The Pursuit of HappinessPosted on: April 6, 2021, by : David
I’ve lost count of the number of times my theological reflection has been sparked by a Leunig cartoon. It happened again this past week! Here’s the brilliant and topical cartoon that appeared on the Michael Leunig Appreciation Group Facebook page last Monday:
The Church can be such a serious place, can it not? Known more for what it’s against than what it’s for; more for its ‘though shalt nots’ than its ‘just do its’; more for its rules than its love.
How did that happen? How did a faith system founded in justice and love, a faith system intended to be life-giving, end up being so apparently life-denying? My theory: it all started with Good Friday! Or, more accurately, with the early church’s unhealthy fixation on Good Friday and its themes of sacrifice, atonement, judgement for sin, and death. The early Christian Church so idealised – even idolised – Good Friday that they adopted its cruel, horrific, jarring emblem – the cross – as their logo! It is probably no surprise that a religious organisation that gathers around such a symbol would move, over time, in the direction of solemnity and sorrow, of seriousness and piety. And before long, we find ourselves worshipping the motifs of sacrifice, self-deprivation, self-deprecation, even (historically) self-flagellation – often to the extent of glorifying misery!
Now I’m possibly over-stating the situation, but I do think that an over-emphasis on Good Friday – on the crucifixion and death of Jesus – has created a religious culture that is too-often miserable.
If you are familiar with the movie Babette’s Feast you’ll know what I’m pointing to. In the movie, Babette, a French housemaid who has settled in a Puritan village, invites the villagers to a banquet, a feast that she has prepared to say thank you to them for their welcome to her. The Puritan villagers are horrified at the extravagance, the indulgence of the feast, but they accept her invitation, not wanting to offend her or to demean her generosity. But they accept the invitation only after determining that they will not allow themselves to enjoy it!
Is that not a caricature of so much Christian religious history?
Which takes us back to the cartoon – instead of a cross that implies not only ‘wrong and loss’ but denial and judgement, why not a tick that implies ‘yes’: permission and liberty and life?!
These are the motifs of Easter Day, of Resurrection Day, are they not? Why did that not become the symbol of the Christian faith, the logo of the Church? Why are we not on about life and delight more than denial and death? Why is the ‘holiest’ public holiday, when all the shops are closed, Good Friday rather than Easter Day, the day of resurrection and new life?
Now, lest I be seen as more heretical than I intend to be, let me acknowledge that the cross certainly has a place in Christian theology! Life is not all bright and breezy – tough times, moments of denial and sacrifice, are indeed part of our journey. The path to the empty tomb goes via the cross. But too many Christian people get stuck at the foot of the cross and decide to set up camp there. They may make occasional forays into the light and delight beyond it, but somehow, they always wind up back at the base camp, where life is serious and solemn.
What if our default position was not with the women weeping at the cross, or with the disciples huddled together in their darkened room, but with Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome at the entrance to the empty tomb? You can read the story at Mark 16:1-8. Would we not sense their wonder and awe, and, like them, launch out from that experience with joy and delight and vitality and life!
Which brings me to the thought I want to leave with you today: that we are not a people of the cross, but a people of the empty tomb, a resurrection community. We are not a people preoccupied with darkness and death, with sacrifice and sin, with judgement and loss. We are a people focussed on light and life, on delight and wonder, on beauty and happiness!
Consider the possibility that the purpose of life is happiness. You may question that assertion, because our religious experience often equates the pursuit of happiness with selfishness, self-satisfaction, perhaps even with so-called ‘sinful’ practices. After all, religion, surely, is about self-denial, obedience, self-sacrifice, and piety, isn’t it?
Perhaps, but the calling card of Jesus is more about contentment, fulfilment, harmony, peace, liberation – in short, happiness!
Our problem is that we misconstrue happiness as something we ‘achieve’, something we ‘gain’. That’s the consumerist view of happiness: that it is something we seek from outside ourselves.
The gospel understanding of happiness is that it is something we are – it’s an aspect of our essential and unchanging nature. Anyone who has experienced the reality of the Risen Christ, anyone who has communed deeply with the Spirit of Creation – through a moving sunset or sunrise, through the wondrous song of a bird, through the gentle colours of the rainbow, through the loving embrace of a kindred soul, through the kindness of a friend or stranger – anyone who has thus experienced the reality of the Risen Christ, can surely never live without the ever-present awareness of such happiness, without that seed of delight and joy being deeply embedded in their essential nature, without holding it forever in the depth of their soul.
Sure, the lived human experience is characterized by a fluctuation of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations: undulating, perhaps alternating, experiences of pleasure and pain. But our fundamental predisposition to Happiness is not threatened or diminished by the fluctuating feelings and emotions of our lived human experience. Rather, the essence of Happiness enables us to integrate and move beyond those experiences of pain and sorrow, because we have a deep assurance that, ultimately, everything is alright. As the mystic Julian of Norwich put it: All will be well. All will be well. All manner of things will be well.
In my reflection on this during the week, I wondered whether I could go so far as to suggest that Happiness is another name for God. That the very nature of God is Happiness – complete, whole, timeless, content, unlacking, untroubled, undisturbed, serene, peaceful and joyful: deep Happiness. If that were so, then to live in the “image of God” would be simply to dwell in happiness.
You can picture how different the world might be if our ‘mission’ as the Church were to be characterised as the pursuit of happiness – happiness for ourselves and for others. For it follows that my happiness will be enriched by seeing happiness in those around me. If I am truly and deeply happy, I will also strive to make others happy. Oh, for a world so striven!!
This is the Easter message in a nutshell: don’t worry, don’t be down on yourself or others, (i.e., don’t get stuck on Good Friday); rather, be happy (run from the empty tomb to meet the Risen Christ in Galilee – Galilee of all places, that everyday place with which you are so familiar).
Christ is risen! Let us be deeply and persistently happy!