Friday, April 13, 2012

The Allurements and the Costs of Secularism/Materialism

Even before I ever set foot into the secular halls of university, I fell pray to the allures of secular materialism. It assured me that there were no principles or truths higher than myself. In fact, in the world of materialism – a world that contains no more than chemical reactions – no one could rationally censure me. Even better, I could dismiss my own overbearing conscience that accused me of every kind of failure.

I now became the captain of my own ship, unrestrained by social convention or conscience. The seas of delight lay before me, and I could navigate my ship into any waters I so desired. I was free after years of bondage to various worries, standards, guidelines, and anything else that would bring criticism against me. I was also sure that I would now be able to free myself from the self-loathing that had long stalked me, whenever I fell short of my own demanding standards.

After years of secular psychotherapy for my life-long struggle with depression, I felt that I had finally received clarity – If everything is simply molecules-in-motion, there is no basis for judgment or guilt. They just don’t exist!

However, I failed to grasp that cost that this “epiphany” would exact from me. All along, I was paying unseen premiums. I began to “understand” that if everything is physical or material, then I am no more than a product of my genes and developmental influences. Without any transcendent values, everything that I did was done for material purposes, to feel good about myself. What I had previously held sacred – those things that had given my life some sense of purpose – had become no more than the creations of my psychological needs.

I hadn’t seen that what had promised me freedom was now beginning to enslave me. If all I had was me, my feelings became my new idol and master, dictating all of my choices and actions. They became my object of obligatory worship.

If I was successful and loved, I had good feelings. If instead I was unable to secure these now all-important, self-validating commodities, my depression thickened. Without being able to anchor my life upon any higher values, I became even more self-absorbed and despondent. Happiness and fulfillment completely eluded me.

In my failure to find the satisfaction that I so craved, I became convinced that there was something un-fixably wrong with me. I was “mentally ill,” and the shame intensified. It became so intense that I couldn’t escape self-consciousness and felt uncomfortable in anyone’s presence.

I was now a prisoner to my “freedom.” Materialism had narrowed my life into what I now regarded as a defective product. Psychologist and disciple of Carl Jung, James Hillman, wrote persuasively about the effect of this narrowing:

  • We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents. (The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Random House, 6)
I was a victim and knew that I needed to somehow free myself from this deadening self-awareness. Consequently, as a university freshman, I decided to join the West Oakland Project, where I assisted a teacher in a deeply troubled school. However, I knew that I was volunteering essentially for my own mental well-being and not for the students.

My teacher invited me to his home along with a number of the faculty. Around the dinner table, the attention finally turned to me. It was 1966, and they were very interested in the student uprisings at my school – UC Berkeley - and asked, “What is behind the idealism of the Berkeley students?”

I answered as honestly as I could, according to my cynical, materialistic presuppositions: “People do what they need to do to feel good about themselves – to give their lives meaning.” They understood what I was saying – that life and all of our idealistic endeavors were nothing more than a grotesque charade, an extension our psychological needs. But this confession also indicted me. I too was part of this charade. My helping the students and my teacher had nothing to do with them but had everything to do with me and my feelings of self-worth.

I sensed their horror, as if I had unmasked even them. They turned to safer conversation as I was left brooding, feeling that I was the biggest hypocrite in the world. Consequently, I stopped volunteering. If I couldn’t be virtuous, at least I could be authentic. I’d live for my own pleasures, but that was most depressing of all!

However, in the midst of suicidal ideation, I began to see arrows of transcendence. Certain pieces of music – Rachmaninoff in particular – invited me to behold another world. At the time, I didn’t know what it was that I was beholding, but I knew that it was taking me to a place of hope beyond the material.

There were also other arrows of transcendence, but I was too locked into my worldview to follow their trajectory. I thought that I was seeking for truth, but I was still locked into choosing what felt right to me. I wanted the transcendent, but it had to be packaged according to my specifications.

It wasn’t until years later, while bleeding to death from a chainsaw injury, that the Transcendent finally drew near to my nearly lifeless body to reveal Himself, eventually even to convince this zealous Jew that He had died for my sins. Ever since, He has been freeing me from my shackles:

  • To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)


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