Hellbound Happiness

As an inquisitive child who asked all the wrong questions at all the wrong times, I was often reprimanded for asking “worldly questions,” which, for those of you who were not raised in an evangelical family, refers to the questions of the faithless. Like, without a microscope how did Noah know he had all the amoebas in the world on the ark? Or, If Adam and Eve had two sons, how did they populate the world?

One of the “truths” I was taught as a child was that as we grow up, a force known as the “world” tells us that our sinful desires are actually not sinful, but good and right. This is Satan trying to win us over from God. For example, the world would support my desire to be equal with men, or to have a career outside the home, or to have sex without being married. The world would use science to explain away miracles and make me doubt my faith. And I would feel happy with these new, rational answers to my questions. But my happiness would be a false, damning happiness. “The world will turn your heart more and more sinful,” my parents told me. “And Jesus will come knocking at the door of your heart, and you will hear him loudly at first. You will open the door and he will ask to come in, but you will turn him away and return to the sins that make you happy. And after a while, you won’t hear his knocking anymore. And when that day comes, he will abandon you and he won’t knock anymore, ever again. And then you will be destined for hell.” As it says in Romans, therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

That is what I was taught as a child. That is what I hear, even now, from time to time in the back of my mind as I live my very happy humanist life. And that is what Matt Moore’s November 27 Christian Post article,”Treacherous Happiness,” is all about.

The idea that a god would use happiness as a trick to send millions of people to an eternity of suffering is not exactly suggestive of an all-loving deity. I mean, seriously, why does he stop knocking? It’s not like he can get tired, he’s eternal. But apparently he does get tired and gives up on us. As a child, this was a Catch-22 for me. If I ever thought rationally, if I ever believed anything I learned outside of my family’s interpretation of the Bible, that newfound reason and intelligence would send me down a path to hell. But if I accepted my family’s religion, I had to somehow shut down my need to understand the world around me. Shut up or die, basically. Those were the options. And if you’re unfortunate enough not to be born into the right Christian family… well, you get a one-way ticket to hell. No knocking, no questions asked.

Epicurus claimed that two self-imposed beliefs do the most to make our lives unhappy: one is the belief that we will be punished by the gods for our bad actions, and the second is that death is something to be feared. These are the two very tactics Moore uses in his article to scare his readers into reimagining their non-evangelical happiness as suffering.

Plato and Aristotle purported that we all desire happiness as an end in itself, and that all other things are desired as a means for producing that happiness. Throw empathy into the mix—we desire happiness for ourselves and those around us, and all other things are desired as a means for that end—and I think we’ve got something. Moore might agree with this statement, saying that he does want happiness for all humanity. However, his definition of happiness and my definition of happiness are very different. Moore’s happiness involves a negative definition of humanity (we are all inherently evil) and forcing his specific worldview onto others. A humanist definition of happiness celebrates humanity and embraces diversity. So, now what?

Plato and Aristotle try to define happiness, as do philosophers for thousands of years following. And although their explanations vary and no one definition stands out as the “true” meaning, none seem to suggest that anxiety and fear are ever a part of happiness.

One of the most interesting things about the evangelical movement is that each evangelical believes his or her interpretation of scripture is the true and literal meaning. Moore believes he knows what is sinful and what is pious, sounding oddly reminiscent of Euthyphro, who tells Socrates that what’s pious is dear to the gods and what’s impious is not. This leads Socrates to ask the question, but is something pious because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is pious. Moore believes actions are godly in and of themselves, but only his interpretation of those actions. A pastor from a Presbyterian church who welcomes the LBGTQ community might heatedly disagree with Moore’s definition of impurity and sin.

Moore asks his readers,

Is your conscience unbothered while you revel in activities that the Bible declares impure? If so, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to impurity. Do you, without a twinge of conviction, delight in pursuing and satisfying unnatural desires? If you do, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to dishonorable passions. Is your life filled with things the Scriptures say ought not to be done? Are you untroubled by this? If so, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to a debased mind.

This begs the question, whose interpretation of the scriptures are we using here? Moore’s? My father’s? A rabbis’? Evangelicals all believe they have this personal connection to God, so that their interpretation is the only one. Have you ever seen two evangelicals with different theologies go at it over an issue? Grab some popcorn; it’s really something to see.

I wonder if Moore truly believes that people unbothered by their actions would seek out this article or his counsel. That is the audience he professes to write to. More likely, the readers coming to evangelical authors like Moore are feeling bothered, conflicted, and guilty. They are dissatisfied with their lives and looking for a magic bullet. I think Moore knows this. I think he writes to evangelicals alone, not to those of us who are truly happy in our “unnatural desires.” His is an act of manipulation and power. The weak do not inherit the earth, they inherit the guidance of leaders like Matt Moore.

So, if you do find yourself feeling happy or even “blessed” in an unrepentant way of life, good for you! Enjoy it. Our lives are our own. They are the only ones we have. And the world is a spectacular place. Be kind to yourself and others. Read. Learn. Think. Play. And most importantly, love your un-sinful self and whomever else you love in your life with pride and freedom and joy.