Happiness in God: A Selfish Quest?

Yesterday at our weekly staff meeting, I read a short section from Gilbert Meilaender’s stimulating book, The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life. Meilander is a bioethicist, Lutheran theologian, and Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. He is a uniquely gifted man, skilled in a wide range of disciplines. Consequently, his books are chocked full of thoughtful insights on just about everything under the sun. I scanned the “Meilander section” of my library just a moment ago, and the topics run the gamut–from Lutheran theology to the ethics of gene therapy, from writing letters to your daughter in college to interpreting Virgil’s Aeneid. You name it, and it is likely that Meilander has written on it at some point.

In the section I read yesterday at staff meeting, Meilander addressed Augustine’s writing on the theme of desire, which shows up regularly throughout the Augustinian corpus, but especially in his classic work, Confessions. Meilander agrees with Augustine that to seek God is to seek the happy life, keying off of Augustine’s phrase, “You stimulate him (man) to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you” (Confessions, 1.1). Reflecting on this phrase, Meliander realizes the fallen human tendency to seek for happiness without God, or to seek God, not for God, but for the happiness that He gives. In exploration, Meilander asks this question, “Is seeking the happy life in God an essentially selfish quest?” It’s a great question. Here’s what he says:

“It would be possible, I suppose, to want the joy that comes from being in God’s presence without the presence itself, just as it would be possible to want the pleasures that comes from marriage without the presence of the beloved (if the pleasure could be provided say, by manipulation of the brain). But this would be a degradation rather than a fulfillment of our humanity. Similarly with Augustine’s desire to find happiness in God. The point is not to have joy but to rest in God’s presence, which h will of course bring joy to now who loves God. We must imagine lovers who want to be with each other. Naturally, they know that being together will make them happy, but it would miss the point to suppose that they wanted simply the happiness–and not the presence of the loved one. Likewise, delighting in the presence and praise of God just is, for human beings, fulfillment. It is the free relinquishing of our plans and projects in order to receive what cannot be planned, intended, or manipulated: loving union with God. And it requires a kind of forgetfulness of self–or, perhaps better, a self that is constituted not in isolation but in the giving and receiving that is the bond of love. Without that self-forgetfulness no self fulfillment is possible.” 

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