It doesn’t seem to make sense to suggest that there might be such a thing as “good materialism” — after all, surely materialism is just plain bad? When people want to pinpoint the root cause of corruption in our age, they generally only need to point the finger at our attachment to material things. We’re apparently sick because we’re so materialistic.
It can seem as if we’re faced with a stark choice. Either you can be materialistic: obsessed with money and possessions, shallow, and selfish. Or, you can reject materialism, be good, and focus on more important matters of the spirit.
But most of us are, in our hearts, stuck somewhere between these two choices, which is uncomfortable. We are still enmeshed in the desire to possess — but we are encouraged to feel rather bad about it.
Yet, crucially, it’s not actually materialism — the pure fact of buying things and getting excited by possessions — that’s ever really the problem. We’re failing to make a clear distinction between good and bad versions of materialism.
Let’s try to understand good materialism through a slightly unusual route: religion. Because we see them as focused exclusively on spiritual things, it can be surprising to note how much use religions have made of material things. They have spent a lot of time making, and thinking about, shrines, temples, monasteries, artworks, scrolls to hang in houses, clothes, and ceremonies.
However, they have cared about these things for one reason only — because they have wanted material things to serve the highest and noblest purpose: the development of our souls. It is just that they have recognized that we are incarnate sensory bodily beings — and that the way to get through to our souls has to be, at least in part, through our bodies (rather than merely through the intellect).
The importance of material things was, for centuries, at the core of Christianity, which proposed that Jesus was both the highest spiritual being and a flesh and blood person: He was the spirit incarnate, holiness embodied.