Materialism and spirituality are not the polar opposites that some Americans consider them to be, according to scholars at a recent Princeton University conference that addressed issues ranging from job satisfaction to human insatiability.
"Spiritual activists are always trying to make a difference in the material world," said keynote speaker Martin E. Marty, a historian of American religious history at the University of Chicago. "From Roger Williams to William Penn to Frances Willard, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King _ these classic examples of American activism were also classic examples of American spirituality."
Marty drew a broad view of the material world, which religious people either engage and try to influence or distance themselves from on the order of monks and contemplative groups.
The June 9-11 conference, "Rethinking Materialism: Sociological and Theological Perspectives," was sponsored by the Center for the Study of American Religion and funded by the Lilly Endowment and Pew Charitable Trusts.
Close to 60 historians, theologians, philosophers and sociologists grappled with the ongoing impact of material pursuits on basic values in American culture.
Robert Wuthnow, the conference convener, narrowed the focus to the more "common" kind of materialism that is so often criticized and condemned by religious activists.
His concern about materialism was more immediate than Marty's, and he said he invited the diverse group of thinkers to consider a topic that has been neglected by academia.
"Over the last decade American society has been increasingly beset by materialism of the common variety that we might call greed," said Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton. "Yet very little scholarly literature has addressed this issue.
"My idea for the conference was to get some really bright people together to talk about the topic from their own perspectives. . . . But I also hope that when we publish the papers, we will raise the level of discussion for a broader audience beyond what they read in Money magazine or on the back of their church bulletin."
Among the more striking stories told to the group was Nicholas Wolterstorff's experience as a consultant to a furniture company in Michigan. The company's executive officer invited an architect, a physician, a journalist, a furniture designer, a theologian and Wolterstorff, a philosopher at Yale Divinity School, for an all-day session with himself and his top officers.
"At the beginning of the day he posed 10 questions," said Wolterstorff, adding that he only remembered three. "What is the purpose of business? .
. Whether there was a "moral imperative,' as he called it, for companies to produce products of good design. And thirdly, he wanted us to discuss whether it was possible to preserve what he called "intimacy' in a large company."
Wolterstorff said he soon realized that the furniture manufacturer's business philosophy sprang from a Christian commitment.
"The purpose (of his business), as he saw it, was twofold: To produce products that serve a genuine need and are aesthetically good; and to provide meaningful work in a pleasant surrounding for those employed in the company," Wolterstorff said. "His own case, at least as he presented it, was a case of "transcendental faith' shaping economic activity."
Building on the possibility of faith and economic activity being interrelated, Miroslav Volf of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., told conference participants that Americans need to "reshape our vision of the good life."
Volf, who tackled the problem of insatiability, said its "rootedness" in human nature meant that it could not be solved by economic means. Rather, human beings needed to "rediscover the intrinsic value of work."
"As the Genesis accounts of creation suggest, work is a fundamental dimension of human existence," said Volf, a professor of theology. "The more work is its own reward, the more human dignity it will have."
Wuthnow, who is writing a book about the complex relationship between faith and economic behavior, said he was struck by the lack of references to Marx at a conference on materialism.
"The Marxist framework is either dead or difficult to use," said Wuthnow, noting that speakers instead drew on the work of Max Weber, author of the 1904 sociological classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber (1864-1920) is considered one of the fathers of modern sociology. Especially interested in the relationship of religious ideas to economic activity, Weber explored why capitalism arose in the West.
Wuthnow said he hoped that efforts like the conference and his forthcoming book would contribute to a new way of looking at the issue.