If you have read the blog for long you may have picked up on the fact that I have been significantly impacted by John Piper’s understanding of the Christian life that he calls “Christian hedonism.” I have alluded to it in several posts, most prominently in the posts titled “Luv is a Noun” and “The Value of Suffering and Love.” I highly recommend Piper’s Desiring God for a full treatment of the idea, or his mini-book titled The Dangerous Duty of Delight if you would prefer a cliff notes version.
In short, the basic premise is that a Christian is simply someone who truly loves the true God. This is the first and greatest commandment because it is the key responsibility or duty of mankind. Piper goes one step further to say that love, be it for God or for anything else, cannot be properly understood as something we can dutifully preform but is instead a sense of desire, delight, or pleasure we have in something. What we love the most is what we desire the most. What we desire most is what makes us the most happy, or at least what we believe will make us the most happy. This brings us to the name “Christian Hedonism.” Piper believes that the Christian is called to pursue his own happiness at all costs, with the understanding that nothing brings greater happiness than knowing and loving God. His famous summary of Christian Hedonism is, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied (happy) in Him.”
I can say without reservation that this was simultaneously the most simple and the most profound thought I have encountered in my walk as a Christian. I say it was simple because it described love in exactly the same way I conceived of it. I don’t want my wife to view loving me as her job. I want her to be excited to spend time with me and to think that no one makes her as happy as I do. It makes sense that God understands love in the same way.
The thought was also profound in that it changed the way I viewed my Christian life. It was no longer okay to simply give money – I had to look at my heart to see if I was a cheerful giver. It was no longer okay to simply read my Bible – I had to read it expecting to know God better and to love Him more every time. Basically, Christian hedonism meant that I could no longer think of my Christian life simply in terms of what I must do. Instead it called me to always look beyond the action itself to the relationship that both affected and was effected by the action.
I make this confession to say that when I ran across Paul Helm’s recent criticisms of Christian Hedonism I was no impartial reader. I feel highly motivated to reject his arguments simply because of how important Christian hedonism is to my own worldview. However, I recognize the danger in this type of thinking so I have decided to read Helm’s criticisms and try to evaluate them somewhat objectively. I am going to try to respond to some of his objections in his most recent article, “Christian Hedonism.” I hope that you will read them along with me and offer correction, either to my thinking or to his.
Helms states that the basic problem with Christian hedonism is “distraction.” If I understand him correctly, the problem of distraction for hedonism is that one can never do an activity for its own sake, but only for the sake of the satisfaction that will be found in the activity. That is, the focus of an action is shifted (or distracted) from the action to some motive behind the action. Helms explains why he finds this problematic:
And of course such glorifying of God is the ‘chief end’, not the only end. It provides a place not only subordinating what we do to God’s glory, but also for enjoyment, including the enjoyment of creaturely gifts for their own sake. The Catechism makes room for the hobby of growing insectivorous plants, or of collecting old opera programmes. This is a vital feature of Christian morality, according to which there are actions that are commanded, and actions that are forbidden, and ‘indifferent’ actions, neither commanded or forbidden. ‘Indifferent’ actions provide the space that Christian liberty occupies, and it ought to be jealously guarded now, as at the Reformation. Systems of Christian morality ought not to add to the commandments or prohibitions of God. The trouble with hedonisms, Christian and other, if they’re taken seriously, is that they confine us to a moral or spiritual treadmill from which is not easy to escape.
At first blush we may be tempted to find this persuasive. Shouldn’t we be able to enjoy a hobby simply because we enjoy it? Does everything always have to have some greater purpose? If so, won’t this inevitably suck the joy out of life (and thus work against everything that hedonism seeks to accomplish in the first place)?
The problem is that it is difficult to maintain such a thing as “indifferent actions.” Thomas Aquinas admitted that an uncommitted action (for instance, the notion of collecting plants), may be indifferent, however as soon as it becomes a reasoned action (for instance, when a person actually collects the plants) it takes a definite moral value. Aquinas explains this in his typically dense manner:
I answer that, it sometimes happens that an action is indifferent in its species, but considered in the individual it is good or evil… And every individual action must needs have some circumstance that makes it good or bad, at least in respects of the intention of the end. For since it belongs to reason to direct; if an action that proceeds from deliberate reason be not directed to the due end, it is, by that fact alone, repugnant to reason, and has the character or evil. But if it be directed to a due end, it is in accord with reason; wherefore it has the character of good. Now it must needs be either directed or not directed to a due end. Consequently every human action that proceeds from deliberate reason, if it be considered in the individual must be good or bad. (Summa of the Summa I-II,18,9)
That is, according to Aquinas, while collecting plants may be a morally neutral past-time in and of itself, we are not able to partake in this pastime in a morally neutral way. We will either partake of the past time in a good way or a bad way. Aquinas believes that if we collect the plants in a way that honors the end for which they were created as well as in a way that honors the way in which we were created, then our plant collection is a good thing. If however we distort the created ends for either the plant or for ourselves, then our plant collection has become an evil.
And it is not only Aquinas who maintained that every action contained a moral component. The father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, instructs us on how to act in a way that reflects the moral component of all that we do. Perhaps this series of quotes from Luther’s “Treatise on Good Works” will make his thinking clear.
Accordingly, we have to learn to recognize good works from the commandments of God, and not from the appearance, size, or number of the works themselves, nor from the opinion of men or of human law or custom, as we see has happened and still happens all because of our blindness and disregard of the divine commandments… The first, highest, and most precious of all good works is faith in Christ… For in this work all good works exist, and from faith the works receive a borrowed goodness.
Now everyone can notice and feel for himself when he does what is good and what is not good. If he finds his heart confident that it pleases God, then the work is good, even if it were so small a thing as picking up a straw. If the confidence is not there, or if he has any doubt about it, then the work is not good, even if the work were to raise all the dead and if the man were to give his body to be burned… A heathen, a Jew, a Turk, a sinner may also do all other works; but to trust firmly that he pleases God is possible only for a Christian who is enlightened and strengthened by grace.
In this faith all works become equal, and one work is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, many, or few. For the works are accepted not for their own sake but because of faith.
Now where are those who ask what works are good, what they shall do, how shall they be good?… Does not this single first commandment give us more work to do than any one man can do?… Now since the being and nature of man cannot exist for an instant unless it is doing or not doing something, putting up with or running away from something (for we know life never stands still), well then, let him who wants to be holy and full of good works begin to exercise himself at all times in this faith in all his life and works. Let him learn to do and to leave undone all things in such continual faith. Then he will find how much work he has to do, and how completely all things are included in faith and how he may never grow idle because his very idling must be the exercise and work of faith.
With this in mind I must question Paul Helm’s charge that “Indifferent actions provide the space that Christian liberty occupies, and it ought to be jealously guarded now, as at the Reformation.” This category of actions are no staple of the Christian faith, either Catholic or Reformed. Indeed, it seems to stand in contrast to Paul’s own instructions in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
In addition to questioning whether “indifferent actions” exist, we must ask if we would even want them to. Helm seems to imply that if we can’t enjoy something for its own sake then we are somehow failing to achieve the maximum enjoyment available to us. (I find it interesting that his problem with hedonism is that it may distract us from being as happy as we might be. This seems to simply be another form of hedonism. It would make no sense to say that we should pursue these morally indifferent actions, such as hobbies, without a view of the enjoyment they would bring. Who would ever take on a hobby that was not enjoyable to them). However, is enjoying something for its own sake truly the most desirable way to enjoy our hobbies or interests, or anything else for that matter?
When I buy my wife flowers I want her to enjoy the flowers for their own sake, but not only for their own sake. I am happy that she finds the flowers beautiful and I hope they provide some sort of pleasing aroma. However, I want the flowers to be enjoyed on a level that goes beyond the simple beauty of the flower itself. I want her to see and smell the flowers and to think of my love for her. When I give her flowers they are not simply flowers, they are also a token of my love for her. It is my hope that recognizing these flowers as a token of my love makes the flowers even more beautiful and more enjoyable than they would be if they were enjoyed simply for their own sake.
Christian hedonism asks us to not enjoy a action simply for its own sake but to push beyond it to recognize its full beauty. This does not mean failing to recognize the beauty of the actual flower. Instead it means not being satisfied to see the beauty of flower and to stop there. Instead, it pushes us to another level of enjoyment that, as Luther explained, can only be reached by faith.
The fact that every action we perform has moral quality is a beautiful thing. It means that at every turn we are given the opportunity to interact with and to please God. Luther criticized the church in his day for thinking that some activities were spiritual and others were not. He challenged us to recognize that every action of our lives has the ability to either please or to grieve God. It is not the type of action that God is concerned with (i.e. a spiritual action vs. an indifferent action) but the way the action is performed (i.e. in faith or without faith).
The challenge of the Christian hedonist should not be to avoid distraction but to embrace it. If your hobby is running, don’t seek to enjoy running only for the sake of running, but in faith seek to run for the glory of God. This was the mindset of the Olympic runner Eric Liddell, of the Chairots of Fire film. He said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.” Later he said, “To give up running would be to hold Him in contempt.”
The Christian hedonist is convinced that you are at your happiest when your level of marvel at the greatness of God is at its highest. The way to secure this is not to fight for some “morally neutral” ground that Christianity doesn’t touch. Instead it urges us to train our minds to see God’s glory in the most mundane parts our our lives. If we collect plants, then we should collect them in faith. We should be eager to marvel at the beauty and sophistication knowing that God has provided these plants to display his glory. To enjoy these plants for their own sake, without recognizing them as a gift from God to teach us to know and love him more does not heighten the experience of plant collecting, it cheapens it. Thus, the distraction offered by Christian hedonism does not hinder our ability to enjoy our hobbies, but when we do our hobbies in faith, our enjoyment is heightened.