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.

14 comments:

stanford said...

I think you 'paradox of hedonism' critique is right on. I also think Piper's system can be easily misunderstood such that the 'Christian' qualifier is left out and God's will is equated with things that bring me pleasure.

But there is something fundamental that I appreciate about his rhetoric. The affections are part of the Christian life. Piper's encouragement to zero in on my motivations and cultivate desire for the things of God rather than obedience by brute force has been a helpful corrective for me.

Mike, Becky and Thomas said...

Found your blog via google search about J. Piper - so not sure if this is fool's errand....anyways, couldn't agree more with analysis of "Christian hedonism". I think first impressions are often accurate - first time I heard title, I winced....but decided to do more research..well, I'm wincing again. Have you read CS Lewis' Abolition of Man? Do you think the problem Piper and others have comes down to their psychology of desire? In a footnote to that book, Lewis mentions I.A. Richards' similar view about competing desires. The issue is doctrine of objective value, but I think it's in the same ballpark. Are we nothing more than a nexus of competing desires, or do we have reason, free will, and so on.

Ian said...

Stan, I couldn't agree more with the positive lessons we can take from Piper, despite the flaws.
Mike et al., thanks for the comment! Unfortunately, Abolition of Man is one of the Lewis books I still haven't read, but it sounds very interesting. It does seem like maybe Piper has a slightly messed up view of how our desires and pleasures work. That's probably a topic worth further comment.

Matt said...

This whole concept of Christian Hedonism, so to speak, is something I've been learning about over the past year or so. I had a bit of a revelation one day a little over a year ago and it really changed the way I see things. Let's see if I can explain a little of it.


To start, why are we here? What drove God to create us in the first place? He wanted company. He wanted the pleasure of the relationships we would provide. And He did it for His glory. This is as near as I can come up with anyway. So, God made us for pleasure. For joy.

We can be joyful in anything. Since we were made for pleasure, for communion with God, when we have that communion with God, our joy is so great that nothing can overwhelm it. Or at least it ought to be. That is just the way things work. Our knowing God—the joy and pleasure we receive from that relationship is so far beyond the downs the world can bring our way that it is as if we look down at the “mountains” of this world from high in the clouds. This is the joy we were made for, the reason we exist. God takes pleasure in knowing us, and we are made to reflect that. Our perfect purpose is to know God, so we will be utterly satisfied in doing so. It’s what we were made for.



In essence, I think the part you're forgetting is that the joy and pleasure come from knowing God, so seeking this pleasure is in reality seeking to know God more. That's not saying the pleasure is God, just that knowing God is the source of all pleasure. Even "worldly" pleasures can be understood as perversions of things which in some way allow us to know God better, things which give us a glimpse of some aspect of His nature.

Hope I explained that well enough.

Ian said...

Hey Matt, I think I can agree with most of what you say there and I don't think it affects my objections to Piper.

"What drove God to create us in the first place? He wanted company. He wanted the pleasure of the relationships we would provide. And He did it for His glory. This is as near as I can come up with anyway. So, God made us for pleasure. For joy."

Being made for pleasure doesn't mean we were made ONLY for pleasure. Pleasure is good but it's not the sole good. Wanting company is NOT the same thing as wanting the PLEASURE of company - company and pleasure of company are two different things, even if in wanting the former for its own sake we will also want the latter. Pleasure is part of good relationships, not the sole purpose of them - it is a constituent rather than a further, separate goal. So adding pleasure as a further goal after first adding the goal of GOOD relationships is superfluous - in going after good relationships, we get pleasure in the bargain. So in addition to the goals of good relationships and glory, there's no reason (other than as some kind of reminder for us that pleasure is good - but that's a purely psychological reason) to add pleasure as a further goal of God's in creation.

"God takes pleasure in knowing us, and we are made to reflect that. Our perfect purpose is to know God, so we will be utterly satisfied in doing so. It’s what we were made for."

Like I said, knowing God - having a good relationship with him - will involve pleasure. But the relationship itself is the goal (along with pleasure as a necessary PART of it) and that can't be reduced to mere pleasure.

"In essence, I think the part you're forgetting is that the joy and pleasure come from knowing God, so seeking this pleasure is in reality seeking to know God more."

I think I'd disagree with this, depending on what you mean. I don't think seeking pleasure is the same as seeking to know God more. I can pursue pleasure - and even pleasure from God - without having knowing God as my goal. In fact, it could be that I might seek to know God only for its instrumental value in getting me pleasure (in God). This is fundamentally different from seeking to know God for its own sake (or for HIS own sake) and, as PART of that, seeking pleasure in God. These two scenarios involve fundamentally different goal structures. And all of this follows simply from the bare fact that knowing God and taking pleasure in God are not synonymous, even though necessarily related.

"That's not saying the pleasure is God, just that knowing God is the source of all pleasure. Even "worldly" pleasures can be understood as perversions of things which in some way allow us to know God better, things which give us a glimpse of some aspect of His nature."

I think I agree with this, but it's a much weaker claim than what's in the last quote and doesn't really touch on what's wrong with Christian Hedonism. I hope that clarifies things.

Natalia said...

Hi, how can I contact you?

I want to start, a list of philosophy BLOGS. A small presentation of the thing, a library or address book. But one question I don't know is, how to contact people through blogs, I'm not familiar with this medium.

If time permits, I want you to make a post here,

http://dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/conversation-f8/

It will get stickied and start a list of philosophy blogs. You could write a small intro too, like "Here is a index and library of PHILOSOPHY blogs ...."

Already an index of BBS is here,
http://dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/conversation-f8/the-community-of-ephilosophers-philosophy-bbs-sites-t9.htm

Kind regards,

- Niki

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I think Piper is just wrong on most accounts. I don't feel the need to support this with theological rhetoric or evidence... it's just the feeling I get when I hear him preach, and I think there's a lot to be said about feeling. In fact, in some of the most memorable moments of faith I have ever experienced, feeling is all I've been able to... well, feel. I realize this may sound unintellectual, but intellect can only get us so far. When it comes to spirituality, intellect falls short, and I don't find Piper's sermons inspiring at all really. Just one man's opinion.

Ian and Gilda said...

Hi Anonymous, I'm glad you agree with me but I'm not sure whether or not I'm comfortable with why. See, I don't think feeling and thinking are as easily separable as you seem to be supposing. Generally when we feel something, there is a cognitive component to that feeling, something that can be rationally evaluated - our feelings can be rational or irrational, grounded in good reasons or not. Some feelings or other sorts of states, of course, may be evidence on their own or provide warrant for our beliefs. But feelings themselves can be the result of our sinful nature or failure to understand something important. It's nice to have negative feelings when hearing about Christian hedonism, but you need to ask WHY you're having such feelings. I've had negative feelings towards things and then, as understanding has grown, that has been reversed. And vice versa. So yes, feelings play an important role in figuring things out but intellect should not be excluded. And vice versa.

Anonymous said...

having read most of piper books, i think what he meant of Christian hedonism is biblically sound. Piper's Christian hedonism simply means making God your greatest satisfaction.

Where in the Bible does it teach we should make God our greatest satisfaction? I'll point only two: the greatest commandment passage and the greatest sin passage. First, according to Mark 12:28-30, the greatest commandment is to love God above all. To love God is to be satisfied in God for who He is. this is supported by the fact that ἀγαπάω of Mark 12:30 means (according to a greek-english lexicon of the NT)1)to have a warm regard for and interest in another and 2) to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, take pleasure in. Second, according to Jeremiah 2:13, the greatest sin of God's people is not being satisfied in Him.

Conclusion: Both the greatest commandment and the greatest sin support Christian Hedonism. May we all make God our greatest satisfaction and greatest treasure as He is the fountain of living water (Jer 2:13), the bread of life (John 6:35), and the greatest treasure (Matt 13:44). Grace to us all!

D. Ian Spencer said...

"Piper's Christian hedonism simply means making God your greatest satisfaction." If this was correct, I would agree with Christian hedonism. But Piper, from my reading, seems to be saying more than just that God should be your greatest satisfaction. I may be misreading him and interpreting Christian Hedonism too strongly, but even if that ends up being true I still think you are interpreting Christian Hedonism too weakly.

Ryan Peter said...

Ian, I do think you may be taking the 'hedonist' part too strongly over the 'Christian'.

Having read a lot of Piper and looked at Sam Storms, and also just looking at some Christian history (I'm busy reading some Wesley and am surprised at what he says about enjoying God), this seems to me to have to do with worship. What Piper et al are doing is replacing the word 'worship' with 'enjoy' or 'take pleasure in'. It's not really such a large step, when you think about what the Bible and common sense says about treasure and what you make your treasure and what you treasure will be your delight etc.

Christian Hedonism is about making the goal of life a 'taking pleasure in' God. In other words, making the goal of life worship of God. What it does say, though, is that you should expect some kind of pleasure in it when you do it, just like a man who makes wealth his goal will experience pleasure when he gets his wealth (however short-lived that may be).

The word 'love' is just a suitable replacement, but the fact is that both 'love' and 'worship' have been misunderstood and either become religious terms of rather vague, or fluffy terms. "Enjoying" is a great way of clarifying what worship looks like, and I think Piper's done a great job in pushing forward this element without falling into the charismatic dangers of making experience the goal.

If you read him carefully, he doesn't say that enjoyment or pleasure or experience is the goal, he says that making God your enjoyment or pleasure if the goal, and there's a difference there. (The hedonistic idea of making 'pleasure' the goal is a dead end because you can never do that, you have to take pleasure in in something.)

D. Ian Spencer said...

Thanks for the comment Ryan!
"What Piper et al are doing is replacing the word 'worship' with 'enjoy' or 'take pleasure in'."
This is what I object to - you cannot reduce worship to merely enjoying or having pleasure.

"It's not really such a large step, when you think about what the Bible and common sense says about treasure and what you make your treasure and what you treasure will be your delight etc."
It's actually a huge step - just because two things are intrinsically related and intertwined and must go together does not mean you can reduce one to the other. Reread my fourth paragraph - pleasure is a good that follows from doing what one finds valuable (say, worshiping God) but that does not mean that IS the valuable thing (though it is of course valuable itself also).

"Christian Hedonism is about making the goal of life a 'taking pleasure in' God. In other words, making the goal of life worship of God."
I don't think taking pleasure in God and worship of God are numerically identical, though the latter will necessarily in some way likely involve and even have as a constituent part the former.

"What it does say, though, is that you should expect some kind of pleasure in it when you do it, just like a man who makes wealth his goal will experience pleasure when he gets his wealth (however short-lived that may be)."
Ah, see, now you are treating the pleasure and the goal as two different things, like I was saying about worship and pleasure. This sentence agrees with what I wrote in my post but I'm not sure it is as strong as what Piper says.

"If you read him carefully, he doesn't say that enjoyment or pleasure or experience is the goal, he says that making God your enjoyment or pleasure if the goal, and there's a difference there."
Right, I thought I said that explicitly in my post and that's exactly what I was arguing was objectionable - making pleasure in God THE goal rather than A goal.

Danielle Schneider said...

I would like to humbly suggest that you reread the book and take a bit more time in doing so. I believe you've completely missed the point. Piper is not suggesting a pursuit of godly pleasure, but a pursuit of pleasure in God himself. Finding pleasure in knowing Him, worshipping Him, serving Him, simply in His holiness and goodness. It has nothing to do with seeking godly pleasure through service. I didn't care for the book my first time through, for different reasons then you. But now, several years later, I am learning to see more clearly. I will add that in that time frame, the Lord has significantly healed me in broken places, which I believe allows me to see truth far more clearly. At any rate, give it another try. I think often, our theology gets in the way of our clarity. Perhaps keep that in mind as you read.

D. Ian Spencer said...

Thanks for the comment Danielle! Let me see if I can address some of your concerns...

"I would like to humbly suggest that you reread the book and take a bit more time in doing so. I believe you've completely missed the point. Piper is not suggesting a pursuit of godly pleasure, but a pursuit of pleasure in God himself. Finding pleasure in knowing Him, worshipping Him, serving Him, simply in His holiness and goodness. It has nothing to do with seeking godly pleasure through service."

I think you may have misunderstood me somewhat - I never denied that the pleasure was in or from God; in fact, I explicitly stated this. Also, in the quote above, your final and second-to-final sentences are inconsistent since you explicitly speak of "finding pleasure in...serving him", then say "It has nothing to do with seeking godly pleasure through service". Unless by "godly pleasure" you mean something other than "pleasure in/from God", in which case I agree that that is not what Christian Hedonism is about. But "pleasure in/from God" is exactly what I meant by it, so your criticism rests on a misunderstanding - you actually seem to agree with me on my interpretation of Piper. I suggest you read my post a little more carefully - I admit, though, that I probably could have been clearer here. In any case, your criticisms, even if correct, would not change the nature of the problems with Christian Hedonism that I outline in the rest of the post which has to do with nature of pleasure and its relation to our motivations and goals.

"I didn't care for the book my first time through, for different reasons then you. But now, several years later, I am learning to see more clearly. I will add that in that time frame, the Lord has significantly healed me in broken places, which I believe allows me to see truth far more clearly. At any rate, give it another try. I think often, our theology gets in the way of our clarity. Perhaps keep that in mind as you read."

Thanks for taking the time to post - like I said in my post, I think there is much value in what Piper says and many things that are correct about it and it DOES provide a corrective many incorrect notions or practices that are in our churches and spiritual lives. I just think the theoretical framework which he uses as the vehicle for all of this has some (fixable) flaws in it. Assuming I am using a correct definition of Christian Hedonism, I don't see how any change in theology would make the flaws in it "go away" for me since it still falls afoul of the problems I suggested no matter what orthodox theological viewpoint or tradition is adopted (or not adopted).