The moral neutrality of stuff

Just recently I have been pondering the rights or wrongs of a church applying for a grant from a National Lottery Fund, and it’s taken me to a place I wasn’t expecting, a philosophical and theological thought about… ‘stuff’.

In searching for a biblical view on using funds from gambling I soon came to realise this wasn’t an issue in the biblical era. There was nothing akin to the National Lottery 2000+ years ago to fund good (or bad) causes. There are lots of guidelines about how we should relate to money, that it shouldn’t rule us and even that “the love of money is the root of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Its straightforward from such biblical guidance to say that gambling to bring hope or satisfy a desire isn’t in line with God’s best intentions for us. But what about money itself? Can a £5 note have a moral stance?

St Paul wrote to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 8) about a behaviour that some patently felt was wrong and others had an opposite view. While we only have Paul’s letter, he must have been responding to a question, and it was about whether they were able to eat food that had previously been sacrificed to a pagan idol.

Patently, as a Christian, none of them would have condoned a syncretistic view of folk following Jesus and hedging their bets by giving a sacrifice to an idol representing another god.

The problem was arising because the food the pagan people of Corinth had taken to their pagan temples was recycled by those same temples back out into the food market. It seems the Roman and Greek gods never actually wanted what their people brought them! So, the Corinthian Christians were constantly faced with this choice. Their marketplace had this food, maybe it was a bit cheaper than produce straight from the fields too, but should they buy and eat it? Was a rabbit given to Apollo the same as a rabbit caught the same day and brought direct to market – or was it ‘tainted’ in some dangerous way?

Paul’s answer was basically simple. These gods were just carved figures, they weren’t real, the food was just food, you could eat it, it won’t harm you, its fine. But he did give a caveat. While the food was ‘morally neutral’, what the Corinthian Christians did with it wasn’t. Paul told them that if consuming this ‘idol food’ in front of a ‘weak’ person (maybe a new Christian who hasn’t yet thought things through) gave that individual difficulties in their faith, then it would be better to not eat it.

(Jesus had a viewpoint too on an associated topic (Matthew 15:11) when he said, “it is not what goes into your mouth that makes you ritually unclean; rather, what comes out of it makes you unclean”)

The ‘food’ does seem to be ‘morally neutral’. And this was what drew me to the thought, a rather surprising thought, that ‘stuff’ is intrinsically ‘morally neutral’, not just money, but any ‘thing’.

We so often personalise material objects – ‘my computer is misbehaving’ or ‘my phone rules my life’, but these and all other technology is just made up of component parts that are all created, originally by God. Carbon and silicon are both elements of the world. Its only what we do with them that might affect our behaviour or how we might affect others through them. Mobile phones can be seen by some as some as ruining modern conversation as multiple units come out at the same time between friends who then tap away instead of chat away. But, we don’t have the same view of that same mobile phone when we come across a car accident in the middle of the countryside and can make a phone call that brings an ambulance. It’s just a phone, how its affects our lives depends on what we choose to do with it.

It’s so often easier to place the responsibility for our behaviour and influence onto things instead of ourselves, but here’s the rub – it’s not the ‘stuff’s’ fault. It neither cares nor worries about us, it doesn’t plot or plan, it’s just ‘stuff’. The morals of how we use it though? That’s all down to us.