Materialists Against the Material World

What is at stake in our current controversies regarding male and female? Nothing less than creation itself.

PUBLISHED ON

June 22, 2023

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What is at stake in our current controversies regarding male and female? Nothing less than creation itself.

One of the most peculiar features of a materialistic age is its failure to appreciate material reality. It is the demonic Wither-Frost combination that C.S. Lewis portrays in That Hideous Strength. Wither, the Deputy Director of the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (the nominal Director, Jules, is a savage satire of the futurist H.G. Wells), cannot utter one sentence without uttering ten, full of vagueness, abstraction, velvet threats, and appeals to the “spirit” of the Institute. He is often to be found walking about the halls or the grounds, whistling a dry little tune, his eyes unfocused; you might swear he had the gift of bilocation.  

Frost, meanwhile, is the chief scientist—sharp-eyed, bespectacled, a believer in nothing: that is, a champion of what is now called eliminative materialism. There are no persons because there are not even any things: all is particulate matter and empty space. Wither and Frost make a fine duo, working together, hating each other, but hating God and the world even more.

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The Christian vision of the world, rather, penetrates deep into the actual existence and goodness of material things, refusing to reduce them to their constituent parts and refusing to wave them away as insufficiently spiritual to warrant our care. To say that they are created by God is to do more than to affirm their origin. It is to affirm that they are endowed with meaning in their own right, a meaning which we do not attribute to them but discover within them, as they reveal themselves by their being as they are.

I suppose that most Christians in our time would not deny what I have just said, though they might be taken off guard by it, since the default for their imaginations is some form of the materialism surrounding them—if “imagination” is a fit term for what you are left with after the severely reductive has done its work to dull your mind, cool your love, and dispel the last breath of natural wonder. 

I wager that I could persuade them to take Wordsworth’s advice and not “murder to dissect,” at least when it comes to the pine tree I am looking at, and the cheerful nuthatch that makes his way up and down the bark, hunting for grubs. To get them to do so when it comes to human beings and their bodies—that’s another thing entirely.

For we need to establish several premises that are implied in the doctrine of creation. The first is that all we have and all we are, by nature and not as corrupted by sin, comes from God. It is a gift. We do not confer it upon ourselves. We do not assume that we may do what we please with it. We do not determine its inherent significance.  

I have long told my students that Satan, as portrayed by Dante at the bottom of the Inferno, is the anti-Word who does not speak but who flaps his wings with a terrible regularity, like an automaton; and every flap of the wings is a lie, as it declares, “I rise by my power.” Wings are made to fly, and angels are meant to enact the will of God, in joyful and energetic obedience: that obedience is their soaring, their virtue, and their power.  

But in his self-absorption and attempt at self-definition, Satan seeks to rise, to fly, and the flapping of his wings in opposition to God destroys their power as wings and turns them into the bonds that hold him locked in ice forever. Freedom on our own terms is bondage, the freedom of the road gone wrong, of failure to attain the end we seek by our supposed liberty.

The second is that the significance is publicly apprehensible. Thomas Aquinas says that each angel is his own species, as the angels are not individuated by matter. However that may be, human beings do belong to a species: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” said God, and He created woman for man; and the first word we hear from any man or woman in Scripture is the joyous and wonder-filled exclamation of Adam, who says, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for from ‘her man’ she was taken.”  

Adam does not confer a meaning on Eve. He discovers what is already there. It is apparent to him not because of some interior feeling he has but because of what he sees and understands with his eyes and his mind. Adam may have a particular cause to appreciate the woman whom God has given to him, but anyone else looking upon the scene with clear eyes and a sound mind would see the same thing. Indeed, we see the same thing, we who may have no immediate cause to share Adam’s powerful emotion.

The third is that the proper or permissible use of these gifts—whose meanings are inherent and available to minds sufficiently mature to apprehend them, though never to comprehend them because anything God has made, even a grain of sand, is of inexhaustible richness—depends upon their God-given nature and not on our arbitrary determination. We may readily grant the point if we look at something outside of the current glare of politics.

Again, I look at the pine tree, a beautiful thing. I see the places where I have cut off dead limbs, so that nourishment might not be diverted to no useful end. That was a good thing to do, in accord with what the pine tree is. But now imagine somebody with a diseased mind carving a hole in the tree’s base, precisely to watch it wither slowly and die—not for the sake of scientific investigation but just to enjoy the decay. 

We sense right away that that is a bad thing to do. More than that, the desire to do it is evil: regardless of whether you actually do it, you should not entertain any sick delight in imagining it. That is not what the pine tree is for.

Your body is not your “self.” Nor does any “self” exist, floating in a world of fantasy, apart from your body. You are a body-soul unity, body and soul both made by God and endowed by God with all your physical, emotional, and intellectual powers. If there is such a thing as self-discovery, it must be one that reveals to us the particular ways in which God has embodied within us the publicly apprehensible meaning inherent to our human nature; and this nature is general, not individual.  Your body is not your “self.” Nor does any “self” exist, floating in a world of fantasy, apart from your body. You are a body-soul unity.Tweet This

In this discovery, we enter more deeply into the objective reality of that nature, not as pretended empiricists keeping aloof from what they study, but as participants in what we behold, and as lovers of what we find—what is there to be found because God has created it.

Imagine, for the sake of the example, a man who “discovers” that his meaning is to be a machine; he projects back upon his boyhood an underlying hope that someday he might grow up to be an automaton. Thus, he begins to imitate, rather to caricature, the flat, emotionless voice of a machine, without emphasis or inflection.  That is ridiculous enough. But he wants to go much further: he longs to have implanted in his brain some computer chip that would permit his designated controller, so he believes, to jerk his limbs into movement and to insert thoughts into his mind.  

Set aside the question of whether it can be done. I do not believe it can. But do we not recognize the desire itself as perverse? Even if it can be done, it should not be done, regardless of the individual’s aspiration or his desire, which are themselves bad feelings to have, bad imaginations to indulge. To do it would be an offense against the dignity of man, transforming him into a tool of a tool, a warping of the ultimate aim that God has implanted in his very being, which is to know God and to love Him.

If someone says that, in a free land, such a person should be granted the civil liberty to make this bizarre pseudo-transition from man to man-machine, I reply that since man is a social being to the core, any evil thing you do, especially one that penetrates to the heart of what it means to be a created being and a man, is an offense against others also. 

Your evil example lays a snare in the path of a weaker brother. Your evil and false premise helps to efface the sense we should all have, that man is not a machine and must never be treated as such. Your decision to set yourself up as your own determiner, essentially a self-fashioner and self-interpreter, is an attack against what we owe corporately and individually to God, and it is a denial of His providential goodness.

It is the tired old lie, in a new and grotesque form: “You shall be as gods.” And it repudiates the fount of all revelation: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And that, as I said, is at stake—everything.

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