At a time of year when everybody and their brother and their brother’s dog seems to be denouncing materialistic greed and crass commercialism and stuff, it is perhaps wise to pause and reflect on what, exactly, we are denouncing. Slipping off roads and into ditches is one thing we human beings are particularly good at – and so when we see a thing being abused, we assume the thing itself is at fault. We forget that it isn’t Scrooge’s wealth that makes him a humbug, but his reckless pursuit of it.
So. Before we go running around in our Gnostic fig-leaves, bewailing the stuffy stuffness of stuff, a good think is in order. And a capital place to start would be the opening paragraphs of chapter seven in Robert Farrar Capon’s Bed and Board:
It is sometimes easy to get the impression that Christians take a dim view of things – that they are much more in favor of indifference than caring. There is a lot of clucking over the evils of what is referred to as this materialistic age, and most people just take it at face value. But we are not a materialistic age at all. We would be better off if we were. We are the most devilishly spiritual of all ages: Poor old matter, like poor old flesh, takes a bad drubbing. Far from caring too much for it, we are forever beating it out of its natural shape into fetishes and status symbols which are more to our liking. Matter itself gets very few chances to speak. And therefore the usual sermons against it are off base. It isn’t matter that’s opposed to spirit – the two were designed to go together; what is opposed to spirit is perverted matter, uncared for matter, unloved and unlovely matter. And matter doesn’t get that way on its own steam. It is perverted precisely by being cared for irrelevantly by spirit, by being loved, not for what it is, but for what it does for me and means to me.
True enough, Christians are told to deny themselves material things, but it’s very easy to miss the point. The goal of all Christian self-denial is the restoration, not the destruction, of nature; the removal, not of matter, but of perversion. The saint fasts in order that someday his body, with all its parts and desires, may become whole and operative again. he is emphatically not trying to cease caring about matter. He is not in the business of stripping off a useless cocoon in order that the beautiful butterfly of his real self can fly free. The Christian religion is not about the soul; it is about man, body and all, and about the world of things with which we was created, and in which he is redeemed. Don’t knock materiality. God invented it.
Matter is actually more of a help than a hinderance to spirit. A soul without a body is a ghost; the traditional notion of ghosts as poor, lonely, helpless beings is sound. Without my body I am only half a man. Nor does Christ himself seem to spend much time complaining about materiality. He seems, in fact, to have enjoyed it. His reputation as a glutton and a winebibber, undeserved though it undoubtedly was, must have had some foundation in fact. He seemed to care and he seems to intend that we should care, too. It’s not only that our lives will inevitably be involved with matter, but that they ought to be. Adam is made in the image of God. If God made things because he liked them, God’s image should not be surprised to find that, in his own proportion, he likes them too. Adam is the priest of creation. His truest work is to offer up reality itself, not just a headful of abstractions about it. Only the perversions of matter can be wrong. Things, as such, are never bad; they are not even indifferent. They are positively good. Let a man just once really face fish or fowl, bread or wine, shoelace or gummed label, and he will know he has by no means lowered himself. In lifting them up, he himself grows taller.