January 30, 2011

On happiness

Passage: Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12, Matthew 5:2-3

Then he (Jesus) began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

There is considerable societal pressure to be married—or I should say “coupled-up” in some kind of familial relationship.  Singleness is often perceived as incomplete.  Last Christmas, at a mall in Hong Kong, a virtual photo booth was installed in which singles can be photographed next to virtual partners.  Enter the booth, select a mate, and voila—season’s greetings for two!  It was apparently very popular; perhaps sending such a greeting card helps fend off all those relatives expecting you to finally get connected?  Let me ask you, is happiness being intimately connected to someone?

A 2010 survey by Gallup measuring happiness and religiosity revealed that very religious Americans of all major faiths -- and even those who do not have a formal religious identity -- have higher overall wellbeing than do their respective counterparts who are moderately religious or nonreligious. Apparently those who say they are spiritual just not religious find an overall sense of wellbeing a little more elusive than those who confess to be spiritual and religious.  Is happiness a product of being religious?

In what many call “post-modern”, our current societal ethos is permeated with a radical kind of individualism.  Since no good beyond the self is thought to exist, the overarching good is self-actualization; inner authenticity is where happiness will be found.  We prize choice; the goal for the young person is to embark on a process of self-discovery such that the “real-you” emerges; happiness is thought to be found in this discovery.  I think that the angst many young people feel is they don’t much care for the person who emerges from self-discovery; or that “self-focus” ends up felling very empty.

Over the next few Sundays our sermons will explore readings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  The Beatitudes that form the sermon’s introduction sets the scene and qualifies the significance of all that follows.  Recall that day in Nazareth when Jesus opened the book of Isaiah and read his mission statement: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  This is precisely where the sermon begins—good news to the poor.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus’ good news is a proclamation of blessedness, of happiness (as some translations have it), of “good fortune” (as one commentator put it).  I invite you to reflect with me on some key features of the blessedness or happiness Jesus proclaimed.

2.  Jesus did not preach in a vacuum; that is to say that his message is heard against the foil of competing messages of the nature of human life.  350 years before the time of Jesus, Aristotle taught that the goal in life was the ideal of the fully flourishing human being.  Think of the person who has lived up to their full potential—complete, rounded, wise—and this is what Aristotle meant by “happiness”; the word he used for happiness is closer to our idea of “flourishing”.

For Aristotle—and for the tradition that developed after him and formed the world of moral discourse at the time of Jesus and early Christianity—there are four principle virtues: courage, justice, prudence, and temperance.  These, Aristotle proposed, were the “hinges” upon which the great door to human fulfilment and flourishing would swing open.  Practise these, he said, and you will become a complete “happy”, flourishing human being.

Like people who inherited the tradition of Aristotle, our culture has been brought up to believe in human innocence and virtue.  The perfectibility of humanity is thought possible via the right process or mechanisms or conditions.  Our belief that happiness is found in authentic self-actualization is at bottom a confidence in the unalloyed goodness of spontaneous human impulses.  I wonder how all this is working out for us; I read recently of how our government is proposing building more jails.

Last October I attended a forum; the guest speaker was Don Tapscott who is co-author of the bestselling books Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and more recently Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and The World. The first book was about how mass collaboration was reinventing the way businesses communicate, create value, and compete; the second about the power of collaborative innovation and open systems as pointing the way forward for all of us.  Mass collaboration is the key to success as billions of citizens in emerging markets aspire to join the global middle class.

As Tapscott spoke he indicated that mass collaboration had the potential to create a more harmonious world; somehow as we get to know each other across mass communication systems human conflict would dissipate as the ability to make contribution was within peoples’ grasp.  The right process--mass collaboration—and self-actualized happy humans will emerge.

3.  When you hear Jesus preach his beatitudes it has a familiar sound because the subject matter is human happiness.  Our tendency is to analyze it from the foil of other commonly held traditions; what does Jesus say will make me happy; what mechanisms or disciplines does Jesus offer us for self-actualization. We approach him as if it is within our grasp to apply his teaching and achieve for ourselves this happiness he points us towards.  Like any other method of self-actualization we can test it to see if it will work.

But Jesus’ preaching is not so easily fit into the boxes of other traditions.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” You will notice that Jesus simply announces blessedness to the poor; is he suggesting that happiness is found by your making yourself poor?  Is he saying that the path to human flourishing is a self-imposed simplicity of life?  There are people trying this approach; I read of one group of people who have determined to divest their lives of stuff and only own 100 items in their homes and there is a benefit to such simple living.  Is this what Jesus meant?

It is worth noting that the mood of the verb in Jesus’ beatitudes it the indicative—indicating the nature of some reality.  It is not the imperative mood as if Jesus we commanding something.  He is simply announcing blessedness that is not conditioned, because he announces it for the people we know are struggling, are far from “flourishing”.  The people who Jesus preached to lived under the grinding and unjust demands of Roman occupation; most could never aspire to free citizenship.  Many lived with that grinding poverty that breaks the spirit—that makes you give up, or worse, give in.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”.  Your circumstances are not the indication of whether you can know the blessing of God or the kingdom of heaven.

In Jesus proclamation of the kingdom blessedness isn’t something you acquire by practising virtues or process of self-actualization.  I don’t think Jesus would deny that certain virtues have benefit or that self-understanding of no value; what he would say is that these will not lead to the blessedness he is talking about; they will not deliver what it means to be truly human.  Jesus believes that the source, the driving energy comes from somewhere other than in the individual self.  Blessedness is what happens when God is at work both in someone’s life and through that person’s life.

Jesus’ beatitudes are not statements that poverty is a good thing suggesting that somehow, despite appearances, life is really a lot better that it seems.  They are announcing a new state of affairs, and new reality which is in process of bursting into the world because he, Jesus, is here.  It is to announce that the life of the kingdom of heaven is in the process of coming true on earth.

I draw you attention to the way Matthew underscores the location of where Jesus gave this sermon: “he went up to the mountain”.  In the older testament book of  Deuteronomy (18:18) we have the record of God’s promise to Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.”  In telling us that Jesus “went up the mountain” Matthew is painting a picture of Jesus as the promised prophet like Moses; just as Moses went up the mountain so too Jesus.

Listen again to the opening sentence of the word of God that Moses receives from God on that mountain: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”.  You will notice that God predicates everything he wants to say to Israel on the ground of his own gracious initiative—I am the Lord your God who delivered you.  He does not say—in order to deserve me as your God you must—no, he graciously blesses them

So too Jesus is announcing God’s gracious blessing. Jesus pronounces poverty blessed in that the poor are more likely to see that the consolations of the world are finally spurious. One of the world's consolations is wealth. Has wealth ever improved the spiritual condition of anyone? It has spelled the spiritual ruin of countless. Poverty isn't blessed because poverty is good; poverty is blessed because those in extreme need have the fewest pretences about themselves and their profounder need, even their ultimate need -- which need, of course, is their need of the saving God.

4. We must ever keep in mind that the essence of Jesus preaching was repent and believe the good news for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  “The heart is devious above all else”, declared Jeremiah (17:9), “it is perverse—who can understand it?”  Pessimistic? No; realistic. Jesus would have agreed however much this is a slap in the face for those who believe in humanity’s self-perfectibility.  Jesus said ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Jesus diagnoses a disease of our hearts that we cannot see and for which he declares himself the cure.  Jesus believes that he, and the kingdom of God which he is launching, will contain a cure for corrupt hearts.  The list of horrors that Jesus claims arise from the human heart—immorality, theft, deceit, slander and the rest—are not accidental add-ons to an otherwise pure human nature.  These are things, sadly, that you don’t have to work at.  You don’t have to think through the challenge of how to perform them, and practice hard because they are so difficult and demanding.  No; they bubble up, unbidden and unhindered, from within, even from within those with great religious discipline.

The blessedness Jesus announces is given by God; a cure for that which bedevils every human attempt at being truly human. To be sure, there is no end to the pleasure we can find in nature; no end to the pleasure we can find in culture; no end to the pleasure we can find in our own bodiliness and our intellectual life. We call these things happiness.  Nonetheless, there is one delight that all of this can’t give us: our “enjoyment” of God.

5. As we hear Jesus preach this sermon it is as if he speaks about a kingdom absolutely real to him; he can see it but we cannot.  The habits of life he can see—humility, meekness, mercy, purity, peacemaking—is the nature of life when the final kingdom arrives.  He can see that things are not this way in the present—people mourn, are impoverished, suffer injustice, are hungry—and one day all this will be set right.

In his sermon (part of which we will explore in the next weeks) Jesus is not saying “If you can manage to behave this way, you will be rewarded”; nor is he saying “now that you’ve believed in me this is how you must behave”.  Rather Jesus is saying, “now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these are the habits of heart which anticipate the new world here and now”.

These qualities—humility, purity of heart, mercy, and so on—are not, so to speak, things you have to do to earn a reward or payment.  Nor are they merely the “rules of conduct” laid down for converts to follow.  They are, in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring.
John Wesley develops a theme that runs like a thread through all his writings.  The theme is this: none but the holy are finally happy.  He insists tirelessly that God has fashioned us for happiness.  Not for superficial jollity or frivolity or sentimentality, but certainly for deep-down contentment, joy, happiness.  Jesus notion of blessedness includes happiness, I believe.  How could we ever be blessed -- by God himself -- and finally be miserable?

Then he (Jesus) began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”