Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Happiness in the eye of the porcelain god?

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
Here's lookin at you, kid.
(Photo by Auntie P via Flickr)
While perusing my work-related social media feeds the other day, this title brought me up short...

Binge Drinking Makes Students Happy

The story on Inside Higher Ed references a recent sociological study in which college-aged students who engage in binge drinking report themselves to be "happier" than people who do not engage in such practices. Interestingly, class/status is brought into the study, reporting that wealthy white males in the Greek fraternity system are especially happy in their binge drinking practices. (While comments are usually the - ahem - toilet bowl of the internet, the comments on this story are actually worth the time.)

But I put emphases and scare quotes above to draw out what constitutes happiness these days: Subjective emotional states reported by the sovereign individual. Happiness in a Christian moral sense cannot be thought of, much less experienced, on such individualistic grounds.

First let me say that I am not a teetotaler, so this isn't an argument against the consumption of alcohol per se. Drunkenness, however, is sinful not for its own sake but for how it numbs, distracts, and sometimes leads to behaviors that are destructive to self, relationships, and communities, sometimes fatally.

This point was lifted out by my pastor, Phil Kniss, as he preached this past Sunday on the passage in Ephesians 5...
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the body of Christ, happiness is inescapably social and yet simultaneously tied to personal fidelity (fide/faith). Happiness in the Christian body is also connected to purpose in a way that individual emotional states at discrete moments in time - disconnected as they are from the larger flux and flow of life - are not. The purpose of God's redemption of all creation is the purpose to which Christian happiness (and all of the Christian life) must be subjected.

As theologian Ellen T. Charry notes in her work, happiness is also connected the whole of God's creation. If God's creation is good and human creatures are ordered to provide care for that good creation, happiness cannot be divorced from the flourishing of all of God's good work, human and otherwise. When the earth weeps, we weep.

Anthony Esolen, English professor at Providence College and author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, has noted that festivity is a natural human virtue, a response to the gift from without. Theologically understood, this can be seen as the drive to worship, or to love, a point resonant with James K.A. Smith's work in Desiring the Kingdom.

So happiness in a robust Christian sense will not be found in, for instance, binge drinking and the cultural institutions which nurture its practice, such as college campuses. Rather, our happiness can only be found in God, through participation in a different "campus," i.e. the church, whose practices rightly order and direct our natural desire to party. (Humans as party animals? Hmm...)

(My thanks to Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation for inviting me to listen with them to a series of interviews from the Mars Hill Audio journal, an episode dedicated to happiness, and where my references to Charry and Esolen originated.)

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