I Buy, Therefore I Am: How Materialism Twists Our Identity

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I Buy, Therefore I Am: How Materialism Twists Our Identity

Materialism could be defined as “a preoccupation with or tendency to seek after or stress material things rather than intellectual or spiritual things.”[1] We can also define it as “any set of doctrines stressing the primacy of material over spiritual factors in metaphysics, value theory, physiology, epistemology, or historical explanation.”[2] With this also comes the notion of material culture, which is the “totality of physical objects made by a people for the satisfaction of their needs; especially those articles requisite for the sustenance and perpetuation of life.”[3]

The Legitimate Pursuit of Material Culture

“For the sustenance and perpetuation of life,” it is legitimate to pursue material things. The desire to acquire material wealth is not in itself evil. In fact, writing in Counsels on Stewardship, Ellen White remarks, “The desire to accumulate wealth is an original affection of our nature, implanted there by our heavenly Father for noble ends” (p. 148).

The Bible is very positive about material wealth, to the extent that it states, “It is He [God] who gives you power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:18).[4] God blessed Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and a host of other people with material blessings. The Bible further commands that “if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

However, the Bible spells out the right relationship between God, humanity, and matter. This relationship is crucial, because once we miss it, we are bound to lose our identity and pursue material things as ends in themselves—a pursuit that amounts to a life of meaninglessness and idolatry.

God—Our Source of Identity

graphic of relationship between God, humans, material thingsIn the Bible, we find a triangular relationship between God, humans, and material things. Humans derive their worth from God directly. Intrinsically, we have been made in the image of God. This is so important that the Bible states it more than once. In Genesis 1:26 God said, “Let Us man in Our image, according to Our likeness,” and again in Genesis 1:27, “In the image of God he created them, male and female” (NET).

Because God created us, our identity as human beings is vertically derived from God. It is only by realizing that our value and identity are primarily derived from God that we can have absolute peace and fulfillment. It is because of this that the trials and privations of life cannot rob us of our worth. It is because of this that the Apostle Paul, for example, could rejoice in prison (Phil. 4:10) and urge others to rejoice in all circumstances (Phil. 4:4).

Understanding this truth is crucial. It underscores why every human being deserves to be respected with utmost courtesy without partiality. Extrinsic elements like riches, poverty, education, race, gender, appearance, accent, cultural background, and economic status do not define human value and identity. And nothing can rob a person of his/her identity derived from the imago dei (image of God). Even hardcore sinners still bear the imago dei, and that’s why God can reclaim them.

Man or Matter—Who Rules?

With our value, identity, and sense of worth coming from God because we bear His image and likeness, we relate to material things as gifts from God for our sustenance. In fact, in Genesis 1:28 we are commanded to “have dominion” over God’s creation. We are given this dominion not because these created entities add value or give us a sense of identity. On the contrary, our likeness to God as bearers of His image enables us to share in the divine rule over creation as stewards. Thus, any attempt to derive our worth and identity from material things and pursue them as ends in themselves can never lead to fulfillment.

Identity Crises

Our civilization is currently embroiled in identity crises. We no longer find our identity in God. On the contrary, we relentlessly pursue material things for value and identity. It seems our hearts are restless until we acquire the latest Apple computer; the flashiest car; a magnificent house in a cozy, wealthy setting; and the list goes on ad infinitum.

For example, in September 2011, UNICEF UK published a report of a comparative analysis of children’s well-being in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Spain.[5] The research paid particular attention to the interplay between materialism, inequality, and well-being to determine how children experience this relationship.[6]

The findings of this research were stunning. It disclosed how most children tie up their personal worth and identity with material things. It further revealed, “As children move to secondary school, clothing, footwear and technology brands became increasingly important in both creating identity and signaling membership of particular social groups in all countries.”[7] In addition, “the symbolic use of brands to either confer superior status or avoid bullying was much more problematic.”[8] Even more startling was the discovery that “rather than wanting to acquire things for their own sake, children seemed to use material objects and consumer goods to fulfill a range of purposes in their lives: utilitarian, symbolic and social.”[9]

This desperate search for identity once our society has severed its link with God, from whom we derive our identity, is all too pervasive. In another research project in Japan, “the Hakuhodo Institute studied the consumption patterns of Japanese youth, and reported that identity was the fulcrum for youth consumers. More than half of the young consumers believed that the products they purchased represented their identities.[10]

Even in the United States “there are more shopping malls than public high schools, one new franchise opens every eight minutes, seventeen billion catalogs are distributed annually, on-line shopping has become a multi-billion dollar industry, discount superstores dot the suburban landscape, and cruise ships carry five million passengers per year,” wrote Michael Jessup of Taylor University more than a dozen years ago. He noted the disturbing fact that “American parents spend more time shopping than playing with their children, and Americans spend three or four times as much time shopping as Western Europeans. In essence, Americans are consuming twice as much as they were forty years ago, while outstanding consumer credit rose to $1.4 trillion in 1999.”[11] (It’s now more than $3.3 trillion!)[12]

Materialism and the Death of Transcendence

Although the desire to acquire and revel in wealth as an end in itself is a product of the selfish heart of humanity, we can trace some historical antecedents that may have contributed to the apotheosis of materialism in our contemporary culture. Beginning from the Renaissance, humanism emphasized the role of human beings and gradually diminished the active role of God in culture. This trend was worsened by the Enlightenment project, which deified human intellect and reason. People like the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in his Critique of Pure Reason “drew a sharp line of division between things as they appear to us and things as they are in themselves,” inflicted serious blows to traditional Christian faith.[13] By arguing that reason cannot know God as He is in Himself, Kant in effect slaughtered transcendence, thus destroying one leg of the God-humans-wealth triangle.

Nietzsche, who in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra declared that God is dead and “that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable,” further radicalized this notion.[14] In Reading the New Nietzsche, David B. Allison remarked, “We could say that God simply died of atrophy, that there was no longer felt to be need for the old God. His function as creator, confessor, balm, judge, and accountant was replaced by another agency, namely, Science, and by another faith—the faith and belief in an omnipotent technology.”[15]

The French Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) in his Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man dismissed belief in God as repressive superstition. Obedience to natural desires is what really matters. He insisted that abandoning faith in God is the first step to enjoying life.[16] Ludwig Feuerbach wrote that God is an invention and argued that the Christian’s belief in heaven impoverishes the one and only life we have by distracting us from its joys and concerns.[17] Karl Marx argued that the idea of God is a human creation in response to alienation experienced through the process of production. “Religion,” he wrote, “eases pain by creating a dream world, especially the fantasy of a supernatural world where all sorrows cease”—a clear reference to the biblical vision of the New Jerusalem, in which there will be no pain, suffering, or weeping (Revelation 21:4).[18]

relationship of humans and material things without GodThese powerful ideas have all contributed to the death of transcendence and the consequent reign of an immanent culture of materialism. We no longer search for meaning through a vertical relationship with God. Rather we pursue our quest for identity, value, and meaning horizontally. Now we look for our identity and value through omnipotent technology and its brainchild, materialism. Materialism is thus the highway to happiness as well as the last clutch of our value and identity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian novelist, in his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University rightly lamented, “Western civilization” is set “on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs.”[19]

Drinking from a Broken Cistern

Because God did not create material things to satiate the deeper inner desires of the heart, pursuing worth and value through them has proven elusive. Thus we are caught up in a relentless cutthroat pursuit, which always proves like hybel, striving after the wind, to use the words of Ecclesiastes. As a result “westerners now live in distinctly consumerist societies without an acquisitive ceiling,” which “depends precisely on persuading people to discard as quickly as possible what they were no less insistently urged to purchase, so that another acquisitive cycle might begin.” It is noteworthy that “in proportion as an individual’s identity is derived from consumption, the quest to (re)construct and (re)discover oneself is inseparable from endless acquisitions—there can never be ‘enough’ if to be is to buy.”[20]

The Destructive Midas Touch

The legend of King Midas[21] may perhaps be illustrative. Midas, a king in Phrygia, was hospitable to Silenus, the old schoolmaster of Dionysus. In appreciation, Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wished for. The greedy, materialistic Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. When he came home, he touched his food and it turned into gold; he touched his water and it turned into gold. The legend even has it that he touched his daughter and she turned into gold. Greed and unreasonable desire for riches motivated him till it almost destroyed his life.

As with Midas, our desire for material prosperity as an end in itself is destructive and unfulfilling. How many marriages are hemorrhaging because of ruthless desire to climb the corporate ladder? How many of our precious children have been sacrificed to the gods of Hollywood—immorality, violence, and filthy language—because Mom as well as Dad has no time for kids? “Despite sociological evidence to the contrary, it remains to all appearances virtually axiomatic that the acquisition of consumer goods is the presumptive means to human happiness—and the more and better the goods, the better one’s life and the happier one will be.”[22]

Contrary to the expectation of some parents from the UNICEF study in the UK, “the message from all the children who participated in the research was simple, clear and unanimous: their well-being centres on time with a happy family whose interactions are consistent and secure; having good friends; and having plenty of things to do, especially outdoors.” These “children articulately shared their views that fashionable brands did not bring lasting happiness.” [23]

Putting Things in the Right Perspective

Perhaps it is time we paid attention to Saint Augustine’s statement that “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” We work hard and receive more than ever, but we find less satisfaction. Could it be that our search for meaning in material things is a fiasco because it is only in God that we find our true value and identity?

This is what the Bible points to. In Luke 12:15, Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (NIV). Luke 12:13, 14 introduces the question of inheritance and the proper use of possessions. The first principle Jesus lays out in verse 15 is that life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.[24] As Darrell Bock remarks concerning this, “When Jesus makes this warning, he has more in mind than monetary accumulation. If Jesus were alive today he would see the attitude behind the expression ‘The one with the most toys wins’ as a prescription for failure in life.”[25]

Take to Give

For the Christian, everything that we own, including wealth, influence, power, is always a means to an end. We do not line up in the cutthroat competition of life for value or identity because our value and identity are firmly entrenched in who we are as sons and daughters of God who have been created in His image. Thus money in our hands ought to be the means to bless others. It should be food for the poor, clothing for the needy, shelter for the homeless.

In fact, this give-and-take relationship, which is itself antithetical to a materialistic mindset, is the underlying bedrock in which God designed how things should be. For instance, He called Abraham and promised to bless him, not as an end in itself, but so that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

In The Desire of Ages, Ellen White with poetical beauty captures this principle when she writes that “the glory shining in the face of Jesus is the glory of self-sacrificing love” and that “in the light from Calvary it will be seen that the law of self-renouncing love is the law of life for earth and heaven” (p. 20). To illustrate, she points to this law as it unfolds in nature:

No bird that cleaves the air, no animal that moves upon the ground, but ministers to some other life. There is no leaf of the forest, or lowly blade of grass, but has its ministry. Every tree and shrub and leaf pours forth that element of life without which neither man nor animal could live; and man and animal, in turn, minister to the life of tree and shrub and leaf. The flowers breathe fragrance and unfold their beauty in blessing to the world. The sun sheds its light to gladden a thousand worlds. The ocean, itself the source of all our springs and fountains, receives the streams from every land, but takes to give. The mists ascending from its bosom fall in showers to water the earth, that it may bring forth and bud. (pp. 20, 21)

However, it is sad to note that “there is nothing, save the selfish heart of man, that lives unto itself” (p. 20).

As Christians, we must remember that what we have does not determine who we are. More than being possessors of inalienable rights, we are bearers of the image and likeness of God. Thus we are valuable regardless of our gender, social status/class, and all human distinctions. All our material possessions are only the means to sustain our lives and bless the less fortunate. With this in mind, we can use our wealth not for our own glorification but for the glory and honor of God.

_________

[1] Philip Babcock Gove, ed., Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1986), 1392.

[2] William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1980), 457.

[3] Webster’s, 1392.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.

[5] http://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/Publications/Ipsos-MORI-child-well-being/

[6] The research was in two phases with two qualitative methodologies: an ethnographic phase, which observed and filmed 24 families across the three countries, and a series of in-depth interviews with peer groups of over 250 children (age eight to 13) in schools.

[7] http://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/Publications/Ipsos-MORI-child-well-being/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, Report of Youth Consumption Trends in 1994. (Tokyo: Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, 1994), 140-149. Quoted from Michael Jessup.

[11] Michael Jessup, “Truth: The First Casualty of Postmodern Consumerism,” Christian Scholar’s Review, Spring 2001, XXX:3, 289-304.

[12] http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/TOTALSL/

[13] Frederiek Depoortere, The Death of God (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 154.

[14] Ibid.

[15] David B. Allison, Reading the New Nietzsche (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001), 92.

[16] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (New York: Doubleday, 2004), Kindle Edition, chapter 2, section 7.

[17] Ibid., chapter 3, section 2.

[18] Ibid., chapter 3, section 3.

[19] http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html

[20] Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), Kindle Edition, 245 of 8687.

[21] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midas#Myths_about_King_Midas

[22]Gregory, 251 of 8687.

[23] http://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/Publications/Ipsos-MORI-child-well-being/

[24] Jonathan F. Groth, gen. ed., Concordia Commentary, Luke 9:51-24:53 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 504-505.

[25] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, series ed. Grant R. Osborne (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 224.

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Derick Adu serves as youth pastor for the Ghanaian Adventist Church in Columbus, Ohio.