Throwback Thursday: The Menace of Modern Materialism

In one of his exalted musings, the poet Shelley longed for “such society as is quiet, wise, and good.” It is at once evident that the English bard would be discouraged if he sought for that kind of society in the world of today, for in not one feature of the desired trinity of idealism does it qualify.

To get a realistic picture of the character of our social fabric, all we need to do is to resort to such an authority as J. Edgar Hoover, former head of the FBI. He certainly would have known, for it was his particular responsibility and that of the valued organization he directed, to see that society was kept on an even moral keel and that all contrary movements that would harm it were suppressed or denied development. In article after article in many of our popular periodicals and magazines, Mr.
Hoover warned that human society was in anything but a healthy character condition. And to make the picture darker, Mr. Hoover held out nothing but anxious fears as to his moral status in the future. The FBI leader was no black-frocked preacher with doleful tones and jeremiad gloom. He was a scientist, student of human facts. He saw objectively. He knew full well that while there were many who were noble, upstanding citizens of the commonwealth, guided by sound moral and spiritual standards, there were all too many who “in the path of social life Do bask their spotted skins in Fortune’s sun, And sting the soul.” But if Mr. Hoover was substantiating facts, he was at the same time verifying prophecy.

Strikingly–and how this does prove the inspiration of the Good Book–almost two millennia ago the apostle Paul left this record: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

With this undeniable portrayal before us, let us examine the pigments that go into the painting of this painful picture on the social canvas of our day. One of them is the intense materialism that has benumbed our moral and spiritual sense. As a result of our mastery in science and mechanics, we have forced the earth to supply to the full its minerals, its chemical elements for our use in industrial production and commercial exchange-and for our abuse in the increasingly devastating and annihilative operations of war. This plethora of materialistic things and procedures has sown the wild oats of human breakdown in the field of our daily living. It has tempted man to glorify his works, to the disregard of his soul. Instead of safeguarding character as the finest expression of our being, it has put the emphasis altogether too much on secular careers; instead of keeping on op moral motivation as the ascendant human virtue, it has caused us to degenerate to the regimentation of an all-too-apparent mechanical movement.

It is small wonder that Dr. Alexis Carrel, in his book, Man, the Unknown, wrote revealingly: “In learning the secret of the constitution and of the properties of matter, we have gained the mastery of almost everything which exists on the surface of the earth, excepting ourselves” (p. 2).

“We realize that, despite the immense hopes humanity has placed in modern civilization, such a civilization has failed in developing men of sufficient intelligence and audacity to guide along the dangerous road on which it is stumbling. Human beings have not grown so rapidly as the institutions sprung from their brains” (p. 22).

“Man should be the measure of all. On the contrary, he is a stranger in the world that he has created. He has been incapable of organizing this world for himself because he lacked practical knowledge of his own nature. Thus, the enormous advance gained by the sciences of inanimate matter over those of living things is one of the greatest catastrophes ever suffered by humanity. The environment born of our intelligence and our inventions is adjusted neither to our stature nor O our shape. We are unhappy. We degenerate morally and mentally. The groups and the nations in which industrial civilization has attained its highest development are precisely those which are becoming weaker. And whose return to barbarism is the most rapid. But they do not realize it. They are without protection against the hostile surroundings that science has built about them. In truth, our civilization, like those preceding it, has created certain conditions of existence which, for reasons still obscure, render life itself impossible” (pages 27, 28).

Robert Louis Stevenson was wrong when he sang:

“The world is so full of a number of things, and we should all as happy as kings.”

We have had “a number of things,” but instead of making us “happy as kings,” they have magnified our cares, selfish ambitions, sinful competitions, and slavery to the flesh instead of freedom in the spirit.

Note this statement of the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr., one of our country’s wealthiest and most practical men. If anyone knew what materialism was and what it gave us, it was he. “The real purpose c our existence is not to make a living, but to make a life.’ With profound insight, this capitalistic leader recognized that for each one of us, life is divided into two factors, the means by which we live, “to make a living,” as he put it, and the ends for which we live, or “to make e life.” Inasmuch as the ends are always greater than the means, Mr. Rockefeller knew, as I must know, that it: is only as we successfully attain them that life IS made worthwhile.

We would not be misunderstood. Material benefits are not in themselves evil. We have to live in this world, and if our living can be bettered by increased materialistic means: much to the good for all of us. Our Lord Himself said, “All these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

The evil is in allowing things to become our master, to cheat us from the possession of the higher values of life.

When Paul opened his category of the social evils of our time with the words, “for men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous,” he directly referred to modern materialism and its blighting influence. Few men, of course, love money for itself. Most of us have common sense enough to know that what we can possess through its exchange gives it value. Since our scientific and mechanical age has given us vastly more things to enjoy, the demand has advanced to get hold of more and more money so we can possess them. It is right here that one of our Lord’s parables fits as a warning:

“He said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought within himself, saying, What shall do, because I have no room where O bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: will pull down barns, and build greater, and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine case, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is pt rich toward God” (Luke 12:15-21).

The “night” is soon to come when Jesus at His return (for He will come ‘as a thief in the night,” according to 1 Thessalonians 5:2) will make a reckoning with human society; and then what about our materialism and its fleshly benefits and pleasures? May we lay up those spiritual treasures of faith, obedience, and hope that will win us entrance into the better world.

Originally published in Message Magazine’s October 1979 Edition by William G. Wirth

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