Fallen humanities ability to make itself unhappy is perhaps one of our greatest accomplishments. And I use the word great sarcastically. The overly optimistic goal of a utopia based on a Humanity that only gets better has run into the gutter. The 20th Century with the arrival of the industrial revolution and the unprecedented advance of technology and thought has brought with it the bloodiest time in human history, more wars, more genocides as we have learned to kill each other off on ever greater scales and with efficiency and precision.
As I write this and think about this I do so in my human viewpoint which is extremely limited along with all my biases’ and sinful inclinations. In looking at this subject of human happiness we all already know, at least most of us who claim to be Christian that living in sin and denying God results in our overall unhappiness. We in America have gone the route albeit very quickly to a wicked, depraved and sinful nation. And our devolution is not much different than what Israel has done on and off throughout history. In our case a candle that burns twice as fast burns half as long.
America has been gifted by God to do great good and yes allowed the choice of doing great evil in the world as well. Like Rome we have shaped history and continue to do so. Human life is extremely complex even when we understand to some degree as Christians God’s overarching meticulous providence and Sovereignty, we are at a loss to comprehend. God did not create us with the cognitive ability or need to know all things.
In our daily muddling around we resist the more transcendent qualities of life available to us in favor of the sinful and mundane. C.S. Lewis said it well: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy has offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses
This post will not help you be happy or find joy nor will anything except Christ and the Holy Word. I can point you toward joy as I point myself but that is all.
Even many Christians have bought into the secular and sinful interpretations of what life and reality are. In the Movie “Tenet”, a brilliant movie from Christopher Nolan we are presented with an Atheistic/Secular worldview as the character Neil played by Robert Pattison says “"What's Happened, Happened, It's An Expression Of Faith In The Mechanics Of The World, It's Not An Excuse For Doing Nothing." An expression of faith in the mechanics of the world brings us to materialism at best a dualist view of creation neither of which allows humans to flourish.
America is identified as a Christian country. Many people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian. Non-Christians will say America is Christian which distinguishes them from most of the culture. There is also many demographic Christians in North America because of immigration from countries that are also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us declare it publicly and privately. We then carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world. But do we then contemplate the impact that has come about from associating our precious Lord with the ignorance, intolerance, and materialism that is so prevalent in America today?
In her excellent book “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought” (link) Maryanne Robinson gets right to the point “somehow we feel increasingly sunk in a world of mere things, in a hard-edged reality that disallows imagination except to exact tribute from it, in portraits which assert its own power and ferocity, or in interludes and recreations which concede by their triviality that only Reality matters” When Madonna was singing her hit song (1984) Material Girl: “Cause we are living in a material world and I am a material girl, you know that I am living in a material world and I am a material girl” she was actually describing our culture at the time and even more so now.
Our wealth has made material goods our primary layer of reality and the treadmill lifestyle to acquire them has at least until the pandemic been the norm. Thank you, Lord, for the pandemic! What Robinson points to is that the transcendent reality of our lives cannot function with objects as the focus. Christ told us that we must give up everything to follow him which runs against our current mindset. Yes, God said in Ecclesiastes that we are to enjoy what God has given us, but the commandment still stands not to make idols of the good gifts he has given us.
“Becoming lost in a static and monotonous world of objects excludes room.
for imagination or removes the ability to conceive of images and concepts that are not based on.
interactions with the material world, which simultaneously restricts an individual.
understanding of reality and flattens one’s conception of “self” because they are grounded in a reality weighted with concreteness.” Maryanne Robinson
I am an arts/literature person, gifted with the ability to draw, paint, write fiction etc. yet for most of my life even after a stint as an art teacher in public school I have repeatedly been discouraged from using imagination. We do live in a pragmatic world, yet the Arts have been proven time and again to allow us to comprehend and embrace their own self-expression. Self-expression helps us understand our personality and showcases individual traits and gifts. There are many ways that people can express themselves, art is by far the most effective and quickest way to get to know one another. Imagination and self-expression by painting canvases, dancing or acting, art provides a way for people to openly communicate their ideas, thoughts, and opinions visually, thereby showing the world some of their authentic spiritual and emotional selves. This is the main reason preschools/kindergartens promote children participating more in the arts, as it allows the adults to better comprehend their character and dispositions.
When I taught Art K-5 I encouraged working outside of the box, thinking beyond the natural uses of things and how we could use them differently than intended. This was made manifest when children would breakdown everyday objects and reused them to make something new. Or use an eraser to subtract pencil from paper.
Another way we have embraced, and internalized materialism is when people define and shape their individuality through their interactions with objects such as wearing the right shoe or driving a certain brand of car helps individuals to conceptualize “self.” We all know or should know that if we have our identity as a person bound up with things and the things go away (which they will) then we become unhinged and unable to function normally.
In our world and culture of expressive individualism we have cut ourselves off from the transcendent reality and benefits of life. As a secular materialistic culture, we then are at a loss to cope with all the associated emotional and mental emptiness when our means of generating income to buy things which our identity is attached as has happened to many in the pandemic. If we believe the statistics Sixty-four percent report extreme loneliness; 23 percent have an anxiety disorder and 20 percent have clinical depression; 30 percent take psychotropic drugs to manage and function in daily life. The suicide rate in America has climbed 35 percent in the past two decades and has spiked during the pandemic.
“In our culture “to say that behavior is aberrant is much more powerfully coercive among us than to say an action is wrong. It implies the behavior is not really willed or controlled, and this undermines the self-confidence of the offending person. It also excuses him from responsibility, though, curiously, those taken to be the cause of his illness–his parents, usually–are assumed to have caused it through freely chosen and straightforwardly reprehensible behavior, for which blame, and punishment are just and therapeutic. This makes no sense, and no one cares.” (P. 83): “I suggest that, for us, the sense of sickness has replaced the sense of sin, to which it was always near allied, and that while we are acutely aware of the difficulties surrounding notions of good and evil, we ignore, though they are manifest, the equally great difficulties surrounding notions of sickness and health, especially as these judgments are applied to behavior. Antebellum doctors described an illness typical of enslaved people sold away from their families, which anyone can recognize as rage and grief. But by medicalizing their condition, the culture was able to refuse the meaning of their suffering.” Facing Reality – Maryanne Robinson, pages 82-83
I italicized above and bolded it here for emphasis: “I suggest that, for us, the sense of sickness has replaced the sense of sin, to which it was always near allied, and that while we are acutely aware of the difficulties surrounding notions of good and evil, we ignore, though they are manifest, the equally great difficulties surrounding notions of sickness and health, especially as these judgments are applied to behavior.
We treat the normal everyday challenges, frustrations and sufferings as an illness to be treated and medicated. In doing so we cut ourselves off from what living means Our story becomes a tragedy to be cured and not lived out to God’s Glory.
In our perceived decline in purpose and imagination we always seem to be lacking a meaningful standard of change. Where are we in our beliefs as the Body of Christ? How can we change if we do not know where we have been and where we are? How can we know there has been decline if we cannot establish a baseline? All we really need to do is look at the current fear and despair in our culture at large. We are a Godless culture. In Leviticus 26 God makes it clear what condition the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from God: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.”
When we forget God, who is our only real assurance in this world we begin to make irrational responses and judgements based on irrational fears. Our fear then obscures our judgement about what really is a threat and what is not. You see we have lost our imagination which we use within our faith and within our lives to access the transcendental reality of prayer and relationship with Christ. That is why so many young people seem to worship music, it provides a transcendental experience they can get nowhere else.
“Happiness, pagan and Christian philosophers agreed, requires something more than technique or self-help; it requires the transformation of the person that comes with the acquisition of virtue: wisdom, prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Wisdom gives us a clear vision of what is profoundly good, prudence allows us to deliberate well so as to attain and maintain that vision, justice to realize it in our actions, and courage and temperance to preserve it in the face of fears and temptations. Acquiring virtue is not about hacking oneself or engaging in other forms of self-manipulation; it is about the proper habituation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and desires so that one becomes existentially ready to seek what is truly good and beautiful. In this view, there is a truth about the human desire for happiness, which is that it can either be properly directed toward the possession of what is beautiful and good, or it can be improperly directed, remaining within the prison of the self and closed off from transcendence.” Taking Humanity Seriously – Jennifer Frey (link)
As a creature made in the image of God, we have been gifted with many things not the least which is our imagination. We must all learn to appreciate the beauty and depth of our humanity given to us by our creator and love once again being alive blessed with the privilege of acknowledging and worshiping our Savior Christ Jesus!