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Meaning + pleasure = joy

OPINION | Simon Smart
October 2015

Author Jeanette Winterson, famous for novels like Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and The Passion, wrote a devastating memoir in 2012, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In beautiful, funny and elegant prose she recounts a traumatic childhood of awful abuse at the hands of her depressive adoptive mother and well-meaning but ineffectual father. She also describes her life in the church, an environment that neatly matched the bleakness of the northern English town in which she was raised.

No believer could read this aspect of her story without wincing at her description of “the cruelty of dogma, the miserable rigidity of no drink, no fags, no sex, (or if you were married, as little sex as possible), no going to the pictures (an exception was made for Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments), no reading anything except for devotional literature, no fancy clothes … no dancing … no pop music, no card games, no pubs – even for orange juice.” You get the picture.

I couldn’t help thinking of Jeanette Winterson while listening to Miroslav Volf’s recent public lecture, “Pleasure, Meaning and the Death of God.”

Hosted by Centre for Public Christianity and Gospel Conversations and delivered at Shore School in North Sydney before a Friday night crowd of 450 people, Volf gave an account of Christian life and thought that could not have been more different to what Winterson and, sadly, plenty of others have experienced.

A celebrated theologian from Yale, Volf is keenly interested in the contribution of Christian faith to the common good. This has led him, along with plenty of notable thinkers through the ages, to ponder a vision for “the good life”, the “life worth living” – a topic he feels is given nowhere near enough attention today – and to articulate the Christian version of such a thing. This is the project he has set himself and believes it offers something that is not only robust theologically but immensely positive and life affirming.

If, in navigating our way through life, we choose between meaning and pleasure, imagining them to be unrelated, Volf says, we always make the wrong choice. We are creatures who crave meaning and purpose but if we believe this can only come at the expense of pleasure, as some religious types appear to think, we become burdened with an oppressive, joyless existence, the weight of which is frequently too much to bear. Think Jeanette Winterson’s childhood church.

Equally dangerous, though, is the pervasive thread of Western consumerist culture that imagines the good life is to be found in trivial comforts and insubstantial entertainment – backyard renovation TV shows, shopping malls and, as we move into summer, crafting a beach-ready body. Cut free from transcendence, human values and meaning are thought to be nothing more than what we decide for ourselves. Here we are left with, “the crushing burden of an unbearably light existence,” according to Volf.

Does religion, and specifically Christianity, offer a solution? Volf believes it does. Without God, the author of life and all existence, the kind of meaning we require as human beings eludes us. We end up projecting our search for meaning onto finite things – success, money, career, family, sex – and end up unfulfilled.

But here’s the thing. Rather than having to give up ordinary pleasure in order to embrace the meaning we all crave, Volf argues that attachment to God actually amplifies and deepens enjoyment of ordinary things. Or at least it should. This is something that Christians have sometimes forgotten. The early chapters of Genesis are striking in their affirmation of the physicality of creation. Taste, sound, smell and texture clearly matter to God. What’s more, God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ really puts an exclamation mark on to the goodness of the material realities we inhabit. And the final biblical vision of a renewed creation only offers further evidence of God being interested in “stuff” rather than merely celestial glories.

Volf offers a fascinating and attractive idea to illustrate what he means. Imagine a physical object that is of value to you – let’s say a guitar you love to play. And then imagine that item was given to you as a gift from someone you love. Whatever value you place on the guitar is immensely greater because of your relationship to the giver. Physical things are relational and take on meaning and significance due to the social relations connected to them. They carry the presence of another.

If you can come to think of the world as a “gift” from God then all the things to which you relate, says Volf, are also a way in which God relates to you. Each good and beautiful thing that you experience is part of a relationship marked by love. Each of these things is thus more than itself and because of that is a source of profound and layered joy. Music, literature, art, food, wine or model aeroplane making, if that’s what gives you pleasure, matter to God and find their deepest meaning in connection to him.

In her memoir Jeanette Winterson is surprisingly generous and positive about the dour Christianity of her youth. She acknowledges that it provided a community of “mutual help and imaginative possibility,” and “a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church.” But it’s clear that large parts of the human experience were either feared or dismissed. Her “salvation” eventually came, not in the form of a life-giving and sustainable faith but through great works of literature into which she joyfully escaped.

It’s a great shame that those things could not have been considered mutually reinforcing.

Because, if Christian faith is true, it allows for the possibility of uniting meaning and ordinary pleasures, leading to joy, or what Miroslav Volf likes to call the flourishing life. It’s an attractive vision, that’s perhaps as surprising as it is deeply needed today, both for those encumbered with the crushing burden of duty, and others beset with the diminishing trivialities of modern pleasures bereft of substantial or lasting meaning.

Simon Smart is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.For more print, video and audio material on the intersection of Christianity with contemporary life, go to publicchristianity.org

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