Thursday, September 25, 2008

Can Atheists Be Happy?

The renowned philosopher Mortimer J. Adler (at the time an Episcopalian) gave a sermon in 1991 at Christ Church on The Golden Rule. In it he raised a provocative question (which he proceeded to masterfully answer): how do we know what we should do unto our neighbor? What gives the Golden Rule it’s meaning? I’d like to provide a broader context for answering this question and raise some other questions and answers as well.


To begin, no consideration of Christianity can do justice to the facts without acknowledging one of it’s core assumptions: that man ultimately seeks the destruction of his sin--whether he knows it (and acts on that knowledge) or not--in order to attain true happiness. It follows from this tenet that man’s unhappiness necessarily reveals his condition, and that, conversely, the sinful are necessarily unhappy. At first glance we appear to face a paradox, for the man Christians call theanthropos (the God-man) cried, bled, faced an agonizing passion, and, among other horrible things, was eventually murdered. Could such a man be considered happy? Moreover, many non-Christians, including atheists, consider themselves quite happy--feelings and over-all impressions are something with which, when felt, cannot be argued. The answer to this paradox rests upon the definition of happiness, and ultimately upon the meaning of the word love.


Happiness and love, in the traditional Christian sense, are primarily concerned not with feelings and over-all optimism (or pessimism, as the case may be) of the moment, but with the purpose or end for which human beings have an innate desire and need. On the one hand we are creatures in time living from moment to moment, moving from one desire to the next. The extent to which the needs of our human nature are met, considering life as a whole, is the extent to which we can consider our lives to be good, thus happy. On the other hand we can never experience such a “life as a whole,” we can never experience the string of moments which make up our lifetime all at once, and this contradicts a very real desire of human nature for something beyond time, which would fulfill our nature completely—“the satisfaction of all our desires: extensive, in regard to their multiplicity; intensive, in regard to their degree; protensive, in regard to their duration”. The human desire and need for this timeless object, which Chesterton has called our mystic sense, is found in all cultures and times by religious and non-religious alike. Bertrand Russell, a well known atheistic philosopher, has vividly recorded his own experience of this desire:

I am strangely unhappy... The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite—the beatific vision—God—I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found—but the love of it is my life—it’s like passionate love for a ghost ...it is the actual spring of life within me.


Here we gain an insight into why it is the Christian says that Christianity is not about mere morality, or virtue. The virtues are, of course, inseparable from a Christian life, but they are not solely for the acquisition of the goods of this world. The well rounded Greek philosophy of life, which the Declaration of Independence implies by phrases such as “Laws of Nature” and “pursuit of happiness”, includes the Cardinal Virtues, as well as the lesser virtues. But the Christian life adds to those the three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. The last virtue, Love, presupposes Faith and Hope, and has it’s greatest exposition in the Sermon on the Mount. It is this Love through which, the Saints tell us, we will achieve the attainment of our highest end: a remaking, a transfiguration, an apotheosis of our very nature which is a direct vision of God by which all our needs, in their height, width and depth, are directly fulfilled and sustained. The Beatific Vision-- the end result--is Peace, Joy and Love; Being, Bliss, Awareness. “Christ became man so that man may become gods”.


Both definitions (1.)life as a whole—the Greek well rounded life; and 2.) the experience of a completely fulfilled life—the supernatural life) of goodness, happiness, morality and love find their discernable basis in reason applied to human nature—to natural law. But there’s a remarkable difference which effects the very definition of virtue and morality, which in turn provides the basis for distinguishing the sense in which Christ’s life was truly good, or happy, as opposed to the person who does not have the Theological virtues but has everything else which provides Happiness in the Greek sense.


To highlight this difference we must regard the will. What we call “will” is a disposition, a habitual inclination, a potential to act and react in certain ways to given circumstances. Unlike an emotion or desire--known immediately in the present moment-- “will” is cumulative and is known to us by an abstraction from a period of time, a string of moments; it is known by looking back at a pattern of behavior made up of momentary decisions. At any given moment an Olympic marathon runner has the potential to run laps upon laps and miles upon miles around a track. Unlike someone who is out of shape and has not trained this habit, who has not developed this potential, the marathon runner has an immaterial power—it exists accumulated through time and is, now, accessible to the present as well as, to a limited degree, future moments. Thus man is more than his present appearance: he has powers made up of past decisions.


This power, as it concerns moral decisions, is one good which sits alongside three other “goods.” The Four Goods, as Mortimer Adler had categorized them, are the three "goods of fortune": 1.) "external goods...[moderate] wealth [etc.]"; 2.) "bodily goods...health [etc.]; and 3.) "social goods...friends and the society in which we live"; and, finally, the fourth, which is the “goods of the soul: knowledge, truth, wisdom and moral virtue.” The first three are separated from the last because the last is primarily a matter of will, not chance circumstances. The last in that list of the “goods of the soul,” the moral virtues, provide the knowledge, balance and discipline needed to pursue the other goods if circumstances allow them to come our way. Just like the runner’s potential power which exists for him at any given moment, cultivating virtue provides a person potential power by which to act appropriately in variously given situations.


The Greek idea of happiness, which we will call the “natural” idea of happiness, is exhausted by these four goods. A lifetime spent acquiring all of these goods is considered to be the natural happy life. The opposite of this idea of a happy life is a tragic life. But we can fall back on that distinction between the four goods in order to find a distinction in what we call a tragic life. A tragic life is one in which it’s time was cut short before it acquired all the goods it needed. Now, a person can have a certain well being of mind even in circumstances where their external goods are deprived, including, ultimately, their very physical life itself. This mental well being, if we call it happiness, will have as it’s opposite: neurosis.


How does this effect our dilemma? Our dilemma, if you’ll recall, is that of finding the basis for distinguishing the sense in which Christ’s life was truly good, or happy, as opposed to the person who does not have the Theological virtues but has everything else which provides Happiness in the Greek sense. Given the distinction between happiness and tragedy, Christ’s life was tragic. Given the distinction between happiness and neurosis, surely Christ’s life was happy. But this does not answer our dilemma because we would have to make the unfounded assertion – proven wrong by experience – that all non-Christians are therefore neurotics, and, conversely, no Christians are. This is simply untrue. Thus we cannot find the answer in the Greek idea of happiness as it stands, unless, according to logic, that idea is incomplete. The Christian answer to our dilemma is that it is incomplete, a point most clearly seen by the two differing definitions of “love.”


The altruistic desire of love for others is part of the “fourth good” of which we just spoke; it is rooted in the desire for a deeper union with the beloved, and the means to this end is to will the good of the beloved. Similarly with our neighbor. The good of our neighbor: "external goods...[moderate] wealth [etc.]"; "bodily goods...health [etc.]; and "social goods...friends and the society in which we live," offers our will the concrete data we should, to the extent we can, will for our neighbor--thus giving content to the term "love" (the fourth good is a matter for our neighbors own will). In short, love is founded on the definition of good, which is founded on the common needs of human nature--this “natural law” is, incidentally, the only basis for the establishment of a free, democratic society. But if one of those common needs of human nature is the need for something transcending time--the need to be united with eternity--then hope is the only home for man in which he can be truly free, truly natural, and truly happy. The initial reaction of a “happy” non-believer to this view is that he does not have this actual hope, yet is still happy. Two things must be remembered.


First, simply because one doesn’t feel a need in either it’s hopefulness or desperation doesn’t mean it has no existence: the anorexic has no desire to eat yet his nature has a need for nourishment. The unbeliever may feel happy, may have an optimistic outlook on life, but, like the miser or anorexic, it’s all a fa├žade—his joy is not yet full. Those knowing only one side of the pursuit of happiness, pursuing lower goods, are potentially blind to the fact that they do not know the higher are higher, and it is only by leaving the lower that they can in fact know this. As Mill said, “…if the fool…(is) of a different opinion, it is because (he) only know(s) (his) own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” Consider the power hungry rich man, he is a mad man, full of delusions about himself. He may say he’s satisfied, as one in a dream may be, but if woken of his delusion and given the quality of a good life, he would, like the person who is happy in the waking world though woken from a happy dream, choose the self evident, truly happy reality. It is the common consent of History, and most especially History’s Saints, to which we must turn if we want, in general, a working order of what notes to play along the scale of life in order to live harmoniously.


Second, the facade of happiness without supernatural hope can be made most apparent by the fact that the unbeliever immediately views the question selfishly, in terms of himself and what he feels, not in terms of the needs of his neighbor—terms in which, by the way, we can see through our own forms of spiritual anorexia; terms in which we catch a fuller reflection, in man at large, of our own common needs as individual human beings. Without humility how can we know what we cannot presently feel? It is the selfish, the elite, the prigs who look down upon their neighbors and the family history of man; it is the narrow intellectuals who have contempt for this common need which drives even atheists (see the Russell quote above), and which prevents the “good” person from calling himself truly good: true love must take this ultimate need into account.


It is, therefore, neither the distinction of happiness and tragedy, nor the distinction of happiness and neurosis, which parts the seas of incomplete and complete understandings of "love;" it is the further distinction between breathing the happiness of Hope and leaving our spiritual lungs to atrophy-in ourselves and others-which ultimately necessitates this contrast.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Quote Constellation©

There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.- G. K. Chesterton

One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.- G. K. Chesterton

God, to be God, must transcend what is. He must be the maker of what ought to be.- Rufus M. Jones

No man hates God without first hating himself.- Fulton J. Sheen

We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.- General Omar N. Bradley

*(A Quote Constellation© is a series of quotes, ideally five or seven brief quotes, which connect in descending order to outline and suggest a fuller, substantial theme, picture or point.)