Choosing Our Religion

Epiphany Update: Jesus is Just Alright with (Many) Nones
January 5, 2014, 11:47 am
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It must be the new year! Epiphany Update: Jesus is Just Alright with (Many) Nones.


White Noise: Christian Whispers and Shouts on the Trayvon Martin Case
July 15, 2013, 4:37 pm
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White Noise: Christian Whispers and Shouts on the Trayvon Martin Case.

As Religion Dispatches Turns
June 2, 2013, 12:49 pm
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As Religion Dispatches Turns.

The Thing About Happiness
April 20, 2010, 4:10 pm
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calla lilies

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

~G.K. Chesterton

Jim Palmer, a guy I know and don’t know (which is to say, a Facebook “friend” I’ve never met in person) provoked an interesting conversation on this morning. When I got to my news feed this morning, Jim, an author and emergent church minister who’s particularly gifted at generating interaction on Facebook, had posted the following question:

Is there a difference between pleasure & happiness? If you gained your desires would you be happy? Or, is he who is happy, happy everywhere?

He followed his status update question with a short comment:

I was sent this…”Today we often confuse happiness with pleasure; but pleasure is only an illusion, a shadow of happiness; and in this delusion man may pass his whole life, seeking after pleasure and never finding satisfaction. … Do you think that if these people gained their desires they would be happy? If they possessed all, would that suffice? No, they would still find some excuse for unhappiness; all these excuses are only like covers over a man’s eyes, for deep within is the yearning for the true happiness which none of these things can give. He who is really happy is happy everywhere, in a palace or in a cottage, in riches or in poverty, for he has discovered the fountain of happiness which is situated in his own heart. As long as a person has not found that fountain, nothing will give him real happiness.”

The short passage is from Hazrat Inayat Khan, an early 20th century Sufi musician and teacher who is credited with bringing Sufism to the West, but conversation Jim encouraged among a half a dozen or so “friends” had more of a Christian slant. It tended to focus on the relationship between the ephemeral pleasures derived from possessing material things and a more enduring, spiritual sense of satisfaction. Overall, it was a cool conversation, with participants bringing in insights from Christianity and Buddhism to illuminate their thinking about what happiness might be and how it functions.

Still, the conversation got me wondering about the ancient Christian problem with materiality—with the thing-ness of human existence. Somehow, try as he did with fishes and loaves and sheep and vineyards and his own suffering body on the cross, Jesus didn’t quite manage to convince us that the separation between the material and the spiritual is false. Alas, just as we were maybe going to get that physical experience is also spiritual experience — Poof! — Christ ascends to Heaven and it’s all good! None of that messy body business with which the earthy Jesus was so concerned. None of that attention to food, clothing, shelter, and other sensual pleasures like having a good foot rub after a long day on the road.

Okay, this is partly Paul’s fault, amplified by Augustine, as they both worked through their struggles with the flesh in teachings that have largely defined (in the case of Paul) and deeply influenced (in the case of Augustine) Christian belief through the centuries. And, you know, bodies and other things still give us a lot trouble today. Most of us will never be America’s Next Top Model, and more and more of us struggle meet even basic material needs before we get to worrying about “keeping up with the Joneses.” So, it’s easy enough to see why we’d want to say, “Enough with this stuff! With this body! With these things! Real happiness is entirely spiritual!”

I get it. Stuff is difficult. But it’s not difficult because it’s stuff. That is, it’s not essentially difficult. Rather, it’s situationally difficult. It’s difficult because having it or not having it provokes anxiety, striving, greed, hunger, self-loathing, and all kinds of negative feelings that tend to triumph in our psyches over the more positive feelings of satisfaction, joy, pleasure, excitement, and so on that are also related to our physical, material experience. When Jesus suggests that we attend to the lilies of the field or the birds of the air (Mt. 6: 25-34), he’s not saying that there is no pleasure in material things. He’s telling us not to worry, not to strive. “Pagans run after these things,” he says, adding, “and your Father knows that you need them.”

A bird with a full belly is a happy bird. It’s happy because it’s not hungry and it’s happy because it isn’t consumed with worry over where its next meal will come from or how much food the bird in the next nest has—you know, the big nest in the tree with the giant birdbath hanging from the limb? The bird is happy not because it doesn’t want anything and not because it holds a sense of spiritual happiness in its heart. It’s happy because it only wants enough.

For those of us with relative privilege—more than plenty of food, more than adequate housing, more than sufficient access to transportation—enough is a hard place to get to. I want to suggest that for us, claiming the center of our “real” happiness in our hearts or in some other spiritual expression is a kind of ethical and spiritual cop out. It allows us to say, “Oh, all this? This is nothing. It’s just stuff. It doesn’t make me happy.” And that allows us not to care quite so much about the material needs and physical bodies of those in need for whom “real” happiness is very much connected to stuff. It allows us to step back from the very material project defined in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures of redistributing our stuff so that everyone will have enough and none of us will be weighed down with striving. Happiness in this light seems to me to have nothing to do with setting side all desire for pleasure or all longing for things. It seems to me to have to do with calibrating our desire to the desires of others so that we all experience the pleasures of having enough. Perhaps, satisfied in this basic desire, we will be better able to attend to a deeper peace and pleasure that comes from knowing we are cared for by God as God is made present in our generous relationships with each other.