Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

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We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. ‘We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like.’ …It is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.-

Richard Foster

Much has been made of the theft of the Americas from the native peoples (theft is a gross understatement, and nothing that follows is an attempt to debunk the wrong the Native Americans have suffered.) I had a history teacher who once pointed out that the Island of Manhattan was sold to Dutch colonists. The value of the sale was low (60 Gilders or so, of beads, fish hooks and other “trinkets”). Yet the tribe believed that they were getting an excellent deal. Why? They knew what these white men were apparently ignorant of: No one can own land. Land is not a possession to be bought or sold, it is on loan from the Great Spirit. So this native people was happy to accept free trinkets in an impossible exchange. Likely they believed the Dutch would learn the valuable lesson that “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

The vast majority of Americans have repented of the violence, economic and otherwise, done to “Indians” yet not of the folly of ownership. Significantly, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence originally told us we are endowed with “the inalienable right(s)… Life Liberty and the pursuit of Property.” The lattermost was changed in order to reflect the discomfort of the author with the institution of slavery; yet ever since then, we have equated happiness with property. For every time you heard your grandmother say, “money can’t buy happiness, it can’t buy love” you heard a thousandfold “acquire this, it will make you happy.”

Some don’t see any problem with this and would happily say that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Yet I do believe that this is psychotic. This sort of materialism represents such a severe mental emotional disorder that contact has indeed been lost with reality. Life is not evaluated the same way Wall Street is, the outcome is not determined like the X Games. He who has the most money, toys or adventures is not the winner. Life is not winnable. If it were, most of us should stop playing the game. Further, and perhaps most revealing of the Western-ness of this idea, those in the two-thirds world have a meaningless existence almost by definition.

My church has a tradition of beginning the year with prayer and fasting. These disciplines are growing less common in the world. I am sure there are many reasons for the decline i.e. they are difficult, they are strange, they are generally immaterial, rarely yielding tangible results etc. Yet they carry an old idea: silence and experience of poverty can often be the means through which the Divine reveals Itself.

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is a sentiment both synonymous with and antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are equivalent, in that, the one who finds Jesus, finds all these things. Even those who die in Christ are better off than those alive without him. So, Life, in a sense, is not altogether important for the Christian. Liberty- indeed the only real liberty- is something that people who know Jesus will know. Yet Christians will find themselves commanded to do or avoid things that many are free to do. Finally, “happiness” tends to be synonymous with “stuff” and our culture certainly believes in the pursuit of happiness. In our time it may be strange to be a praying woman or worse yet a man of faith, but fasting is beyond comprehension. Fasting is a spiritual discipline; it is something we enter into that has no practical value. It will not make God answer your prayers any quicker. It will not make you a stronger or better Christian. In fact, if you enter into fasting in order to be more impressive, you have already failed, and should go no further (Lk 18:10-14). Perhaps worst of all, fasting will cost you something. Yet, when we temporarily abandon our pursuit of happiness, we are able to finally pursue Jesus. It may be impractical, it may leave you hungry, but chasing after the heart of the Lord is infinitely satisfying. May you pursue Jesus this year; He is already pursuing you!

**it should be noted that I was asked to write the final paragraph of this post for Living Streams Church

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A Matter of Life and Death

In Th’ early morning
Death met me, bleary eyed
Nodded and with a yawn
tipped dusty brow with shrouded hand
Others frenetic
desperate to recover
The hill Oblivious
Quite still
I slipped quietly out
Growing steadily more aware

Watching a man die is a strange but not an uncommon experience in the life of a pastor.  My first experience was in an Adult Emergency department.  Those who work in the AED are a part of a surreal community.  They battle Death regularly and often successfully, but it leaves them with a strange sense of humor.  In the hospital, Death was a regular part of the conversation.  Out of the hospital, people were often uneasy with the subject.

I had a professor in an undergraduate class claim that if you want to know what the taboos are in a society look for euphemisms, i.e. kick the bucket, buy the farm, bite the big one, shuffle off this mortal coil etc. etc. (this is true of sex in America as well, despite the comfort we claim to have with the “casual” nature of it).  We are wildly uncomfortable with the idea of Death.  We look to science/modern medicine to cure us of it and we deify/ demonize it in movies like Final Destination and other horror films.  Death, for many of us, is the only real force of evil we believe in.

The strange thing about such attitudes is this: since the beginning of time, every human being has died (Christians would say that this is not a permanent condition).  Our days are numbered as it were (Ps 39:4).  In the hospital I would sometimes get to chat with people who had faced the concept of their death and had come to terms with it.  These conversations were a privilege.  People who are dying have a remarkable clarity about their lives.  It is as though all their concerns, all the things we worry about on a regular basis,  have passed through an emotional furnace.  The only ones that remain are the important ones; almost exclusively, they want to talk about their family, where they stand with God, and the meaning of it all.  I wonder if we could handle living with such honesty.

The Othe J Z- What I learned from a man named John Zizioulas

John Zizioulas is a Greek Orthodox theologian and is now the bishop of Pergamom (so says Wikipedia).  I recently read a book he wrote called Being as Communion. The entire book would be too difficult to summarize but to be honest you probably wont want to read it unless you have studied theology or philosophy.  The thing I found so intriguing is that he is basically writing theology from the standpoint of existentialist philosophy.

The existentialist asks questions like “why does life have meaning? or does it at all?” etc.   For many of them the question of freedom is a very important issue.  Namely, if humans aren’t free then perhaps attaining freedom is the real meaning of existence.  However, the fundamental problem for people like Camus, or Doestoevsky is that human beings have no choice in their birth. If we have no liberty in this most basic area, whether to exist or not, then perhaps we have no freedom at all.  Suicide obviously represents a degree of freedom, in that you can choose the moment of your death and exercise your freedom over existence by ceasing to be.  Obviously this represents a paradox.

The existentialist philosophers, however, have shown, in our day- with an intellectual honesty that makes them worthy of the name philosopher- that, humanly speaking, the person as an absolute ontological freedom remains a quest without fulfillment.  Between the being of God and that of man remains the gulf of creaturehood, and creaturehood means precisely this: the being of each human person is given to him; consequently, the human person is not able to free himself absolutely from his ‘nature’ or substance,’ from what biological laws dictate to him…for man is his existence itself: how can a man be considered absolutely free when he can not but do other than accept his existence?… The disturbing words which Dostoevsky puts in Kirilov’s mouth sound an alarm: if the only way of exercising absolute ontological freedom for a man is suicide then freedom leads to nihilism; the person is shown to be the negator of ontology

What is the solution then?  How can a person gain power over their own birth?  Zizioulas very cleverly answers this philosophical question with the words of Jesus in John 3 “you must be born from above,” born again.  He then takes John 14:6 literally claiming that Jesus is in fact the truth of being

not just because he is an epistemological principle which explains the universe, but because he is life and the universe of beings finds its meaning in its incorruptible existence in Christ, who takes up into himself (anakefaleosis) the whole of creation and history.  Being is inconceivable outside of life and because of this the ontological nature of truth resides in the idea of life… When we are told that Adam died because he fell by making himself into God- i.e. the ultimate reference point of existence- is something on the level of ontology not psychology.  Death intervenes not as the result of a punishment for an act of disobedience but as a result of the individualization of nature to which the whole cosmos is subjected.  In other words there is an intrinsic connection between death and the individualization into which we are born (which shows)… what it means to have a life, which is not the true life (zoe aletheia).  To be saved from the fall, therefore, means essentially that truth should be fully applied to existence, thereby making life something true, i.e. undying… When Christ says He is the truth and at the same time the life of the world, He introduces into truth a content carrying ontological implications.  It the truth saves the world it is because of life… Christology is founded precisely on the assertion that only the trinity can offer to created being the genuine base for personhood and hence salvation.  This means that Christ must be God in order to be savior, but it also means something more: He must be not an individual but a true person… True life, without death, is ontologically impossible for us as long as our being is ontologically determined by our creaturehood… Christ is the truth precisely because he because in Himself He shows not just being, but the persistence, the survival of being; through the resurrection, Christology shows that created existence can be so true that not even human freedom can suppress it… Truth and being are existentially identified only in Christ’s resurrection, where freedom is no longer fallen

Human beings are always looking for meaning.  I find that in Jesus life attains real significance.  John Zizioulas helped me think about this in a new way.