Growing up in a Roman Catholic household materialism was the most wicked sin, more wicked even than Protestantism. At least the Protestants believed in Jesus, but the Communists—the all-time poster boys of materialism—just believed in dust and machinery. How awful was that? To believe that kind of thing you had to have dust for brains.
In contrast we, as Roman Catholics (and o.k. tagging along the Protestants too-- except I found out later they’re actually way ahead here) believed in the spirit, the great amorphous quality that stretched you beyond the earth, that put you in contact with the enormous force way above everything, the truth itself, big G., God. If you dropped spirit from your human equation you were a walking worm, struggling up inexplicably from the slime, and doomed to head straight back down there.
Another sense of materialism, linked morally but not metaphysically to the first, was consumer wants and purchases, the practical view of life as consisting of T.V.s washing machines, new cars, clothes, toys etc. In contrast to communism, which almost by definition was excluded for believers, this other form of materialism was a high risk condition, something like a family illness, insidiously creeping into the souls of Christians and choking off the springs of communication with the other, spiritual dimension. A smart new Rover or Jaguar saloon (upscale British cars for the uninitiated) would not exactly send you to hell (in fact the local parish church would relish a brace or two in the parking lot) but there was a general sense of an inverse proportion: the more Western wealth the less real devotion. Ah well, what were you going to do…
Well, indeed: if this latter kind of materialism was a spiritual malaise back then, it’s a full-blown mutation now. With the endless permutations of electronic paraphernalia which now are imperative for average human life there is almost no turning back. We all need the computer terminal, rich or poor, and digital phones are like an extra human limb which we scratch every five minutes.
All this has crept up on us, in hardly more years than since the outset of the century. Our material conditions have changed enormously, and they continue to do so, but our theology has hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Except, that is, for the amazing possibilities offered by the thought of Rene Girard. In short, Girard offers us an understanding of human beings (an anthropology) which decisively ends the old Greek-influenced Christian thinking of matter/spirit division and plunges us into a new world where spirit and matter are effects of the same extraordinarily supple, single structure of the human. Girard discovered mirror neurons before mirror neurons were discovered. He discovered that we are intimately inhabited by the “other” just as the other is by us; that there is an absolute lack of borders between humans as desiring beings; that the human world is by nature a shared space and all this crossing of boundaries and shared space is the spiritual of the material!
O.k., actually he has not, to my knowledge, ever exactly said the last bit, about the spiritual and the material. In fact a few years ago I was at a meeting of Girardian scholars and one of the more eminent was smart enough to realize this was a problem and worried it publicly: however, in the opposite direction. He told us “We asked Girard explicitly whether there was a soul and Girard said there was”. Well, we sure were glad to get that sorted out! Nevertheless, the fact that the question had to be asked, and to the highest authority, showed clearly there was an issue.
It meant that mimetic theory had already subverted the classic Greek solipsistic soul and brought us into a very human world, one which is much more to do with the exchange of inputs and information (interdividuality) than any ideal intellectual self. And then came the science of mirror neurons to prove it: my most intimate self, my desire for this or that, my feelings about this or that, all that is already a neural copy of what you are doing or what is happening to you, and of course vice versa. Love, therefore, the “greatest of the gifts” and the one that endures for ever, is simply (but wonderfully) a meeting and merging of neural pathways…
We are walking a fine line. The sin of materialism is to say love is nothing but the meeting and merging of neural pathways, i.e. ultimately it is dust, the stuff we see these neurons continually break down into. And to believe that the present storm of neural inputs--as our contemporary way of being human--is all there is, that would be and is apocalyptic. The materialism of Dolce and Gabbano, Goldmann Sachs, Rover and Jaguar, any of those names to conjure with, becomes actually very “spiritual”. It leaps up, desire over desire, building its city in the sky without any dust at all, until finally the bubble it creates must and does explode...
Yet at the same time the deep provocative materialism of the gospel remains. Christians call Jesus God because in our very human meeting and merging with Jesus we find an infinite love. And the abstract teaching of “hypostatic union” means that “God” (big G) at some point is marvelously and truly the same thing as Jesus’ neural pathways. For what other sense of “person” is there for a human being than the one we find fluxing, growing and relating to others along those neural routes? (It’s worth pointing out that the discussions of the first centuries decisively rejected the notion that the divine “bit” of Jesus replaced or displaced the human “soul”, i.e. the Greek-style immortal essence. Instead they invented the new relational category of “person” to describe the identity of Jesus and the eternal Word. So you don’t have to look further than Jesus’ neurons to find the second person of the Trinity. Which means also that God him/herself copies those human neurons relationally: “He who has seen me has seen the Father”.)
All of which ups the ante enormously for confessional Christianity. It can no longer be a matter of getting folks’ passports properly stamped for a final exit from here to the heavenly spirit-world. Rather it’s a matter of following the human situation to its radical and wonderful consequences in and through Christ. This is a materialism with a very different turn from the various philosophical or consumer materialisms. In fact you could flip the whole thing on its head and say that Marxism and Darwinism, as well as Madison Avenue, are just false starts and/or distortions of the root materialism of Christian thought and existence. None of these versions of reality could flourish if not against the background of radically materialist Christian culture. All of which leads me to say the only real enemy of Christianity is Christianity itself—either it dissipates itself in various idealist Greek displacements, rather than go the whole way with its materialism, or it blows itself up in fundamentalist violence because its materialism is just so demanding.
We are called in Jesus to turn our neural pathways into the endless torrent of divine love. As the Psalmist says: deep calls to deep in the roar of many waters. The depths of God are not ours to conceive in some hokey Greek essentialist way. But they are ours to meet and merge with in the depths of our amazing Christ-nerved humanity.
Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian in Residence