In the words of the Ben Folds Five song Underground, “Can we be happy?”.
It’s not a question you hear articulated particularly often. Perhaps it’s not really up for debate but I’ve been thinking about it anyway. I suppose then that there are two questions to ask here – the more abstract question “Can we be happy?” and the subsequent more pragmatic question “If so, how can we be happy?”.
This has been in my thoughts this week after watching a talk Peter Rollins gave at Fuller Seminary last year (embedded below). In this talk and those he gave at Greenbelt last year he discusses how we live in a society permeated with signposts pointing us to the source of our future happiness – buy this car, eat this food, wear these clothes, find the right partner – that remind us that we must not be satisfied where we are but must keep moving, keep striving (like some sharks must keep swimming to stay alive). Yes, you’ve gotten a bit closer that you were this time last year but you’re still not happy because this [product, relationship, experience] is the missing piece of the puzzle that’ll finally tip you into sustained happiness. In his commentary, he points out that there is a risk that in the church we have turned God into a super-product – I’ve certainly heard it preached that we should repent of our pursuit of things and instead pursue God for it’s only in Him that we’ll find satisfaction – forget all those other products, this (God) is what you need!
Anyway, that’s another conversation but the other thing that’s got me thinking about this is the statistic that crossed my path in the week that over 43 million prescriptions for antidepressants were written in the UK last year. To put that in perspective, the population of the UK is around about 62 million. I’m sure the statistic for the US is something equally astounding. Despite having a quality of life unimaginable for anyone but kings a few hundred years ago, the answer to questions like “are we happy?” or “are we satisfied?” is, in general, probably not. Now, I know there’s a distinction between unhappiness and depression and I also must say that I think antidepressants are a good thing when appropriate and we should try as a society to get past the stigma attached to them. That said, I think we also need to get past the idea that it’s bad to be unhappy. Sadness has to some extent become a taboo in our society – using the classic test for social taboos of “would it be appropriate conversation over dinner with friends?” – we all have to keep our sadness to ourselves so as not to make other people feel uncomfortable thereby adding an extra layer of shame to our sadness. We wouldn’t deny our other emotions like we do our sadness. Another thing Rollins has been talking about recently is providing liturgical space in church for doubt and sadness. I certainly take issue with the constant “up”-ness of the average Sunday service in the evangelical tradition. Church should be a place and community where we can stop denying our sadness to ourselves and each other but also find comfort in that. If you’re sad, be sad. Especially in church.
So to return to the question “Can we be happy?”, if you look at our behaviour, it definitely looks like we believe we can be happy but only ever as a future state, always just beyond our reach (or just within our reach once our current aspiration du jour is realised). It’s rare that we allow ourselves to be satisfied in the now – it would appear that we’re a species addicted to a cycle of being dissatisfied, finding a job/object/person/etc to put our hopes in (in the full sense of the phrase) and then being disappointed when though we achieve it we find we’re still not satisfied. I sometimes wonder whether we’re more unhappy in the rich West because we are able to repeat this cycle at a faster rate (and are encouraged to do so by people who want to sell us stuff) so the fruitlessness of the process is more obvious to us (though we wouldn’t dare articulate it) – new shoes?, meh, new car?, meh, new boyfriend?, meh, new hobby?, meh, iPod?, meh, iPhone?, meh, iPad?, meh, iPhone 4?, meh, iPhone 4S? etc.
I think we need to be aware of this cycle. I see it play out repeatedly in my own life and the lives of my friends. I don’t know if we can get away from it but I feel like I’d like to try! To go back to Rollins’s talk, he discusses our perpetual dissatisfaction as a consequence of original sin. I’m not sure I’d want to bring that controversial topic into it but certainly the way we put our hopes in things (or people) to satisfy us looks like the epitome of idolatry. Rollins suggests that we should therefore lay down the pursuit of happiness in the knowledge that we can never be happy (because our unhappiness is rooted at our deepest level) but that in doing so we may find something deeper. As his audience rightly points out in the Q&A, this is quite similar to the elements of Buddhism that lead to the idea of detachment. Although I see as to some extent a validation of his thoughts I would say (as Rollins does to some extent) that the appropriate “Christian” response to the troubles in our inner and outer worlds should always be engagement rather than stoicism.
Anyway, here’s the video. It’s quite long but well worth an hour of your time (if you skip the Q&A).
It saddens me that we (I) bow so willingly to the “planned obsolescence” model of technology marketing where the life-changing must-have of this month becomes suddenly unfit for purpose the next month but we still believe it (and literally buy into it) when Apple or whoever tells us that this time they’ve finally cracked it – the is The One.↵
More a collection of interviews than a documentary, Examined Life brings together leading philosophers talking on subjects you’d expect such as truth, ethics and meaning and subjects you might not such as revolutions, our relationship with rubbish and the following segment about disability and gender that challenges our conception of the “normal” body…
In part 2 I looked at some of the challenges of postmodern thought to parts of the church or particular faith constructs. We should certainly pause to consider these challenges and indeed to push back at the validity of postmodernism’s challenges (as the underlying thought itself allows us to) but in part 3 I’d like to consider some of the positive ideas and affirmations coming from the application of postmodern thought within the church…
Orthopraxis over Orthodoxy
After the postmodern challenge to the concept of right belief and the potential disempowerment that comes with it there has been a focus on the idea of orthopraxis (right practice). If we can’t know what we’re supposed to think, perhaps we can at least find a way to live that is in some way self-consistent. Søren Kierkegaard, one of the early existentialist philosophers, and a Christian, expressed it as follows…
“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. … I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing.”
Faced with the suggestion that we cannot make objectively right decisions, we can either be paralysed by unknowing or allow ourselves to be freed and empowered to choose our values, beliefs and priorities, in the knowledge that we will probably do so unconsciously anyway, and then focus on how our behaviours are to follow in a way that’s doesn’t betray our professed beliefs. Instead of wondering about the theology of generosity, we can focus on being generous, instead of discussing “who is my neighbour?”, we can go outside and meet our neighbours. It has been said before that perhaps the church should say nothing for a year and just go out and do good works.
It seems that Jesus had a lot of time for people with practical needs and generally didn’t get on that well with the people who had (or claimed to have) the right theology. Yes, I recognise the irony of me sitting here writing thousands of words about all this!
A Universal(ist) Priesthood?
The doctrine of universal priesthood or “The Priesthood of All Believers” seems very much in keeping with postmodern thought. If we all struggle to access truth (seeing as through a glass, darkly), then we should certainly value everyone’s contribution, and humbly offer our own, knowing that together we can grow our understanding beyond where we could go alone.
I’m tempted to extend this thought to suggest that perhaps Christianity might not have a monopoly on understanding or experience of God but that crazy suggestion has recently got certain famous preachers in trouble so I won’t go there!
At least we can accept that there are signposts to God outside the church. The idea of separation of sacred and secular is one that would seem quite odd to the early church. Either everything is sacred or nothing is sacred. Sure, there are spheres of life where it’s good to create something that stands apart from any individual’s faiths but I’m talking about valuing the conversations about meaning, life, love and God that are constantly going on within our culture and sub-cultures rather than dismissing anything that isn’t explicitly Christian or faith-based. How awful to restrict ourselves to only finding God in “Christian” music or “Christian” films.
Perhaps taking on the idea that truth is not as easily accessible as we might hope could at least protect us against complacency that we’ve worked out some kind of formula for God. At the point where we think we’ve figured it all out, we might close our minds and stand still and how could the pursuit of God be anything but a life-long one?
The Theology of Catastrope and The Restoration of Mystery
Outside the church, people are fairly ok with the idea that sometimes crazy, unexpected things happen in life. Shit happens. For Christians, these events have often posed a problem – why would God allow this? – and so we’ve come up with a whole theology of disaster – a way to make excuses for God on his behalf for the things that happen that we don’t like or that don’t fit in with the plan we thought he had for us. Again, this is orthodoxy vs orthopraxis – if we can let go of having to have explanations for the inexplicable, we can focus on dealing with the consequences. I suspect that the feeling within church that we have to justify God in the midst of catastrophe comes from the classic question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people (or good things to happen to bad people). To me the only answer to this question that doesn’t feel like sleight-of-hand these days is “I don’t know”. Postmodernism certainly gives us permission to say that without denying any other of our beliefs.
As I said in part 1, if we see God only as a way to explain life’s mysteries then we’ll find our God continually shrinking. Saying that though, there is still something good about being aware that there’s still a whole lot we don’t know. In a society where we, our politicians, our scientist and our colleagues are constantly trying to convince each other that we have all the best answers to all sorts of questions, accepting that there are answers we don’t have can be quite a relief! Of course I’m not advocating intellectual laziness, just saying that we should be honest about the things we don’t know rather than bluffing and blagging our way around them.
The Paradox and The Grey
The church has sometimes been afraid of not having all the answers. I suppose this comes from the problem that as soon as we start making suggestions about some of the answers there will be a pressure to come up with a set of answers to all life’s difficult questions and the questions will certainly escalate further than our answers ever can. Just like anything complex, there are things we understand, things we think we understand and things we don’t understand. If one thing we thought we knew turns out to be wrong, that doesn’t necessarily negate everything.
We commonly hear the phrases “both…and…” or “now…not yet” or “hold these things in tension” within the church these days. In wider culture we’ve become fairly comfortable with holding two ideas that are seemingly contradictory and working in the grey area between them. The church is catching up on this but there’s still a significant element within and outside of the church who find it more comfortable to compartmentalise everything into discrete categories rather than any kind of spectrum. This certainly isn’t exclusive to Christians but for people who profess humility and love as guiding values, we’re often very quick to put those values aside so that we can persecute those who don’t agree with us.
An Affirmation of Doubt
If we can get away from the “house of cards” mentality that if we struggle with one part of our faith then the whole thing risks tumbling down then we can start to be a bit more honest about the doubts that we do have and church can become the place where we are able to bring those out into the open. The tighter we cling to our certainty, the further we have to fall when the unexpected comes along and shakes our foundations. As I said in part 2, perhaps our church can become the place where we encounter our brokenness and our doubts, not so that we may conquer them necessarily but so that we may share in them and deepen our relationships through them – the place where we can say to each other “I want to believe – help me with my unbelief” and where we encourage each other to act on those things for which we would live and die.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Kierkegaard finger puppet available from here – it’ll make teaching existential philosophy to your kids a whole lot easier!↵
That is not to say that we can or will just pick the beliefs we like and ignore those that challenge us or just run wild and do whatever we feel like doing, but that our culture, history, traditions, community and wider society will all influence the choices we can/will make – as William James says, we must all start from those ideas that are to some extent viable for us – “live hypotheses” (discussed in The Will To Believe). We would do well to be open to the potential value in the words of those that disagree with us as much as those that agree with us.↵
So, this is part 2 of the Pomophobia posts. Part 1 was broadly setting the scene with a bit of relevant history from the “God debate”. …
As I said in part 1, the term “postmodern” has been applied in all sorts of arenas to express a general movement away from the accepted ideas that have gone before. From now on I’ll largely be referring to postmodern philosophy or the particular part of postmodern philosophy that Christians most often mean when using the term – the suspicion of meta-narrative and the existence of absolute or objective truth (or our ability to know it). In this post I’ll be looking briefly at some of the reasons that the church and others have been concerned by the rise of postmodern thought (pomophobia) and have tried to discredit it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote from Wikipedia’s article on post-modern philosophy at some point so here’s a thought…
Post-modernism is arguably the most depressing philosophy ever to spring from the western mind. It is difficult to talk about post-modernism because nobody really understands it. It’s allusive to the point of being impossible to articulate. But what this philosophy basically says is that we’ve reached an endpoint in human history. That the modernist tradition of progress and ceaseless extension of the frontiers of innovation are now dead. Originality is dead. The avant-garde artistic tradition is dead. All religions and utopian visions are dead and resistance to the status quo is impossible because revolution too is now dead. Like it or not, we humans are stuck in a permanent crisis of meaning, a dark room from which we can never escape.
- Kalle Lasn (founder of Adbusters, author of Culture Jam)
Right and Wrong
Moral relativism has long been something of a go-to bogeyman for all sorts of people – the financial crisis, the holocaust, communism, liberalism – plenty of terrible things apparently wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t allowed those darned philosophers to question our secure ideas of what is right and what is wrong (ignoring, of course, the terrible acts committed by those who were very secure in their belief that they were right and someone else was wrong!).
The Pope has a particular dislike for moral relativism blaming it for (amongst other things) the recent riots in the UK. Perhaps “The German Shepherd” (as I recently heard him called) has a point – the idea that, for example, whether or not murder is wrong is only a matter of taste is certainly problematic – but it doesn’t take too long to think of examples of beliefs and practices that at certain times in history or in certain cultures have been seen as wrong but that now would be seen as acceptable or that used to be acceptable but are now seen as definitely wrong – suddenly things become a little more complicated. A number of the most divisive “conversations” in the church at the moment are around issues where the debate is very much about what is right or wrong – homosexuality, abortion, etc – but we don’t have to look to far into church history to see similarly polarised debates that have since become unimaginable – slavery, for example.
Moral relativism is a step too far for many people of faith and no faith alike but if we could at least let it encourage to be a bit more humble in the way we assert our opinions and a bit more careful about making pronouncements about what is “right” and what is “wrong”, I think that’d be quite a valuable lesson for us all.
Everything Is Smoke
Perhaps the most troubling idea that comes out of this line of thought is that if every event, every interaction, every person only has the meaning that we subjectively ascribe to them, does anything have any inherent value? When we deconstruct the very idea of “significance”, what are we left with? This of course is where the existential nihilists went with there thinking – their answer? – we are left with nothing – everything just is, life is just a series of events that happen – none of it “means” anything and any significance we ascribe to it is purely construct.
Pretty depressing stuff and with the rise of this mode of thought it is no wonder that there has been a focus in the church on the theology of significance, purpose and self-esteem that has been pretty successful – just look at the marketing of the Alpha Course. Despite this, we only have to look as far as the book of Ecclesiastes to find a pretty compelling piece of existential literature. How did that get there?!
A Call to Inaction
As Kalle Lasn is insinuating above, once we fully deconstruct the narratives by which we live our lives and see everything as essentially meaningless (objectively) we may fall into a paralysing despair that there’s no point in doing anything because none of it matters – all our passions and dreams, our relationships and loves will all die, as will we – ultimately all that we build in our lives (and all that we, the human race, ever build) will in the end be wholly inconsequential.
Again, it’s at this point that many people of faith and no faith want to get off this line of thought and return to something a bit more warm and fuzzy but with all the loneliness and depression that seems to be an unfortunate side-effect of the society we’ve built, we must not live in denial of this viewpoint and we need to be comfortable naming it and wrestling with it.
Everything’s Not Lost
Well, this has all been a little bit miserable and hopeless! I don’t think pomophobia is the right approach – as I say, I think it’s important that we allow these difficult and troubling ideas to be out in the open, especially within church – they’ll be far more damaging if we try to keep them buried. Perhaps church should be the place where we encounter our brokenness – where we remove our masks of “I’m a successful human being who’s got it together” and come face-to-face with ourselves (and each other) as we are, not as we’d like others to think we are (that is how God sees us anyway and he’s OK with it – that is what we mean by “grace”) and perhaps that place of imperfection, of raw humanity is also a place of freedom and of intimate community.
In part 3 I’ll be looking at some of the more positive or affirming things that can and have come out of postmodern thought. I think it’s gonna be a good one…
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Judging from Peter Rollins’s talks at Greenbelt, his upcoming book “Insurrection” will have some pretty interesting things to say about the way the church risks presenting God (or church) as a “super-product” – the product in which we find fulfillment when all other worldly products fail to satisfy.↵
With the grandly-titled retrospective exhibition “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990″ opening at the V&A next weekend there’s been a bit more talk than usual about postmodernism in thepress over the last couple of weeks. Though, appropriately, even the label “postmodern” itself is fluid and without clear boundaries, I presume the V&A exhibition will focus on postmodernism’s influence in art and design which is essentially short-hand for irony, ambiguity, juxtaposition, elevation of the mundane, frivolity and many other things you might want to apply the label to.
Interestingly the fact that the V&A have a “retrospective” and have chosen to put a neat end date on postmodernism of 1990 suggests that, at least in art and design, we have progressed to something new worthy of finding a new name for. That may well be the case (though I don’t know what that name is – I hope it’s not post-postmodernism) but I’m more interested in the core of postmodernism (at least if you look it up on Wikipedia) – the rejection of meta-narrative and the objective truth – particularly with regard to Christianity (and faith and philosophy in general). Here the postmodern conversation still seems very relevant and current though there are signs, as I shall discuss, that in some places the conversation is moving on. First though, let’s talk a bit of history…
The God of the Gaps
Back in the day, it used to be quite easy to sell God (or a particular conception of God or gods) – whenever there was something we couldn’t explain we could use God to fill in the gaps in our understanding and, conversely and simultaneously, use the gaps in our understanding as evidence for the existence of God. Answering the question “why?” was as easy as “because that’s the way God made it”. Fortunately for human progress, some people didn’t find that a satisfactory answer so they began to dig deeper into the nature of things and so science and philosophy began the long process of filling in the gaps. Nevertheless, there are still those who are obsessed with finding gaps in the hope that they’ll find god within.
The Provable God
Obviously, with the gaps that god was inhabiting shrinking and disappearing all over the place, something had to be done before god was squeezed out completely. Taking a lesson from the scientists and philosophers (or in an attempt to meet/beat them on their own terms), so began a long campaign of trying to “prove” the existence of god with the tools developed by the scientists and philosophers – logic, experiments, etc.
On the logic/philosophy side, far too much anger and energy is wasted on debating this every day by people who have very solid meta-narratives, believe theirs is the right and, for people engaged in a debate, aren’t very interested in an 2-way exchange of ideas!
On the experiment side, occasionally academic papers claiming such things as “people who pray live longer” make it through to be reported in the mainstream media but I’m not sure anyone takes such things seriously who’s not already chosen a side (I don’t mean the science is necessarily bad – just that I’m not sure the papers published on either side have much/any impact on the debate).
As with the god-of-the-gaps, the search for the “provable god” remains with us and is very much alive on the internet!
Can We Have Our Ball Back?
The argument continued on these terms for some time and some interesting ideas developed within the conversation but then, somewhere around the 1920s, just in case we thought we were making progress in proving anything on either side, along came the beginnings of postmodern philosophy which eventually threw up the disturbing question “what if we, as subjective humans, can never access (or perceive) objective truth?”. It didn’t move the goal posts – it tore up the rulebook, demolished the pitch and ran off with the ball.
The impact of this for the very idea of god (some would say the ultimate meta-narrative) and for the process of seeking god (a search for some kind of truth) is obvious but the conversation has by no means ended and indeed has been going in some interesting directions and it’s the current conversation and where it might go in the future that I hope to look at in future posts (hence ambitiously labelling this Part 1).
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
This is a more accurate posing of the central question of postmodernism than the more often quoted “what if there is no truth?”. The distinction is that we are not questioning the existence of truth as an abstract concept or even a physical reality, but pointing out that our perceptions of truth are mediated by our imperfect senses and the subjective processes through which each individual human turns information into conclusions.↵
Think about the last meal you cooked – the process of preparing the ingredients, boiling or frying them, waiting for them to cook – we remember these things in a linear process of “I did this and then I did this and then I did that”. For mechanical things such as cooking a meal, we generally see the narrative as essentially just a series of actions – there’s no real emotion attached to each of the steps and we’ll soon forget that we ever went through those instances and possibly forget the meal entirely. How many specific meals can you remember cooking last year? The actual act of cooking them? I know I cooked a lot of meals but all I have are non-specific memories of being in my kitchen that I could just as easily be dreaming up in the process of trying to recall them.
Now recall the last time you had a conversation where you strongly disagreed with someone about something you care about. Though we may not remember the words that were spoken we probably remember the frustration of our point of view being rejected by someone despite our protestation and obvious reasoning that we are right. These kind of events leave us with a different kind of story – one invested with emotion and often a judgement that we’ve imposed on the other who couldn’t understand us. We leave with a different opinion of them – they’re stubborn, they’re irrational, etc – but underneath that we’ll invent a story that belittles them or the formation of their opinion so that we can remain justified in sticking with ours – “she’s scared of facing up to the truth because she’ll have to change”, “he’s too emotionally invested in his current position to accept he might be wrong”, etc. These stories we make up may or may not be true sometimes but we need to recognise that there are equivalent stories underlying our own beliefs that we would do well to look at too. I don’t know much about psychology but I imagine one of the purposes of therapy is to help people to recognise and draw out these underlying stories in the hope that bringing them to light will effect or allow for a change in behaviour.
Equally in the way we live our lives we are often trying to live out the stories about us in other people’s heads (by which I mean trying to live up to the real or imagined expectations of others) – “if I can succeed at this, my parents will be proud of me” – or trying to live in rebellion against the stories we imagine other people have about us – “I’ll show him/her/them”.
We can’t help but tell stories to ourselves and each other about ourselves and each other. They may or may not be true. Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s how we make sense of the sometimes chaotic world – we all think of ourselves as the hero in the ongoing story that is our lives – but sometimes life throws something up that makes it feel like a series of chaotic and essentially meaningless events. This is seen most clearly where life doesn’t live up to the story we thought we were writing – the death of a friend, the break-up of a relationship. When our best laid plans our taken away from us, when a story ends before we’re ready, what then? Suddenly we are orphaned – people without a story. Either we despair or we have to start again and write a new one.
To whom are we telling our stories? Ourselves? Each other? God? Is there any value in deconstructing our stories or will we just replace them with new or deeper stories? Maybe holding onto our stories, grasping them and trying to live them with integrity, is more valuable.