Freedom for Excellence (or at least Bob Dylan)
By: Bonaventure Chapman, O.P.
The paralyzing effect of a seemingly limitless number of options is new to none of us. Today we experience it quite frequently: at local restaurants, in shopping centers, or—especially pertinent during these summer months—when choosing ice cream flavors. With so many options, how am I supposed to make the “right” decision? What is the “best” side dish or main course, shirt or pair of sunglasses, ice cream cone or sundae? On the other hand, maybe I want a milkshake . . .Now I have met people who actually enjoy having all these options, but they seem few and far between. Most people I know are simply paralyzed by the twenty-page diner menu and must develop a strategy in order to navigate the event. This might mean picking what one had last time, or choosing the first item that strikes one’s fancy, or something equally arbitrary. In such situations I almost invariably end up disappointed, because I can’t help wondering, “What would that have tasted like . . .”
The worst part about these situations of extreme abundance, however, is not wondering about “what might have been”; rather, it’s that we can actually pass up a real good in our search for an imaginary one. For example, recently I was searching for something on the radio on my way to work. I haven’t driven much since entering the Order, and I’d forgotten how many different radio stations there are to choose from. While scanning through them all, I actually did the unthinkable: I passed by Bob Dylan in search of “something better.” What in the world was I looking for? What was I hoping to find that would out-do Bob Dylan?
Of course, not everyone will agree with my opinion of Dylan; maybe you don’t particularly like his voice, or his style, or his lyrics. Fine, just insert your own paragon of musical perfection, and ask whether you might have done the same thing as I did—missed the good in search of the better, even though the better is only imaginary. This, to me, is the real curse of unlimited freedom of choice: we can miss out on the real and actual good in hope of the virtual and imagined better. Even as I couldn’t find anything better than Dylan, I still kept searching in the belief that one of those stations must have something better.
I wonder if there is not a similar dynamic in our moral freedom of choice. Does the imagined possibility of infinite freedom or unrestricted choice lead us to pass over the real and actual good?
The great Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers was fond of comparing the “freedom for excellence” with the “freedom of indifference.” Roughly, the freedom for excellence is the freedom to choose the good, to choose the virtuous option. Pinckaers uses the example of playing the piano: only someone who has practiced and worked hard on scales and drills has the freedom to play the piano well. By contrast, the freedom of indifference is the ability to choose anything one wants, without limit or reason. This latter conception of freedom is negative—freedom from restrictions—while the former is positive—freedom for excellence.
In its discussion of man’s freedom, the Catechism stresses this notion of freedom for excellence:
Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude. (CCC 1731)
Freedom is for the good, not for itself:
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC 1733)
In flipping through the stations on the radio, I am exercising my freedom, but if I am not open to choosing concrete goods—if I never choose a concrete good because I’m afraid of impairing my supposedly unrestricted, negative freedom—then I am not actually free in the right sense. I am a slave to some possible good that I will never find.
In my moral choices, am I satisfied with the present and available good? Or am I always holding out for “something better,” something that will never arrive? If I’m not open to the good, and if I don’t have a clear exemplar of what the good is (e.g., Dylan’s works), I will never be satisfied, even when the good is right before my eyes. So, next time I come across something that is truly good for me, maybe I should exercise some authentic freedom and listen to the troubadour: “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
The Truth Will Make You Free (John Paul II on Freedom, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life)
By: Christopher Kaczor”What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” a rich young man asked Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 19:16). Pope John Paul II addresses that question in Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”), arguably the most important publication of his long pontificate.We all search for happiness. We all ask ourselves what life is all about. We search for fulfillment and try to discover what makes life worth living. The great Pope wrote that Jesus’ conversation with the young man continues “in every period of history, including our own. The question: ‘Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?’ arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer” (VS 25).Jesus tells the young man: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). Christ begins with the commandments because they are a basic manifestation of love for neighbor and God. We cannot enter into eternal life or even begin to enjoy life on earth if we do not love, for it is in loving God and neighbor that we have a relationship with God and neighbor. But the young man’s question is not yet fully answered. When he tells Christ that he has kept the commandments since his youth, Jesus challenges him further to leave behind every obstacle and “come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).The fullness of happiness is found in the encounter with Christ, who is the most complete answer to the question that is every human life. Following Christ is the foundation of Christian morality. John Paul wrote, “The decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself” (VS 2). The guide for the Christian life is not a set of rules:
Jesus’ way of acting and his words, his deeds, and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life. Indeed, his actions, and in particular his passion and death on the cross, are the living revelation of his love for the Father and for others. This is exactly the love that Jesus wishes to be imitated by all who follow him. (VS 20)
To love as Jesus loved is to share in the life of Jesus, the life of grace that enables weak human beings to act beyond their limitations. It is not possible for anyone to imitate Christ through his own power.
Freedom for or Freedom to?
With Jesus as a guide, the Christian ponders anew the promise of Christ: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).Contemporary dogma tells us that freedom and law are always and necessarily opposed. It tells us that to be free is to be unencumbered by discipline, rule, or order; that to be under a law is to be unfree and constrained. This is a false conceptualization of the relationship of true freedom and just law. It places freedom apart from the moral truth in just law. It turns the promise of Jesus on its head: “You will ignore the truth, and ignorance will make you free.”But there are, in fact, two distinct senses of freedom. Freedom of indifference provides the ability to do anything one likes, to feel a lack of constraint. Freedom for excellence, on the other hand, is the freedom to do good. It can develop and grow over time.A few non-moral examples will clarify. Everyone has freedom of indifference when playing the piano. Even if you’ve never had a single lesson, you can sit down and hit any key you wish. But only the trained musician has freedom for excellence, the freedom to play beautiful, sophisticated music. Similarly, everyone has freedom of indifference to throw a basketball toward a hoop, but only an experienced player has freedom for excellence, freedom to shoot and score consistently. Freedom of indifference is a lack of constraint. Freedom for excellence is the ability to achieve the aim, goal, and purpose of human life: true happiness. (For more on this distinction, see The Sources of Christian Ethics by Servais Pinckaers, O.P.)What do these two senses of freedom have to do with law? Inherent in the perspective of the freedom of indifference is the belief that law is the enemy of liberty because law constrains, binds, and renders a person unfree. But this sense of freedom cannot help man achieve the goal of all human life—fulfillment through love of God and neighbor. Freedom of indifference to hit keys on a piano or shoot a basketball does not require instruction (law) from a piano teacher or coach, but neither will it produce beautiful music or baskets. Only freedom for excellence, which requires instruction (law, or instinctive adherence) can achieve results.Freedom to achieve the goal of human life is aided and enhanced through the revelatory instruction—what to do and what to avoid, or law—that comes from God. “Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law,” wrote John Paul. “Indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity” (VS 42). God, who is most free, cannot do evil and can do only good; so too a human being is most free when doing good and makes himself less free through doing evil. “In his journey towards God, the One who ‘alone is good,’ man must freely do good and avoid evil. But in order to accomplish this he must be able to distinguish good from evil” (VS 42).Natural law—the law that is written in our hearts—is the divine help given by God to all people to enable them to do good and avoid evil. Revealed law, including the Ten Commandments, is an additional grace that specifies for the individual conscience even more clearly the good to be done (e.g., keeping the Sabbath, honoring parents) and the evil to be avoided (e.g. murder, stealing).
Conscience and Truth
God does not usually speak to human beings as he spoke to Moses in the burning bush or as he spoke to us in the human voice of Jesus. Rather, as John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in his letter to the duke of Norfolk, our “conscience is the voice of God . . . a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.”It is possible to misunderstand Newman’s remark—even to misunderstand the importance of conscience in the Christian tradition—and conclude that each person is a god unto himself, creating “evil” and “good.” But, in the words of the late pontiff, “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil” (VS 59, 60).Conscience has dignity and rights because of its relationship to truth, a truth to which we owe allegiance. Conscience does not create values; it inquires zealously into what is true.In this task the believer has an advantage. John Paul noted that “Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and its magisterium.” He goes on to quote the Second Vatican Council:
In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Its charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ and at the same time with its authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order that derive from human nature itself. It follows that the authority of the Church, when it pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths that are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths that it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. (VS 64)
For the Christian, the life, teaching, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus illuminate the nature of good and evil, making the conscience better equipped to do its job. For the Catholic, this task is made easier still. The Church provides an authentic interpretation of the message of Christ for our own day and circumstances. Through the ministry of the Church, Christ frees us from not only sin but falsehood, which often leads to sin. More important than what we are free from is what we are free for: to live the truth in love, both now and after death forever.
Body and Soul
The relationship of “who I am” to “what I do” is not always crystal clear. Some choices change a person into a different kind of person. Accepting baptism makes a person a Christian; marrying makes a person a husband or wife; entering religious life makes someone a priest, nun, or brother. Sometimes “what you do” is so significant that it truly changes “who you are.” Not all choices shape a person so fundamentally. Should I have ham or salami? Rye or wheat? Mustard or ketchup? We can distinguish between cases in which free choice makes a profound difference in our lives from cases in which free choice makes a trivial difference.In the later half of the twentieth century, some theologians posited the idea of a “fundamental freedom” or “fundamental option” for or against God. They suggested that each person chooses for or against God and gives the resulting orientation to their entire lives. This option is exercised at a transcendent level beyond the inner-worldly choices of the everyday here and now. They also asserted that a good person, one who has chosen for God, could nevertheless perform actions that are seriously wrong yet retain his orientation toward loving God and neighbor.While John Paul admitted that this theory has some valid elements, including the reality of a “fundamental option” for or against God, he pointed out that it is in the application of this theory that some theologians go awry. “To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul” (VS 67). The human person, or moral agent, the Pope taught, is a unity of body and soul, not soul alone. What a person does with his body partially constitutes who he is and whether he is moving toward increased virtue or vice. We cannot posit an “interior transcendent” realm of freedom that determines our eternal salvation in opposition to an “inner-worldly” exercise of freedom in our everyday ethical choices.The Pope, in other words, reaffirmed the possibility of mortal sin—the choice that extinguishes the life of grace in a person, the choice that, if not rejected through repentance and conversion, leads to the permanent exclusion from the life of grace we call hell. He noted:
For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: The person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts. (VS 70)
A person may fully and knowingly choose a seriously wrong act and thereby exclude himself—perhaps eternally—from communion with God. (Of course, pastoral experience recognizes situations in which a person—because of limitations on freedom imposed by immaturity, addiction, or bad habit—may choose behavior that is objectively immoral without fully understanding and freely willing the behavior. In such cases, though the act itself is seriously wrong, the person may not be fully responsible and hence may have not sinned mortally.)
Means, Motive, Circumstances
As Thomas Aquinas wrote, to analyze the morality of an action, we have to look at the means, motive, and circumstances (Summa Theologiae I-II.18). All three elements of an action must be good for the action to be good, just as to be a good airplane pilot, the pilot must see well, have flying experience, and be sober. Two out of three is not enough. An otherwise good act motivated by greed, hatred, or cruelty is not a good act. Likewise, there are situations in which the motive is laudable (say, to express and reinforce love), the means is good (for example, spouses making love), but the circumstances are wrong (making love in a public park at noon).Traditional Catholic teaching holds that some acts—such as intentionally killing an innocent person, adultery, perjury, and contraception—are immoral in themselves and can never be justified by a good motive or by advantageous circumstances. But beginning the late 1960s, certain theologians proposed that the object of the act was good if there was a right proportion between the good and evil effects of the action as a whole. In other words, one could choose something that is, in their terminology, premorally evil—such as contraception or killing—if it brought about the greater good. An entire moral theory called proportionalism developed, which in various formulations proposed the view that there was no such thing as an act that is intrinsically evil and never to be done. Some even argued that this was the view of Thomas Aquinas. (The truth about this and the real origins of proportionalism are explored in my book Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition.)John Paul judged that this theological innovation was not in accordance with the truth:
One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, that holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species—its “object”—the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. (VS 79; see also VS 82)
He emphasized that the means and object of the human act is fundamental to ethical analysis:
The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by St. Thomas cf. ST I-II.18.6. In order to be able to g.asp the object of an act that specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. (VS 78)
Morality is not a matter of calculating the foreseeable consequences of an act and judging whether the act is right or wrong based on these consequences. Happily, utilitarian theories such as proportionalism are now explicitly advocated by very few young theologians, and their influence is rapidly dying.
The moral life as John Paul understands it involves the challenge to live a life of holiness to a heroic degree. Obedience to the truth about the human person—a pursuit of deep happiness and freedom—cannot be achieved through human power alone. But as God gives us the law, he also gives us what we need to fulfill the law: his grace through the work of God the Son on the cross:
It is in the saving cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments that flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer (cf. John 19:34) that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God’s holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships. (VS 103)
One cannot properly love God and neighbor without the work of Christ, or without prayer made so powerfully available in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession. God does not ask what is impossible but gives the grace necessary for each person to live up to the call of holiness (cf. VS 102).The power of God’s grace has continued through the ages. The martyrs imitate Christ crucified by refusing to do evil and continuing to do good, undeterred even by threats of death (cf. VS 91). Their example gives powerful testimony to the truth that evil may not be done that good may follow. Many of the martyrs could have escaped torturous deaths with a simple lie: “Jesus Christ? I don’t know the man.” In a calculation of likely goods and evils, Peter’s denial would be justified. But Peter was no proportionalist, and he wept bitterly over his betrayal. Later, he again turned down the “greater premoral good” of continuing to live, suffering martyrdom rather than failing to witness to the Truth. Indeed:
No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: Only the cross and the glory of the risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life. (VS 120)
Augustine Collective | The Christian Integration of Morality, Freedom, and Happiness
By: Peter Blair
In his essay “Why I am not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “There are a great many ways in which at the present moment the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering.”1 He goes on to explain that Christian morality is harmful “because the church has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all.”2 This is a common indictment of Christianity: that it puts people in a moral straightjacket, enslaving them to an outdated moral system, and thereby greatly diminishes their happiness and even inhibits the progress of the human race. In this view, Christians are by nature priggish, puritanical moralists.
But the Bible, which Christians believe is divinely inspired, is full of statements that present a very different view of Christianity than the one Russell offers. In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”3 In the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ is recorded as saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full.”4 Echoing this biblical message, Christians throughout the ages, have expressed a great joy that derives from their faith. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Joy… is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”5 C.S. Lewis titled the spiritual autobiography that detailed his conversion to Christianity Surprised by Joy. The message of the Bible is one of freedom and liberation, and consequently the experience of many Christians throughout history has been one of irrepressible and uproarious joy. What, then, explains the enormous gap between the Christian idea of liberation and the popular perception of Christianity, as expressed by Russell? How can these two views of Christianity be reconciled?
The popular view articulated by Russell does contain a grain of truth. Christianity does have a moral code that it enjoins upon all its adherents, and its code is in some ways stricter than the codes offered by other alternative philosophies and worldviews. Furthermore, Russell’s view is not without some empirical basis. There have been, and continue to be, self-identified Christians who approach their faith in a highly legalistic and moralistic way, who conform joylessly to a moral code they don’t fully understand or even agree with, who look and feel enslaved, and who even take a perverse delight in destroying the happiness of others. However, the salient question is not whether some self-identified Christians have such an attitude, but whether Christianity as a belief system logically implies and requires such an attitude. When the issue is examined, it seems that rather than imposing such an attitude on believers, Christian moral thought is characterized by a desire for happiness, freedom, and beauty.
The prejudice against Christianity’s moral claims is due in part to a general human tendency to resent all rules and restrictions—religious, political, or otherwise—as unfair and destructive of liberty. However, as Tim Keller notes in his book The Reason for God, “In many cases confinement and constraint is actually a means to liberation…freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world produce greater power and scope for our abilities, and a deeper joy and fulfillment.”6
The idea of “liberating restrictions” may seem paradoxical, but Keller uses several examples to make his point. He discusses the condition of a pet fish taken out of its fishbowl. The fish has thus been freed from the limits of the fish bowl, from restrictions of place and movement—but removed from its proper environment, the fish will die. Because the fish is free to live and move only when it is limited to a bowl full of water, the restrictions placed on it are essential to ensuring its freedom, flourishing, and survival. This example illustrates why it is that restrictions can simultaneously bind and free; it is only in being bound by some rules that we can live at all or enjoy any kind of meaningful freedom. Just like the fish, all things have their proper environments, and if the barriers keeping things in their environments are destroyed, so too is the ability to thrive.
Keller uses a pianist as a further example of this principle. If somebody has natural musical aptitude and wishes to develop that aptitude in order to become an accomplished pianist, he or she must endure relatively great restrictions on his or her time, because lots of practice is necessary to develop musical skills. The aspiring pianist must give up absolute freedom over the use of his or her time in order to achieve, as Keller says, “a richer kind of freedom to accomplish other things.”7 In this example, we see that the development of a skill or an art requires accepting some restrictions on one’s time and one’s freedom. The end result of these regulations, however, is not a lesser freedom but a greater freedom: in this case, the ability to, play piano pieces excellently whenever one wishes. One has acquired a new skill, and the ability to freely practice that skill evokes joy and contentment.
Example upon example could be added to ways in which our everyday life depends upon this idea of “liberating restrictions.” When we think politically, the vast majority of humans recognize the need for limits and rules. We recognize that anarchy—the complete absence of governmental authority—is not a desirable political arrangement, and that the restrictions on our freedom enforced by laws and taxes actually allow for human prospering and flourishing in a way that anarchy never could.
In all these cases, it is restrictions, limits, and rules that actually free a person; in these situations, limits liberate us and actually give us more to do by restricting what we can do in certain ways. This is the general idea behind both government and piano practice: by allowing everything, you effectively destroy everything; but by forbidding some things, you allow everything else. True freedom is only possible where freedom is limited.
Yet this idea of “liberating restrictions” implicit in so much of our life is somehow forgotten when the object of discussion is the Christian moral code. Christianity is thought to be oppressive and legalistic simply because it makes moral demands. But as C.S. Lewis points out in his book Mere Christianity,
For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary… every sane and civilized man must have some sort of principles by which he chooses to reject some of his desires and to permit others. One man does this on Christian principles, another on hygienic principles, another on sociological principles. The real conflict is not between Christianity and nature. For ‘nature’ (in the sense of natural desire) will have to be controlled anyway, unless you are going to ruin your whole life.8
Lewis argues that all people have codes of behavior that limit them because everybody—in practice if not in theory—understands that some restraints are necessary for happiness and freedom. And that is precisely the claim that Christianity makes about its own moral code. Christianity does not seek rules for the sake of rules, but for the sake of true happiness and freedom. It seeks rules for the same reason that everybody seeks rules: in order to allow us to survive and flourish.
Moralism or legalism, that is, rules for the sake of rules, is much more an intellectual attribute of secular thought than of Christian thought. The 18th-century secular philosopher Immanuel Kant is the clearest example of secular legalism. He espoused a duty ethics which emphasized the necessity of obeying moral laws and held that morality had to be opposed to happiness because any action that gave happiness was a selfish one, and thus immoral. This Kantian deontology is emphatically not the Christian view. Christianity, because it believes that true freedom proceeds from our natural longings for truth, goodness, perfection, and happiness, holds that the moral life is the way to happiness. Because the secular worldview deprives man of any transcendental purpose or destiny, it can offer very little guidance on what the purpose of rules is. As Lewis writes,
I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.9
Secularism denies the existence of that “something beyond,” and so the best it can do is offer a kind of pragmatic justification for rules centered on the need for social cooperation. That is fine as far as it goes, but it can easily degenerate into an unhappy legalism. On the other hand, because Christian morality is animated by an understanding of mankind’s natural longing for goodness, happiness, and perfection, the Christian view sees rules as a means for achieving a more fulfilling existence.10
In the examples used above to illustrate the idea of “liberating restrictions,” the implied idea was that one restricts one’s freedom in order to achieve a greater good and a fuller unfolding of freedom. It suggests an idea of freedom which Servais Pinckaers, in his book Morality: The Catholic View, calls freedom for excellence or the freedom to act excellently. The problem that many people have with Christianity is that they cannot see what greater good the Christian moral code purports to direct one to. What kind of excellence does it aim to effect? If Christianity is not about laws for the sake of laws, but instead about laws for the sake of a greater good, what is that good? Christian thinkers tend to answer these questions by saying that Christianity’s moral code is not an end in itself, that it has no intrinsic value. Its value is purely instrumental, meant to aid one in attaining goodness and happiness and to succeed in becoming a good and happy person.
There is much skepticism about this claim that morality, especially Christian morality, could ever be connected to happiness. The position one takes on this, however, turns on one’s definition of happiness. Many people today would define happiness as mere pleasure, as the temporary and ephemeral experience of neurochemical stimulation. However, there is a quite different way of looking at happiness, one that defines it in terms of joy. St. Augustine, the great Christian theologian, once defined happiness in this way: “Thus all agree that they want to be happy, just as they would, if questioned, all agree that they want to rejoice, and it is joy itself that they call the happy life. The happy life is joy born of the truth.”11 Father Pinckaers explains the essential differences between joy and pleasure:
Pleasure is an agreeable sensation, a passion caused by contact with some exterior good. Joy, however, is something interior, like that act that causes it. Joy is the direct effect of an excellent action, like the savor of a long task finally accomplished. It is also the effect in us of truth understood and goodness loved. Thus we associate joy with virtue, regarding it as a sign of virtue’s authenticity… pleasure is brief, variable, and superficial, like the contact that causes it. Joy is lasting, like the excellence, the virtues, that engender it. Sense pleasure is individual, like sensation itself, it decreases when the good that causes it is divided up and shared more widely; it ceases altogether when this good is absent. Joy is communicable; it grows by being shared and repays sacrifices freely embraced.12
When happiness is understood in terms of lasting joy, instead of temporary pleasure, the way in which Christian morality can be said to be compatible with happiness becomes clear. Though a Christian must, from time to time, forgo certain temporary pleasures, the Christian moral life instills a deep and irrevocable joy.
The attainment of a virtuous character, one that can give rise to morally excellent actions at all times, is a joy-giving accomplishment, in part because we naturally desire goodness (though we often forget what goodness actually is). Keller’s example of the piano player, discussed above, is helpful in understanding this concept. Just as attaining the skill of piano-playing requires surrendering some freedom to that task, so too does attaining the skill of living a virtuous life. And just as one finds happiness and contentment in being able to play the piano well, so too does one find a deeper joy in being able to live a virtuous life. There are many reasons for this intrinsic connection between the moral life and happiness, between goodness and joy, but in terms of simple empiricism, it is also an easily observed phenomenon. Numerous Christians throughout the centuries, from St. Augustine to St. Francis of Assisi to G.K. Chesterton, have testified by their lives to the ability of the moral life to instill joy.
The joy of the Christian life, however, arises not only from the satisfaction of a morally excellent life, but also from the particular religious teachings of Christianity and the practical effects of those teachings in one’s life. Part of the confusion about Christian morality is a result of the fact that Christian moral teaching is so often presented in isolation from its spiritual or religious teachings. Though there are many thinkers, such as Princeton professor Robert George, who will argue for the rational superiority of Christian morality quite apart from religious revelations, the fact remains that the joy that Christians throughout the ages have associated with the Christian life is very difficult to understand apart from the messages and teachings of Jesus. You cannot disconnect Christian morality from Christianity in general. If somebody urged you to brush your teeth twice a day but you had no prior knowledge of the importance of dental care, you might wonder at it and dismiss it as an irrational imposition on your life. But certainly if you learned that brushing your teeth twice a day will actually prevent your teeth from decaying later in life, you would readily adopt the practice.
The cause of Christian joy is precisely God Himself. Christians believe that God came to earth as man in order to free mankind from its sins and reunite mankind with Himself. That is the principle message of the Gospel, and it is called the Gospel (which means “good news”) for a good reason. As Keller notes in his book, for the idea of “liberating restrictions” to make any sense, the restriction must fit our nature and circumstances. He writes, “Discipline and constraints, then, liberate us only when they fit with the reality of our nature and capacities.”13 Christianity teaches that the one thing that fits with our true nature above everything else is love. Love is the most sublime human emotional state, and it is something that everyone yearns for. It is the proper environment for mankind, just as the fishbowl is the proper environment for the fish. Yet the apparent paradox of a liberating freedom-loss is on full display with regard to the experience of love. Love, Keller argues, is simultaneously the most liberating thing and the most restrictive thing a human being can experience; it demands the most, but it also gives the most. “To experience the joy and freedom of love,” Keller writes, “you must give up your personal autonomy.” 14
Keller’s statement neatly summarizes the whole basis for Christian morality. Christians believe that we were made for love—for love of each other and love of God. Furthermore, they believe that God loved us first, that He loved us when he created us and He loved us when he underwent unspeakable suffering for us on the cross. Because Christ loved us and sacrificed much for us in order that we could be with Him again, we are filled with joy and gratitude, and we respond to Him in love for what He has done for us. By its very nature, love means giving things up, sacrificing for the other, the object of your love. Removed from the context of love, those sacrifices might seem painful and absurd, but within the context of a love that gives joy, freedom, and meaning, they begin to make perfect sense. This is why the central statement of Christianity is not “follow rules” but, as Christ says in the Gospels, “follow me.”15 It is not about a relationship with a set of rules, but about a relationship with a person.
Therein lies the meaning of the biblical passages which I referenced at the beginning of this article. God came and suffered on earth to restore us to a loving relationship with Him, our Maker, and it is in that ultimate relationship of love that we are most free and joyful, no matter what sacrifices it might call on us to make. It is not about automatically and mindless obeying rules that mean nothing to us and that only trample on enjoyment. It is about the true joy and liberation that comes from living in love. The Christian message is not oppressive. It is not animated by a hatred of pleasure or fun or by a desire to put people in a straightjacket. It is animated by the spirit of love, which is the spirit of God. We all seek to live in relationships of love and to live in a world characterized by love. Christianity offers exactly this, but it also specifies what is necessary for such a world to come about.
Christians desire above all to be near to God, to live in a relationship with Him. In fulfilling that desire, we must sometimes reject our secondary desires when giving in to them would separate us from God. We believe that He has freed us not only from the punishment due to our wrongdoings, but from the wrongdoings themselves, and that he will grow this freedom from wrongdoing in us more and more each day. The struggle, furthermore, is more than worth it, for the freedom and joy that comes from a relationship with God is truly the “pearl of great price.”16 Pope Benedict XVI put it this way in his inaugural homily:
Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? … No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ—and you will find true life.17
If one doubts this idea, the Christian may answer along with Chesterton that for the doubter, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”18 Those who have tried it down through the ages, however, have overwhelmingly testified to a deep and profound joy. Morality for them has not been an imposition, but rather a way of expressing their love for and gratitude to Christ, for deepening their union with Him, and for achieving a joyful life. The most important “liberating restriction” of all is the love of God, come to set us free.