Last week, I gave a heuristic answer to the question regarding a proper relationship between Christianity and technology. To summarize, I recommended that Christians disabuse themselves of the idolatrous notion that technology can “save” us, or that it can reliably provide us with a more satisfying life, and I concluded that we should take periodic ‘fasts’ from technology, because doing so can give us a more objective perspective on whether or not a given technology is indeed conducive to our happiness, and–much more importantly–to our spiritual betterment.
As I reflect on my writings, however, I notice that in my analysis I treated happiness and spiritual betterment as synonymous. Was I actually fair in doing so? Or is the path of God sometimes (or often!) less gratifying than… the other path?
I quoted a passage from Jaques Ellul’s The Technological Society last week that is rather pertinent to this investigation. I will reproduce it presently, in full: “Religion is no longer the framework of society… [r]ather, it integrates itself into society, adjusts to it, and adopts the notion of social utility as its criterion and justification” (56, emphasis added). Here Ellul contends, by claiming that technology has forced Christianity to argue its case on the basis of utility, that previously Christianity did not depend on its alleged utilitarian superiority to prove its primacy. By extension, Ellul would predict that a Christianity which cannot prove its “social utility” will, in present times, be abandoned and forgotten.
In Kenya at least, Ellul would seem to have a point. So far I have attended one church service, and indeed the two-hour sermon focused exclusively on the protection God affords to His faithful. Radio stations, television programs and magazine editorials regularly proclaim the same message: God intervenes on the behalf of God’s followers. Privately, multiple individuals have expressed to me their belief that He will grant anything that is asked for “in faith” (a thought which does seem to have some Biblical precedent; see Luke 12:31), and the same people have on several occasions asked me to assuage, in my capacity as an amateur theologian, their confusion over why bad things happen to good people. Above all, however, this apparent tendency of Kenyans to believe that Christianity affords a superior life is best exemplified by the status of Joel Osteen’s name as a household one; indeed, when I tell people that I am from Houston, they almost always ask if I’ve seen the great prophet of prosperity theology (which I have, once, much to the delight of my Kenyan friends and neighbors).
But for Ellul’s claim to be fully correct, it must also be demonstrated that Christianity did not previously rely on any claim to be the superior system for achieving social utility. To this end, we will examine the Didache, one of the oldest surviving Christian documents, which details the early theology and church practice of mid-first century Christian communities. It declares:
“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and [there is] a great difference between the two ways. Therefore the way of life is this: first, to love the God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself; and all that you would wish to not happen to you, also you do not do to others. […] But the way of death is this. First of all, it is filled with evil and cursing, murders, adulteries, expressions of lust, acts of sexual immorality, thefts, idolatries, acts of magic, robberies, false witnessing, acts of hypocrisy, acts of duplicity, deceit, pride, malice, stubbornness, greediness, abusive language, jealousy, arrogance, haughtiness, boastfulness. Persecutors of the good, hating the truth, loving the lie, not knowing the reward of righteousness, not joining the good or righteous judgement, not caring for the good but the evil, from whom gentleness and patience [are] far removed, loving what is worthless, pursuing reward, not having mercy on the poor, not toiling for the downtrodden, not understanding the one who made them, murderers of children, corrupters of the creatures of God, rejectors of the needy ones, oppressors of the afflicted, defenders of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, [people] steeped in sin” (1.1-2, 5.1-2).
So the Didache, and by extension our earliest-known church traditions, seem to consider the Christian faith to be the greatest guarantor of a happy, satisfying and peaceful life. This conviction was codified by the third-century theologian Origin, who claimed explicitly: “[W]e promise, openly and not in secret, that they will be happy who live according to the word of God, and who look to Him in all things, and who do everything, whatever it is, as if in the presence of God” (Contra Celsus, Book III, Chapter 57). Origen further challenges the pagans, “[L]et him prove that the end which is predicted by any of the others is superior to that which we promise, and consequently that it is true” (Chapter 81).
Apparently, Origen was perfectly confident in Christianity’s ability to provide a superior utility compared to any other philosophy or religion, and indeed he rested the very validity and acceptability of the faith on that ultimatum. Ellul’s claim that Christianity has, only in modern times, “adopt[ed] the notion of social utility as its criterion and justification” therefore seems to be false.
However, our conclusion is missing one important detail: a closer look at the nature of this so-called utility.
Although the early Christians certainly believed that Christian “love and humility provide human beings with a powerful way of disarming such a violent society as theirs and ours” (Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 10), and thus that a Christian society would possess greater social utility than a non-Christian one, they also recognized that individual Christians “entered… upon a life of danger” that would not allow them, “when it was their fate to be slain as sheep, on any occasion to resist their persecutors” (Origen, Chapter 27, 3). Early Christianity, then, was a far cry from the religion promulgated today; God was not expected to reliably intervene for the material or otherwise temporal benefit of Christians; rather, a great many followers of Jesus faced lives that were poor, nasty, brutish and short. So how could Origen possibly contend that Christianity is the fast-track to happiness?
Origen could make this claim because happiness, to the early Christians, meant something quite different from our modern interpretation of the same. We moderns tend to define happiness as a warm and pleasant but fleeting feeling, perhaps originating from the receipt of a gift, intimacy with a loved one or a moment of simple relaxation. But the early Christians saw happiness not as a temporary feeling but as a lasting, existential state of being, acquired when one possessed “freedom from the enslaving quality of appetites and emotions” (Bondi, 23). Understanding this distinction, we can now see why Joel Osteen and Origen both promise their listeners happiness, yet one predicts new cars, spouses and promotions while the other foretells of persecution and martyrdom!
I’ve now been in Kenya for almost two weeks, yet due to problems with the financial apparatus of the small NGO I am working for, my partners and I have been unable to secure the funding we need to hold workshops on the new Kenyan Constitution, and we have also had to cancel or postpone our training of election observers for Kenya’s upcoming general elections. This was at first a huge disappointment to me; now one-quarter of my time in Kenya has passed, and I haven’t done any of the work that I came here to do. However with each passing day, my frustration is replaced with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ meaning in the words of Luke 14:11, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Seeking (and and having no other choice but) to humble myself, I have adopted the profession of the fundi–a workman–and I have spent my days clearing land with a machete, mixing cement by hand, shoveling, milking cows, cooking and installing windows. I’ve actually learned a number of useful skills this way, as well as a very interesting smattering of Swahili, and, although the workshops and trainings are expected to begin at long last next week, I at this point would not mind if they were again postponed in favor of more manual labor alongside the Kenyan yeomanry.
A wise man advised that during my time in Kenya, I should refrain from ‘jumping into action,’ as Americans are wont to do, and that I should instead take some time to ‘listen for the Spirit,’ as it were. In a sense, the last two weeks have provided me with the opportunity to do exactly that. Each day I come home from my labors tired and dirty, to a house without running water and with sporadic access to electricity. And I love it. Freedom from technological and recreational distractions seems to sharpen my mind, focus my thoughts and improve my capacity to bond with people. Subsequently I take a splash bath, and then I share a simple dinner with my hosts–a doting and gracious couple of English teachers in their mid-fifties–with whom stimulating conversation is always had. Finally I retreat to my room, which is not much larger than a closet, where I read, I pray and I think.
The early Christian ascetic, Abba Moses, exhorted other monks to “sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” (quoted in Bondi, 75). My room, in all its simplicity, and its proximity to other seekers with whom meals and much agape are shared, allows me to approximate the situation of these monks, and indeed I try to follow Abba Moses’ exortation to the letter. But what I did not anticipate, and what I am so thankful for, is thesublime contentment that this simple, communal and contemplative life is giving me.
Jaques Ellul was correct after all; the “social utility” that modern Christians increasingly demand is totally different from the deeply personal and spiritual utility that Christianity previously guaranteed. That previous utility, which I am thankfully being allowed to glimpse, takes the form an existential satisfaction with the world–and rebukes any notion of happiness as tangible but fleeting moments of worldly pleasure. Unfortunately, American and Kenyan churches continue to promise their followers measurable, temporal success, setting their parishioners up for a lifetime of disappointment, insofar as “[a] life that takes its meaning from eating, or sex, or owning things can never be fulfilled, because the desires can never be permanently satisfied” (60). Thus, my original question, investigating the relative happiness of Christians versus the adherents of any other system of belief, is ultimately misguided, because Christianity cannot, should not, and was never intended to be described as a way of feeding the temporal cycle of desire; rather, Christianity is a vehicle for the transcendence of our animal nature, whereby “[w]e become more humanby gaining freedom from the enslaving quality of appetites and emotions, [and] more able to love as we move toward God” (23, emphasis added).