A third problem we modern Christians often have when it comes to using our imaginations is that we think like modern materialists. Now, “materialism” here does not refer to the common malady of seeking as many material possessions as one can. Rather, here it refers to an attitude that we unconsciously borrow from secularists—the attitude of always implicitly looking for “natural” explanations of strange events.
This problem is really a subset of the problem of rationalism discussed in another post, but it deserves its own treatment because it is even more subtle. All Christians affirm that God has acted within the natural world in the past and that He can and still does act within it according to His own plans. One does not have to be a fire-breathing charismatic televangelist to believe that God still performs miracles today. We all know stories of God answering someone’s prayer for immediate financial help, healing someone with terminal, inoperable cancer, protecting someone from serious injury in an automobile accident, and so forth.
The problem I am here calling “materialism” is not that we modern Christians do not believe in the supernatural (we do), but rather, that we import into our faith the secularist notion of an unbridgeable divide between the natural and the supernatural. What does this mean? It seems rather counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Let me briefly explain.
As has often been the case in the long history of Christian cultural endeavors, the faith begot a certain daughter and the daughter proceeded to devour the mother. Christianity is responsible for the rise of what we call “modern science,” but we live at the tail end of a long process of unbelievers taking over because we ceased being faithful to our world-embracing religion and started withdrawing into isolated enclaves of “spirituality.”
At some point in the recent past, we began to disdain the created world and to elevate a false concept of the “spiritual” – all that was not merely physical, which we then dubbed “worldly.” Alas, unbelievers, who already wanted all religion to be confined to the realm of the private, emotional, non-rational “soul” were only too happy to let us do so while they took over the realm of “facts.”
After spending a few decades drinking deeply from the same political, economic, and entertainment well as our secularist neighbors, a well polluted with assumptions about the subjectivity of truth, goodness, beauty, and religion, our own Christian imagination has suffered immensely. Without realizing it, we have in many ways made a capitulation to a kind of worldly thinking that has little to do with morality proper and everything to do with an entirely subjectivistic religion.
This is why our novels, our songs, and our movies endlessly celebrate internal, emotional, personal experiences that get mislabeled “faith,” which has nothing to do with “facts.” A materialistic concept of the world, pushed by science and its intrusion into every domain of life, has neutered the Christian imagination.
But we must tread with care at this point. We must take care not to vilify science or the amazing progresses it has made over the last few centuries. Nevertheless, we need to come to see that while science started out as a proper quest to discern the natural ways that God does things within His creation, it has for our whole mechanized mode of society become a soul-killing, mystery-banishing, all-encompassing substitute for faith.
When we ourselves focus on a kind of “spirituality” that disdains engaging “the world”, and so, disdain imaginative engagement with the world, we show that we’ve surrendered to the materialist assumption that nature and supernature don’t and can’t mix. Which is very, very weird, since on Sunday’s we cling to a Book that, literarily speaking, is chock full of an unashamed mixing of both those things!
For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.