On Happiness

By Charry, Ellen T. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

On Happiness


Charry, Ellen T., Anglican Theological Review


In the opening lecture of our theology course one year, I told my class that theology is concerned with human happiness. Two students in the front row became uneasy at this statement and let me know indirectly that from that moment on, they discounted me. Here I seek to remind such students that to discount the importance of human happiness is to misunderstand theology and its purpose in two senses. First, if they think that theology is limited to believing propositions in order to get to heaven, they imply that theology is not about life in this world. Even a cursory glance at Christian thought disproves this contention. The second misunderstanding hits at the heart of this enterprise. Even if they think that theology is interested in this life, they are not persuaded that it is particularly interested in our enjoyment of it.

My purpose here is to dispel these common misperceptions. The task of theology is to help us know, love, and enjoy God better.1 The purpose for knowing God better is to love "him" and that loving we may enjoy him. Further, that enjoying him we may dwell in him and that in dwelling in him that we may glorify and be glorified in him and that in being glorified in him we may be happy, or, at least enjoy all the days of our life. To put the point sharply, a God-centered life is joyous and happily productive. It blesses not only individuals, but also society, and one s contribution to society by means of a God-centered liie enhances personal satisfaction.

Sadly, the misunderstanding of theology that I hope to dispel is widespread, even among Christians. Perhaps this is one reason why Christianity has such a dour reputation. Christians are perceived as anxious, moralistic, and judgmental. They have a reputation for being serious, and in our culture, being serious means not fun-loving. Another example of this assumption of the divide between piety and happiness pops up in an article critical of the contemporary moral philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton University:

We might well finally admit, however, that utilitarian values-utility, pleasure, preferences-seem particularly barren. Most of us, religious or otherwise, believe as [Shalom] Asch puts it, "there are things other than 'happiness' that matter: peace, justice, equality, wisdom." When the utilitarians want to say everything reduces to happiness, they're making a claim broader than happiness.2

We do not need to judge every aspect of life by whether or not it brings happiness. Sadness and despair also enrich life. Separating enjoyment, pleasure, and personal preference from peace, justice, equality, and wisdom, as Oppenheimer does, accepts the trivialization of happiness that dominates the culture. The trivial notion is that happiness is a state of mild euphoria.

This trivial view cannot work and it robs us of a salutary understanding of happiness. Ironically, Asch, cited to show the barrenness of the utilitarian view, reveals the barrenness of the trivial view resulting from the disjunction of happiness from beauty, wisdom, and goodness. I shall take up the ancient position that it is precisely living peacefully, justly, fairly, and wisely (to stay with Oppenheimer's terms) that make a person truly happy.

Living well is key to a happy life. Further, since peace, justice, fairness, and wisdom outlast our energy most of the time, we need a fixed point toward which to navigate to shape us into people who are capable of enjoying life in this richer way. My suggestion is that God is key to happiness in this life. In other words, we are shallow if we think of happiness as a state of mild emotional euphoria. A more substantial approach is to think of happiness as deep-seated satisfaction and enjoyment of life that is safe from its inevitable chances and changes: that is, it is far more rewarding to think of happiness in theological terms than in emotional terms.

Now, if we were to press Asch and his supporters for candor, perhaps they would say that the "things other than 'happiness' " are indeed more important.

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