It is common to hear complaints about the materialism of our modern culture. For it is certainly the case that much attention is given to “things” – whether making them, purchasing them, wearing them, or simply owning them. The modern world enjoys material wealth beyond anything ever imagined in human history. But it is a mistake to describe us as materialists. Materialism professes a certain concept of material goods. Atheist materialism, for example, holds that matter is all that exists – going so far in some cases as to think of the human mind as simply a strange artifact of the material world itself – chemicals and electrons firing across the synapses of the brain yielding the illusion of a soul.
Classical Christianity has a form of materialism, holding that the material world is created by the good God and that it has inherent value and meaning. St. Maximus (and many others) wrote in great detail about the logoi of created things, their inner meaning and reason. These are created through the Logos, the only-begotten Son of God. Such an understanding of creation views matter as something of an icon of the mind of God. The contemplation of the logoi of creation is one of the higher stages in the journey of salvation.
Our culture’s fascination with material things has almost nothing to do with a particular view of materiality. Video games can be just as satisfying as material events. What we find interesting about material things is precisely what we find interesting about all things: how they make us feel. It is our feelings and sentiments (thoughts experienced as feelings) that are the foundation of modern culture.
This phenomenon of sentiment applies to ideas (politics, sports, etc.) as well as material things. It is often a primary driving force behind the religious affiliation of modern believers. The constant barrage of polling and marketing samples that surround us are based on this phenomenon. Polls measure how people “feel” about things – not what they “think.” Thoughts are relatively stable – but feelings change with the wind.
True Christian materialism, seeing objects as possessing inherent worth and value, generally strikes modern people as “superstitious.” We prefer objects as souvenirs, reminders of what we have felt, but never as actual bearers of the holy.
Our modern disdain for the material world is especially displayed in our treatment of the human body.
Years ago, when I was a newly-ordained Episcopal deacon, I was asked to assist at a “burial” at a beach some 100 miles from the parish. Two daughters committed the ashes of their mother at a local beach they had visited together during their mother’s last months. She had told them to put her ashes there so that whenever they visited the beach they would think of her.
It was clear that the ashes themselves held no value for the women. Their mother herself was now a set of sentiments, a collection of memories. Her life was measured in their thoughts and feelings and nothing more. The committal was “beautiful,” filled with feeling. I am sure that the beach continues to be a place that holds a special memory for this family.
But this is a far remove from the Christian faith. For many modern believers, the bodies of the deceased are almost an embarrassment, a difficult and expensive inconvenience. What is valued is sentiment. The modern “celebration of life” that is increasingly replacing funerals in the US, often takes place without the remains (or “cremains”) of the departed. It is a festival of sentiment – very strongly held and deeply valued, but sentiment nonetheless.
All of this would be little more than a casual observation about a mere cultural phenomenon were it not also becoming the actual content of contemporary Christian believing. Sentiment has become a way of life to which no one living in our modern world is immune. Indeed, most are not only infected with its presence, but think it is normal and important.
To say that our culture is governed by sentiment is not at all the same thing as saying it is overly rational. There was a time when Western civilization was marked by a high degree of rationalism, but that time has long since passed. Sentiment has little, if anything, to do with rationality, or with conscious thought. Sentiment is a product of the passions.
The passions are passive and reactive in nature. They are not the result of consideration or rational process. They are more accurately described as how we “feel” about something rather than what we “think.” The fact that “think” and “feel” are today used almost interchangeably is a result of sentimentality replacing rationality.
The Christian faith cannot be acquired as a passion. That we come to have a set of feelings attached to various religious ideas or practices should not be confused with faith, nor with the process of salvation. It is little more than an expression of a temporary pleasure. It will never produce a stable spiritual life.
The nature of the passions, and of sentiment as their product, is rooted in the cycle of pain and pleasure. We run from pain and we seek pleasure. But in this distorted manner of living, we are entirely reactive and constantly driven by forces beyond ourselves. The nature of modern marketing (and thus of our entire consumer culture) works through this passion-driven model. Pain and pleasure in their varied forms have become the basis of our entire existence.
The Christian faith in its classical form sees our slavery to the passions as the mechanism of sin – it always draws us away from God and true human existence. Human life is simply not possible if it is completely given over to the passions. The need for suffering and sacrifice, for bearing pain and even embracing it in certain circumstances, is a requirement for life in this world. Were no one willing to bear pain, no child would be born, much less reach adulthood. That childbearing has come to be delayed (or rejected) is itself a testament to the power of modern sentiment.
Christ equated the way of salvation with the way of the Cross. His reference was not only to His own Cross, but to the voluntary and shared suffering of all. It is for this reason that Orthodox Christianity is always “ascetical.” Orthodox Christians learn to practice self-denial as a normative part of their lives. They fast, pray, give alms, practice hospitality, as part of the simple effort of learning to be truly and properly human. Orthodox services are often long and “boring” by some standards. But the “boredom” is a reflection of an event that is not centered on the production of human pleasure. The purpose of worship is to offer praise and thanksgiving to God. In the tradition of the Church, it also offers a measure of self-denial.
Learning to recognize sentiment for what it is and not to put it forward as a justification for our lives and actions is an essential part of Christian discipleship. How we “feel” is little more than a report on the state of dopamine in our brains. It is not without value, but it can never be the primary value. No time in human history has been as dominated by sentiment as our own age. We are thus not the wisest nor the most knowledgeable generation – we are the most gullible and the most easily manipulated. The salesmen and hucksters of our age, whether religious, political, moral or otherwise are puppet masters. And they themselves are puppets – but to a much darker and nefarious lord.