I’m currently reading Christians Among the Virtues by Stanley Hauerwas & Charles Pinches. They say:
“Christians cannot overlook the profound challenge that the gospel is meant to confront, if not destroy: our presumptions about what will make us happy in this life. Christianity does not promise fulfillment but rather offers a way to live in the world truthfully and without illusion. That a people who follow a crucified God can presume life is finally about happiness seems odd at best. Christian convictions are more nearly true, not because they underwrite our assumptions about what constitutes human fulfillment, but because Christianity challenges our facile presumptions that God is primarily concerned with our happiness.”
They are right that it is common to think that happiness is what we humans live for. When my philosophy class gets to the chapter on Aristotle, my students always find it challenging to understand that his notion of the nature of happiness isn’t the same thing as their own modern American notion. It’s not just that different people find happiness in different things – they understand that. They think that Aristotle is saying that people will find happiness (meant the way they as moderns mean it) when they fulfill their function as humans. It’s hard to grasp that he’s not offering a way of happiness (as if everyone knew what counted as happiness), but is offering another definition of it.
While the Christian understanding of happiness is not the same as Aristotle’s, his analysis does provoke us helpfully – as Hauerwas and Pinches demonstrate. Jesus, being crucified, surely looks like the antithesis of anything we would consider happiness (I don’t htink Aristotle would approve either). Yet scripture tells us that “for the joy set before him he endured the cross.” I don’t want to get into the argument about how “joy” and “happiness” are completelydifferent things. Rather, I’d want to say that our propensity to think they are fundamentally different is based on a mistaken notion of happiness. If “happiness” means “I feel good,” then sure, joy is something different. What I’d rather see – and what I think Hauerwas and Pinches are getting at, is that a consideration of Jesus leads us a better understanding of happiness, not rejecting it as a prospect for the Christian.