The singer BJ Thomas had a minor hit with the 1970s song “Using things and loving people”. Whether or not people resonate with the song, I suspect virtually all will agree with the sentiment: People are the proper objects of love. Things (i.e. non-people) are not. Indeed, I myself have appealed to this song and its wisdom when I have lectured on consumerism.
However, I have come to believe this sentiment is quite wrong. It is not the love of material things that is improper. Rather, it is the disordered attraction to material things, a point that I initially made in my article “Forever Velveteen: A reflection on the soul of consumerism“.
The idea of loving the material world
So what does it mean to love a material thing? Let’s start off with a definition of love. I define it as follows: “the desire that one achieve shalom or wellness.” Thus, if Tim loves Tammy, then Tim desires that Tammy achieve shalom or wellness.
Next, I note that the most familiar biblical passage in all scripture describes God as loving the world (John 3:16). The Greek word translated world, “cosmos”, can refer to humanity, but it can also refer to the entire creation. And “creation” seems to me the proper translation for a couple important reasons. First, the immediate context of John 3 suggests this reading. A few verses later (v. 19) the text distinguishes “the world” from “men” who live in the world: “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light….” Thus, it is most plausible to read John 3:16 as referring to God’s love of the totality of creation, in response to which he sends the Son into creation as a redeemer, and the human beings within creation respond by rejecting the Son.
Second, the broader picture in the Bible is that the entire creation fell and God will redeem the entire creation with human beings. You can see my book What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven? (which is still 80% off in Kindle for a couple more days!) to see the fuller biblical and theological reasoning for this point.
An interlude addressing 1 John 2:15-17
But what about a text like 1 John 2:15-17? Here we read:
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
How can we both love the world and not love the world? Isn’t there a flat contradiction here?
The short answer is, no. The longer answer is: a single word can have different meanings. Of course, we’ve already seen that “cosmos” can mean “humankind” and it can also mean “creation”. In 1 John 2:15-17 it means neither. Rather, in this passage “the world” means “the fallen state of the world“. I suppose you might call this a form of metonymy in which an entity is identified with something associated with it. In this case, the fallen moral state of creation (that which is summarized in the phrase “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life”) is referred to simply as “world”.
This distinction survives in English Christianese. For example, in the same breath we warn people to have nothing to do with “the world” even as we admonish them to identify with “the world” and go into “the world” and preach the gospel.
Back to loving the material world
Suffice it to say, God loves the entire material creation. He loves both human beings and non-human sentient creatures. He loves all sentient life and non-sentient creation (e.g. stars, mountains, trees). In other words, God desires that his entire creation achieve shalom or wellness to the extent that this is possible.
If God can love material things, it is hardly surprising that he also would love the material products of human culture, i.e. those things we fashion (as sub-creators) from the material things God created. Note that the image of the city (i.e. the New Jerusalem) is at the center of the eschaton in Revelation 21. The city is, among other things, the ultimate symbol of the material products of human culture. Thus, God desires not only that his good material creation achieve shalom but that the good material creation of his creatures also achieves shalom.
If we are called to love God, neighbor and creation, then it follows that we are called to love material things. And that includes not only the material things of God’s creative hand but also the material things of our creative hands.
The whole key is that all these loves are properly ordered in a nested hierarchy: love of God is supreme followed by the subordinate love of human beings, love of other sentient creatures, love of non-sentient material creation, and love of non-sentient human culture.
In closing, here is a six minute segment from the online program “Petrolicious” which highlights people and their love of particular cars. In this case we have a man who loves his classic BMW M5. If my analysis is correct, then we may indeed speak of this man loving his car not merely as a metaphor, but really and truly as a desire that his car achieve wellness as a product of human creation. So long as that love is properly ordered in the nested hierarchy it can be said to be good that he love this material thing.