Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mother Teresa, Pascal and Kierkegaard.

mother_teresa.jpg There's been much press about the upcoming release of the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light regarding Mother Teresa's "dark night of the soul". 


The good news is that this revelation of her personal questions about her faith has caused a lot of folks to reevaluate what it means to have faith in the first place.

For a long time, the voice of Western evangelicalism has cited the idea attributed to Pascal that "within the human heart there is a God-shaped hole" and chased the misattribution with the misapplication that faith in Christ is the path to happiness.

But first, since I'm a big fan of Pascal, let's get the full Pascal quote, just to make sure we aren't misrepresenting him here.

Pascal did not in fact say that "there is a God-shaped vacuum in all of us." What he said was, "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. . . . And yet, after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. . . . A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform, should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts. . . . he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. He only is our true good, and since we have forsaken him, it is a strange thing that there is nothing in nature which has not been serviceable in taking His place; . . . And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature." (Pensees 6.425)

Thus the hole Pascal speaks of is "happiness shaped". That one can only FIND ultimate happiness in God is a separate question - though in the quoted passage, Pascal does intimate that separately.

The idea that having God in our hearts and lives will lead us to a sense of happiness is deeply engrained in Christian thought at the beginning of the 21st century.  But this concept presents some difficult problems.

Regarding the idea of happiness itself, I think the problem for me personally is in regards more expectations and perspective than to faith.

When I consider my life, then attempt to objectively consider the lives of those around me, I recognize that I have an incredible wealth of fortune in practically every category. I recognize that I am really "living the dream". This simple act of reflection and objective circumspection is often the nudge I need to boost my attitude and my mood. Thus, reflection and circumspection, to me, are essential parts of what it means to find peace and happiness.

It is also instructive to reflect that when evaluated, the happiest people tend not to be the folks with the most physical or temporal wealth - or even, it seems, who live in countries that are democratic, liberal or non-violent. Thus, the happiest people live in Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. Not high on my list of vacation spots. Happiness must reside, ultimately, in things that aren't on the American consumer's shopping list. In fact, the factors that make people happy tend to be (sigh) genetics, marriage, low expectations, faith (religious or not), having and valuing friends.

I think there's a lot to be said about how the consumerist mentality has distorted the message of the gospel over the last century and a half. We've followed the American method of trying to convince people that our "product" is the solution to their need for happiness. Thus, you've gotten all kinds of "marketing distortions" added to the gospel to try to "sell" the gospel as this happiness tonic - things like charismata, health-and-wellness, prosperity, the moral majority/politicization of fundamentalism, etc. are all the results, in part, of trying to "find" something in Christianity that will "sell" to the needs of the "consumer".

Most Christians tend to evangelize based on the idea that God and church will make people happy and meet their needs. But the underlying flaws are at least twofold.

One: it isn't true. While there are certain studies that indicate having faith makes one happier, this isn't limited to Christianity - nor is the happiness solution limited to faith (or even dominated by it).

Two: it sets up an immediately defeatable position. Are we then claiming that folks can't be happy without God or the church? If so, we're going to have a hard time with the message because there's just an abundance of evidence to suggest the contrary.

The message of the church should be living a Christian life - serving others in humility - not because it will win converts, but because it's the right way to live. If this effects people to consider Jesus, all the better - but that's not our problem.

Regarding the second part of my own personal evaluative technique: expectations, I would say that I don't expect my orientation toward God to make me "happy" (whatever that might mean). I expect it to be a part of what makes me more human and more complete, but that may or may not be coincident with personal happiness.

What does all that say about our own "dark nights of the soul"? That they are in all likelihood not at all related to faith, but are more likely related to our circumstances, genetics, attitudes and objective awareness. Focus on these things, and trust that God is still God and is and will be faithful.

In the comments to Al Sturgeon's recent post, Amy Hitt wrote "we will all feel like something is missing in our lives until we get on our unique, purposeful path" . To me, this is what the Good News is about - making me what God intended me to be. Unfortunately, we tend to define that almost entirely in moral/behavioral terms (due to our bent toward legalism and control), rather than in existential terms.

As Kierkegaard said,"[a]nd now, with God's help, I will become myself."


11 comments:

Jason said...

"The message of the church should be living a Christian life - serving others in humility - not because it will win converts, but because it's the right way to live. If this effects people to consider Jesus, all the better - but that's not our problem."

Amen. How then can we begin to steer our churches back to the crux of the gospel?

BKC said...

I appreciate your thoughts about consumerism and the silliness of trying to sell this "Jesus makes you happy" gospel. But this quote:

"The message of the church should be living a Christian life - serving others in humility - not because it will win converts, but because it's the right way to live. If this effects people to consider Jesus, all the better - but that's not our problem."

seems a little much. What exactly is "not our problem"? How do you reconcile baptizing and making disciples with this sort of thinking?

Maybe this is just a wording choice, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. I can appreciate the appeal for purer motives in Christian service but saying that seeing people come to faith is "not our problem" seems a bit much.

Thanks for the post,
Brian

Jason said...

Brian, I had the impression he meant something along the lines of the parable of the sower.

Dan Sanders said...

Wow, Ms. Hitt's other comments struck a particularly deep nerve in me as well.

How about this for simplicity (and I can't believe this is coming from me) - other peoples' souls aren't your problem; yours is.

Now that I've read it, maybe I can believe I said it.

Jeff said...

Brian -

Both Jason's and Dan's comments echo my sentiments. We simply don't have the authority or the right - much less the responsibility - to take on the burden for other people's souls. We are to be lights shining in darkness, but the response people have to that light must be wholly and completely their own. As soon as we enter into "marketing", "selling" or "packaging" the truth of Christ in order to manipulate people's decisions, we have at that moment, lost our Christlikeness. Jesus gave people their proper dominion - allowed them to govern themselves. He lived his life and his message with complete integrity, but there was no coercion, compulsion, begging or marketing of his rhetoric in order to convince others to follow him - in fact, his message often drove people away from him.

I restate my belief that the church's primary mission is not evangelism. Evangelism may or may not be the result of living out Christ's love. But as soon as we confuse those two, historically and without exception, the church has picked up the burden and obligation of the message that rightfully belongs to individuals and to God.

BKC said...

Jeff,
Thanks for responding. Maybe I am just hung up on the way you worded it, I don't know. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote in your comment. But still, "not our problem" seems too strong. I can't see Paul wanting to be all things to all men in order to save a few or being willing to be cursed for the sake of his fellow Hebrews if it "wasn't his problem".

Let me go ahead and say that I understand your reaction against marketing the gospel. Emotional ploys, manipulation or any kind is an offense. But I still say it is not an occasion to say it isn't our problem. Romans 10 is fairly clear that without someone has to bring the good news to people who don't know it. And like I asked earlier, what about Jesus' command to make disciples and baptize?

Brian

Jeff said...

Brian -

I think the difference between your position and mine is not great - and certainly we agree on the major issue.

However, I would challenge you to read carefully through the letters of the NT and decide for yourself if the position that evangelism should be the central mission of the church is a justifiable position based on the overwhelming balance of the NT text.

It can be argued that Jesus' specific challenge was to the folks he was speaking to at that moment, and not necessarily a challenge to all believers at all times and places.

Jason said...

Jeff, I think the NT calls for Christians to evangelize, but not in the form it seems to exist in a lot of churches now. Sharing the story of Christ and serving others is what I interpret evangelism as being based on the NT. But the "marketing" of churches and bastardization of the gospel prevalent now, which you rightfully criticize, is too often what is defined as evangelism now.

Jeff said...

Jason -

Thanks for the comment and, as I said to Brian, I think we are very close in our positions.

However, I would extend to you the same opportunity I did to Brian. Rather than "I think the NT calls for Christians to evangelize", I would ask you to carefully read those texts, collect the passages you think relevant and then review them and see if you believe evangelism in anything like the way it is practiced (as evangelism) in mainline denominations is what is being commanded by the NT texts.

Jason said...

Jeff, maybe I didn't form my last reply well enough, but I'm not really seeing how we're differing on this topic. Earlier you wrote, "We are to be lights shining in darkness, but the response people have to that light must be wholly and completely their own. As soon as we enter into "marketing", "selling" or "packaging" the truth of Christ in order to manipulate people's decisions, we have at that moment, lost our Christlikeness. Jesus gave people their proper dominion - allowed them to govern themselves. He lived his life and his message with complete integrity, but there was no coercion, compulsion, begging or marketing of his rhetoric in order to convince others to follow him - in fact, his message often drove people away from him." I agree.

BKC said...

Jeff, you are right. We aren't far apart on this. I do think Jesus' command extends beyond his immediate audience though. But I also agree with you that modern churches have gone in some strange directions in the name of evangelism and there needs to be a correction.

Thanks for the discussion.

Brian