Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Aiming at happiness in mortal versus eternal life

Something that used to puzzle me as an atheist was why Christians seemed to reject the goal of maximum happiness in this mortal life while asserting that the goal ought-to-be maximum happiness in the after-life.

It seemed to me that if happiness was the goal, then proximate happiness - the sure and certain happiness of here-and-now, today and tomorrow, was preferable than the uncertain (and perhaps non-existent) happiness after death.

At any rate, I couldn't understand why if attaining happiness in Heaven and avoiding suffering in Hell was the legitimate goal of a Christian; then why was it that happiness in mortal life was regarded with such indifference?

There seemed to me to be a double standard at work with respect to happiness. Was happiness a good things, or not? If it was - then why was uncertain later happiness to be given a higher priority than sure and immediate happiness?

I assumed that what was going-on was some kind of concealed politically-motivated manipulation, designed to encourage sacrifice: for example, to make the working classes accept their miserable lot in life, or to encourage soldiers to risk death.

What I did not recognise was that this was a very modern and utopian argument. To Men of the past it was obvious - so obvious that it seldom was stated - that mortal life was intrinsically a tragic thing.

For the ancients; all that we value, absolutely everything - goodness, beauty, family, our-selves - would be lost in time; would be changed, corrupted, would die and be lost altogether.

Suffering and sadness was a simple fact; and was unavoidable. The Good News of Jesus was that this suffering and sdaness need not be inevitable and forever - there was something better... if we wanted it.

The modern attitude, that I used to have, was implicitly that mortal life was naturally (or, if not, then potentially, achievably) a kind of utopia; and that the suffering and miseries were actively caused by choices of Men.

In other words, with modern utopianism there was a denial of what had previously been regarded as the immovable fact of the sad, transitoriness, bitterness of mortal life.

So Christians, by their focus on the hypothetical after-life, are seen by 'moderns' as choosing Not to make real mortal life good (or better); whereas atheists are seen as focusing their best efforts on the place where they could achieve the most good: the material actuality of of daily existence.

So the Good News of Jesus, that we can have an eternal life in Heaven, is regarded by typical modern people (such as my former self) as a distraction from the proper business of living: which is the progressive, Leftist project of alleviating mortal life by means of changing the structure of society.

It is assumed that the proper implementation of a socialist-type society can (and should) abolish the ancient, fundamental tragedy of the transience of mortal life. 


Anonymous said...

The problem is that as a Christian, you do not (primarily) choose life, however good or everlasting, but God; life everlasting is only a side effect of that choice.

If your primary motivation is anything created - included eternal life (or whatever you believe it may include) - you are still more or less in the wrong.

In this regard, the leftist 'objection' is somehow right - choosing happiness after death is not that different from choosing worldly happiness right here and now. The solution is that you are not supposed to choose this kind of happiness, here or somewhere else; you are supposed to choose God, period.


Bruce Charlton said...

@L'C - Well, no. I don't share your metaphysical distinction between created and uncreated - by my understanding we, like Jesus, like his Father, are all uncreated in the sense that we are co-eternal in our essence. The difference is that only God (our Heavenly Parents) were in origin divine parents, and the rest of us in this creation are their children, 'procreated' by them in some literal but unknown way.

Anyway, the everlasting life aspect matters now because - probably - most Western people deny it as a possibility; and quite a few people seem not to want it; actually to prefer some kind of annihilation of self - either a Nirvana state of bliss, or simply nothingness.

Of course, if that is what they want then probably that is what they will get; but they may prefer Life Everlasting if they can understand it, and if they are drawn to it by Love.

I believe that some people are drawn to consider and accept the gift of Jesus by their love of a 'human' (e.g. a spouse, child, parent, friend) - if/ when they know that that human is in Heaven, and waiting for them. This is a way that one Christian may 'save' other people - by mutual love.

Therefore, when discussing such matters it is useless to just say 'God' - because it means nothing to people, or else they will have gross misconceptions of what it means (compared with what Jesus is actually offering).

They/ we need to know specifics about the nature of the gift we are being offered. These are described in teh Fourth Gospel - and/ or they may be intuited directly from the Holy Ghost.

Behind this we need to keep in mind that God wants every person possible to accept his gift, and (as creator) will do everything possible to enable that to happen. Everything *possible* is not Anything; but it is still a great deal.

BruceB said...

I suppose I see life as tragic and happiness in this world as elusive (sensual pleasure and material goods never made me happy)*. We will suffer loss as atheists or Christians. At least, as a Christian, that suffering is only temporary, there’s better things ahead, I can comprehend the “why?” behind the suffering and it will be used for something better. The suffering becomes tolerable under Christianity. I was not told this by Christians, it was simply intutitive.

* I think you are correct in focusing on loving, family relatiionships – this is the strength of the LDS position I suppose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - You remind me that a special aspect of the Christian message, although I think there is also an intuitive knowledge of it; is that the special happiness of this like (the Joy, it may be called) is permanent, and we take these beyond death. This is because we remain our-selves.

I quite often come back to this especially Christian insight that mortal life is very important, as well as being a temporary phase. Ancient deism, Hinduism, Buddhism - and some variants of Christianity, indeed - often regard mortal life as *nothing but* illusion, sin, suffering. Humanism has it that mortal life is everything, and there is nothing else.

Christianity locates vital value in mortal life, even though it is temporary - and even though most mortal lives have not got beyond the womb.

I think the deep reason for this value is that mortal life is the only route to resurrected Life eternal. As I understand Jesus to be telling Nicodemus, we must be born again - that is die and be norn again - to become Sons and Daughters of God. It cannot be done any other way.

William Wildblood said...

If you use the word happiness to describe what we experience in this mortal life then the afterlife promises something qualitatively different to which mere happiness is a pitiful shadow. So for Christians to value the afterlife over this one, even a happiness-filled mortal life, makes perfect sense.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I agree now; but when I was an atheist I regarded such arguments as assuming that which remained to be proven.

Seijio Arakawa said...

I found William Blake's "Man was made for Joy and Woe" an immensely clarifying maxim (thanks to William Wildblood for blogging about 'Auguries of Innocence').

Personally I never regarded earthly happiness that was fragile and doomed to end as adequate -- regardless of whether I believed in an afterlife or not. That this is not obvious to other people may in fact be due to weakness of Desire -- people don't know what they want, don't particularly want anything, so they never confront the earthly impossibility of getting all they want.

On the other hand, when I hear 'something qualitatively different to which mere happiness is a pitiful shadow' I become a bit wary and want to qualify the assertion. I encountered phrases like this most often as a sleight-of-hand in superficially Catholic arguments about why earthly relationships and desires are unimportant, because all of them can be substituted with God. That is a Fallacy of Fungibility which implicitly ranks all joys as utilitarian and numeric -- the loss of one joy can be substituted by another joy of equivalent value, and God is an infinity sign. In reality, the things that bring us happiness are all incommensurable and God is a prerequisite to enjoying them without despair.

(The other great fallacy of fungibility is that of Particular Judgment, which implies that an evil act can be measured and numerically balanced out by a good act.)

Bruce Charlton said...


Perhaps the main way in which mainstream modern people do have the awareness of the fragility of life is in relation to ageing, and sexual attraction. At the very least, the archetypal citizen 'needs' to escalate efforts to 'stay young' (i.e. in superficial appearance, in publicly observable behaviour) with each passing half-decade, up to extraodinarily high levels for some people.

And yet all are defeated sooner or later; and much sooner than they acknowledge in the sense that the project is primarily one of generating a systematic self-delusion - on the basis that if you can convince yourself, then others will be convinced too.

I believe that - in broad terms - the reason why modern people are longaevus is so that they will eventually be confronted by the reality of their mortality, which is a powerful (albeit far from irresistible) incentive to examine one's own hedonic materialism.

BTW - I never use the word 'fungible'. As a word it seems evil to me! Because of its connotations that include grotesque fungus on a rotting tree stump, and sense of things crumbling away due to corruption. Plus, of course, not many people would understand it, being a technical term from economics. Perhaps, too, it is a weasel word; trying to provide a gloss of objectivity to a cruder concept such as equality, or The Same As.

William Wildblood said...

Seijio, I wasn't meaning to run down earthly happiness. I'm all for it! On reflection, the word pitiful was misplaced as it implies that earthly happiness has no value which is clearly nonsense. But I do think heavenly joy is of a different order altogether though we can sometimes get a foretaste of that in this world.

Seijio Arakawa said...

@BC, well, if 'fungible' is an ugly word, it's certainly an ugly word for an ugly concept -- perhaps appropriate to describe the philosophy of someone dishonestly trying to 'fudge' (funge?) things by substituting one incommensurable for another.

@William, from the examples of various saints, I believe some people do experience the fulness of Heavenly joy on Earth, albeit it may not be experienced continuously and does not come with the trappings of Heavenly power we may associate with it (consciously or unconsciously). Indeed joy may come amidst the most unpleasant earthly circumstances -- I still like that line of Wm. Blake's "Man was made for Joy and Woe".

Of course, I do associate Heaven in my own mind with a lot of fairy-tale happenings but these are, strictly speaking, 'nice to haves' compared to the most important things which people already attain even in this imperfect world. But while death remains ahead of us, perhaps it's correct to call that attainment a 'foretaste' even though the essential aspect is already there.