Portrait of Happy Family In Park
If an opinion poll were to ask Americans to list the nine most important ingredients in the happy life, they would probably give an answer pretty much like the following: First, the most obvious, though not the profoundest ingredient, is probably wealth. If you notice your friend has a big smile on his face today, you most likely would say to him, “What happened to you? Did you just win the lottery?” If that’s what you’d say, it must be because that’s what would put the biggest smile on your face. And let’s face it; money can buy everything money can buy, which is a lot of stuff.
Second might be our culture’s most notable success, the conquest of nature and fortune by science and technology, allowing each of us to be an Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world. Third would probably be freedom from pain. I think few of us would disagree that the single most valuable invention in the entire history of technology has been anesthetics.
Fourth would probably be self-esteem, the greatest good, according to nearly all of our culture’s new class of prophets, the secular psychologists — and secular psychologists are among the most secular of all classes in our society. Fifth might be justice, securing one’s rights. Justice and peace summarize the social ideals of most Americans, the ideals they want for themselves and for the rest of the world.
Sixth, if we are candid, we have to include sex. To most Americans, this is the closest thing to heaven on Earth, that is ecstasy, mystical transcending of the ego — unless they’re surfers. Seventh, we love to win, whether at war, at sports, at games of chance, in business, or even in our fantasies. Our positive self-esteem requires the belief that we are winners, not losers. We want to be successful, not failures.
But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness.
Eighth, we want honor. We want to be honored, accepted, loved, and understood. In our modern egalitarian society, we are honored, not for being superior, but for being one of the crowd. In most ancient societies, one was honored for being different, better, superior, excellent. But we still crave to be honored. Some even want to be famous. All want to be accepted.
Ninth, we want life, a long life and a healthy life. Thomas Hobbes is surely right in saying that fear of violent death, especially painful and early death, is very, very powerful. Your life is not happy if it’s taken from you, obviously.
This all seems so obvious and so reasonable as to be beyond argument. Higher ideals than these are arguable. Some of us seek them and some of us do not. But these nine would seem to be firm and impregnable, universal and necessary. Whoever would deny that they form a part of happiness would be a fool. Whoever would affirm that happiness consisted in their opposites would be insane.
Christ’s Concept of Happiness
Let us now perform a fantastic thought experiment. Let us suppose that there was once a preacher who did teach precisely that insanity, point for point, deliberately and specifically. Perhaps you cannot stretch your imagination quite that far, but I’m going to ask you to stretch it even one step farther. Imagine this man becoming the most famous, beloved, revered, respected, and believed teacher in the history of the world. Imagine nearly everyone in the world, even those who did not classify themselves as his disciples, at least praising his wisdom, especially his moral wisdom, especially the single most famous and beloved sermon he ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of his moral wisdom, which begins with his 180 degree reversal of these truisms.
Perhaps you find this far too incredible to be imaginable. It would be a miracle harder to believe than God becoming a man. It is hard enough to believe that anyone would believe the strange Christian notion that a certain man who began his life as a baby, who had to learn to talk, and ended it as an executed criminal, who bled to death on a cross, and in between got tired and hungry and sorrowful, is God, eternal, beginningless, immortal, infinitely perfect, all-wise, all-powerful, the Creator.
But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness. Perhaps we do not really believe them after all. Perhaps we only believe we believe them. Perhaps we have faith in our faith rather than faith in his teachings.
For, of course, I am referring to Christ’s eight beatitudes which opened his Sermon on the Mount, the most famous sermon ever preached, and the one part of the New Testament that is still held up as central and valid and true and good and beautiful even by dissenters, heretics, revisionists, demythologizers, skeptics, modernists, theological liberals, and anyone else who cannot bring himself to believe all the other claims in the New Testament or the teachings of the Church. These people strain at the gnats but swallow the camel. So let’s look at the camel that they swallow. Perhaps they only seem to swallow it. Perhaps they swallow only their own swallowing, gollumping like Gollum.
To our desire for wealth, Christ says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To our desire for painlessness, he says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” To our desire for conquest, he says, “Blessed are the meek.” To our desire for contentment with ourselves, he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” To our desire for justice, he says, “Blessed are the merciful.” To our desire for sex, he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” To our desire for conquest, he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” To our desire for acceptance, he says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” And to our desire for more life, he offers the Cross. And now this man carrying his cross to Calvary even dares to tell us, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
We say how blessed we are as individuals or as a nation when we have wealth. He says no, you are blessed when you are poor. Poor not only in your bank account, but even more than that, not less, poor down to the depths of your heart, poor in spirit, detached from riches, whether you are physically rich or poor.
When Harvard University invited Mother Teresa to give a commencement address, she shocked them by taking issue with the gracious invitation they sent to her, as “the most famous person in one of the world’s poorest nations, to address the world’s richest nation.” She said no, “India is not a poor nation; India is a very rich nation. She has a wealth of riches, true spiritual riches. And America is not a rich nation. She is a poor nation, in fact, a desperately poor nation. She slaughters her own unborn children.”
Why? Because the mother fears those children will be poor, or will make her poor. The mother fears that she will not be able to afford to have these children, as if children are like cars or computers, calculable items in the household’s economy, consumer goods rather than consumers, objects rather than subjects, part of the circle rather than the center of the circle.
The supposed insanity of Christ’s saying thus turns out to be an illusion of perspective. In a lunatic asylum, from the lunatics’ point of view, it is the sane outsider who is insane. How useful to have a continual supply of outsiders, the saints, to remind us of where we live: east of Eden, in a lunatic asylum. Christ gives us a map to show how far east of Eden we are. The poor in spirit, of course, are not the weak-spirited; they are exactly the opposite. They are strong enough to be detached from riches, that is, from the whole world. They are those who are strong enough not to be enslaved to their desires for the things of this world.
Blessed are Those who Mourn
Well, what could Christ possibly mean by his second beatitude? Weeping and mourning is certainly not an expression of contentment, of the painless state that we all long for as part of happiness. Yet Christ tells us that those who mourn are blessed. How ridiculous for some Bible translations to translate makarios by ‘happy’ in this verse, in a society that means by ‘happy’ simply subjectively satisfied or content. That translation would make Christ say, “Those who weep are content,” which is not a meaningful paradox, but a meaningless self-contradiction.
The poor in spirit, of course, are not the weak-spirited; they are exactly the opposite. They are strong enough to be detached from riches, that is, from the whole world.
Mourning is the expression of inner discontent, of the gap between desire and satisfaction, that is, of suffering. Buddha founded an entire religion on the problem of suffering, or dukkha, and its cause, tanha, or greed, and its cure, the Noble Eightfold Path leading to nirvana, the abolition of both suffering and its source.
Unlike Buddha, Christ came not to free us from suffering, but to transform its meaning, to make it salvific. He came to save us from sin, and he did so precisely by embracing the suffering and death that are the result of sin. It must sound as absurd to a Buddhist to say that suffering is redemptive, as it would sound to a Christian to say that sin is redemptive. Each religion must accuse the other of the most radical practical error: confusing the problem with the solution.
The reason Christ gave for declaring mourners blessed is that they shall be comforted. For in hope this future is made present. It’s true that “one foot up and one foot down, that’s the way to London Town,” whether one is going to London to be crowned king or to be hanged on Traitor’s Gate. But the future destiny of the journey makes everything in the journey itself different, not just accidentally, but essentially, and not just extrinsically, but intrinsically. A journey to be hanged is tragic, even if it is in a comfortable coach. A journey to be crowned, even if it is in an uncomfortable wagon, is glorious.
St. Teresa said, “Looked at from the viewpoint of heaven, the most horribly painful earthly life will turn out to be no more than one night in an inconvenient hotel.” And Christ has the viewpoint of heaven. Christ is the viewpoint of heaven. Christ is heaven. In giving us himself, he gives us heaven, and its viewpoint, that is, his.
Blessed are the Meek
The meek who will inherit the earth, whom Christ calls blessed — who are they? They are not well-known. They do not thirst for honor, fame or glory, and do not usually have it.
We all want to be known. But God, who is supremely blessed, is anonymous. He works by nature most of the time. He hides instead of constantly showing his glory. He came as a baby, and died as an executed criminal, and lets himself be ignored. He lets himself be eaten daily, as what looks like a little piece of bread. He is utterly meek, and utterly blessed. If we are utterly meek, we will be utterly blessed. If we are half meek, we will be half blessed. If we are not meek, we will not be blessed, for God is the source of all blessedness, and God is meek. And the effect cannot be the opposite of the cause.
The meekness that Christ calls blessed in his third Beatitude is indeed in sharp contrast to the desire to conquer nature that Francis Bacon declared to be the new summum bonum, the new meaning of life on earth, and to the desire to conquer fortune that was Machiavelli’s new summum bonum. But it is not the contrast that the world thinks. It is not a blessing on wimps, sissies, dishrags, wallflowers, shrinking violets, worry-warts, Uriah Heeps, nebbishes, nerds or geeks. The meek are those who do not harm, who do not see life as competitive, because they understand the two premises from which this conclusion logically follows.
First, that the best things in life are spiritual things, not material things. That life’s meaning is to be found in wisdom and love and creativity, in understanding and sanctity and beauty, rather than in money or power or fame or land or military or athletic conquest.
And they understand the second principle, too, that spiritual things are not competitive. That they multiply when shared, while material things are divided when shared. Since happiness depends on understanding the best things in life, and since the best things in life are spiritual, and since spiritual things do not diminish when shared, and since what does not diminish when shared cannot be obtained by competition, and since competition is the alternative to meekness, therefore meekness makes for happiness.
We should not be surprised that Christ the Logos is at least as logical as Socrates. Or that we are not. That’s why his pure reason sounds outrageously paradoxical to us. As Chesterton said (it’s impossible to stop quoting Chesterton; that’s like stopping eating potato chips), “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.” We are looking at the earth and kicking up in rebellion against the heavens.
To be Continued.