Materialist, Deist, or Christian

We have a choice to make, each of us. It’s not a one-and-done choice; we make it every day — sometimes hour by hour, sometime minute by minute. The choice is this: will we live as materialists, deists, or Christians? The question is not so much about who we are — our identity — but rather about how we live — our existence.

For the materialists, all that exists is the material/physical world. Reality is natural, but not supernatural, immanent, but not transcendent. Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and popularizer of science, spoke for materialists in the opening lines of his book Cosmos:

The Cosmos (by which he meant the material universe) is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us…. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Sagan spoke macroscopically, on the largest, cosmological scale. Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman spoke for materialists microscopically, on the smallest, quantum scale:

If we were to name the most powerful assumption of all, which leads one on and on in an attempt to understand life, it is that all things are made of atoms, and that everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms (The Feynman Lectures on Physics).

We are in all our hopes and dreams and loves, in all our struggles and victories and sacrifices, in all our greatest art and literature and music, just jiggling and wiggling atoms, because that is all that is or was or ever will be in the cosmos. It seems redundant to say so, but strict materialists live as if no transcendent realm exists; what you see is what there is.

Deists reject strict materialism; they acknowledge a god and a supernatural realm. But, they separate — absolutely — the material and spiritual realms. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes deism:

A deist…believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs…does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles.

The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by deism, and it is that philosophy we find enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

While a Creator endowed men with certain rights, it is our responsibility to secure those rights. We do that through the institution of Governments whose power is granted and justified by those who are governed. How do we know this? It is self-evident, not revealed. The Creator started the process and then absented himself from it, turning it over to us. This is not just separation of Church and State; it is absolute separation of spiritual and material. Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest from Oak Ridge, describes this as the two-storey universe in his book Everywhere Present. We live here on the ground floor of the universe in the physical world. There is a spiritual world — we think — on the second floor, but there are no stairs connecting the two. What God does upstairs is his business; he leaves us alone to tend to our business on the ground floor. In point of fact, there is little behavioral difference between materialists and deists. In both cases, we are on our own to make our way in the world.

But, Christians live in a different cosmos: not strictly material, and not two-storey with material and spiritual strictly segregated. We live in a cosmos in which the material and spiritual overlap or interpenetrate, where there is continual congress between the realms, where we ourselves are both physical and spiritual beings, where this Collect for the Feast of Holy Michael and All Angels makes sense:

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

So, how do you live — as a materialist, a deist, or a Christian? Here’s a quick test — just a rule of thumb. You fall seriously ill. What do you do?

If you are living fully into the Christian faith, your first and most powerful recourse is to pray, to ask others to pray with and for you, and to seek the healing ministry of the Church with oil and the laying on of hands.

If you are living between worlds — between Christianity and deism — your first recourse is to seek medical attention. You pray also, but secondarily; your primary hope is in the physician.

If you are a true deist or materialist, you do not pray at all. Any help there may be lies solely with medical science and practice.

Well, that is overly simplified — a quick test, remember. But it is helpful, I think, and cautionary. It is all too easy for Christians to be lulled into the diminished world view of contemporary culture, a view that either denies the reality of the spiritual realm or walls it off so that it has no actual effect on our living: acceptable in church, perhaps, but not in our homes, schools, businesses, entertainment, politics, shopping — you know, in all the real, material moment-by-moment affairs of life. The Biblical world view offers a far richer — and truer — cosmological understanding, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven participating with us in our journey.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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