Holy Hedonism!

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I was recently introduced to John Piper’s term, “Christian Hedonism,” which I believe he coined in the 1986 classic, Desiring God, but which I came across in reading his recent mini-book, The Dangerous Duty of Delight. It’s a pretty radical concept… and yet it struck me as wonderfully, profoundly true.

Webster defines hedonism as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.” We’ve always been taught the Christian life was exactly counter to this, right? So what is Christian hedonism?

According to Piper, Christian hedonism is the truth that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Therefore, if we are going to glorify God as we ought, the pursuit of joy is not optional—it is essential. We not only may, but ought to pursue our maximum pleasure—in God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the “chief end of man” as “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Piper has suggested that this would be more correct as “to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”

Essentially the idea is that the Christian life is not joyful or happy or blessed as a result of our devotion and service and worship of God. Being joyful and happy and blessed is HOW we worship God. It’s not a byproduct of our faith. It is our faith.

Seeking happiness as a “reward” for being a Christian is not something we should be ashamed of—it is precisely the motivation we should be pursuing. Put off all notions of self-pity and self-sacrifice and guilt for feeling discontent or desiring more. Acknowledging the desires of our restless souls is vital to our pleasure in God.

Piper looks to Augustine and Jonathan Edwards as examples of “Christian hedonism,” but perhaps most often he turns to C.S. Lewis, who Piper thinks summarizes the radical (and radically true) concept best in The Weight of Glory:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Here are some of the controversial implications of being wholly devoted to a holy hedonistic lifestyle:

  • It is okay (and right) to do good deeds because it will bring you pleasure. Does that mean our motivation in giving money to the poor or bringing flowers to someone in a hospital should be our happiness first and foremost??? Yes. Piper says “The pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.”
  • We should reject the well-intentioned philosophy that says “For the Christian, happiness is never a goal to be pursued. It is always the unexpected surprise of a life of service.” No, we must do the opposite. Happiness is our service.
  • When we come to a worship at church, we should be there to get, not to give. We should hunger for the joy that God provides us in worship, not concerned with what we could possibly give to Him.
  • We should not pursue the wealth and material pleasures of this world, but we should pursue the greater gains awaiting us in eternal life. In other words, doing things for a crown in heaven is not a bad motivation at all.
  • We should deny ourselves for God’s sake, but not feel sad or self-pitied as a result. We are denying ourselves a lesser good for a greater good; we must not think of sacrifice in terms of self-pity, but in terms of the reward at the end (“whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it,” Mark 8:35). We should live under the credo of slain missionary Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Anyway, I’m sure this is already a familiar concept to most of you, and it’s pretty common sense when you think about it. But it seems like Christianity has been branded as a religion of legalism and self-denial and, well, no fun. Even from the pulpit we get messages that seem to argue for a worship of God that is all about what we can give to Him, or do to make Him happy, etc… How much more radical, then, is Piper’s notion that the chief aim in life should be OUR happiness and OUR pleasure in God? It’s extreme. But if Christianity is, after all, the one and true answer among all others, it should be extreme, right?

Note: The picture above depicts late night frivolity at Oxbridge 2005, a fantastic conference for Christian artists/academics/C.S. Lewis enthusiasts that takes place in Oxford and Cambridge, England, every three years.

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5 responses to “Holy Hedonism!

  1. Something feels wrong about Piper’s thesis — we aren’t supposed to be THAT happy, are we? Years ago, when the Holy Laughter Movement swept the Church, I attended a Vineyard to observe. Despite the mayhem I withheld judgment because seeing Christians laugh that hard could only be a miracle. When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the believers were accused of being “drunk with wine.” Oh for the days when the Church was accused of being drunk, rather than being sour.

    (By the way, did you take the picture above, Brett? Or were you krumping in the corner?)

  2. The key here is in the use of the word pleasure. Aristotle actually does a wonderful job of making this distinction in his Nicomachean Ethics — which I encourage anyone to read.

    Aristotle first discusses pleasure in terms of happiness and the good — is pleasure the highest good?

    His first response is to say, “Absolutely not!” without giving any justification.

    He says this because the world pleasure often brings to mind sensual pleasure first. Aristotle says this is because it is the one kind of pleasure everyone has experienced.

    However, later Aristotle gives his own nuanced account of pleasure, taking up the relationship between happiness, goodness, and pleasure.

    Here he says that pleasure itself is always a good because it is always desired for its own sake. It is not possible to desire pleasure for the sake of anything else.

    Yet, pleasure in itself is not the highest good because some pleasures are at times not to be pursued for the sake of some higher good.

    The heart of Aristotle’s discussion is the proper relationship between PLEASURE and the ACT we call a pleasure.

    ** Every pleasure is indissolubly united with its act.**

    For example, one cannot experience the pleasure of eating without actually eating. Likewise, one cannot experience the pleasure of solving a crossword puzzle without actually doing a crossword puzzle.

    The proper pleasure which arises from an activity is only experienced in carrying out the activity.

    In our common use of the term, we tend to separate the experience of pleasure from acts. We sometimes seem to think that we experience the same thing when we have sex as when we read or eat or even pray — we say the only difference is in DEGREE. Some acts are more pleasurable than others.

    While there is a difference in degree, the first and most proper distinction in pleasures is in QUALITY or KIND.

    Each different kind of act has its own KIND of pleasure.

    [For Aristotle, pleasures differ in degree only within the same kind. Eating has its kind of pleasure but certain experiences of eating will be better than others.]

    We can tell this is true by an empirical test: observe that no amounting of eating or having sex will ever give you the same kind of pleasure as reading a good book or viewing a beautiful painting.

    We then judge different pleasures according to their proper ACTS.

    The goodness of a pleasure as a pleasure derives from the goodness of the ACT.

    Thus, study is a higher pleasure than eating because study is a higher act than eating.

    In short, Aristotle says that pleasure is NOT the highest good, it is NOT happiness, but is PART OF HAPPINESS. That is HAPPINESS IS PLEASANT.

    THE MORAL OF THE STORY…

    We can and should seek pleasure, but not just any pleasure. We must seek the highest pleasures in the highest activities.

    Many or most people do not understand this because they have not experienced higher pleasures than eating or having sex. Thus, they think the best pleasures to seek in life or carnal.

    Likewise, many good people are afraid of their own pleasure. A popular dilemma is in a true act of charity:

    Is an act still an act of charity if a person enjoys doing it?

    In short, yes. Enjoyment of a good activity demonstrates a more perfect character. I desire to do what is good.

    If an act of charity is difficult for me, it reveals my weak character: I much prefer to watch football than work at a soup kitchen. This is nothing to brag about. A person who prefers to work in a soup kitchen because they enjoy serving others is a better person. Wouldn’t we all like to be like this person?

    To enjoy doing good acts is what Aristotle calls VIRTUE.

    [Of course, we must be careful here — we must keep in mind WHY someone does an act. If I preferred to work at a soup kitchen because there was a particularly attractive girl I wanted to impress, I do not have a good character. Similarly, if I chose to watch the football game to spend some time with a depressed and struggling friend, it would be a morally superior act.

    Jesus discusses the same thing about pharisees who show off their good works.]

    See especially Nicomachean Ethics Book 7 Chapters 11-14 and Book 10 (esp. chptrs 1-5).

  3. I do not think CS Lewis would have approved of Christian Hedonism, not at all ( http://thefaithfulword.org/chfaqspage2.html#Q33 ).

    And Brett, do you really believe what you wrote, “Put off all notions of self-pity and self-sacrifice and guilt for feeling discontent or desiring more.”? If it is ok with you, I’ll just keep taking up my cross daily, fighting against lust, and trying to do nothing from selfishness…

    Blessings.

  4. I read Piper’s book last year and enjoyed it. I could get in trouble twisting it to a non-Biblical end, but overall thought it was good. Most reflective chapter was the one on suffering/death and Paul’s statement: If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all men are most to be pitied.

  5. Just found this article – love it – wonderful. Too many grumpy Christians, with a grumpy theology and a grumpy outlook preaching a grumpy gospel to a even grumpier world. Three shout-outs for a fresh, new perspective!

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