Religion and The New Materialism or, Can I Get a Material Witness?

Religion (always) falls on hard times. No matter how one attempts to rehab religion, and the notion that things need to tie well together, plenty of anecdotal stories emerge that point to how religion may be responsible for how things fall apart. The old materialist critique, and its spokespeople, would quickly make use of current religious events to illustrate their assertions.

The media works hard to temper the religious mood of the recent perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing. One could explore the way religion may have functioned for at least one, if not both, of the young men. Did the two young men project their vision of humans writ large onto a version of Deity that would convince them violence is the best persuasive tool for material change? Could it be, the way it has been variously described, that the two young men found happiness in their religious turn such that faithfulness to that turn required a violent act in order to alter their material reality? Or, did religion function solely as an infantile neurosis that left the two young men split such that their action reveals unconscious desire?

It was revealing that a Boston area Imam asserted that, according to the Koran, to kill an innocent condemns a person to hell. Even the defense of a religious tradition does not provide a means to evaluate the way religion, even belief, functioned in this instance, or others.

That I used the recent high profile event that contains a religious angle does not mean religion, as I have used it, pertains to other than Christian traditions. That would be both naïve and hubristic. One could easily consider the upcoming Trustees meeting at Louisiana Baptist College and the intrigue related to these events. The two sides actions’, as in most internecine squabbles, call into question the way religion and belief function on the ground when divergent claims are at stake and God’s will is the trump card.

Even more prevalent is the oft misleading Congressional debates. Immigration. Gun control. And, we see quickly that the means to important ends is when everyone suffers a lack of Air Traffic Controllers. Politics does not get a pass, especially for Crockett and Robbins any more than Energy policies. But, this review focuses on their assessment of Religion and particularly how religion functions.

What about The New Materialist critique of religion? How would it differ from the old materialist critique?

The Old Materialist Critique of Religion

Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins offer a helpful genealogy of the materialist critique, rather the old materialist critique. Feuerbach gets the ball rolling declaring religion represents human projection – human beings amplify their best traits and ascribe them to God. Marx moves to allow for religion as a form of self-knowledge. Aware of the difficulties on the material plane, religion is available for human beings whose plight robs them of happiness.

Admittedly, for Marx, it is an illusory happiness but it helps in the material experience of life. If life is hard, people ought to be allowed to create a false consciousness that makes life happy, even if it is not real happiness. Crockett and Robbins point to the way Marx pushed against Feuerbach’s analysis as merely a theoretical evaluation of the human experience and moves to demand something practical. Crockett and Robbins note that Marx believed to remove religion without altering material reality would result in another illusory form of false consciousness to take its place. Frued, however, believed religion to mask underlying needs found in the unconscious.

Interestingly while Marx, according to the authors, considered religion illusory, Freud believed religion is funded by human desire, an infantile neurosis to be sure. Participation in the religious illusion would be revelatory of human unconscious desire. Marx would retain religion, even as a false consciousness, if it could be used to effect material change. Freud would expunge religion so as to free the person from snares, and the split, that accompany false consciousness.

The New Materialist Critique of Religion

Crockett and Robbins prefer to read Marx through Slavo Zizek. While Zizek picks up the materialist critique, he ratchets up Marx by playing on Marx’s relative ambivalence toward religion as false consciousness and sees its ubiquitous presence as a place one might discover the energy to fund political change and therefore alter material reality. The new materialist critique draws attention to the way religion, and also belief, function to prop up a transcendent reality while neglecting the immanent plane, or the place where life happens.

Zizek would acknowledge, with the old materialist critique, that religion is a false consciousness but would assert all constructions of the real are false consciousness. I am guessing because they are human constructions. But, for Zizek all we have are human constructions. When life happens in a way that does not fit the constructed narrative it represents an irruption. The event, then, harbors the Real and may become a transformative experience.

The religious event that disrupts, for Zizek at least, is the Incarnation. He may not hold a creedal or confessional theologically orthodox position but his theoretical understanding of Incarnation enlivens Zizek’s project such that in God becoming materially human, reality is therefore changed. It is here that we may follow Crockett and Robbins to assess the way we live on the immanent place, where life happens.

Is it Practical? Does The New Materialist Critique Matter?

Yes. Just this morning I read my mentor describe the church his son-in-law pastors. The white clapboard building is situated on the outskirts of a town among the poor. Over the years the larger churches in the area failed to demonstrate the ways they valued those whose economic outlook would not provide compelling reason for their investment.

It is safe to assume we could use Crockett and Robbins’ EROI (Energy Return On Investment) to assess the lack of commitment to those whose personal economy would not make a material impact on the whole proportionate to others considered the not poor. As such, Incarnation becomes theologically theoretical. Christians may adhere to the creeds and/or confessions, assent to the contained doctrinal declarations, and self-describe as true-believers, but their lived reality, their own material reality, demonstrates otherwise. As such, religion, and so belief, function to maintain their personal perception of truly believing so as to avoid exposure as those who do not believe at all.

The temptation would be to be reductionist. What I describe is simply hypocrisy. It is everywhere. But, rather than be reductionist and label it hypocrisy, it may be better to take into account the materialist critique, yeah the New Materialist critique, and expand arenas of human experience in need to alteration beyond the religious individual and take in the religious, political, and energy systems that combine to maintain the status quo.

The New Materialism would harness the pervasive religious impulse as a platform to inspire the needed changes in the status quo that would substantively alter material reality for the common good, the good of real people. I like the connection Tripp has made. When God made the covenant after the flood, he included all living things. It seems apparent that to fail to fit the covenant made with Abraham into that which he made with all of creation requires another Copernican Revolution. One where human beings made in the image of God underline in their actions their relationship to the world and not just to their named God.

My personal analysis would suggest that without a prophetic community, the dominant Evangelical, even Christian, vision for human life will yet remain more focused on the future transcendent than the immanent, the place where Incarnation happens. And as such, we will always have the poor with us . . . and not be compelled to make real changes otherwise.

This post is part of the Homebrewed Christianity Book Blog Tour for Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett, and Jeffrey Robbins.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

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