Monday, August 20, 2012

What Does Religion Have To Do With Being Happy?


Often when we witness to our faith today, the problem people have is not so much what we believe, but rather why any of it at all should be considered vital and important by a human being.

Our society has room for religious views of all kinds, as long as they remain on the level of abstract theories about things, or irrelevant musings about "what's behind it all." Even many Catholics hold their faith in this way, as a kind of "background" explanation that only needs occasional contact with the real interests of life.

There is a dislocation in our secular culture. Having pushed God to the margins of reality, we have lost the awareness of the fundamentally religious character of human existence.

Religion is not just one part of life; it is the deepest dimension of everything in life. It is much more than an organization, rituals, and a set of ideas to which one nominally adheres. It goes right to the core of the question of the meaning of life in the concrete sense, i.e. the meaning of everything that we actually do in our daily life. 

Why do I get up in the morning? Okay, I have to work, or feed the kids, or whatever. Why? Why work? Why have a family?

At first these may appear to be stupid questions with obvious answers. "I work to get money, you dope!" Why do I need money? "Because I need food and stuff...." Why? "Because I want to have a decent life, a good life, I want to be satisfied, I want to be...." At a certain point, this questioning will lead me to dig up something deep inside me, something that is so close to my soul that at first it might seem like the easiest thing in the world to understand. It is as close to me as the roots of my desires and interests, and so when I assign a word to it, I might think that I know exactly what I'm talking about.

"I want to be HAPPY!!!"

But what is "happiness"? We know that this is what we really want. But what is it? This is not an abstract philosophical question. It's a question about why I got out of bed this morning.

We live in a culture that claims that the "real world" is confined to its material elements, and that the ultimate arbiter of rational human interest is empirical science. Everything that appears to be outside of these confines belongs to the realm of dreams or delusions, or at best to the unknowable and inaccessible (and therefore irrelevant to the serious business of life).

In this context, the question "what is happiness?" becomes almost subversive. The need for happiness, if we confront it truly, will take us beyond this world, beyond everything, toward an Infinite Mystery which is the only reality that truly corresponds to our hearts. It is a religious question, and human cultures throughout history--regardless of how they have attempted to answer it--have always recognized its religious nature.

But if we really believe that there is nothing significant beyond this world, then the need for happiness is desperate, unsettling, even pathological.

It is therefore something to be suppressed. We must not ask this question. We must distract ourselves from it, even though it permeates our being. We must live our lives on the shallow surface of every experience.

The truly religious person, however, is someone who is at least seeking the answer. And the Christian claims that the Answer has come into the world, and is seeking us.

This is a basic reason why our Christian faith doesn't make any sense to people. This is why people can't understand why it matters to us. Indeed, this is why many of us don't understand the place of faith in our own lives.

We have been conditioned to evade ourselves, to suffocate our hearts, to flee from the deep cry within us that cannot be satisfied by anything in this finite world. And this evasion has become a forgetfulness. We have cheapened and falsified all the terms associated with the question of happiness: love, justice, goodness, truth, beauty, freedom. We no longer remember how to ask the question.

No wonder the Christian proposal makes no sense. Fr. Giussani often quotes Reinhold Niebuhr's insight: nothing is more incomprehensible than the answer to a question that has never been asked.

There is, of course, still another possibility. There is the possibility of meeting some real people who have actually begun to be happy. The human person might wake up, remember their heart, and discover that they have been controlled by lies.

Nothing is more subversive to the dominant powers of this world than happy people.

2 comments:

Michael J said...

Thank-you for this article.
We do seem to go round and around in our day to day affairs until we run headlong into a seemingly disasterous event that makes us seek God's help or ask "why me Lord?"
What might be a better way is to say " Ok Lord you got my attention"
Thank God we are not always happy or we would never realize our need of Him.

JohnL said...

Hi John,

Like Michael, thank you for your essay and the thoughtful exposition on Religion and happiness.