend to be near the top. After all, no matter how little people possess, having a nearly homeless religious leader would just be unbecoming.

The Problem

Last week I wrote a post about Souls (shameless plug). In that post, I talked about how the soul is not just a piece of who we are; it’s what makes us us.

“You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.”- George MacDonald

As the soul of American culture becomes more consumed and defined by Materialism, the parts dedicated to God and Love are lost. This product of cultural transformation is very natural. People, after all, can’t serve two masters, so one must be relinquished for the other. The consequences created by materialisms growing presence in the social norm can be hard to see if you live in the culture. Consequently, an outside opinion is often helpful.

On a trip to the States, Mother Teresa identified the issue outright.

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”  ― Mother Teresa, A Simple Path: Mother Teresa

Good Trees Produce Good Fruit

Much like a tree, the quality of a soul is seen in the fruits it produces. A soul that is like Christ gives good fruits. At the same time, souls that are not like our Lord grow fruit of dubious quality. (Matthew 7:17-20)

Consequently, I believe it might be time for us to reflect on the cultural forces and ideals that influence the ways we live our lives. And ask ourselves if they are, in fact, helping us move closer to the image of God.


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