The Christian Integration of Morality, Freedom, and Happiness
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all.”2 This is a common indictment of Christianity: that it puts people in a moral straightjacket, enslaving them to an outdated moral system, and thereby greatly diminishes their happiness and even inhibits the progress of the human race.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.
1Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Simon and Shuster Inc, 1957) 21-22.
5G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) 167.
6Tim Keller, Reason for God (New York: Penguin Group, 2008) 45-6.
8C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Granite Publishers, 2006) 100-1.
10For a complete exposition of this idea, see Morality: The Catholic View.
11Augustine, qtd. in Pinckaers 77.
12Servais Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001) 78.
15See Mathew 4:19, Matthew 9:9, Luke 9:23.
17Pope Benedict XVI, “Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI,” Vatican: The Holy See, 24 April 2005, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 9 Feb. 2010 < http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/ benedict_xvi/homilies/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20050424_inizio-pontificato_en.html>.
18G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 37.
Peter Blair ’12 is from Newton Square, Pennsylvania. He is a Government and Classics double major.Tags: atheism, Augustine, beauty, Betrand Russell, Catholic, Christian, church, CS Lewis, freedom, GK Chesterton, God, happiness, joy, love, morality, religious, Tim Keller