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Fulcrums (2) – Happiness is not the Highest Good

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the term Moral Therapeutic Deism, a false form of Christianity that many self-proclaimed Christians unknowingly ascribe to. But if you have not heard of it, let me take a moment to break it down.

Moral. In short it argues that we should be moral people, that we should not hurt others, that we should be kind, and nice, etc.

Therapeutic. It asserts that the purpose of religion is to make us feel better about ourselves. (Note: I am not saying anything negative about therapy here; rather I am critiquing the idea that the usefulness or even the truth of our faith can be reduced to its therapeutic value).

Deistic. There is a belief in God, but not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather there is a belief in a distant God, a kindly and benevolent God, a God that, like an indulgent grandpa, just wants us to get along and have a nice time.

I want to focus on the middle piece, the idea that the purpose of life is to be happy and that God desires this for us above all other things. A great example of this belief can be found in the life of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat. Pray. Love.

Gilbert relates how one night she had a “dark night of the soul” wherein she wept over the life she thought she wanted, but now didn’t want anymore. She didn’t want to be married, she didn’t want to live in a house, she didn’t want a baby. She talks about how she prayed and was answered. But the voice that answered her was herself. She called this a “religious conversation” and as a result left her husband. She then set out across the globe to “learn to love herself again.”

Gilbert believes that all religious traditions offer equally valid paths to the divine and that all religious teachings are just “transporting metaphors” designed to bridge the gulf between the finite and infinite. “You have every right to cherry pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God.” Not only a right, but a duty. “You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, you keep moving toward the light.”

These ideas are fairly ridiculous, and yet many are attracted to them. How many of us want to suffer? Or want our children to suffer? I think that when most of us read Gilbert’s words there is a part of us that thinks, “if it makes her happy it can’t be that bad.” And the part of us that thinks this is the part of us that believes that the greatest good in life is happiness. Not a deep abiding joy, but a subjective contentment, a momentary satisfaction.

And yet when we think through this rationally we know that there are higher things than mere happiness. Many of us believed in Santa Claus when we were children and that made us happy. And yet we don’t believe in him today. Why not? Because we know he doesn’t exist and we don’t believe things that are false, even though they might make us happy.

Or imagine an adult man who is so wealthy that he does not need to work. He is of sound mind, and yet he spends all his free time collecting rubber duckies and his greatest delight is to take bubble baths with his rubber duckies. This makes him happy. Yet there are few of us that would think this is OK. Even if this makes him happy there is something that seems inherently wrong with an adult devoting all of his free time to something so trivial. And yet, how trivial are many of our pursuits? How many of us give too much of our time to hobbies or sports because they make us happy?

The biggest danger to a therapeutic approach to our faith is that if we follow Christ because we believe He will make us happy, we will stop following him when He seemingly ceases to make us happy. At some point in time following Christ is going to stand in the way of what we want: it will force us to hold our tongues when we desire to speak, it will prevent us from making a compromise that will lead to our advancement, it will compel us to leave a conversation when gossip is happening, which will force us out of a group of people that we desperately want to fit in with.

Christ calls us to eternal Happiness and He offers us great joy on earth, but the joy He offers does not preclude trials or difficulties. Instead, Christ offers us a joy that can be found in the midst of them. If our highest goal in life is our contentment, and if we believe that the purpose of our faith is to produce it, when that contentment is threatened or destroyed, which will inevitably happen, we will chuck our faith as a barrier to our true good. We must know, and our children must know, that our true good is something far greater, deeper, and richer than our mere happiness.