Materialism, Stoicism, and Faith
This post does not have the usual cartoons, because it is a reprint of an article I wrote earlier this year. It appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Colloquy, a publication of Gutenberg College, www.gutenberg.edu. Reprinted by permission.
In early March, our apartment had a fire. The fire did not endanger our lives, and since we were in the middle of moving, it did not leave us homeless. We were—thankfully—unharmed, but the fire damaged our belongings. It burned, melted, and covered in soot the objects that were still in the apartment, about half of what we owned. In the weeks following, we spent day after day in the sooty apartment salvaging, cataloging, and photographing those objects.
So I have found myself thinking a lot about material things. This includes the mundane tasks of replacing items and listing them for the insurance, but I have especially been thinking about how I should think about them. There are two easy answers to this question, two default reactions to the destruction of physical objects: devastation and apathy. To put these reactions in terms of worldviews, one can adopt an outlook of materialism or of stoicism. My purpose here is to argue that neither outlook is satisfactory. Instead, when God is brought into the picture a middle way comes into view, one that is simultaneously harder and better. We must have faith.
Materialism is deceptively easy to address. Everyone knows you are not supposed to be a materialist in the sense of having your life revolve around possessions. Those who violate this principle are the villain of the movie or the character who learns at the end that money can’t buy love. At the same time, however, materialism is incredibly attractive and often seeps into our hearts unnoticed. So why do we amass things and invest such value in them?
A major attraction is control. When I have things, I can do what I want, when I want: I can control my abilities. Additionally, when I have X, I can be seen by others (or just think of myself) as the sort of person who has X: I can control my image. The attractions of control for me can be illustrated with my book collection. A Great Books college naturally stokes a love of books, so as a graduate of Gutenberg I have not shied away from collecting them. I take great pride in the variety of my books, and it is nice to have whatever I want at my fingertips.
The fire, however, removed my control. All but two of my books were still in our old apartment. No books burned, but they all got bathed in smoke and covered in oily soot. As I write this, we are having them professionally cleaned, but we don’t know which are salvageable. In the time since the fire, I have thought of many ways I would like to use the books, but I have not been able to start these projects. There is also a sense in which I don’t know how to think about myself. Am I still someone who has a good book collection? The damage to the books is one of the aspects of the fire that hit me the hardest. I am tempted to be devastated.
The Bible is clear about a relationship to objects that focuses on image and control. Not only is it unwise, but it is idolatry.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.Matthew 6:19-21, 24
It is foolish to find our worth in things or count on our ability to control them, since they are inherently perishable. They rust. They are stolen. They burn. But here Jesus is doing more than giving practical advice. He is also warning that loving things is hating God, that our hearts follow our treasure. Materialism is idolatry. So whether we consider materialism as simply unwise or as a rejection of God, it is not the way to view objects.
Recognizing this, it is easy to swing to the other extreme. Immediately after the fire, I told myself, “Oh well, the books are just things. I can live without them.” I was deciding not to care about them. Or, better, I was trying not to care about them. Why would I try to convince myself that I don’t care when I actually do? Because the opposite of materialism—stoicism—is also highly attractive. When compared to materialism its problems may not be as obvious, but as a way of thinking about objects it can also be problematic.
Epictetus, a Roman stoic, gives one of the most helpful presentations of stoicism in his Enchiridion (or Handbook). In it he holds out the benefits of stoicism as being “equanimity, freedom, and tranquility” (29). We can be at peace within our own minds. This tranquility is such a great benefit because life often disturbs us with its pandemics, wars, and fires. However, as Epictetus would like us to understand, the real problem is that we find life disturbing, not that it actually is:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible.Enchiridion, 5
Events in themselves are not bad, he is counseling. Instead, they are bad if we think them so. When it comes to my books, then, I was proceeding in the correct manner. I was thinking about them as things I can live without, and in doing so I was bringing calm to my mind, rather than being upset by the effects of the fire. This can sound like good advice, particularly in comparison with materialism. Rather than overvaluing material things, I simply say that they don’t matter. I am apathetic. While there are times where this can be a helpful way to think (such as when I get a spaghetti sauce stain on my new white shirt), the stoic outlook arises out of a deeper, more problematic commitment.
Epictetus makes this cornerstone of stoicism clear right at the beginning, when he explains the most important distinction to recognize:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.Enchiridion, 1
We can control how we think about things, what we pursue, what we want, and what we avoid. That is, we can control our minds. Everything outside our minds is also outside our control. This includes ephemeral things, such as what others think of us, but also every physical object we see and even our own bodies. Acknowledging this distinction is the way to tranquility.
[Examine every event as to] whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.Enchiridion, 1
Stoicism, then, just as with materialism, is about control. With materialism, I try to control my image or ability by acquiring things, and one problem is that these things, in turn, are out of my control. So I fail. Stoicism embraces this fact so that I can remain in control. I just need to avoid caring about anything I cannot control, and this leaves everything that matters to me firmly in my hands.
One could question whether this method achieves the tranquility stoicism promises, but I will not do so here. Instead, I will simply point out that stoicism is a lie. Events are not neutral; some are genuinely good, while others are bad. This is vividly illustrated in a passage where Epictetus tries to advise the opposite:
If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.Enchiridion, 3
If my favorite mug breaks, then I can tell myself, “There are plenty of other mugs.” Similarly, if my family member dies, I can tell myself that there are plenty of other humans. Upon reading this, my students invariably declare it to be horrible. Of course it is a bad thing when someone I love dies. Epictetus recognizes that this common response is natural. He just argues it is one we must overcome. However, it is better to see this natural response as instead pointing at the truth—not only with regard to the human being but even when it comes to the mug.
This truth can be seen in the Bible. While it certainly does not condone materialism, neither does it take the position that material things are nothing. Abraham was blessed by God, and this resulted in Abraham being “very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2). When the Israelites are instructed by God to build the tent of meeting and its furnishings, they are told to have it made by a man filled with “the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Exodus 31:3-5). God wants these things to be made well and beautifully.
Even Jesus, right after the exhortation not to lay up treasures on earth, tells us that material things matter:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. … And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. … Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.Matthew 6:25-32
On a first reading, it may look like Jesus is endorsing a form of stoicism: life is more than food and clothing, so don’t let these things be of any concern to you. But this is not his point, for he also makes the very un-stoic statement that “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” God knows that we need these things. We are physical creations who live in a world of physical objects, and we can’t pretend like they don’t matter. This passage tells us the key to thinking about the objects around us, but let me approach this message by way of the fire again.
Being in the old apartment after the fire was one of the strangest and most disturbing experiences of my life. Everything felt at the same time incredibly familiar and utterly foreign. In trying to put my finger on what was so disturbing about seeing the ruined things, I was struck by my reaction to a blackened water pitcher on the kitchen counter. This pitcher was nothing special. We have already replaced it. Nevertheless, it was disturbing to see it lying on the counter, coated in soot. I realized the unsettling feeling arose from two conflicting thoughts that came simultaneously: 1) this is an item that I used and planned to continue using, and 2) this is an unusable object. The thing that disturbed me was my lack of control.
This is what Jesus is asking us to focus on when he turns our attention to the birds and the lilies, because the anxiety he cautions against arises from desiring control I don’t have. Instead, he is asking us to recognize that the one in control is God, and in light of this, we need to trust Him. We need to have faith.
There is nothing wrong with having a pitcher or valuing books. If we avoid investing our identity in these things or using them to conform life to our specifications—if we avoid the dangers of materialism—then having them is a good thing. We should enthusiastically affirm their goodness, rather than—like the stoic—pretend that they are inherently nothing. This leaves us in the uncomfortable position, however, of acknowledging that the good things in the world, the things that we want and need, are out of our control. This is why materialism and stoicism draw us: faith is hard. But if we listen to the message of the Bible, we know God’s character and know that we can trust Him, even when doing so is difficult. He knows what we need and is committed to us.
Why does God bring fires to destroy things that are good? Ultimately, that knowledge is God’s alone. At the same time, the Bible does speak of God’s flames not only in terms of destruction but also in terms of purification:
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.Malachi 3:2-3
I can say that God has used the trials of my life—including the literal fire—to refine my faith. I need to trust that the sovereign God knows what I need, even when what I need is to lose what I want. I am surrounded by flammable objects, and when they burn it is a purifying fire that leads me to place my trust in God, preparing me for residence in a kingdom without moth, rust, or fire, a kingdom where the things around me will still be out of my hands but where I will have complete peace even without having control.
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- Epictetus. Enchiridion. Translated by Elizabeth Carter. Third edition. http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html. [Number references are to the sections of the Enchiridion.]
- The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.