Recently, I have been working on a paper discussing rise of a subtle danger within the modern church – materialism. I also preached a message last Sunday evening on the same subject. Some of you might find the following observation a little interesting.
The Earlier Definition
In Christianity Through the Centuries, a text on church history, Earle. E. Cairnes briefly addresses the rise of materialism during the nineteenth century (1800’s). Even though he describes it as a “viewpoint that threatened the faith” and a threat “more subtle than higher criticism” (p. 422), Cairnes’ definition is limited to “the practice in modern society of emphasizing the material values of a high standard of living.”
In actuality, materialism was an economic and philosophical theory of history primarily developed by Karl Marx. Early on it had little to do with the modern understanding of the materialism with which we associate expensive trips to the mall around Christmas time. However, that is not to say that it did not have an impact on the Church, because it did. But what I am saying is that in the early stages of the word, the meaning was different. It had little to do with flagrant over-spending and $4.00 cups of coffee (which I never buy – except for my daughter – she’s precious).
Here’s what I’m talking about. The following is the definition of materialism in Webster’s 1828 dictionary:
The doctrine of materialists; the opinion of those who maintain that the soul of man is not a spiritual substance distinct from matter, but that it is the result or effect or the organization of matter in the body.
The Later Definition
AS you can see, the 1828 definition of materialism was limited to the philosophical understanding of the word. It had more to do with what an atheist might think, than a Christian. But when you take a look at Webster’s 1913 Dictionary, you can see some marked differences:
- The doctrine of materialists; materialistic views and tenets.The irregular fears of a future state had been supplanted by thematerialism of Epicurus. Buckminster.
- The tendency to give undue importance to material interests; devotion to the material nature and its wants [italics added].
- Material substances in the aggregate; matter.[R. & Obs.] A. Chalmers.
Did you notice the the second point? That was no where to be found in the original definition. That is more of what we understand materialism to be – the love of “stuff.”
Now, just google “define materialism” and you will see that the number one definition is understood to be “A tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.” That’s the subtle danger that threatens the faith.
How Do You Define It?
What is your definition? Has the culture changed you from one who never thought much about material possession, to someone who has to have the best that money can buy, or at least what makes others think you have it? Never forget the following words from Jesus, the One Christmas is all about…
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?…But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. – Mat 6:20-21, 31, 33 KJV
Any “ism” that causes you to focus on stuff, rather than the Creator, is an unprofitable proposition and the definition of materialistic folly.