Monday, August 18, 2008

Why I Think John Piper's 'Christian Hedonism' View Sucks (And Also What's Good About It Too)

Sorry about the long wait between blogs. I've been extremely busy teaching a critical reasoning class by myself for the first time, raising an almost-two-year-old, writing and revising papers for conferences and/or job writing sample, and working on my dissertation. Oh yeah, and taking vacations too. Whew! Anyway, here's a topic that came to mind since FBC did a Sunday School class recently featuring some material of John Piper's (my wife and I were able to make it to the last session only). Part of the material, of course, is John Piper's view he calls 'Christian Hedonism'. Unlike some others, I have no problem with the provocative title - its the actual content I dislike now and always have since I first encountered it in college. I'll start by laying into (some of) the problems I see with the view and will end my nasty things by actually saying some nice things as well (unfortunately, which is a poor reflection on me, I often don't get around to saying many nice things about books or views with which I disagree - I just "don't have the time").

So here are Piper's views as far as I understand them (if I've gotten anything wrong, let me know). The basic idea is that Piper alters the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which reads "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever" to "The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever". Here Piper understand "enjoying" as literally "taking pleasure in", thus effectively altering the statement even further ("enjoying" certainly includes this notion, but it is much broader than this). On Piper's view, our supreme goal should be pleasure - that is, pleasure from (or, perhaps, in or through or...?) God. This should be our overarching desire and goal. Piper gives an analogy where the reason he does loving things for his wife is because it gives him pleasure. Similarly, our motivation in doing godly things should be the pleasure that can ultimately be derived from it. The pursuit of godly pleasure ought to be our number one concern.

There are a lot of things I find wrong, if not even disturbing about this view. First of all, it exalts as godly what I take to be an essentially fallen, sinful motivational structure. God becomes nothing more than the big giant Pez dispenser of pleasure in the sky. Sure, I may do godly things and think godly things perhaps, but the ordering of my motivations is all off. I am to serve God because of what's in it for me - not because I value God or anything he says or does for its own sake. Sure, godly pleasure is a very good thing, but we mess up priorities and the ordering of various values if we put that as numero uno. In effect, by doing so, we put ourselves as numero uno - it is my pleasure in God that matters. So there's a kind of self-centeredness at the heart of Christian hedonism that does not recognize the fact that what we should value most and what our motivations should be centered on should be something outside of ourselves. Not only is it not all about me, but my thinking and desires should not ultimately all be about me either.

Another thing I find wrong with it is that it fails to take into account the Paradox of Hedonism. The idea essentially (which is a very old, wise one noticed by countless thinkers throughout history and throughout the world) is that the surest way not to get happiness is to pursue it as primary goal. It is only when we pursue and value other things and do so for their own sakes that we find happiness in achieving our goals. For non-bodily pleasures, happiness comes precisely as a byproduct of achieving those things we value for their own sakes. If I do not already value something for its sake, I am much less likely to take any pleasure in it. Pleasure or happiness is a reaction to or constituent of achieving our highest goals, not the highest goal itself. That is precisely why seeking non-bodily pleasure for its own sake is so self-defeating! But this is precisely what Piper does - he mistakes the frosting for the cake, the valuable response to what is ultimately valuable for what is ultimately valuable. Sure, pleasure in God probably is one of the highest goods for humans. But it is not the single highest good to be pursued for its own sake, rather it is the proper reaction to pursuing and achieving such higher goods. Piper, like all hedonists of whatever variety, simply gets things mixed up and upside down.

There are good points about Christian hedonism, though. Pleasure in God really is something good. It really is something we should want (it just shouldn't be our ultimate, overarching goal and desire). And it really is something we ought to have and it can be a sign that we aren't quite there yet spiritually if we are lacking in it (though I'd want to include some qualifications here having to do with being tested spiritually, suffering on behalf of others, dark nights of the soul, etc., which do not necessarily indicate any kind of spiritual immaturity). Indeed, the idea of Christian hedonism can help release those who find God and religion a rather stuffy, no-pleasure, all-guilt and suffering all-the-time, somber and bleak affair. (Although, granted, in my life I've more often encountered people who went off the deep end in the other direction and just went around looking for the next big religious high) So Christian hedonism isn't all bad, it just mistakes one key, important part of the main thing for the main thing itself.