The Problem With Materialism

All Brawn and No Brain

Sometimes the West seems to resemble a plane flying into the Twin Towers.  Western civilisation is crumbling, tearing apart, falling down.  Its centre cannot hold.  It leads many to panic.  Questions like What is going on?  or Why is this happening? are increasingly commonplace.

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis began by making a commonplace enough observation about society in his day.  He writes:

Everyone has heard people quarrelling.  Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but, however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important  from listening to the kinds of things they say.  They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”– “That’s my seat, I was there first”–“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”–“Why should you shove in first?”–“Give me a piece of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”–“Come on, you promised.”  People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown ups.  [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fontana Books, 1956), p. 15.]

Despite a radical change in the dominant world-and-life view from what held fast in Lewis’s day to our own, we can all identify with the kind of discourse Lewis describes above.  People still think and speak in these kinds of categories.  What are we to make of this?  Lewis continues:

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them  are not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him.  He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other  man to know about.  And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.”  Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. . . . It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play in decent  behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they are really agreed.  And they have.  If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals.  [Ibid., p.15f.]

He then goes on to point out that these Laws or Rules “used to be called” the Law of Nature.  But in these days, such an idea or construct is regarded as archaic, even meaningless.  It is metaphorically represented by the explosion, the tearing apart, and then, finally, the collapse of the Twin Towers into the void.  So passes what we used to call Western Civilization.  Nowadays, the “Law of Nature” is a strange, foreign idea, a relic from a bygone age.

Our modern and post-modern world would have us believe that only matter exists.  Moreover, it exists randomly.  Natural law, if it has any meaning at all, only tells us how matter behaves under certain conditions or factors.  And since matter alone exists, whatever men think, believe, or argue about is ultimately without meaning or significance.  Therefore, we are free (or condemned) to fight like animals (to use Lewis’s analogy).

It is not uncommon to hear people lamenting a lack of civility, particularly in the public square.  Disagreements quickly turn into violent clashes.  Freedom of speech in such an age is an anachronism, a joke.  It has to be.  Why?  Because in our modern/post-modern world, the ultimate authority upon which anyone’s beliefs and ideas rest is force and compulsion.  Either one’s beliefs are the product of the congruence of electrons or they are not.  If they are, then “freedom” of belief is an oxymoron.  If they are not a bare product of the alignment of sub-atomic particles, then whatever ideas exist are purely random and without any ultimate meaning or significance.  Force, not truth, becomes the defender and warrant for what one believes.  The only sanction left is to fight like an animal–to snarl, bite, and tear apart opponents until they lie (literally) bloodied and vanquished.

This is why the West is now tearing itself apart.  It recognizes no Law of Nature, no ultimate standard which binds all.  In the ensuing chaos, many claim the approbation of a particular Law of Nature, but its authority cannot exceed the prejudices of the claimant.  One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

Materialism–the belief that matter is all that there is–cannot build a civilization.  It can only deconstruct.  It can only tear down.  It can only proceed by more and more compulsion, force, and insistence–by more command and control.

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