Happiness in the Christian Life
Ellen Charry (Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary) diagnoses the Christian aversion to “happiness” and suggests an approach to thinking about happiness that is consistent with Scripture and represented in ancient Christian thought.
Thanks Steve, and for that introduction that really let’s me know that when people like me puts stuff out there, it’s actually understood, [chuckles] because we never know. [laughs] So, it’s wonderful for minds to actually communicate with one another and I’m very grateful for you to come today given the weather [chuckles] to be open to what I have been working on for many years.
This is my first visit to Biola and when I walked into the Center for Christian Thought, as Steve just read, the title of one of my books is plastered on the wall [laughs] in the central conference room up there and the title, and it’s the verse Romans 12:2 and I took the second half of the verse and the book is entitled, “By the Renewing of Your Minds”. So when I walked in there, it’s a very lovely room and I said, “Oh, I am at home.”
And so I feel very comfortable being among you this afternoon. I hope that the slides always coordinate with my talk ’cause I’m never quite sure ’cause sometimes I forget to advance the slides, so I’ll just have to double check on that. Okay, that’s good. Here we go. Although our topic is happiness in the Christian life, I would like to set that topic in a broader perspective in order to locate a Christian understanding of happiness among various other construals of happiness since my proposal and my understanding of happiness in Christian perspective is one of the central topics of ancient philosophy and is current of great interest in both psychology, particularly positive psychology and philosophy.
I begin by asking a question that Augustine of Hippo, the great father of Western theology asked. He asked this question, he asked in his, one of his three major works on, the one on the Trinity. In a world deeply fragmented by religion, class, ethnic, and racial tensions, linguistic divides, disparities and wealth and financial and psychological access to education and access to basic health and safety resources. That’s our culture.
What do we all share? Augustine asked a question, “What do we all want?” And in asking this, almost 1700 years ago, it still reverberates among us today. Listen to how he put it to his readers and I’m going to now paraphrase what I hope will be easy to follow. This is from those of you who are interested from the De Trinitate on the Trinity, Book 13, which I think is the most powerful book of the whole work. And this is a paraphrase, Although no one actually knows what another individual wants, they is certainly agreement among people about what everyone wants.
There is a story, this is Augustine speaking, there is a story about a comedian who told his audience that if they came back to the theater the next day he would tell them what they all want. Well more people showed up the next day, wrapped in deep suspense. The story continues that he, the comedian said, and again, this is Augustine repeating this story. The story continues that the comedian said, you all want to buy cheap and sell dear. That is that you all want to make money or more plainly spoken, everyone is greedy.
This answer resonated with everyone in the audience and they applauded his cleverness. Acknowledging that indeed, they were all greedy. But Augustine asked, why they were so surprised since we attribute to others what we think ourselves. But he said it is one thing to know what one wants and another thing to know what someone else wants. While the comedian inferred that the fact that everyone wants to buy cheap and sell dear. Maybe common to all.
The problem with the generalization that everyone is greedy, is that it betrays a vice, greed. Wanting to make money may not sound like a vice to us today, since our society takes it for granted and assumes it, yet when one thinks of price gouging for example, jacking up the price of gasoline or hotel rooms during a natural disaster that takes advantage of innocent people, or the greed of Wall Street that plunged us into economic crisis, for which no one has been held legally accountable.
One can see Augustine’s point. Greed is viscous because it harms other people. I was just the victim of that just the other day. I had to mark park my car at the University of Pennsylvania and there were some special games going on and the price has been jacked up just because there was a special event in town.
Which I was not attending. [crowd and speaker chuckle] Augustine offered another example. The ancient poet Ennius, had another answer to the question of, “What does everyone want?” He said, everyone wants to be praised. No one wants to be disparaged. Again, Ennius was probably generalizing from himself to others. But wanting to be praised, at least to Augustine’s mind, is also a vice. Seeking to be honored is crass because it speaks insecurity.
It also invites empty flattery offered to someone by another seeking to curry favor for personal advancement and inhibits accurate self-assessment. Augustine countered, on the other hand, and now I’m quoting Augustine, “There are people who hate their vices “and do not want to be praised by others “for what they dislike in themselves “and are grateful for the goodwill “of those who scold them in order to correct them.”
In short, praising, is seeking praise betrays insecurity? It is a vice and maturing is a its matching virtue. It is interesting that the men who gave the West the infamous Doctrine of Original Sin. Meaning not simply that we commit sins but that we inevitably sin. Here he is rejecting sinful, vicious desires, as that which unifies all people. No, he is not supporting Original Sin here, he is looking for something positive on which to unite people in a common positive effort. And so he presses on. This is especially note worthy.
Since the thinking in later Western Christianity is that by precisely focusing on sin or vice, people will be united in their common shame and guilt and work together to overcome it. Counter to what would become Western Christianity’s main theme, Augustine offers a different answer to the question of what everyone wants that is not vicious but virtuous. You all want to be happy. His word is usually beatitudiness, sometimes it is felicitates.
To this, beatitudiness in Latin is the translation given to the Septuagint translation of the first word of the Psalter, that turns out to be comblessed in the Sermon on the Mount. Now that was a lot of translations but there are a lot of translations involved here. So when Christians read blessed, they don’t necessarily realize that they are saying the word which is the first word of the Psalter. We all know what the Psalter is? Psalm 1. The first word of Psalm 1, that’s the same word. But in Christian translations of the Bible, how is the first word of the Psalter usually translated? Happy.
But it’s the same word that’s used of blessedness in the Beatitudes. Uh-huh, just cogitate on that a minute, right? To this he added, that not only do we all want to be happy but we all our happiness to last. Yet he continues, despite this fundamental agreement about what we want, we differ, sometimes profoundly on what happiness is and consequently on how to get it. Here he’s alluding to various philosophical schools that prescribe different moral and spiritual paths to this coveted goal. Clearly, the greedy person who thinks that happiness lies in being wealthy, and the poet who thinks that happiness comes by being honored, that exalts the ego.
Perhaps dangerously so. Note well, I am not saying, and I do not think Augustine is saying that we should not recognize one another’s gifts appropriately but objecting to the desire for honor, by objecting to the desire of honor. For example, grade inflation now rampant in the United States, is because college and university teachers like me, want to fill their classes believing that what they have to teach is what every student needs to learn.
And so, we give students inflated grades so they take other courses with us. The downside is that inflated grades give students a false understanding of their abilities that distorts their expectations for themselves. On the question of what a better notion of happiness might be, Augustine considered two moral philosophical proposals. One is that of the Stoic moralists, who claim that happiness consists of an intentionally virtuous life.
The other is Epicureans proposal that happiness is securing bodily well-being. Both are spiritual construals of happiness. But in these brief references, Augustine does not do them justice. To help us appreciate his portrayal of happiness in Christian perspective, I will nuance these two and add two more proposals of what happiness is in moral, philosophical perspective. Beyond what he does in the De Trinitate Book 13. The Stoic notion on intentional virtue is specified as Apatheia, peace of mind or tranquility. Knowing that our life is guided by sound, morally, clear-sided judgment.
Living virtuously is the only way to be happy. Because it is one of the few things in life, supposedly under our control. Living virtuously is to live according to nature. Now that’s the ancient notion of nature, not our notion of nature so influenced by Darwin who had us compare ourselves to animals rather than angels which had been case before really the 18th century, or in the 19th century even.
So nature is not to follow the animal side of our nature but the exalted side. The happy life requires being able to control untoward emotions so that they do not interfere with pursuing what good judgment tell us is in keeping with our personal, social, professional, and civic responsibilities. Stoicism assumes that guided by strong, moral principles cultivated since childhood, we can both discern the right thing to do in any given situation and that we have the psychological and moral strength to act on that conviction. Acting is a morally, praise-worthy way brings peace of mind that avoids shame, calms distress and anxiety and worry that disturb the spirit. To fall short of that high standard is to succumb to vice.
And that is emotionally destabilizing for those with a conscience. In America today, once heard a very striking comment. I was with a psychiatrist in a public meeting once and he was very perplexed because what Freud called the super ego or the 18th century philosopher called conscience or called the voice of God within. He said it’s disappearing in America. Just think about that a minute. We’ve become anxious before the recognition of our failures. Such distress destroys the equanimity of spirit that Stoicism pries us as happiness, perhaps moral, self-contentment.
Because those plagued by anxiety cannot achieve peace of mind and heart. For the Stoics, happiness is taking pleasure in living intentionally consistent, moral life that controls or perhaps, better transforms internal, emotional stress. Possibly galvanized by each new challenge that comes along. Epicureanism, the other proposal for how to achieve happiness, that Augustine mentions here. And in the ancient church, Christians were very disturbed by Epicurus. Because Epicurus didn’t have an adequate of appreciation of the anger of God. Epicureanism seeks freedom from physical and emotional pain especially anxiety aroused by fear of physical pain in this life and in the next. Epicurus lacked a document of Hell, that Christians prize.
To this end, Epicurus denied the immortality of the soul, and consequently the notion of punishment by the Gods, or God, after this life. Epicurus thought that the greatest cure for fear in this life, and the anxiety that comes from fear, comes from the theistic sanction. The thread of divine punishment after this life. He taught Epicurus that the Gods are not interested in us. So there is no reason to fear him, or Him supposedly. Epicurus didn’t have a personal understanding of God. After we die, it will be for us as it was before we were born.
So the fear of what Christians would call Hell, eternal punishment is a waste of our energy. Still, how can we ever be free of the fear of bodily pain, since illness, injury and death may overtake us and those we love at any moment. Who but the intrepid or the young is not afraid of cancer. Other ancient proposals come from Aristotle, and I want to suggest Buddhism. Augustine didn’t know about them. Aristotle offered a third proposal for happiness. He took happiness to be living in such a way that we contribute constructively to society and consequently do well in life. Living excellently, not living high as the comedian seems to have thought, facilitates happiness.
Happiness for Aristotle is basically result of being an excellent person. And in his foundational treatise on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics. He identified specific character traits, dispositions of the self that enable us to flourish in this life. In its central tenet is moderation in all things. Avoiding extremes enables excellent personhood that facilitates a flourishing life through balance. Needed traits are being courageous, exercising self-restraint, being philanthropic and gracious, acting honorably, being refined in ones lifestyle, being able to control one’s temper, being able to listen well, being socially skilled, living modestly, and being appropriately. And to the appropriate degree angry.
For Aristotle, happiness is a skill that comes only with practice and experience. In assessing the best response to each situation that life presents. Happiness is enjoying becoming and being an excellent person on the order of becoming an excellent athlete or musician. The ancient moralists interested in happiness, were not only in the West. Buddhism argues that happiness is living contently, without fretting over what we do not have. So getting rid of desires that lead to despondency, if they cannot be fulfilled and grasping of what we think should do the trick in the short-term is the path to happiness.
Getting rid of those things is the path to happiness. Buddhists advise a noble eight-fold path to human excellence. Perhaps analogous to Aristotle’s lists of excellent dispositions that cultivate wise living. So that we stop fretting over things that are either wrong or not worth our attention. It involves having a fine understanding of things. The right intention in dealing with things. Judicious speech, excellent behavior. A noble occupation. In the 1980’s, some of you may recall, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops pastoral on the economy was a very, very, very important document in the 1980’s. Pastoral on War and Peace.
Excuse me, there were two major pastorals. One was on war and peace and they raised the question of whether, think back to the 1980’s and the Cold War and all that, whether is was acceptable for a Christian to be employed in producing armaments that were part of the major contracts for companies that was fueling the Cold War. Noble occupation: the effort to pursue what is good and useful to self and others. The right attention to things and rightly attending to the right things. Rightly attending to the right things is a major issue for Augustine and his understanding of this also, even he didn’t know anything about Buddhism.
Like all the Western Schools of Thought I have named, Buddhism is the spiritual path for an intentional and examined life designed to eliminate the worry, stress and anxiety that can torture sensitive spirits. It is close to Stoicism in seeking a calm spirit for those who want to avoid being a negative force in the world. All these paths to happiness assume that the good life, Eudemonia flourishing in Greek, Beatitudo in Latin, Nirvana/Moksha, liberation from spiritual suffering in ancient San Script, advise an intentional way of life that yields personal satisfaction and contentment from a life well-lived even when outward circumstances may be untoward.
Happiness for all of them is enjoying a well-ordered life. It is a psychological state of confidence that comes with exercising wisdom in all things. To put it sharply, a wise life is pleasurable. And it enables flourishing in its various forms. The American Marketplace. Against all these more spiritual offerings, the American marketplace currently proposes a materialist notion of happiness from which moral, spiritual and public considerations are eliminated.
Like silence in our culture, it has been extirpated. I say that only because we’re in a place that understands the interest in cultivating the spiritual life and the extirpation of silence from our culture is a major impediment to everything that you wanna do.
I would characterize the marketplace version of happiness as having what your want, when you want it, and in the amount that you want it. Understood in material terms, often focused on money, sex and power. Recognizing that money and sex are about power. Market forces and exceptional technological prowess have now established novelty, convenience, and efficiency as crucial American values, to maximize what Thomas Jefferson famously called, “The Pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration.
Prizing novelty, convenience, and efficiency now shape American expectation of immediate gratification rather than valuing discerning judgment that the ancient philosophers and the Buddhists all assumed is necessary to become excellent persons who will flourish emotionally and materially. So my first point, unfortunately, that was only my first point here, is that discerning what happiness is, we seem to be facing a choice.
Either the good life is a wisdom driven life led by principles and character strength that must be carefully cultivated from childhood. Or it is that set of skills which enable us to master the forces of nature and society that can marshal against our getting what we want, when we want it and in the amount that we want it. The choice here is between thinking of happiness as either having to do with our spiritual life or with adventitious goods that we hope to acquire. Either it is about the quality of our life or our skill in manipulating the culture in which we live.
My own belief is that this is false choice between the caliber of who we are cannot but affect how successful we will with safely and with salutary companionship. Free the spirit to focus on the quality of one’s character and how we impact others as we negotiate the world around us. So I’m avoiding that choice, which is commonly heard from the pulpit. Was that clear? The choice? That I often hear from the pulpit.
And I’m repudiating having to make a choice. Before pursuing my own suggestion for a Christian construal of flourishing however, let us return. That’s because people are just not. You’re pastors and I’m gonna tell you, people are just not gonna stop going to the mall. As much as you tell them that’s a terrible way of life, they’re still gonna go. And they’re still gonna engage in e-commerce and all the other things. And anyway, you want them to be wealthy enough to really contribute in large amounts to your church. And pay your salary. And paint the doors of the church red. So I don’t find it a helpful strategy. But I don’t tell the pastors who preach me those sermons that but maybe I should. Anyway, they don’t listen to me anyway.
Let us return to Augustine’s ruminations on our topic long before novelty convenience and efficiency held the upper hand. We are still back in his De Trinitate. From Augustine’s perspective if happiness is the contentment of living in intentionally virtuous and well examined life but one is ignorant of, or resists that truth. Thinking, for example, that happiness is the external of pleasures brought by money, sex and power. Augustine responds that it is certain that these transient pleasures cannot last.
And Augustine has begun his reflection by observing that we all want happiness to last. So he concludes that some people are diluted about what truly makes a good life. Though people may say they want to be happy, if they do not understand that true happiness depends on wisdom that comes from within rather than possessions that come from without. They carry around a counterfeit notion of what we all truly want.
These people are self-deceived, having turned away from what truly happifies to follow a dead end path that may temporarily please but will ultimately fail. Think of food and sex. Their end path may temporarily please but will ultimately fail and the craving comes back again and again, like the ants in my kitchen.
Think of food and sex, oh sorry. We only want them over and over again. Satiety is beyond their reach. Even more pointedly, think of the American Airlines napkin that says, that I got one time. “Coke-Cola is happiness” [audience laughs] It’s not only a lie, it’s insulting. Such slogans are silly if not pernicious for they are designed to drag us away from thinking carefully about our life. Personally, I don’t drink Coke-Cola, it’s too sweet.
Perhaps Augustine muses, playing devil’s advocate, we should say that the happy life is living a way that you enjoy. The slogan, “If it feels good, do it”, is perhaps a current version of the idea. This is the point at which Augustine and the Christian tradition following him, broke with several construals of happiness that dominate both current philosophy and psychology that separate the happy life from the moral life. For living for what you enjoy, without considering the moral value of what you enjoy, is Augustine says, itself a very unhappy situation.
Now I’m quoting him, “In fact, not to get what you want “is not so unhappy a state of affairs “as to get what you want that you have no business to.” That is craving something without considering its consequence for your moral health and the well-being of others short-changes and debases you. He pushed a point. Quoting him again. “Who could be so mentally blind, “so estranged from the light of decency “and wrapped in the darkness of infamy “to coil happy, the person who lives a rotten, “worthless life with no one to stop him, “no one to punish him, no one even daring to rebuke him.” Unquote.
Wanting badly, without true friends, who call us back from foolishness, is to live a self-deceived life . Indeed the notion of friendship in our society, I fear, is terribly debased. I’m gonna say something really hard for you to hear. Even I find often, that pastoral care is sadly misunderstood as hand-holding and encouragement full stop. Without recognizing that adequate pastoral care, is encouraging and hand-holding and transformative. And critical and helping people to do better. But I don’t know what happened to pastoral care somewhere along the way. It’s not my field. So to speak. [laughs] [audience laughs] Okay, okay.
We cannot go at it alone for we are given to self-flattery and self-advancement in ways that may ultimately be self-defeating and certainly damaging to others. With this opinion, Augustine said the path for Western Christian civilization until the past two or three hundred years or so when utilitarianism, spear-headed by Jeremy Bentham and later by John Stuart Mill, championed a materialist hedonism. Which is the opposite of Eudemonism. The maximization of sensual pleasure that one might calculate apart from a morally, grounded notion of flourishing.
Against this dubious separation of the pleasures of a morally good life, from the pleasures that come from enjoying material goods. Augustine proposed that happiness is having everything you want and wanting nothing wrongly. That’s where it connects with the Buddhists value. Here we are at the crucks of the Christian doctrine of happiness.
As you can see by now, Augustine, along with other ancient moral philosophers, believes to pin happiness on material pleasures, disconnected from the psychological pleasure that we derive from living an excellent life fails to value the genuine pleasure that comes from living graciously, gently, courageously, magnanimously, or as the Buddhists would say, simply rightly. This may seem like a dualism that divides spiritual pleasure from sensuous pleasure but I think that division is simplistic. I think it better to conclude that sensuous pleasure, pleasures of the body, divorced from a well-ordered, moral life is problematic.
It’s not that pleasures of the body are problematic, they only become problematic when they are divorced. I’m thinking particularly of sex, only when it’s divorced from the moral implications of such behavior.
Bodily pleasures are not to be scorned but monitored with a single terse sentence. Augustine set the standard for the Western theological tradition that the happy life is grounded in the moral life. As for example, a document like the Decalogue suggests. Augustine elaborated his definition of happiness, as having what “you want and wanting nothing wrongly”, by interpreting wanting nothing wrongly as wanting the right things. Of all the good things to want, he identified one as the greatest.
Against which all others pale by comparison. All other goods are lesser goods and should be wanted to the extent that they enable us to get closer to having the one best thing that we really want and that is everyone? You know that answer to this question. Yes all say it, don’t be afraid to say it, it’s correct. I told you the answer, say it. God, right? The greatest good, as other goods, health, wealth, safety, friends, find their true meaning in their contribution to our knowing and loving God better.
That is the singular source of our flourishing. Unless they do that, they lose their ultimacy for happiness. Thus, it may seem to the casual reader, that Augustine did not value temporal goods like health, wealth, safety, fine friends, family, education, meaningful employment, that is not really the case. He truly did appreciate and wanted everyone to enjoy the temporal pleasures of this life. Like the Stoics, he did not however, value them as goods in their own right but only has they enhanced our enjoyment of God to fend off any chance that they might be thought of as the ultimate motivation of our striving.
So he always kept material flourishing tethered to the greatest good. This has given moderns pause, it comes out that God is only good for his own sake, and that became a strange idea as science and technology dramatically improved the quality and length of life. In, at least, some parts of the world. The position invites what moderns suspect as an instrumental use of other goods of this life for an ulterior purpose. To advance their or our enjoyment of God, once modern ethics, established by Immanuel Kant, taught us to treat things, especially people, as ends of themselves not as means to ulterior ends. That’s the problem account with Augustine’s account, with which of there’s been a huge discussion.
I’m interrupting myself so much with separate comments that I’m falling behind on the time that we have, so I’m gonna skip the next couple of sections here. [papers rustling] [computer keys click] I’m offering now what I think is a fresh proposal for the Christian doctrine of happiness that comes from my book. With all of this said, I now adventure to offer my own tweak of Augustine’s definition of happiness, as having said that happiness is what we want and wanting nothing wrongly.
Or as I tend to put it, wanting what is truly worth wanting. I begin by elaborating my disagreement of the dualism of much ancient moral philosophy that is a powerful draw for Augustine. Dualism is the idea that the life of the mind and spirit is more valuable and important than physical and bodily well-being. The reason for valuation is that our desire for physical and bodily well-being can become disordered and harmful, resulting in the wealthy exploiting the poor, the powerful exploiting the environment, sexual inappropriateness resulting in domestic violence and unwanted children, and so on, and so forth.
The moral motivation behind dualism is that strengthening the spiritual and reasonable part of ourselves can put the disorderly parts of our nature, that can order the disorderly parts of our nature. I am persuaded by the social problems that beset us, that the dualists, ancient and modern, have a point. A particularly stark statement of this dualistic view is presented in Matthew 6:24. You cannot serve God and money full stop.
You must choose, implying that Godly life, implies a preference for poverty, which has been in the church in the West, certainly in the church in the West, all along the line and that’s why you’re all underpaid. [audience laughs] Guiding ourselves maturely, and you’re expected to love that. Guiding ourselves maturely is difficult. Intellectual and spiritual self-mastery are needed to enable us to contain untoward desires that can harm self and others to the detriment of society.
Submitting to divine guidance as the Christian traditions urge and can and should shape the desires and behavior in salutary ways that turn us outward from self-advancement to concern with the well-being of others. Having a strong conscience, that has been called the voice of God within, as I said, can help us restrain unseemly urges. Or at least create inner conflict that is good. That is tethering ourselves to God, can help us move toward a better and more flourishing and happy life than the binary terms that dualism establishes. Christianly speaking, that dualistic value hierarchy is firmly in place in the Gospel of John.
It categorizes people in terms of darkness and light. And is evident in the writings of Paul, who depicts a struggle between the desires of the body and those of the spirit. Some Christians refer to this as galvanizing all their forces for spiritual warfare against temptation personified as Satan. Preference for the intellectual over the material flourishing are more starkly seeking God over material well-being, is deeply entrenched in the Christian spiritual and theological traditions. Despite its strengths, the objection I have to dualistic piety like this, is the judgment that physical and material flourishing is not worth wanting.
As if wanting God and moral spiritual flourishing that life with God can guide us to must be at the expense of our material flourishing. Rather, I’d submit, enjoying adequate physical and mental health, having financial security and safety, being able to benefit from education, enjoying stable family life, and cultivating mutually, rewarding relationships, establish an environment in which we develop the skills needed. People develop the skills needed to attend to the quality of their inner life.
That is when deprived of an encouraging environment that provides us with all these things. People are so concerned simply to survive, that they can’t have the freedom of mind to attend to their spiritual life. That indeed is the reason Christian theology and piety insists that knowing, loving and enjoying God, enable flourishing societies. That is far from disenabling spiritual flourishing, I submit that material flourishing enhances it.
I once heard a lecture by a woman pastor from Hong Kong, and she said we want our people to make lots and lots of money. And some of us were like, you know, in the audience. We were like trying not to make facial response. And she said because that way they’ll give lots of money to the church. Hong Kong of all places, right? Thus perhaps ironically, while there is value in the assumption that we need strength to control untoward desires and emotions, the opposite may also be true.
Against the dualistic Augustinian tradition, Thomas Aquinas, who I didn’t talk about, grounded his whole theological endeavor in the goodness of creation that is to be enjoyed not the centrality of sin that is to be overcome. Thus, he not only connected temporal and eternal happiness, but came quite close to recognizing that despite the instability of material desires, basic material well-being, achieve through a modicum of health, wealth, safety, social respect, and good companions, are necessary in order to focus attention on life with God.
So we’re about out of time now and I’m sorry, I really didn’t plan this too well. Or maybe I made too many interruptions of myself. But we’re out of time now so maybe we should just stop and talk. [audience laughs] [applause]
Guest: We do have some time for some questions and discussion and so if there are any questions, thoughts. Yeah, way in the back, and just speed up.
Yeah this question has come up before. I have never had anything about the prosperity gospel but I’ve heard exactly what you’ve heard, what you just said. I was quoting that pastor from Hong Kong, who I don’t think either is promoting a prosperity gospel. I think there’s a context of this. And I’m not promoting prosperity as the goal of life, that if you believe this and this and this, then you’ll have a prosperous life. I’m not suggesting, I hope you didn’t hear me saying that.
No, what I’m saying is a basic modicum of well-being is essential in order to cease what the Buddhists call craving and actually attend to the quality of your life in moral and theological terms. I think that’s different. Please. Correct, that’s what I’m saying. It’s not either or and I think Christian moral tradition has generally said it’s been either or.
Well I know the word very well. The word Shalom comes from the word Shalame. And Shalame simply means whole. It’s also the root of the word Islam. It’s the same word but in Arabic it’s understood as submission but in Hebrew it’s not understood as submission, it’s schleimut is wholeness, and that’s internal undividedness. That’s what I’m saying. Yes. [laughs] Yes please. Correct. Right. So my whole project is to offer a supplement to that, right? So for example sometimes I speak. You’re next.
Sometimes I speak to groups of laypeople, sometimes elderly ladies, and I always say this to them, and I always get the same answer. I say, “I suspect that you’ve heard from the pulpit “give and give and give until there’s nothing else to give “and then what do you do?” And they all say the same thing spontaneously. What do they say? Give, give, give until there’s nothing left to give and then what do you do? Yes, see even you know it too.
And maybe you’ve said it from your pulpit. Or given that assumption. So my elderly ladies, they’ve spent their whole life giving to the church. So I’m in opposition to that. And I’ll give you an example. When my children were babies, there was time when I actually had to take a shower. [audience laughs] I needed to wash my hair.
Guest: Amen! [audience laughs] And so some women here understand what I’m talking about. Men maybe don’t understand this or some men don’t understand this. [laughs] I am properly corrected. Now why did I need to take a shower and wash my hair? Because it was only when I could care for myself that I could adequately care for them. Because if I had emptied myself, exhausted myself, spent myself until I was a rag on the floor.
How do you say a schmatte in English? [audience laughs] A doormat on the floor, I wouldn’t be good for them and certainly not for my husband when he came home in the evening, right? So there has to be self-care, has to be brought back in to the Christian tradition because I believe that only adequate self-care enables us and in-skills us to take care of others. Because if we don’t know how to take care of ourselves and don’t believe that we should take care of ourselves, then it will never occur to us that we should take care of others.
How do you learn what it means to be cared for and to care unless you have the skill of knowing what you need to flourish, then you could know what other people need to flourish. So that I am in opposition and this presentation comes out of my book, that is an opposition to basic, I’m gonna say, this is a very strong statement, that is a criticism of classic, agapeistic ethics.
That you just said you were raised in, and I’m sure other people here have been raised in. That the Christian life is an all or nothing project. All for the other, nothing for me. But I’m suggesting that that is a recipe for disaster. Yes, back there, and you’re next.
Guest: Can everyone hear me? Okay. A lot of what you are saying reminded me of, if I’m remembering correctly, I think it’s the end of Proverbs, the saying of King Agur, to not have, I pray that–
I’m sorry, sayings of?
Guest: King Agur. Lord don’t give me so much that I don’t forget you but don’t give me so little so that I debased the name of my God. And I remember hearing from a professor on campus of how many of us have lost the heart of the Proverbs and the Psalms these days. And so I was wondering if you could speak to that and connect this. And if that passage, perhaps, in part, inspired.
Okay so in the book that this is coming out of called, “God and the Art of Happiness”, there is a chapter on the Proverbs and there is a chapter on the Psalms. [laughs] In that book, the biblical part comes at the end. Most people start their book, go to the Bible, and then go on to something else. No, I give this whole theological build-up and then I turn to the Bible. Because I draw this theory alternative Christian moral offering, which I call Asherism, which comes from the Hebrew word, Ashrei, which is the first word of the Psalter that is translated as Makarios, which is translated as Beatitudiness, which is transliterated as beatitude.
Because I find there, in the Hebrew scriptures, the core of this theory that I’m developing. And so there is four biblical chapters. One basically from the Pentateuch, one from Psalms, and one from Proverbs, exactly as you say.
So I don’t have that all exactly in my head at the moment ’cause my head is filled with other things right now but you’re exactly right on, so that’s exactly where I went. By the way, the fourth biblical chapter, if you’re interested, is the Gospel of John. Yes, thank you.
Guest: I’m a student at ISF and this last semester we spent a lot of time talking about the role of suffering in our life and the way that God uses suffering, and so I’m curious how that ties in, how you tie that in with what you’re speaking about here?
So I do talk about suffering in the book. Look, suffering is part of every human life, in different ways. And it’s hard to teach my students some of whom are young enough that they haven’t yet suffered. But they will. They will suffer. And I’m kind of skeptical of schemes of thought that some people suffer more than others, right? I’m not to sit and judge on anyone’s suffering. And I think suffering can be a means for helping us figure out our spiritual life better, right? I do not believe that suffering is God’s desire for us. And that suffering should simply be accepted as God’s will.
Now I completely understand that certain forms of Calvinism did take the position because of its high doctrine of Divine Sovereignty, which comes from the late work of Augustine. That a very high doctrine of Divine Sovereignty says that everything happens is the will of God. So for example, we had a doctoral student a few years back and she was 23 and she was engaged to be married to a young man. And he went into the hospital for very minor surgery and died on the table. And they were the same age. And he just died on the table. And his parents were quite fine with it. Because they said, this is God’s will. She could not hear that. It has a pastorally limited life, that theology. I having known people who’ve lost children at young ages and so on, and all kinds of suffering. My own suffering.
I don’t believe that suffering is valuable in its own right. I never saw this in writing but I’ve often heard it said that in some churches, domestic abuse is tolerated because suffering is redemptive and if men make women suffer that’s good for them because they should be obedient to their husbands and suffering is in some way redemptive. I do not believe that.
I do believe, and I get this from Karl Barth, that Christians, if they take their ministry and mission in the world seriously, we’ll eventually come upon infliction in life because Christianity is a radical way of life. And it will force you into places that will afflict you. And you will suffer but you will not suffer in the way that woman being abused by a man is suffering. There is dignity in the suffering of Christian affliction.
And then even physical affliction from injury or accident injury and illness can ennoble people. It can ennoble people. On the way out here I had to watch, they make you watch television all the time, and I caught a news interview with a young woman, and I came in in the middle and I didn’t know what had happened to her but she was in some kind of an accident and lost one leg. And she had been an athlete, she was a runner. And she lost one leg. And here she was bright and chipper.
And she went to Boston to help counsel the people of the Boston massacre and she now does the Special Olympics and whatever, and she said as deep as her suffering is, in some ways she’s a better person for it. So I think, encouraging Christians in how they deal with suffering, that’s your job. We pay you to do that. We want you to do that. We need you to do that. But it has to be done very, very carefully. Very responsibly. [upbeat music]
Continue the conversation with this article from Ellen Charry.