Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness?

–by Ken Myers

When Thomas Jefferson selected the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" to describe one of the unalienable rights of man, he was appropriating an idea with a very long history. Since the time of Aristotle and before, happiness was understood as a condition to which all people properly aspire. But for the Greeks, as for the biblical writers, happiness was an objective reality, not just a feeling or an emotional state. The phrase "whatever makes you happy," so commonly uttered today, would have been nonsense to Hebrews, Greeks, and Christians alike, since it implies no fixed moral order in which happiness resides.

Happiness is roughly synonymous with the biblical idea of "blessedness." In classical and medieval Christian ethics happiness referred to a state of human flourishing or well-being that aligned the life of a person with the truest good. Actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions had to be ordered in light of the proper end of mankind for a person to be truly happy. Happiness was thus an ethical, not a psychological project.

To pursue happiness was to pursue the whole reason for one's being, but that meant recognizing that one's desires and actions were in need of correction. It meant accounting for the fact that human beings did not instinctively pursue the truest good, that some very attractive pleasures were not truly in keeping with the most essential contours of our nature. In Christian terms, the pursuit of happiness meant recognizing that God had created us to flourish in the context of obedience to Him so that our image-bearing nature might display His glory. Since our sin and consequent waywardness alienated us from our deepest, truest identity, the pursuit of happiness was only possible by grace, since we cannot by our own strength resist the disordering effects of sin in our lives.

So happiness on this historic account is really a function of sanctification, of growth in holy obedience. That formulation would no doubt come as a shock to most of our contemporaries, perhaps even to many Christians, though it would have probably caused a nod of affirmation from most pagan philosophers. How has it come about that a nation often assumed to be Christian, a nation also obsessed with pursuing happiness, has acquired such an anti-Christian understanding of what it means to be happy?

Part of the answer is tied up with the radical innovations in ethical thought that took shape during the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment culture in which Jefferson was at home. It was a time in which philosophers were abandoning the idea of an essential human nature that defined human ends. It was, in a sense, an abandonment of the idea of sin, since these Enlightenment thinkers were quite willing to talk about (in Alasdair MacIntyre's words) "untutored-human-nature-as-it-is," and base their understanding of ethics and politics on a picture of an intrinsically innocent human nature. This was a time in which the freedom of the individual was becoming the ultimate good, for individuals and societies. The philosophies of the time when our nation was founded were committed to the idea of the individual as sovereign in his moral authority (see Maclntyre, After Virtue, p. 62).

In such a context, the venerable idea of the pursuit of happiness took on a whole new meaning. Happiness came to be understood as whatever any individual conceives it to be. Since it could no longer be objectively defined in terms of a fixed purpose for human nature, the pursuit of happiness soon came to mean the pursuit of pleasure, the relentless quest for fun, for an emotional state of carefree bliss. And this state need have no correlation to the ethical choices one has made, to the way one has ordered one's life. In fact, many Americans seem committed to pursuing this kind of happiness by means of making bad ethical choices: committing adultery, dishonoring their parents, killing their unborn children, abusing their own bodies. When happiness becomes merely a mood, the sustaining of which is the highest good, rules tend to get broken, like eggs in Lenin's omelet.

In the twentieth century, aided by the rise of mass media and ubiquitous forms of entertainment, the pursuit of happiness-as-fun came to be felt as a kind of moral imperative. Writing in the mid-1950s, psychologist Martha Wolfenstein noted the emergence of what she called "fun morality," an ethic that displaced the old-fashioned goodness morality "which stressed interference with impulses. Not having fun is an occasion for self-examination: 'What is wrong with me?...Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers one's self-esteem." Not only has happiness been detached from objective human ends and identified uncritically with personal pleasure, the pleasures assumed to be the source of happiness are increasingly the most trivial and fleeting. Submitting to the dictates of fun morality makes the passive consumption of entertainment a more plausible road to happiness than subtler, more demanding pleasures like learning to play the violin, acquiring a love of literature, or cultivating a beautiful garden.

As it happens, the dominant assumption that happiness is a custom-built project with potentially instant payoffs does not seem to have made most people that much happier. In a recent essay entitled "The Pursuit of Emptiness," John Perry Barlow observes: "Of my legion friends and acquaintances who have become citizens of Prozac Nation, I have never heard any of them claim that these drugs bring them any closer to actual happiness. Rather, they murmur with listless gratitude, anti-depressants have pulled them back from The Abyss. They are not pursuing happiness. They are fleeing suicide." Barlow reports on an experiment in looking for smiles on the faces of people in the "upscale organic supermarket" in San Francisco in which he regularly shops. In eleven months, seeing thousands of faces, "nearly all of them healthy, beautiful, and very expensively groomed," he counted seven smiles, three of which he judged insincere. Instead, in supermarkets and elsewhere, he sees a characteristic "expression of troubled self-absorption [which] has become a nearly universal mask." Trying to find happiness on our own terms, rather than on the terms our Creator has built into our nature, is an exhausting and disappointing undertaking.

Carl Elliott, author of the book Better than Well, perceptively documents how many Americans use various "enhancement technologies" in the effort to feel better about themselves (which may be the working definition of happiness for many of our contemporaries). Elliot senses that the American project of pursuing happiness has become so desperate that it now seems to require "not only that I pursue happiness, but that I pursue it aggressively, club it into unconsciousness, and drag it back bound and gagged to my basement." The lengths to which people go to nab happiness are astonishing: the drugs they take; the fantasies they sustain; the money they spend; the relationships they poison.

There is something of a backlash against this militant happiness-seeking, this regime of relentless perkiness. Earlier this year, Eric Wilson's slim manifesto, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, was greeted by a chorus of sympathy. Wilson questioned the virtue of striving to be perpetually upbeat, reminding readers that it is sometimes quite emotionally healthy to respond to the tragedies of life with darker sentiments. Other recent books have questioned the tendency to treat sadness as a mental illness. These protests are fine as far as they go, but they are still working with the assumption that happiness is a subjective state.

The recovery of a richer vision for human happiness is a project for which Christians are uniquely situated. We believe, unlike most of our contemporaries, that we are made to delight in the knowledge and love of God, to find our fulfillment as creatures only as we walk in His ways. Knowing also that we live in a world disordered by sin, we recognize that true blessedness will often, until Christ returns, involve suffering, persecution, and sacrifice. Our happiness is not a right, but a gift from one who was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus never asked the disciples: "Are we having fun yet?" But He did teach them that faithful servants would enter into the joy of their master. Happiness is the fruit of aligning our lives with God's purposes for us. "If you keep my commandments," Jesus promised, "you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:10-11). The pursuit of such single-minded faithfulness, not simple-minded fun, is the true road to human happiness.

What I Mean By Reformed

Kevin DeYoung posted something I enjoyed today here:

a portion:

When I say am I am Reformed I mean:

I marvel at God's holiness, that he is independent, pure, good, and utterly beyond me.
I glory in God's goodness, that he should save a wretch like me, totally undeserving, bent toward evil in all my faculties.
I rejoice in God's sovereignty, that he chose to save me for the praise of his glory, not owing to anything I did or would do or any potential in me.
I find my hope in the second Adam who gives me life and imputed blessing, triumphing over the first Adam's imputed death and curse.
I am grateful for God's power by which he caused me, without my cooperation, to be born again and enabled me to believe his promises.
I take comfort in God's all-encompassing providence, that nothing happens to me by chance, but all things--prosperity or poverty, health or sickness, giving or taking away--are sent to me by my loving heavenly Father.
I praise God for his mercy, shown to me chiefly on the cross where his Son died, not just to make a way for me to come to him, but died effectually in my place such that my sins, my guilt, and my punishment all died in the death of Christ.
I find assurance in God's preserving grace believing with all my might that nothing--not even myself--can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord which he began in me and will see through to completion.
I rest secure in God's covenant love, depicted in both the Old and the New Testament, showing me the incomparable blessings of knowing that the Lord is my God and I am his beloved son, that God is a God to me and my children after me.
I stand amazed in the justifying grace of God whereby I am acquitted of all my sins and clothed with new garments in the presence of my King and Judge, not because of anything I have done but only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in which I trust.
I delight in the glory of God and in God's delight for his own glory which brings me, on my best days, unspeakable joy, and on all my other days, still gives purpose and order to an otherwise confusing and seemingly random world.
I cherish the word of God because it is all true, because I see Christ in it, and because its rules and precepts are for my good,
I rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to illumine my mind, convict me of sin, and make me holy as God is holy.

When I say I am Reformed I mean that God is the center of the universe and I am not. I mean that I am a worse sinner than I imagine and God is a greater Savior than I ever thought possible. I mean that the Lord is my righteousness and the Lord alone is my boast.

By Reformed I mean all this, and most of all that my only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong, in body and in soul, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever, amen.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Imprecatory Psalms?

What Happens if the Church Does Not Sing the Imprecatory Psalms?
from Biblical Horizons by Rich Bledsoe

What happens if the church doesn’t sing the Imprecatory Psalms? We don’t like them. They are mean and nasty, and the one outstanding virtue inculcated in our public schools and universities (as Allan Bloom noted more than twenty years ago in his observations of American college students) is “niceness.” But what happens when everyone is “nice” and “conflict resolution” and diplomacy are made the ideal for everyone around? The end result is: the sociopaths take over.

Sociopaths, and people who at least begin to mirror them, and begin to have attributes that resemble them, are extremely adept at putting themselves in positions of power, and have an uncanny way of holding everyone at bay with massive amounts of confusion and intimidation.

Eventually, they get their way simply because nobody has the energy to deal with them or stop them. These people become a full time job.

There are nations in the world where not just individuals who fit this description, but whole clans and families of this sort of people, control everything. Italy , for example, is famously run by “Mafioso.” The American myth of “The Godfather” tells one tragic story of a generational line of the Mafioso. The great tragedy of the Mario Puzo tale is that in that case (as I suspect in many real life cases) the “Godfather” grew up in an old Sicilian neighborhood in New York City , and became a better, and more virtuous protector of the neighborhood, against a more vicious godfather. One godfather overthrew another, but in the end, his own line and own corporation was worse than the last. The Godfather and his family and corporation, were a false church and shadow state.

There are a whole bevy of books out there now that tell us about dealing with “evil.” I am not up on the latest ones, but two that I am very familiar with are Scott Peck’s PEOPLE OF THE LIE, and Edwin Friedman’s A FAILURE OF NERVE. Peck says there are people out there who defy any psychiatric designation, and can only be termed “evil.” And what is worse, he says they are not so rare.

Europe before WWII became a place of complete lassitude, complete tolerance. The Weimar Republic was famously a place of, as we would say now, “complete liberation” rather like modern day Holland . But far from being ultimately liberating, along with the rest of “liberated Europe ,” it simply became a breeding ground for evil take over artists.

We all know the rest of the story. In large measure, Hitler took over, because nobody had the energy, or time, to deal with him and his crew of wreckers and troublemakers. It is like having cockroaches take over. They have a persistence of survival, and have more energy and reproductive capacity than you can deal with. And, given enough time, these groups rediscover what good and virtuous people, who are filled up with being “nice” and self pre-occupation, have forgotten. They rediscover the power of fathers. They learn to become “godfathers” and learn how to spawn families, clans, and whole tribes of very energetic and controlling take over, and “keep over” artists. They become “war lords.” They rediscover fatherhood, and use its power for completely perverse and tyrannical ends. Finally, they rule everything. That is what large portions of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia look like today. The ridding of whole areas of such control is what one of the long sustained achievements is of what is now in some places contemptuously referred to as “Western Civilization.” The replacement of warlord clans with the rule of law was an enormous achievement.[1]

And such a takeover again is what threatens if the church decides that the imprecatory Psalms are not “nice.”

You might notice that at least some of the Imprecatory Psalms are directed at whole clans of people. They say terrible things like (Psalm 109 NKJV)

8 Let his days be few,And let another take his office.9 Let his children be fatherless,And his wife a widow.10 Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg;Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places.11 Let the creditor seize all that he has,And let strangers plunder his labor.12 Let there be none to extend mercy to him,Nor let there be any to favor his fatherless children.13 Let his posterity be cut off,
And in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

Such terrible things are said, not because the authors were “sub-Christian” (meaning “sub-nice”) but because they were dealing with conditions that we have long since forgotten.[2] Evil runs and grows in generational lines. And what sounds cruel and horrible may be the most merciful, and indeed the only merciful thing that can happen.

Our best instruction today is in the movies. If you remember, the entire tragic enterprise of Michael Corleone, was to escape his family, and he could not. Because he didn’t, he had to lose everything, including finally, his beloved daughter in order to be saved (the Script title, given by Puzo himself was “The Redemption of Michael Corleone”). If a generation earlier, he could have escaped, if he could have become “fatherless.” if he could have been “cut off” as posterity, if the name “Corleone” could have been “blotted out” the final “cutting off” could have been avoided, while there was still a scintilla of goodness left in the line. But it was not, and one line finally destroyed another line.

We baptize in the “line of generations” that righteousness might grow strong and become an oak and not just an individual twig. Evil also grows in generations, and Americans no longer remember this. We are too many generations removed and have entirely done what the Bible warns us over and over not to do. We have forgotten. That is why we no longer include the Imprecatory Psalms even in our readings, let alone as material for chanting.

Woe be onto us. God hears our prayers, and we get what we ask for and the rot grows where we as the church and caretaker of the world do not ask, and do not fight. We are about to rediscover again what it means to have “warlord families” in our midst. Indeed, they are already here.

[1] Ellul, J. (1978). The betrayal of the West. New York, Seabury Press.
Ellul understands far better than the critics the follies and crimes of Western Civilization. But he also knows that many of the critics are not real patriots, like Jeremiah was a true Hebrew patriot, or Solzhenitzyn a true Russian patriot. Many of them are traitors to exactly those Christian and Biblical roots that have made Western Civilization almost uniquely self critical.
[2] Indeed, our ethnocentric blindness is enormous and almost funny. It is almost as though we believe it a shame that King David did not have daily web access to the New York Times editorial page. If he had, just think how many elementary mistakes he could have avoided.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Memo to Worship Bands

from Tim Challies blog...

John G. Stackhouse writes a letter to worship bands asking them to turn down the volume just a little bit.

"The contrast with the Reformation is the modern-day insistence that a few people at the front be the center of attention. We do it by making six band members louder than a room full of people. But a church service isn't a concert at which an audience sings along with the real performers. Musicians--every one of them, including the singers--are accompanists to the congregation's praise. They should be mixed loudly enough only to do their job of leading and supporting the congregation."

Other than the comment about the Luther drinking songs, I think he nails it really well. I WANT TO HEAR THE CONGREGATION SINGING!!! Oops, sorry for shouting. ;-)

For the record, Luther did not take "bar tunes" and put biblical words to them. That legend comes from a comical misunderstanding. Someone apparently heard a music historian referring to Luther's use of the "bar form," which refers to a stanza structure, not to what drunks sing in a tavern. Luther did borrow and adapt tunes from earlier hymns, medieval chants, and contemporary composers, but a good number of his melodies were his own original compositions.