This article was first published in The Age, 25 September
C.S. Lewis once said “there is one vice of which no person in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when they sees it in someone else and of which hardly anyone ever imagines that they are guilty themselves.” He was talking about pride. But he might just as well have had greed in his sights.
In our day it’s almost a national pastime to decry the culture of greed that infects the banks, the gargantuan greed of company CEOs and the voracious greed of the gambling industry. But as recent treasurers have discovered, no segment of Australian society is willing to part with any of their money to help deal with burgeoning budget deficits. Everybody thinks they need more money.
The odd thing is that most of us realise that money can’t buy love, or happiness for that matter. In recent years a number of academics and social commentators have questioned the rampant materialism of the Western world. They argue that if people are trying to get rich in order to be happy, it isn’t working.
Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that, over several decades, “Western happiness has declined precisely in tandem with the rise of affluence.” Similarly, Ross Gittins claims there is actually “evidence that those who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower wellbeing”.
Why, then, do material ambitions still dominate so many of us? If Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss compare greed to a disease in their book, Affluenza, the Bible treats greed as a false religion. According to Jesus, people are prone to serve either God or money, and the Apostle Paul condemns greed as putting your faith in something that will ultimately disappoint.
Material things can hold a place in our lives that was once occupied by belief in God. Trust in God has been replaced by seeking safety and security in our assets and super.
Love of things supplants love for God. And, curiously, we can end up becoming slaves to money without releasing it.
As the French ethicist Jacques Ellul put it, “we can use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims.”
Poverty is a curse and material things do bring pleasure. But the worship of money is in the end, like all idols, a god that fails. If the root cause of materialism is misdirected religious impulses, then the ultimate solution may still be faith in the true God who alone gives the security and satisfaction that each of us craves.