Saturday, October 24, 2020

Human Happiness And Divine Will

     I know, I know: this is the sort of subject I’m supposed to reserve for Sundays, right? Well, that’s not one of my rules, and nobody makes rules for me but me and God. Anyway, it proceeds from a valuable statement that leads off an unusually good Sarah Hoyt piece:

     I normally don’t talk about my religion, partly because more and more, like others who belong to mainline churches I feel betrayed and besmirched by what those institutions have become.

     Partly because though I am religious, I believe we’re supposed to live in this world in the light of reason and facts. If it were not so, we’d be given other perceptions and other ability.

     Excellent. We are what God has made us — and what God has made us indicates unambiguously how we are meant to live. If that’s too theistic for you, think of it this way: a creature with a particular nature is best served by conforming to the imperatives and priorities of that nature. To act in contradiction to those imperatives and priorities would endanger the creature...and possibly others of his kind as well. (Philosopher Douglas Den Uyl has written at length on this subject.)

     A former pastor of mine, the late Reverend Charles Papa, once cited the miracle of the Wedding at Cana as clear evidence that God values human happiness. It was a striking observation. If God were unconcerned with human happiness, or if He were somehow opposed to it, Jesus would have said So there’s no wine left? So what? or something much like it. As the Gospels tell us, the Redeemer thought – and did – otherwise.

     If you ever encounter an allegiant of some grimly ascetic, supposedly Christian sect – you know, the sort that’s opposed to holiday celebrations and children’s parties – the miracle at Cana is how you know his sect is full of shit. Smile and be pleasant; there’s no need to be rude or dour in response. But remember Cana. Remember how many times Christ intervened to relieve suffering, rather than telling the sufferer to “Buck up, it’s good for you.”

     Hearken to the great Clive Staples Lewis:

     He's a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are "pleasures for evermore". Ugh! I don't think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific Vision. He's vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working, Everything has to be twisted before it's any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.

     [The Screwtape Letters]

     The propensity of self-nominated religious leaders to go badly wrong in this regard is one of the reasons it’s far better – far more reliable and constructive – to hew strictly to the Gospels rather than to follow the lead of any man. Lewis was aware of this and made an adroit reference to it: occurred to her that the Director never talked about Religion; nor did the Dimbles nor Camilla. They talked about God. They had no picture in their minds of some mist steaming upward: rather of strong, skilful hands thrust down to make, and mend, perhaps even to destroy.

     [That Hideous Strength]

     Once one has accepted oneself as “a made thing,” there is only one appropriate attitude: to be what one’s Maker has fashioned.

     If we are what we are because God made us so, then it is only conformance to His will that we should live according to the imperatives and priorities of our natures. But beware the moral trap! Our natures predispose us to self-centeredness: a vision of existence wherein each of us sees himself as the all-important center, and those around him as no more than occasionally useful tools. This is what’s meant by sociopathy.

     A ruthlessly self-centered vision inclines the holder to sociopathic behavior: manipulative, deceitful, and outrightly criminal when he can get away with it. To behave in such a fashion is to violate the second Great Commandment, which is as imperative as the first:

     But the Pharisees hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, came together: And one of them, a doctor of the law, asking him, tempting him: Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?
     Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:34-40]

     And really, would anything else make sense? Smith, knowing himself to be a child of God, must accord the same nature and status to Jones – and thereafter must treat Jones as Smith would want Jones to treat him:

  • No harming Jones physically,
  • No theft or fraud against Jones,
  • No messing around with Mrs. Jones,
  • No false witness against Jones;
  • And no laying plans to steal Jones’s wife or his stuff!

     The perfect consistency of the Great Commandments with what God asks of us in the Decalogue should be sufficient proof of the soundness of the whole. “Religion,” as most people conceive of it, doesn’t enter into it: it owes not one groat of its power to the proclamations of anyone but Christ Himself. And inasmuch as it is all God asks of us, why would anyone think He demands that we suffer? Would such a Supreme Being have sent His Son to suffer and die entirely for our sakes?

     Ultimately, achieving happiness is our task as individuals. It could be no other way, for as Loren Lomasky put it, we are inherently “project pursuers,” for whom happiness inheres in conceiving of goals to achieve, planning how to do so, and then doing it. It doesn’t take much experience of life to know that “gift pleasure,” wherein what we desire is given to us with no need for exertion on our part, is a poor, pale thing when compared with the happiness that flows from personal achievement. And on this subject no less a figure than Robert A. Heinlein has spoken most eloquently:

     "Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain." He had been still looking at me and added, "If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier... and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I've just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?"
     "Uh, I suppose it would."
     "No dodging, please. You have the prize—here, I'll write it out: ‘Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.' " He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. "There! Are you happy? You value it—or don't you?"
I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids—a typical sneer of those who haven't got it -- and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.
     Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. "It doesn't make you happy?"
     "You know darn well I placed fourth!"
     "Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you... because you haven't earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money—which is true—just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself—ultimate cost for perfect value."

     I could go on from here. There are always questions to be answered: about the Problem of Evil, the Problem of Pain, and the many ways in which our perceptions and histories can lead us away from happiness, should we not remain alert to their snares. Perhaps I’ll address those things, someday soon. But I try to avoid running on at the keyboard for too long. The above is what’s been at the center of my thoughts recently. Sarah Hoyt’s observation was the seed crystal that’s allowed me to formulate it as I have above. I trust it’s as clear to you as it is to me:

We are made to seek happiness...
...And God approves.

     May He bless and keep you all.


Jess said...

I have a relative that almost agonizes over her perception of some preachers. She want's to "save" everyone from these people, and her happiness is lost to her other emotions.

I've tried explaining to her that faith demands a trust that God will lead you away from evil, and that "letting go, and letting God" can be a difficult task for some. I think she tries to understand this, but see that she is still struggling.

Reg T said...

Reading this, I'd like to agree. The thought occurred to me, "So much for the "vale of tears" theodicy.
At the same time, I think of Ayatollah Khomeini's book of two volumes on proper rules conduct for muslims, titled _Tahrirolvasyleh_ [fourth edition, Qom, Iran, 1990] in which he states, "A man can have sexual pleasure from a child as young as a baby. However, he should not penetrate vaginally, but sodomising the child is acceptable."

Where in our relationship to God does the suffering of helpless innocents speak of a desire on his part that we experience happiness, or even simply the "pursuit of happiness"? What possible desirable outcome for an infant or child accrues from such suffering? To think of it as a morality lesson for the rest of us would imply a sociopathic lack of concern for the suffering of others, so there must be something else at work here, but I lack the wit to determine what that might be.