The Problem of Happiness

December 26, 2009

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working my way through “Happiness: A History” by Darrin M. McMahon (2006, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York).

Like many of the books that I’m reading these days, “Happiness” is a conceptual history, or a history of the changes in meaning and usage of important concepts. I look for conceptual histories of terms that are central to how we talk about what it means to be human and contentious words that shape our understanding of common life (freedom, liberty, rights, justice, sexuality, morality, fact, emotions, mind, reason, faith, doubt, soul, boredom, love, etc.).

McMahon’s book is well researched and written with an accessible style. It takes a lot of effort to digest such a complex body of research and order everything together in a way that a nonspecialist reader can understand. I’m always impressed when someone does that well.

I found his chapter dealing with early Christianity annoying. His examination of the role of suffering in the early Christian understanding of martyrdom takes place outside of a framework that discusses how sin distorts the world and individual personhood. As a result, the idea that we suffer in Christ because we live in a sinful world that opposes him and are dieing to sinful orientations that have formed our personality is obscured. With this mysterious absence of the concept of sin until he introduces Augustine later in the chapter, McMahon’s early Christian martyrs seem to suffer, and find happiness in suffering, out of some ecstatic masochism.

My annoyance with his framework of Christian happiness and suffering aside, I’ve found the rest of the book extremely helpful. The quotes below are passages that I highlighted because I felt that they captured why it’s important to reflect on our own understandings of happiness or summarized radical shifts in understanding of happiness. McMahon is a remarkably lucid writer with a knack for bringing the point home.

This quote from the preface should be a nice appetizer to whet your interest to read the book yourself:
“We can be happy, we will be happy, we should be happy. We have a right to happiness. Surely this is our modern creed. But have human beings always felt that way? Is it correct to assume, with Freud’s contemporary the American philosopher William James, that “how to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times teh secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure”? Is happiness eternal—universal—or does it have a specific record of time and place?
…In the end, William James may well have been right. Perhaps happiness is, was, and ever shall be the ultimate human end in every time and place.
Yet it is also perfectly clear that the manner in which men and women understand happiness–how they propose, and whether they expect to achieve it–varies dramatically across cultures and over time. And as I hope this book will demonstrate, happiness has occupied a particularly prominent place in the Western culture and thought.” from the
Preface, pages xii-xiv

On the radical shift in the Enlightement project in understandings of human nature and purpose, quoting Roy Porter in “The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment”:
“If there was a central concern that animated the Enlightenment’s many questions, it was how to make life better. In brief, as one eminent scholar has summarized, ‘The Enlightenment…translated the ultimate question ‘How can I be saved’ into the pragmatic ‘How can I be happy?’ The answers eighteenth-century men and women increasingly believed, could be found through human effort and understanding.” page 209

On the shift from Christian understandings of happiness to Enlightenment understandings, and Samuel Johnson’s questioning of the Enlightenment belief that happiness that happiness was the chief end of human life (this one may be a little hard to follow without the context of some of the preceding pages, but you’ll probably be able to get the gist of it):

“Yet [Christians] were resigned to the belief (the hope) that real happiness would come only in death.
But now that the end was now, or rather of this life, the long Christian apprenticeship in happiness deferred had a curious effect. For now that the end was now, did not everyone have the right to hope for salvation? The new faith, like the old, was universal in its potential, and the good news of the modern gospel was free to travel with missionary speed. All could be happy. All should be happy. All would be happy-someday. These were the miracles that talent and art were making in the world. Scarcely a century before, rulers had been required to lead in the service of the faith and morals of their subjects, to lead in the service of God. They were now being asked to serve a different lord. ‘Happiness is in truth the only object of legislation of intrinsic value,’ the English utilitarian Joseph Priestly observed. From the greatest good to the greatest number, this was the voice of a new age.
Without completely dismissing the liberating potential of this creed [Samuel] Johnson detected its darker side. As a companion of Rasselas [a novel written by Johnson exploring the problem of happiness and human nature] inquires, ‘What…is to be expected from our pursuit of happiness, when we find the state of life to be such, that happiness itself is the cause of misery?’ Was it really so clear that human beings were intended to be happy, that they could make themselves so? The supposition itself, Johnson understood, involved an assumption- an article of faith- about the purpose of human existence, about man’s final telos and end. And if this supposition were wrong, as he well believed, then it placed on human beings a terrible burden: a responsibility they could never entirely fulfill. The result, as Rousseau had intuited but never precisely seen, was a new type of unhappiness: the guilt and sorrow one experiences for not being happy in a culture that demands it.”
pages 248-250

Happy reading!

I got in a conversation with a friend of mine after a recent discussion group meeting.  He raised the question about whether limits are a result of the fall of mankind in the garden of Eden. I think that this is a very important question because a lot of the problems we experience universally as humans and particularly as Westerners have a lot to do with how we understand human limits.

Ken Myers puts it much better than I could in his article, A Devlish Temptation:

“For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. Many sincere Christians still have some sense that being limited is an effect of sin, rather than a condition of the Creation. Both Genesis accounts of Creation (in chapters 1 and 2) resound with the establishment of boundaries—in time, in space, in ontology, and in vocation. God created all things (including his image-bearers) to thrive within limits, and he then asserted that this circumstance of Creation is very good. After delivering the mandate to serve as his regents and stewards over all Creation, God reminds Adam and Eve that they are creatures who are bounded. They do not exist independently, but must turn to the earth (from which they came and to which will return) for food, for the stuff of life. But not all the food in the Garden was on the menu. Man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.

I am convinced that humans are bounded creatures- we were made with “bounds” or limits. Our bounds and potential are set by our calling as God’s creatures. We were made to be in relationship with Him, with each other, and with the rest of the created order. The creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis shows that God created a world of finite creatures, who had bodies, lived in time, and were free to grow towards their God set potential.

We only experience these limitations as a problem because we mistake what we are supposed to be. I believe that all sin has to do with us trying to be God:

Genesis 3: 1-4
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”

4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

God knows good and evil by His own self-set limits. God is limited only by his own character. Good is all the God is and what God wills, evil is what is outside of his character and will. I believe that the temptation to “be like God, knowing good and evil,” is the temptation to live as if good and evil were in reference to ourselves- to our character, to our will.

When Adam and Eve chose to live this way, they broke the way they were supposed to relate to God, themselves, each other, and the rest of creation. They attempted to live in the world as something they were not. Because their limits and calling didn’t change and the universe didn’t change, they simply did not fit. By trying to become more, they became less. God doesn’t make us dependent so we will need Him. We are dependent. We need Him. We just don’t want to be dependent or need Him, and that’s why we hate our limits so much. We don’t know how to live within our limits, and so therefore we can’t become what we are called to.

This is not to say that I believe that all limits are good and God given. Some limits exist because of sin. Sin limits our freedom and capacity to become fully human- both because of our own sin and because we live in a fallen world that is hostile to us as children of God.

I had an interesting conversation about freedom and limits with a young woman that I mentor. Not surprisingly, this was part of a larger conversation about sex. We talked about how our culture understands the concept of freedom as a state of being without limits. That’s part of the reason why even Christians resist the idea of limits on something that we want, such as sex.

I believe that every freedom to do something or be something is inseparable from both calling and limits. The bounds that God puts on sex have everything to do with what God made people to be and what he made sex to be- what he calls us to. When we act within those bounds, we walk within the freedom to enjoy sex as something that more fully connects us with our spouses and each other- it becomes something that makes us more fully human and brings us closer to fulfilling our calling. People who live lives of celibacy, as Paul describes in our readings in first Corinthians this week, experience a different type of freedom within the limits of what they are called to (see 1 Corinthians 7). It’s interesting to look at why Paul encourages celibacy among the Corinthian Church:

9What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

In this passage, Paul encourages people in the direction of celibacy because the limitations of a fallen world and their own immaturity restrict their freedom to become like Christ. God given limits fall into Paul’s encouragement of celibacy: time is short, meaning we have limited time and energy to accomplish certain things, so it’s best not to divide our energies too much. Marriage isn’t a bad thing- it’s just that it’s potentially distracting from a more important calling in their context. Every freedom has an opportunity cost-you loose the freedom to do or become something else.

Levels of maturity put different types of limits on us as well. An immature person isn’t free to have healthy relationships because they are indulging in the “freedom” to be dysfunctional. They don’t respect the limits of and responsibilities of healthy relationships, so they don’t develop their capacity to sustain healthy relationships. Their “freedom” becomes a type of slavery that limits their potential. A more mature person has learned to live within limits (not insisting on their own way, not boasting, not proud, keeping no record of wrongs), and therefore has developed a character that can sustain healthy relationships in the freedom that Christ calls us to.

It’s interesting how we try to violate limits in our culture. We want to be unlimited in our bodies, eating what we want but never growing fat. We want to be unlimited in our time, juggling the big career, the perfect family, and a swarm of activities. We want to be unlimited in our understanding, flattering ourselves that our rationality or natural intuition can make all knowledge and wisdom available to us. We want to live as if the world were not limited, consuming resources and dumping waste as if the world will adapt to our endless desires for more.

If you’re interested in thinking more about this, I encourage you to read the rest of Ken Myers article, A Devilish Temptation. Myer’s ministry, the Mars Hill Audio Journal, is one of the best resources available for shaping a Christian worldview. It’s a lot like NPR for Christians, and despite the similarity of the name, it’s not related to Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill congregation in Seattle. If you’re more or a listener than a reader, you can hear some more about this topic in one of Myers’s Podcasts. Myers also recommends an article by Christian thinker Wendell Berry called Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits. Berry talks about how the attempts to deny limits in our economic system lead to the degradation of lives and the world we live in.

This post is a work in progress…

If you are a Christian or a seeker and are having trouble finding a satisfying definition of faith, I guarantee you that you are not the only one. There are good reasons why scrapping together a definition of faith is so challenging. The way that we use the word “faith” in our culture is different from the way the biblical writers used it. It was part of a completely different way of looking at the world. When we take words that are originally at home in one worldview and move them into another, their meanings can change drastically. They stop making sense. Here are five common misconceptions about faith that are common in our culture. I find that these misconceptions are shared by Christians and non Christians and create a lot of mess as we attempt to make sense of the world.

Misconception #1. Faith is a “religious” word. It’s only relevant for religious people when they’re talking about religious things. You don’t often hear mainstream scientists talking about the role of faith in science, or hear mechanics talking about having faith in how cars work.

Misconception #2.  Have faith in faith! In this misconception, faith is an “Oprah” word. Faith is something that makes you feel better, or a quasi-magic force that changes reality by its own strength. People say things sentimentally like “You just have to have faith”, without really talking about what we should have faith in. It’s almost as if faith were a feeling that gives us the warm fuzzies to get through any situation. It doesn’t need an object that is worthy of our faith to accomplish transformation as we trust in it (faith in Christ, faith in our own abilities, faith in the law of gravity).

Misconception #3. Jesus runs on a faith tank and we have to fill it up before he can move. When I have enough Faith Points to get to the “make stuff happen” line on the Faith Tank, someone will get healed. Doubt Points lower the level on the Faith Tank. Whatever you do, don’t doubt! Think your happy thoughts! Try as hard as possible to work your faith up so you can get more Faith Points. In this misconception of faith, the quality or amount of faith that we have transforms the reality of our situation. For example, if we have enough faith in Jesus, ourselves, in the universe, in shiny unicorns, etc., then we we will get the outcome we want. This misconception is very common among Christians. It can lead to attempts at manipulating God, guilt or shame for not having enough faith, and treating faith as a work (one of the great ironies of contemporary Protestantism).

Misconception #4. Faith is an “unreasonable” word, or at least unrelated to reason. There’s major cultural baggage behind this misconception, and it’s the reason that misconceptions # 1,  #2 and #5 developed. In Western cultures, we have seen reason as the way to get reliable knowledge about reality. Faith is seen as something less reliable that begins where reason ends. In other words, faith is an unreliable means of knowing/understanding reality. In snobbier versions of this misconception, faith is a substitute for reason or a way of avoiding unpleasant aspects of reality by living in a wishful fantasies.

Misconception #5: “Doubt” is a reasonable word, or at least more intellectually respectable than “faith.” Thus the phrase, “honest doubt” as opposed to “blind faith”. This is also rooted in the history of how we have understood knowledge in the West. For several hundred years until quite recently, many people thought that the way you get to certain knowledge is by doubting everything (particularly anything that you learned from your culture or a source claiming authority, such as yo’ daddy, “The Man”, or the Bible). Once you’ve doubted everything that you possibly can, what you’ll have left are basic facts that are so self-evident that you can’t doubt them (“I think, therefore I am”). If you follow precise rules of logic from your un-doubtable facts, you’ll get to certain knowledge. Everything else (like things you learn from revelation, such as the Bible), doesn’t count as real knowledge.

Another version of this is that the only reliable way of getting knowledge is by input from your five senses, disciplined by practicing the scientific method. Anything that you can’t prove through science doesn’t count as knowledge. In both of these misconceptions, science or reason is seen as something that we practice without using faith. Faith is “subjective”, science and reason are “objective.”

How these misconceptions mess us up:

Many Christians believe that they know things about God or religion by faith, and that they know things about the rest of the world through science, reason, or “common sense.” This creates a split between our Christianity and the rest of our lives. Sometimes, people carry this split so far that they don’t bother to reason about their religious beliefs. This is either because they feel that their faith doesn’t have a reasonable dimension or a fear that their faith couldn’t stand up to reason. On the opposite extreme, there are also Christian subcultures that have insisted that we “prove faith” or “prove the existence of God”, by demonstrating that it lives up to the supposedly objective standards of reason (such as the law of non-contradiction).

More often, I meet people who want to believe, but have doubts. They feel that they are kidding themselves if they try to believe the claims of Christianity in the face of what their reason, doubts, and common sense are telling them.They struggle with a sense that there is something more to life but that they get stuck. Being told to “just believe” feels like they are being told to compromise their intellectual integrity.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of how these misconceptions can play out in Christian cultures: Have you ever been at a Bible Study or in Sunday School, and someone asks a question about God/The Bible/life that there didn’t seem to be a reasonable answer for? Did someone end up saying: “Somethings don’t make sense, otherwise, we wouldn’t have to have faith. If we could just rely on reason, we wouldn’t rely on God.”? I’ve heard this a lot, and I have a theory about the reasoning underneath it:

Premise One: God requires Faith.

Premise Two: Reason and faith are independent.

Premise Three: Reason is the way that we get to knowledge. Or: Reason is the way we get to most knowledge, and faith picks up where reason leaves off.

Therefore: God has to make some things out of reach of reason so we have to rely on Him. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to have faith. If we could rely on reason for everything, we wouldn’t rely on God.”

This has always evoked a distasteful image of God to me: God puts some things out of reach so that we’ll need Him, because God’ knows that we wouldn’t want to hang out with Him otherwise . He demands that we have faith, which we don’t seem to use in any other area of our life.

What questions about faith do you have? Have you seen any of these misconceptions? How do these misconceptions play out in your life and lives of those around you?

Coming soon: Five ways of thinking about faith that will help you get unstuck.


If your image of God is sadistic and you think you have to love Him anyway, you will become an obedient masochist in response to His heart for you.