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God and the Art of Happiness
God and the Art of Happiness
Ellen T. Charry
Eerdmans, 2010
316 pp., 35.00

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Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Oh Happy Day

Mutual delight with God.

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.

"Christian theology, eager to inculcate humility, has at times failed to encourage the natural skills and strengths humans possess for executing their calling as God's emissaries in the world."

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 of God through Christ with love for God leads us toward our true happiness—eternal life with the Holy Trinity—and in the meanwhile gives us tools for retraining our souls divided by sin. "To be healed is to be happy." This is how Charry will ultimately construe her own proposal for Christian happiness.

The next step takes us into the cell of Boethius, an upright Roman Christian wrongly accused and sentenced to death. Facing an untimely end despite a life of virtue, Boethius writes out his own interview with Lady Philosophy, whose tough love prods him past self-pity, toward a confrontation with the fickleness of Fortune, and finally to an assurance of the reward in the life to come. Christologically impoverished and not terribly encouraging in hard times or even helpful in good ones, Boethius' vision seems to dominate even now when Christians give official voice to their views on happiness.

The picture improves when we skip ahead some centuries to the Angelic Doctor. Thomas Aquinas' whole theology is oriented toward the beatific vision, which is happiness supreme. Knowledge of God is also union with God; thus true intellectual growth is also moral growth. En route, human beings take righteous pleasure in their "secondary agency," enhancing the well-being of creation through use of their gifts and skills, helping God to achieve his own ends for the world. "Self-realization is living as an agent of the divine will." Happiness in this life is practice for happiness in the eschaton, which in both aeons includes a flourishing body and friends.

Charry gives a brief overview of Luther and Calvin before documenting the "rise of psychological egoism" in such figures as Hobbes, La Rochefoucauld, and Mandeville, who could no longer distinguish between divinely formed self-love and sheer selfishness. They also assumed selfishness to be the single most driving force in humanity—Mandeville even suggested harnessing it for the sake of economic growth, and it would appear now that his prediction has been confirmed beyond his wildest dreams. Others tried to paint a less bleak picture of the human situation: Lord Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and to an extent Pascal.

But the figure Charry lifts up for renewed consideration is the Anglican divine Joseph Butler, who strove to combat the moral cynicism of his day by preaching the startling message that "self-love is obedience to God." Acknowledging sin, Butler argued from an imago dei anthropology that to live well is to fulfill our God-given nature; that we must learn from Scripture and preaching how to overcome our tendencies toward self-deception and self-gratification; and that we can indeed move toward moral integrity to live at peace with ourselves and God alike and with genuine benevolence toward our neighbors. These should not be perceived as being in competition with one another: "One does not subtract some affection for self and give it to another who needs it." Butler's arguments cut through the stale contemporary discussion about so-called altruism: loving one's neighbor is not a matter of self-sacrifice but of self-love—and it is perfectly good for it to be so. Christian cynics about the human capacity for love will be as startled by Butler's claims as his secular detractors!

After this doctrinal review, Charry moves to the second half of the book, where she coins her term for a long-overdue Christian doctrine of happiness, "asherism," derived from the Hebrew word asher, "happy." Her "realizing eschatology" of happiness emphasizes that we begin now what will be completed in the life to come. We need to make a distinction, Charry argues, between divine commands that are "voluntarist" and those that are "asherist"—another unique contribution she makes to this discussion. The former are tests of obedience, often addressed to one person only. The latter are universal in their address and seek to "cultivate moral sensibility in the agent." Such obedience is not blind but wise; humility and wisdom should not be played off one another. Asherist commands seek also to overcome the individual-community dualism: "personal flourishing overlaps with and eventually merges with corporate flourishing."

But it should not be thought that asherist commands are somehow universally accessible and obvious in a way that voluntarist ones are not. Quite the contrary, it is with good reason that the Decalogue begins with commandments to love and worship the Lord alone. The specific revelation of the God of Israel opens the way to general knowledge and wisdom about the world at large, not the other way around. Accordingly, Charry exposits the Ten Commandments and the Holiness Code with an eye to the moral development they inculcate to bring the people of Israel into a happy relationship with God and one another. Her handling of the commands to genocide is particularly valuable.

The biblical exegesis continues with Charry's soundings in the Psalms and Proverbs. She points out that the psalmist's fear "is not that God will punish him but that he might miss the wealth and sweetness that God's wisdom promises." Obedience to the Torah is a witness to the nations; it is also a lure for the wicked, drawing them away from their evildoing by envy of the benefits of the righteous. In Proverbs, the ground of the conversation shifts from righteousness vs. wickedness to wisdom vs. folly. Acknowledging that this gathering of wisdom-sayings can sometimes read like a "moral telephone book," Charry defends the need to repeat the obvious, because "wise self-use is quite challenging in practice." The narrow range of self- and community-destructive sins committed one generation after another is proof enough of that.

The attention to wise and righteous living is clear enough in Israel's Scripture, but does it continue into the Jesus part of the story? Charry argues that it does, and supremely so in the Gospel of John, which "highlights love and obedience to Jesus' commandments as the way to—or, perhaps better, the content of—eternal life." Jesus is the embodiment of all the wisdom and righteousness that Israel has pursued for so long: "The fantastic claim that God is a person means that he indwells individuals …. The Johannine vision radicalizes, personalizes, and intensifies the heritage by individualizing salvation." John's emphasis on love and joy as well as on personal attachment to Jesus again unites the individual and the community to a relationship of mutual delight with God, as the Father and the Son have with one another.

Charry wraps up her case with some reflections on the limits to achieving a measure of happiness in this life—especially where extreme domestic or political dysfunction reign. But then, how do we even recognize the dysfunction, on what basis do we confess the sin, how do we go about healing, unless we have a vision of what is good, wholesome, and happy? "Christian theology, eager to inculcate humility, has at times failed to encourage the natural skills and strengths humans possess for executing their calling as God's emissaries in the world." Theology has likewise often failed to recognize that "[h]appiness is not a matter of manipulating the world to secure our desire, but taking pleasure in being who Scripture teaches we are." A not insignificant part of that is to be found in the healing of distorted loves that have led to distorted relationships, and the book closes with three striking vignettes of how Christian love and wisdom may strengthen and ennoble those who dwell in them.

Charry is no naïve optimist; she sees plainly the limits of this life. But as long as we remain strangers and pilgrims on this earth, we have good comfort: "The point is not how much we accomplish, but enjoying what God accomplishes with us."

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the editor of Lutheran Forum.

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