by Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens
Critics are, well, so critical. But nonetheless much is to be learned from them, even if I say so begrudgingly. I do think that one of the finer parts of being raised Southern is our suspicion of those who speak in such (over) confident, (over) authoritative ways. The Southern pejorative use of “Yankee” is, in large part, a judgment upon such (over) esteem for one’s viewpoints. For all the foolishness of the Lost Cause mentality, there is something about that ethos that serves a constructive social function of questioning the powers.
So, as a Southerner, I have often enjoyed reading social critics, as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Reinhold Niebuhr, and even one of the greatest of modern haters of Christians, Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I first started reading as an undergraduate many years ago. There are many supposedly cultured despisers of Christianity who, with condescension oozing from their blog comments, frankly don’t know what they’re talking about. But then there are people like Nietzsche who may not be dismissed so easily.
There is a discomfiting ring of truth in his insistence that Christianity appears to be a religion of “everything low and botched,” a religion for the slave class. He gets personal sometimes: “Whoever had the blood of theologians in his veins stands from the start in a false and dishonest position to all things.” Christians, he says, have a “deadly hostility to reality.” And then there’s this, one of the things that has often disgusted me too with the southern Christianity with which I have often crossed paths, and, forgive me God, have too often contributed to: that the Christian “turns the spirit of life into fear and suspicion, joy into self-loathing, passion into paranoia.”
Out of all this, Nietzsche will provide this sort of summary objection: “They will have to sing better songs before I believe in their redeemer.” (All quotes cited in Marsh, Welcoming Justice, 67-68).
Whatever those better songs sound like, I suspect that they will have to provide an anti-dote for the self-loathing that Bible Belt Christianity often fosters in good hearted men and women and children, that looks something like joy. Having recently come through a season of a great deal of depression that was often accompanied by self-loathing and self-hatred, I saw again the ways in which roots of much of that self-hatred had been fertilized by the theological pettiness I often saw parading as matters of great substance.
So I’ve been thinking a great deal more about “joy” and “happiness” and what that might look like. The Apostle Paul speaks of “joy” as one facet of the “fruit of the Spirit.” I find this metaphor of “fruit” fascinating because it holds together two loci often kept separate: there is both the locus of “gift” (it’s from “the Spirit,” not something we manufacture) and it’s “fruit” (which is cultivated, something in which we must participate).
Somewhere I came across the snarky story about farmer Ben who did not much like church and church people, turned off by their incessant piety. He had a beautiful farm and excellent crops, well tended and carefully cultivated. The pastor went out for a visit, perusing the fields with Ben, and said in a pious tone, “The Lord sure has blessed you with a beautiful and bountiful crop.” To this farmer Ben replied, “You should have seen the place when the Lord had it all to himself.”
There is wisdom here: for those of us raised in the works-righteousness side of Christianity, we often focus upon petty concerns to the exclusion of large and broad and beautiful concerns, and, as in time it seems we get caught up in the self-hatred that comes from such legalism, such inability to keep all the rules we’ve made up for ourselves and others. When such works-righteousness does not work, we either quit the Christianity thing all together, or we discover that we are “saved by grace through faith,” but there then is given us no framework or way of life by which we receive and experience a graced existence to overcome our powerlessness, except “pray more,” “read your Bible more,” and such as this. That’s all fine advice so far as it goes, but is about as helpful in leading a joyous Christian life as it would be to say to a baseball player, simply, “pray more” and “read the Baseball rule-book more.”
Many of the medieval Christians, Aquinas for example, insisted first and foremost that Christian faith was about happiness; this itself seems shocking to many American Protestants, because we are so much like what Nietzsche said we were like. But Aquinas, drawing off numerous sources, one of whom was Aristotle, insisted that the end of life is to be happy. I like the fact that he liked to eat and drink; he saw such imbibing and enjoying the table not as in tension with his faith but as part and parcel of it.
Happiness ultimately comprised friendship with God. This “happiness” was not then mere indulgence. Instead, Aquinas held together in his notion of virtues both gift and work, grace and cultivation. To be happy, one needed to be schooled in, given the gift of, the cardinal virtues—temperance, justice, prudence, and courage or fortitude—along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These were the primary practices by which such happiness were cultivated.
As I’ve begun to observe a typology of happiness, or varied ways happiness or joy get defined, it seems there are at least three in wide spread usage: (1st) is that most typically meant of happiness, that is, the experience of pleasures or delights, whether carnal or intellectual, aesthetic or appetitive. (2nd) is “eudaimonia,” the term Aristotle used, a state of blessedness that is multi-faceted and related to one’s whole life, personal and communal, pertaining to both intellect and appetites. Some contemporary psychologists have suggested that this might be similar to what has been described as the “state of flow,” in which an individual is at one with the world in one’s work, calling, and passions, in which time almost seems to be irrelevant, a non-recognized reality in that moment. I have tasted such sweet moments in writing, teaching or lecturing, speaking or performing. (3rd) is that altogether non-circumstantial joy which rises above difficult circumstances, a sort of irrational happiness in the face of daunting or even painful realities, even in the midst of suffering.
Some brief observations about this typology, which might contribute to the “better songs” to which Nietzsche calls us.
In my experience, Christians too quickly claim that (3) is the “Christian joy,” discounting the others. Such a rush to a sort of unhappy happiness as the meaning of Christian joy gives too much fodder for Nietzsche’s critique. So let us pause a bit, and think about the first two types of happiness.
It may be that with regard to category (1)—the happiness arising from delights and pleasures—requires a great deal of maturity and human development to really get these delights. It takes a lot of human development, for example, to get really good at enjoying sex. I’m much better at sex, and my wife is too, in our 40s than either of us were in our 20s. For example, in his book Passionate Marriage, the psycho-therapist David Schnarch says there is a correlation between (more) age and (better) sex. (He actually says there is a correlation between better sex and more cellulite, but that’s harder for me to, well, envision or wish for.) Good sex as a virtue around enjoying pleasure might be thought of this way: We can all get a mere orgasm on our own. But to get good at sex with one’s spouse requires growth as a human being, a sort of basic human maturity in facing one’s own fears, learning to practice open communication, which in turn requires overcoming our fear of judgment; it requires, too, dealing with the self-hatred and shame with which our Christian tradition too often belabors us, especially around sex and bodies; and, somewhat like a contact sport, good sex is often made better by getting and staying fit physically as well. And so forth. The point here is simply that “happiness” as it relates to pleasure is, in fact, a very legitimate Christian endeavor, for being a Christian is about becoming fully human, fully alive, with the most joyous expression of our capacities known and experienced.
One more example: We are quickly losing the art of eating, in our fast-food consumerist world. But to learn to eat good food around well appointed tables adorned with good conversation, hospitality and temperance, patience and provocation to love and good deeds: this is a beautiful art, which requires numerous skills, and some of the greatest joys I have known are around good tables with good friends where we’ve talked long into the night, imbibed temperately, and done all things lovingly and hospitably.
So, to enjoy delights and pleasures well is, in fact, a learned gift, a cultivated grace. Similarly with regard to category (2) above, it may be that in our varied squelching of passion in life, we forget that we were created out of divine love and creativity, and that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” said Irenaeus. I like the story supposedly from the Talmud about Akiba, who on his death-bed, confessed to the rabbi his sense of failure, that he was fearful of facing the judgment of God, confessing that he had not lived as did Moses. He began to weep. The rabbi leaned in and whispered in a kind way: “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”
There is a sort of liberty and freedom in that story that occasions a deep sort of joy, akin to that of which Frederick Buechner speaks when he insisted that one’s vocation is where one’s deep gladness and the world’s great need meet. To experience such “flow” is not some indulgence, which needs be squelched in some pious rejection of passion in life, but may, I think it more likely, be part and parcel of what it means to be a child of God.
So, perhaps one lesson learned from Nietzsche: let us give ourselves a break from our indulgent self-loathing, loosen up, live a little, and learn how to grow up by tasting a bit of joy.