Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 6)

 “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,” from The Velvet Underground (LP, 1968)

I confess I had a difficult time choosing open song lyrics for these final two segments, if only because openly Christian-friendly themes are relatively rare in progressive rock.

Yet that world contains artists who engaged in intense self-exploration and reached out to a spiritual reality, even if by accident.

The enormously talented Lou Reed (1942 – 2013), who penned the above lyrics, is an example. He’d seen the seamy side of human existence, including from the standpoint of a heroin addiction when he was in his twenties.

The song cited above sounds surprisingly like a prayer for someone who never became a Christian (I am assuming). Reed’s music has always struck me as that of an observer and seeker, 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 and causing those Maslovian peak experiences. And instead of spending eternity with God, Christians end up as worm food no less than non-Christians.

The New Atheists (Dawkins, et al.) have reiterated the “death of God” by predicting the decline of Christianity in the twenty-first century.

At first glance, indeed things do not look good. Whether Christians like it or not, the scientific outlook plus the dopamine drip supplied by endless streams of new high-tech gadgets and other sources of immediate gratification has made the Christian worldview seem irrelevant.

Understanding it, after all, does require an attention span longer than that of a goldfish.

Millennial church attendance is hence dropping, a source of commentary on Christianity losing ground in the U.S. The number of Americans answering polls on religious belief by marking “none” or the equivalent stands at its all-time high.

The Christian worldview is, moreover, incompatible with the political correctness that now grips Western culture from top to bottom, and which is all that millennials have ever seen.

All is not lost, however.

The fruits of secularism are evident, if one knows what to look for. These are impacting on everyone, everywhere.

Europe has been the scene of a reigning secularism for longer than the U.S. Perhaps this has something to do with the declining birthrates of native Europeans, the centralization of the European financial power structure under the EU, the accompanying impoverishment of the common people under “austerity” measures imposed by the central banks, and the gradual overwhelming of European cultures with unassimilable Muslim immigrants.

I can’t say I know this. I’ve not asked native Europeans why they aren’t reproducing themselves. Doubtless there are other contributing factors. But by now it should be clear what secularist materialism does to a civilization over time, as its ideals prove increasingly toothless and its values, uninspiring. Cultures embracing secularist materialism seem to die slowly from the inside out.

At the same time, it might be worth remembering that the Soviets spent 70 years trying to wipe out Christianity. They failed. The Maoists also tried to wipe it out. The present-day Chinese leadership is still hostile to Christianity, but Chinese Christians continue to worship underground, often at great risk. The North Koreans put Christians in what amount to death camps — but Christianity survives there. Radicalized Muslims behead Christians — but Christians continue to be active in the Middle East. There are cases of Muslims observing Christians’ bravery in the face of a cruel and bloody death, sometimes singing hymns during their last minutes, and converting to Christianity!

It may be losing ground in the West, but elsewhere, Christianity is the world’s fastest growing faith!

In light of all this, I think it’s safe to assume that the Christian worldview isn’t going anywhere. Not ultimately. What we should be thinking about is what it says, and what we (i.e., you) ought to do about it.

What does it say?

It stands, as I argued in Four Cardinal Errors (2011), in contrast to the materialist worldview. Here are its main pillars:

1- The God of Christianity exists, as a Being who transcends space and time as we experience them. God created the world of space, time, and causality. The things of God, including rational order and morality, transcend space and time. Logos and Ethos (logicality and morality) are inseparable aspects of God’s eternal nature, as is love (Agape) for the creation and all that it contains, including us.

God’s existence is a starting point or premise or axiom, not a conclusion of our reasoning (the central insight of a school of Christian thought known as presuppositional apologetics).

2- There is therefore this world of space, time, and causality and a transcendent reality “beyond” these, outside our mortal experience.

Reality is not, that is, coextensive with physical or material reality, where the properties of what we experience are conditioned by how our brains and senses are put together.

3- What science does it does reasonably well (when not corrupted by politics or corporate dollars). Science is designed to answer questions and solve problems in this world. It cannot effectively solve metaphysical problems, i.e., those mysteries noted above, any more than can reason alone. Reason, though its starting point is Logos, is human, all too human. It is finite, and so not designed to reach or grasp an infinite and eternal God.

Both Pascal and Kierkegaard grasped this. Later theologians, in awe of the successes of the sciences, let God slip away until He become nothing more than a feeling, a poetic word in our vocabulary, or until He “died.”

Until, that is, He seemed to become irrelevant, and belief in Him became a sign of backwardness.

4- According to Christianity all human beings (unborn babies, too) were/are created in God’s image. Human lives thus have intrinsic value. Nonhuman lives and the objects that surround us have, at best, extrinsic value. Although this is not to say we are free morally to treat them in any way we see fit.

Paraphrasing Aquinas, 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. Likewise our sense of morality. We have a built-in instinct, however finite and corrupted, for right versus wrong, justice versus injustice.

In this lies the early Enlightenment’s foundation for universal human rights. It is the only such foundation we have discovered, which explains why, once support for the Christian worldview in the intellectual centers began to erode, the ideal of universal human rights (once used to further political-economic rights of, e.g., ethnic minorities) has slipped in favor of the pseudo-intellectual free-for-all of identity politics.

The idea that all human beings were created in God’s image is the foundation for Christian ethics and for the idea that “all lives matter,” if you will.

5- The Christian worldview’s deep diagnosis of the human condition is not ignorance or corrupt institutions but sin: the first humans (whether we read Genesis literally or not) turned away from God. They rejected His authority. They believed they could do better on their own, as moral “free agents.” They were wrong. Sin corrupts everything, including the quest for truth.

Few modern thinkers want any frank discussion of sin. The idea flies in the face of human perfectibility, a legacy of the later Enlightenment. It flies in the face of the dogmas of countless schools of psychology and the self-improvement gurus who tell us that fundamental goodness is locked within each of us and has only to be freed.

Any honest, empirical look at ourselves in the context of history ought to dispel the idea that we can save ourselves. We can “reprogram” ourselves in specific areas, make cosmetic improvements here and there, akin to learning to bathe or ride a bike or use a computer. We can break bad habits, and acquire good ones. We can make ourselves more productive. Societies can improve themselves materially by learning how nature works and acting accordingly (agriculture, engineering, health and medicine, and so on).

It is true, moreover, that most of us tend to act better when our stomachs are full. But an empty stomach alone does not cause bad behavior. Nor does governmental policy or social sanction necessarily lead to good or just or even responsible behavior, or responsive institutions.

My argument is not that the materialist worldview has made us bad, or evil. It is that materialism has failed to change that fundamental sinfulness that prevents us from perfecting ourselves morally. Moreover, because of sin, technology developed in secular civilization has made us far more dangerous to ourselves and to the natural world!

The problem in secular civilization is: how do we have an ethics which sees our lives mattering?

Such a morality is simply not our human “default setting.”

Consider children. Some see them as pictures of innocence. It should be obvious, though, that children can be hideously cruel to classmates who do not “fit in.” Not all, of course. But enough. Where do they learn cruelty? Perhaps in some cases from their peers, but then where did their peers learn it? At home? Parents are not necessarily abusive; in today’s world, they are more likely to be absent.

So did they learn it from television?

There were bullies before there was television.

There is something in some of us that leads us to bully others, to the extent we can get away with it.

Most children who are not cruel, moreover, stand aside when someone is bullied out of fear they might become the bully’s next target.

Some adults remain bullies. While most of us probably mean well (we’ve internalized Christian moral principles even if we are not Christians), there are a few among us whose “principle” really is, “Doing as I please will be the whole of the law, to the extent I can get away with it.”

Which yields some of the societal results we see. We still try to devise rules that operate under the assumption that the desire to do good should be a primary motivator, when it often isn’t. Most of us have little interest in what does not affect us directly, or bring us immediate benefits, or enable us to better position ourselves in some social hierarchy, or win favor with some “in” group. All of us have our lapses, some of which are truly breathtaking!

Secularists believe we are autonomous in some sense, but absent an external moral compass, we often act as destroyers, of others if not ourselves, whether on the grand scale of the recent wars of choice in the Middle East or the small (but from the victim’s standpoint all-too-real!) one of the young teen who is bullied or cyberbullied until she commits suicide.

Unless such things happen to one of our own, we drift with the herd, or with the quiet secularists Peter Watson noticed (see Part 5).

6- The Christian prescription is: Jesus Christ, as God Incarnate. Read the Ten Commandments, Isaiah 53, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s letters to early Christian Churches, Peter’s instructions to Christians, and so on. Yes, there are sometimes problems interpreting what we perceive God’s will to be. Christians have disagreed over specifics. This is why we have so many Christian denominations.

The Christian worldview cuts through all this by focusing with laser-precision on Jesus Christ. Who was He? Why was he here? What are we going to do about it?

The Christian worldview’s answers are unequivocal: the fundamental problem with the human condition is sin (Romans 3:23). God is perfectly holy and so cannot tolerate sin. Hence the need for human redemption in salvation. Salvation is to be found in Jesus Christ who alone promises salvation from sin’s consequences if we call on Him (Romans 6:23; Romans 10:9-10; Romans 5:8, John 3:16f.; and elsewhere in Scripture).

We cannot save ourselves through “works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Christian worldview recognizes that if we try to start with ourselves morally we get nowhere, and that this observation is fully consistent with what we observe in history and society. This is a good place to begin appreciating the fact.

Skeptics prefer to try to throw us off track from this central message of the Christian worldview, and take us down a variety of rabbit trails of doubt.

The skeptic may say, You Christians think you have a monopoly on morality. Why then, have you fought wars with one another, and exhibited as much greed and cruelty as non-Christians?!

It is true enough, Christians have not always acted justly or with kindness or responsibly. No sensible Christian denies this.

What Christians have gotten wrong could fill a separate essay series: tragic historical battles between Catholics and Protestants; power struggles between different groups of believers, sometimes in the same organizations; personal moral lapses with major ramifications.

One thinks of the revelations of sexual abuses within the Catholic church, but again, these are just the now-visible lapses. Failures within Christian families lead to divorces and embittered and sometimes lost children. Failures to care for their neighbors and fellow citizens as God commands turns people away from Christianity.

Some Christians take it upon themselves to preach in public, haranguing people going about their business without any sense of the need to establish relationships with those people based on trust and good will. Then they wonder why they get a negative reaction.

Many contemporary televangelists preach a false gospel holding that God wants us all to be rich (the so-called “prosperity gospel”) — and please be sure to send the televangelist your generous contribution to his work.

There are times when I think supposedly Christian leaders and followers have done the Christian worldview more harm than atheist materialism ever could!

Those with power have repeatedly abused Christianity. Kings once proclaimed themselves anointed by God; their minions invoked God’s name while committing hideous acts. One thinks of the Spanish Inquisition. There are more recent examples.

When a politician today tries to intimate that “God is on his side” (he’s usually a Republican), frankly, I cringe with embarrassment!

Liberals sometimes speak of a conspiracy they call “dominionism,” which they associate with such politicians. But God gave humanity dominion over the world (Gen. 1:26). This does not mean what either group of politicians thinks it means. Dominion means assuming responsibility, not destructively plundering natural resources, or treating the oceans as dumping grounds for our nonbiodegradable plastic trash.

All this notwithstanding, we can still answer the skeptic: human, all-too-human failings do not prove that the Christian worldview is false, or that materialism is true. The latter, as we have seen, gives us no firm basis whatsoever for condemning these lapses other than expedience, or exercises in cleverness or free-floating, arbitrary postulates such as the libertarian / anarchist NAP.

For whatever failings Christians have exhibited surely pale next to the failures of secular ethical theories, and of secularism more broadly. As we saw in Part 5, secularism seems to lead straight to corporate-state control, the individual person reduced to a nonentity, a statistical cipher with a cubicle job or a sequence of “gigs.”

Appropriate for future worm food.

Turn to Christ! says the Christian.

But was there such a person? The skeptic may say no, no hard proof exists that He ever existed. The Christ figure seems copied from earlier Egyptian and other deities.

I find this strange. This last view seems based entirely on slipshod research about who these deities were and what they were supposed to have done. Christ-deniers, we might call them, cannot explain the direct observations of Jesus Christ following the resurrection by large crowds of people. Thus began what was recorded in the Book of Acts — Acts of the Apostles, that is — designated as such because they had seen the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1:3-9, 21-22; 1 Cor. 9:1; 2 Peter 1:16).

Should we believe these texts? our skeptic asks. Why?

One reason is that Biblical texts have been the most scrutinized of any texts in the world. They are, moreover, the only texts of which we can say we have manuscripts dating to within the lifetimes of their authors. We cannot say that about writings we ascribe to Plato, Aristotle, or other ancient authors, without really thinking about it. Biblical texts have survived close scrutiny. No one has been able to show that they are inauthentic, or contain demonstrable errors.

There were, as everyone knows, multiple gospels. Four made it into our New Testament. As for the others: early Christians were unequivocal: they don’t reflect what happened!

No one denies, moreover, that thousands of Christ’s disciples went willingly to their deaths at the hands of the Romans, so confident was their faith. Some of these deaths were truly grisly and excruciatingly painful! Any skeptic who doesn’t believe this should investigate for himself what crucifixion, a common method of execution in the Roman world, does to the human body and how long it takes.

Christianity won Rome over when Emperor Constantine converted at the start of the fourth century. It was too late for the Empire. The damage done by that era’s brand of secularism was done. Christianity went on to survive its decline and fall, going on to serve as the epistemic as well as the moral foundation of a new civilization: the modern West. Christianity afforded Western science the premises it needed: a universe of order that is intelligible to the human mind, a world in which there are definite rights and wrongs. Because the world was created by a Being of Logos and Ethos.

At this point, our skeptic might take a different tack. What of other faiths? he might ask. You were born in the U.S. and have been surrounded by trappings of Christianity for much of your life. You thus assume them. Suppose you’d been born in Baghdad. Or in Riyadh. Would you not condemning Western materialism as part of your submission to Allah, as a devout Muslim scholar (the word Islam means submission)?

Would you not be a Hindu or possibly a Buddhist, had you been born in, say, India? Or a Confucian, had you 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 or faith to be “the right one” is a given; no one would believe in it otherwise. Other religions stand at the center of other worldviews, non-Western ones in most cases. That means (by definition) they are not widely represented in the West.

High or low representation of a belief in a population has no logical implications for truth or falsity, however.

But one thing about the Christian worldview sets it apart from all those others.

All other faiths present human beings as able to save themselves, or some equivalent. None present us with precise criteria for when we have done enough. If you’re a Buddhist, e.g., you adhere to the “four noble truths,” and may enjoy a life of relative self-induced tranquility, but not a life in which you are assured of something infinitely better to follow.

In other faiths, the believer is never sure he or she has won salvation! The Muslim is never certain he’s submitted enough to win Allah’s favor!

Christianity alone asserts that you cannot save yourself. Rather, one becomes a Christian by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. One’s sins are then forgiven. Christians are assured by their worldview that they will spend eternity with God: a state of affairs we are unable to imagine in this life (1 Cor. 2:9).

We’ll end Part 6 on this note. This is the Christian worldview, and what sets it apart.

Have we proven that Christianity is true? To the unbeliever, almost certainly not.

Perhaps it will be more appealing if we see the Christian worldview as offering hope at a chance of an eternity of happiness beyond our present imaginings in the presence of the Creator of the universe … as opposed to one of our having suffered in this life, followed by a death of nothingness as our bodied become worm food.

Or not.

For as we’ll see in the seventh and final installment of this revamped series, our skeptic isn’t done.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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