God and the Art of Happiness
Ellen T. Charry
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010
316 pp., $35.00
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
Oh Happy Day
Ask a Christian if she's blessed and she'll reply—or at least she'll know she's supposed to reply—yes. Ask her if she's happy, and her instinct might be to deny it, whatever the reality. Happiness has gotten a tarnished reputation in Christianity, as if it were the first step toward self-indulgence and moral softness. Those who fancy themselves "deep" might even claim that happiness is actively destructive of godliness: there's nothing like acute suffering to bring you closer to Christ. If you're happy, you're probably not very good at the Christian thing.
Ellen Charry sets out to erase this unhappy Christian relationship to happiness and reframe the discussion entirely. Instead of pitting creation against redemption against eschatology, she integrates the three into a holistic vision. God created a world and its people in which to take delight, and so that they too may grow to take delight in the world and its Creator. God redeemed the world from sin to restore it to its delight and begin the healing process that will be consummated in the life to come. We are made for happiness—in ourselves, in others, and in God. But we have been skittish in talking about how to gain it.
This skittishness is demonstrated by the extreme poverty of Christian reflection on the felicitous life. Charry excavates nearly all the sources in the first half of her book. She begins with the philosophical scene onto which Christianity burst: the competing schools of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism, each of which passed something on to the newborn faith while at the same time being fiercely criticized by it. The next episode in the story centers on the prolix St. Augustine, who treats the topic more than nearly any other theologian in Christian history. Contrary to what one might expect from his searching self-examination in the Confessions, Augustine argues strenuously in favor of self-love: that is, true self-love, divinely directed self-love. The conjunction of knowledge ...