|01-03-2013 - Traces, n. 3
THE FACTS ANSWER
THE TRUE MATERIALISM IS
TO NOT KNOW WHO WE ARE
IT IS A STEREOTYPED IDEA, AND OFTEN REDUCED EVEN AMONG THE BELIEVERS. BUT, AS CHRISTIANS, WE NEED TO GRAPPLE WITH SOMETHING MUCH GREATER THAT IS AT STAKE.
BY JOHN WATERS
I was recently speaking to a large gathering of Catholics in Ireland–priests and laypeople–about the state of Irish culture in the context of Christianity. Afterwards, a priest, who has a reputation as a bit of a left-winger, stood up and said that, contrary to what I'd said, there was more to the problems of the Irish Church than the culture of materialism I had decried. The odd thing was that I hadn't mentioned the word "materialism" at all. The nearest I'd come was to suggest that wall-to-wall coverage of economic issues on radio and TV did not reflect a true engagement with our recent difficulties.
It struck me again that, when you talk about faith or religion, people pay attention for a while to decide which box to put you in, and then stop listening.
The idea that "materialism" is bad is a frequent refrain in religious contexts. People have come to expect it, and to switch off when they hear it, or when they think they hear it. Even in Christian discourse, anti-materialism has been reduced to a slogan, whereby it might be interpreted that the Christian objection is merely a disapproval of money, the enjoyment of earthly things, and the pursuit of a life in which the "material" and the "spiritual" remain unintegrated to the detriment of the latter. Hence, the analysis seems to be a purely moralistic one, wagging a finger at self-indulgence and consumerism.
Sometimes you might think that Jesus had never become a man at all! But the true Christian objection to materialism is somewhat different to that prevailing in the general discourse, drawing attention to the reduction of man to a biological presence dictated by random factors, and observing that, consolidated in a socio-political context, this results in the denial of, or obliviousness to, the existence of eternal, absolute, and infinite dimensions in the human state of being.
The problem is not so much the denial of the spirit, but a lack of appreciation of the miracle of the flesh. Man, in his materiality, has concentrated increasingly on the most concrete, visible dimension of himself, assuming his being to reside wholly in this. But the deeper problem is that, in our body-centric condition, we overlook that it is by virtue of this very state that we become capable of asking the deeper questions: What is this edifice of flesh in which I live? And what, then, is this separate "I" who asks?
But, contrary to the moralistic objection, the clue to truly understanding this condition lies precisely in contemplating the physical and material dimensions, for only in this way does the spirit become knowable. There is, even in the densest depths of self-obsession (perhaps especially in this condition–as in, for example, the narcissism of the teenager who continually wonders why he was born), always an unspoken comparison with something that we do not "know." If we think ourselves blessed with existence, it is because we intuit some other dimension of being. Even if we do not think ourselves blessed, and even if–at the extreme–we fight against this existence and want to put an end to it, we infer that there is something else which will come to bear upon us, some peace perhaps, if only the peace of unconsciousness. Even in despair, we imagine a state that is better, as though this knowledge is built into our flesh.