What Is Christian Hedonism?
Christian hedonism may anachronistically describe the theology of Jonathan Edwards:
“God made the world that he might communicate, and the creature receive, his glory; but that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies His having an idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.” Piper has said, “The great goal of all Edwards’ work was the glory of God. And the greatest thing I have ever learned from Edwards … is that God is glorified most not merely by being known, nor by merely being dutifully obeyed, but by being enjoyed in the knowing and the obeying.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the “chief end of man” as “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Piper has suggested that this would be more correct as “to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” Many Christian hedonists, such as Matt Chandler, point to figures such as Blaise Pascal and Jonathan Edwards as exemplars of Christian hedonism from the past, though their lives predate the term.
Christian hedonism was developed in opposition to the deontology of Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that actions should be considered praiseworthy only if they do not proceed from the actor’s desires or expected benefit, but rather from a sense of duty. On the contrary, Christian hedonists advocate for a consequentialist ethic based on an understanding that their greatest possible happiness can be found in God. In this critique of Kant, John Piper was influenced by Ayn Rand.
The British writer C. S. Lewis, in an oft-quoted passage in his short piece “The Weight of Glory”, likewise objects to Kantian ethics:
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Piper later argues:
But not only is disinterested morality (doing good “for its own sake”) impossible; it is undesirable. That is, it is unbiblical; because it would mean that the better a man became the harder it would be for him to act morally. The closer he came to true goodness the more naturally and happily he would do what is good. A good man in Scripture is not the man who dislikes doing good but toughs it out for the sake of duty. A good man loves kindness (Micah 6:8) and delights in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2), and the will of the Lord (Psalm 40:8). But how shall such a man do an act of kindness disinterestedly? The better the man, the more joy in obedience.
Some Christians object to Christian Hedonism’s controversial name. It has little commonality with philosophical hedonism; however, Piper has stated that a provocative term is “appropriate for a philosophy that has a life changing effect on its adherents.” Critics charge that hedonism of any sort puts something (namely, pleasure) before God, which allegedly breaks the first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.” In response, Piper states on his website that
By Christian Hedonism, we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. We mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. We should pursue this happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy, you cannot love man or please God.
- Talbot 2010, pp. 71–76.
- Piper, John (1 January 1995). “Christian Hedonism: Forgive the Label, but Don’t Miss the Truth”. Desiring God. Retrieved 3 April 2017.
- Edwards 1994.
- Piper 1998, p. 75.
- Presbyterian Church (USA) 2014, p. 205.
- Piper 1996, “Introduction”.
- Chandler, Matt (10 November 2013). “Persevering in the Pursuit of Joy”. Flower Mound, Texas: The Village Church. Retrieved 3 April 2017.
- Kant 1785, sec. 1, 4:397; Rand 1961, p. 32.
- Piper 1996.
- Piper, John (9 October 2007). “The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Appreciation and Critique”. Desiring God. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
- Lewis 1949, pp. 1–2.
- Piper 2013, p. 63.
- Gentry, Greg (17 September 2005). “Why I Am No Longer a Piperite”. Parableman. Retrieved 2 April 2017.
- Booth, C. W. (2002). “A Biblical Study of the Theological Foundation of Christian Hedonism”. The Faithful Word.org. Retrieved 2 April 2017.
- Piper, John (31 August 2006). “We Want You to Be a Christian Hedonist!”. Desiring God. Retrieved 2 April 2017.
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