Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: God and the Art of Happiness

In her previous book By the Review of Your Minds (1997), Ellen Charry constructively proposes that theology has a pastoral function and should serve human flourishing. In the process of making her case, she demonstrates that “classical doctrinal theology” was motivated by this purpose. Now, in her latest book, God and the Art of Happiness, she picks up on her previous argument and more narrowly pursues it with the notion of happiness. Her attention turns to this topic “when [her] beloved husband and companion of forty years died an untimely and pointless death" (p. ix). She laments that much theological reflection on grief and suffering focuses on the traumatic experience and questions surrounding God’s presence in the midst of pain. Charry takes a different tack. She connects the pursuit of happiness to the reality of pain. And, she does so by theologically constructing a holistic approach to happiness. Charry suggests that within Christian theology “happiness has been primarily construed in terms of eschatology.” So, from this perspective, “attending to temporal happiness,” she argues, “is at least beside the point.” 


In her proposal, Charry coins a new term. Picking up on the Hebrew notion of happiness expressed by the term ašrê, she uses the term asherism. This refers to happiness or to blessedness that is found in the pursuit of obedience to—what Charry calls—“edifying divine commands” (pg. xi), and this type of obedience makes one wise. Such commands are edifying, she notes, because they are given within God’s covenantal relationship with his people. So, Charry argues that happiness is pursued in both covenantal and communal contexts—for healing comes through covenantal obedience and those who are being healed are strengthened to heal others, and the impetus for happiness is a reframed eschatology. She writes, “Happiness is a realizing eschatology: it is the intensification of spiritual maturity in which happiness expands and deepens as people become spiritually stronger and better able to contribute to their own and the world’s well-being” (254-255)

In the first part of her book, Charry surveys the contributions of key theological voices on happiness. In these chapters, she covers the western philosophical approach to happiness, for this is the philosophical context from which her theological formulation arises. Then, she summarizes the contributions of Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, and a number of modern thinkers (starting with the 16th Century Reformers)—concluding with a chapter on Joseph Butler’s moral psychology. She summarizes her survey at the end of Part I—writing: 

Augustine’s doctrine of happiness is primarily theological, eschatological, and conceptual, with room for atheological, temporal, and material happiness – unstable as it may be. Boethius’s teaching is theological, temporal, and noetic, not eschatological or material. Aquinas followed Augustine’s theological, eschatological, noetic precedent, but he made a small place for theological, temporal, and material happiness.

Fitting Butler into this schema is not easy, because his treatment of happiness is inadvertent as he pursues another project. His understanding of self-love does not recognize happiness as a side effect of obedience to conscience. That remains outside his theological purview, though it is easily incorporated into his doctrine of self-love without damage to his separation of happiness form self-love. Still, we may conclude that his teaching on happiness is material and temporal, and mildly theological to the extent that he recognizes the joy in loving God. He does not ground temporal happiness in obedience to God.

The theological conversation on happiness has staggered across the centuries, with the theologians addressing salient issues of their days. As I have noted…this foray into the subject seeks to address two theological concerns: the heavy emphasis on future eschatology at the expense of temporal, realizing eschatology in the classical tradition, and the academic triumph of theology in the modern university that has obscured the practical task of theology. The first concern, causing an underemphasis on temporal happiness, resulted in the hyper-Augustinian Jansenism of Pascal, which, while it was condemned by the church, has left tracks that make Christians skittish about temporal material happiness, fearing it is untoward from a Christian perspective. The second concern, for the consequence of the scientizing of theology within the theoretical structures of modern academic convention, has made it difficult for theology to fulfill its proper calling of helping people in their life with God. (pg. 152-153)

In Part II, Charry engages in an exegetical study of selected biblical texts in order to round out some of the weaknesses that she identified in Part I. She begins by examining the Pentateuch, giving attention to the Holiness Code in Leviticus and Deuteronomy's focus on reverence as predicating happiness. Then, she explores the vocabulary of happiness in the Psalms and discusses the vision of "reverent obedience" found in the Proverbs. Charry turns to examine the Gospel of John, where she suggests John provides a picture of “what obedience to divine command looks like" (p. 240). She writes, “in John’s Gospel it becomes loving intimacy with God. Eternal life with God is to abide in Jesus’ wise guidance. By submitting to it, we experience the wisdom that strengthens, empowers, and liberates the soul for a happy life” (p. 241).  She interprets the Christology and soteriology of John's Gospel with an Augustinian lens (p. 254). Thus, she argues happiness is possible only when love is restored (p. 243-249). Charry helpfully summarizes her exegetical considerations. 

The various patterns of life that Scripture intends to draw the reader into drive toward one goal: organizing ourselves around life in God that we may enjoy ourselves as we are buoyed by the love, beauty, goodness, and wisdom of God, which hoist us aloft. That the visions they paint frame the issue differently is a great strength rather than a conundrum, for here specificity would be stultifying, since the ways in which God is to be enjoyed are inexhaustible. The Pentateuch, Psalms, and Proverbs suggest that living into salvation is incremental. John’s Gospel, by contrast, talks of achieving eternal life as a dramatic commitment to leave one’s trusted way of life and embrace Jesus. It is far more nebulous – but perhaps even more passionate – in its call. Through struggle, confusion, internal dissension, resistance, and neglect, all call their readers into a beautiful and fulfilling life as the people of God. Perhaps John 15:11 summarizes the asherist ethic most elegantly: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (p. 250)

The book concludes with a final chapter that pulls together the main points of discussion in the preceding chapters. Charry formulates in this chapter a theologically rigorous moral psychology, where she notes that Christian healing is from our sins and is also from the harm done to us in being sinned against. She contributes to our understanding of how we are healed on both accounts, but the second point is unique—for, as she says, “[t]he tradition has not generally taken account of the harm done to those being sinned against” (p. 251).

To address both, she follows an Augustinian therapeutic soteriology, where healing occurs by clinging to the part of us that cannot be “theologically damaged”—the image of God. In the sacrificial death of Jesus, she argues, we come to understand this theological truth. Charry explains, “Through these incidents, eternal life becomes clearer. In dying to protect those who abandon him, comforting them in advance, and caring for them beyond the grave, Jesus teaches those who watch his self-love straighten others’ ability to love themselves well that the imago Dei may be reconstructed. Both perpetrators and victims of damaged love may drink at this well” (p. 258). She goes on to explain how, saying, “Jesus heals his beloved disciples by instructing him in what it mans now to love Jesus.” (p. 258)
God and the Art of Happiness is a study in Christian Psychology. This book leads us to do careful theological reflection on the dynamics of change in the human soul and in giving us a picture of the life God has for his image bearers. Charry also does a compelling job in explaining how God initiates the restorative and redeeming work of the human soul.

I commend this book, for its depth of reflection and for providing a viable theological framework for pursuing the goal of the book—human flourishing by experiencing the art of happiness in this life. However, I find Charry’s treatment of the atonement incomplete.  In my view, Charry pulls up short when explaining the power of the atonement in our healing. Her discussion on the atonement does not include the “penal” implications of our healing. It is doubtful whether her proposal works theologically without it. That critique is not to take anything away from this helpful and stimulating book, but it is meant to encourage you to consider this question as you this book.     

Keith Whitfield
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

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