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Approaching God in a Self-Absorbed Way

When an idea becomes popular enough, however bad it may be, it can seep into all sorts of things—even precious, sacred parts of our lives.

Walter Isaacson, in his excellent biography of Albert Einstein, trenchantly observed that the study of history suggests a certain truth of the human condition. He termed this truth the Law of Conservation of Ignorance, and it is that “a false conclusion, once arrived at and widely accepted, is not easily dislodged and the less it is understood the more tenaciously it is held.”

As the final essay in this series (earlier essays are here, here, here, and here), I would like to briefly identify what I take to be a false conclusion—one that has been widely accepted and is, thus, tenaciously held. This false conclusion is, in fact, both premise and conclusion—and, therefore, doubly dangerous. It is a hidden secular stumbling block that far too often is a source of confusion and struggle for those trying to make sense of their faith, their relationship with God, and the teachings of scripture and religious leaders. The name of this secular stumbling block is “Hedonism.” Simply put, hedonism is the notion that the pursuit of pleasure (however it is defined in particular cases) is the principle aim and driving force of life. A hedonist is, thus, someone who strives to maximize personal pleasure and benefit while simultaneously seeking to minimize personal pain, discomfort, or costs. 

While the word “hedonism” tends to conjure up images of wild excess and indulgence, that is only one possible manifestation of the idea. There are, in fact, many versions of hedonism at work in the world. Some are quite unapologetically selfish and self-aggrandizing, to be sure, but there are other forms that are less obviously selfish and more civil in their approach, seeking to secure personal benefit through cooperation and mutual cost-sharing. I dare say that most people, religious or otherwise, tend to be repulsed by the former and more comfortable with the latter—more approving of the lifestyle philosophy of Bill Gates or Ayn Rand, for example, than that of Hugh Hefner or Miley Cyrus.

It is, nonetheless, difficult to overstate the pervasive influence that the concept of hedonism exerts in our modern world, and on the way we so often understand ourselves, our motives, the actions of others, and even the nature of gospel of Jesus Christ. It really requires very little convincing to see that hedonism is a dominant feature of contemporary social, economic, political, and interpersonal life these days—and, indeed, has been such a feature for a very long time. Indeed, you really only need to scan the daily headlines of your local newspaper to find a litany of accounts of people acting in (or defending acting in) self-interested, and even aggressively hedonistic, ways in the realms of business, politics, education, law, sex, marriage and family, and almost every other area of daily social life.

For many people, it just is the case that to be human is to be “an egoistic, rational, utility-maximizer.” That is to say, for most people it just is a given of life that most of us, most of the time—if not all of us, all of the time—are really just “in it for ourselves,” doing what we can to get ahead in a “dog-eat-dog” world where the only real strategy for success is “looking out for number one!” Even some Christian thinkers suggest that such a view is biblical in nature and is to be embraced with God’s blessing. 

Whether expressed in the overtly crass, materialistic terms of an “if it feels good, do it” ethic, in the biblical language of the fallen selfishness of the “natural man,” or in the calculative jargon of secular rationalism and individual autonomy (e.g., to get what you want out of life requires careful planning and strategic, long-term thinking), the basic assumption about the priority of the Self is always the same (even though the prescriptions for addressing the issue may differ greatly). That is, the Self is, it is said, of all things truly human, the most fundamental, and its interests relentless, inescapable, and undeniable.

Given the pervasive reach of the assumption of hedonism, the only real question that is thought to confront us is how we will go about maximizing our individual pleasures, personal happiness, and economic or social benefits in the course of our daily lives. Indeed, it is the investigation of this very question that tends to occupy the time and intense efforts of Ivory Tower social scientists and philosophers, Wall Street investors and Madison Avenue advertisers, and a vast host of government bureaucrats devoted to hammering out the myriad details of public policy. Very few, in fact, ever bother to question the basic proposition of hedonism, taking it instead as a basic axiom of human life, a law of nature, red in tooth and claw, whose possibilities for excess and destruction can only be mediated by education in the fine art of disciplined self-control, or the careful cultivation of higher, more refined tastes in choosing the objects of one’s pleasure-seeking aims.

For most people it just is a given of life that most of us, most of the time—if not all of us, all of the time—are really just “in it for ourselves.”

What is sometimes missed in all of this, however, is the profound role that the secular premise of universal hedonism tends to play in shaping and guiding our religious lives and understandings. For example, it is commonly said that the primary reason why anyone might opt to divert from an enticing path to pleasure and personal benefit by choosing instead to obey heavenly commandments and follow strict scriptural teachings is really just a matter of the forward-looking calculation of self-interest. In other words, obedience to covenant obligation is often seen, not so much as sacrificing pleasure for pain, as the best route toward securing for ourselves (over the long-haul) particular blessings and rewards we desire by paying the divinely dictated costs of discipleship. Ordinary conversations, for example, about such things as chastity, tithes and offerings, fasting, and various health or dietary restrictions often center on the specific goods (i.e., blessings) that are to be gained by one’s adherence to such commandments—i.e., longer life, financial windfalls, avoidance of unwanted diseases or pregnancies, unique spiritual clarity, and other such desires. Granted or so the argument goes, obedience and self-denial are inconvenient, even painful and frustrating, but the joys of the heavenly payoff will, in the long-term, be more than sufficient to offset any pains endured in the short-term of self-denial.

When seen in such a way—that is, through the unrecognized secular assumption of hedonism—it becomes easy to envisage our religious life as essentially a matter of spiritual bookkeeping where we maintain entries under two basic columns: Costs and Benefits. Sinful or forbidden conduct is then entered in the “Costs” column, while obedient actions are entered into the “Benefits” column, presumably for each column to be added up at various times—and, finally, before the final judgment bar of God—and compared in order to determine whether one has truly done what is necessary to earn the benefit being sought. 

Spirituality and religious life is, on this model, essentially an economic matter of equitable giving and taking, governed by the complex interplay of universal hedonism and implacable contract law. We come to believe that so long as we simply pay sufficiently into our heavenly bank accounts by means of various acts of obedience—while not incurring too much debt by disobedience—then we are entitled to promised and desired blessings from God. A loving Heavenly Father, in this view, is somewhat akin to Santa Claus: a kindly old fellow keeping precise and detailed lists of the Naughty and the Nice, a man who pops up occasionally to reward those who have done whatever is needed to make the one list and to punish (with the spiritual equivalent of a lump of coal) those who have earned a spot on that other list.

When we think of our relationship to God in this hedonistic way—as we are so subtly and continuously encouraged to by our larger culture and its secular liturgies—commandments and heavenly guidance are reduced to being merely the instruments by which we can obtain for ourselves from God certain experiences, goods, or benefits (whether spiritual or temporal) that we happen to personally desire (for whatever reasons). The possibility that one might wish to obey God and follow prophetic counsel simply because doing so is good in itself and serves no other end or purpose, reflecting only love, gratitude, and self-forgetting, is a possibility seldom explicitly entertained or explored fully in its own right. Rather, we too often simply take it for granted that personal desire for benefit always comes first as motivation, self-interest endlessly framing the meaning of any particular acts of obedience and providing the only reasonable justification for inconveniencing oneself in the service of either God or one’s neighbor.

The ultimate consequence of this sort of thinking, although seldom noted, is that we come to see our relationship with God in terms of individual means and individual ends. That is, God becomes someone who we seek out in order to get things from Him that we want, things we want for our reasons and our purposes. The nature of such a relationship is, as I noted above, at its root an economic or contractual one, rather than a familial or covenantal one. It is a relationship whose primary concern is the equitable exchange of desired goods and services by separate parties with separate—though perhaps converging—interests. In other words, our relationship with God is fundamentally instrumental in nature. That is, it is not an end in itself, but rather only an instrument (a means) by which we seek to achieve what are decisively individual ends—regardless of whether those ends are understood as obtaining particular desired blessings (and the rewarding gratification that comes with them) or merely avoiding certain undesired punishments (and the frustration and pain they bring).

While it is easy to see how such a view of the nature of our relationship with God is too superficial, too manipulative, and too self-focused to make adequate sense of the more meaningful and fully covenantal relationship God seeks to have with us, there is a more pernicious danger lurking here that needs to be recognized and brought out into the open. Having unwittingly absorbed the assumption of universal hedonism, and the ethic that comes along with it, through the operations of a multitude of secular liturgies bent toward shaping our self-understanding, certain beliefs about and expectations of God come to be firmly solidified in our minds. A basic conception of God as just the chief provider or withholder of blessings and punishments quickly takes hold, becoming the lens through which we interpret our relationship with Him and understand both His character and our own.

Once our covenant relationship with God is framed in the terms of contractual exchanges, grievances can begin to mount when the blessings we desire, and have come to expect as the result of our diligent obedience to specific commandments, do not show up. In the midst of suffering, setbacks, and trials, we may begin to find ourselves wondering why God is not keeping His end of the bargain with us. Why, we might begin to ask, are we not getting from God what we have clearly earned by our dutiful observance of the commandments He has given? Why is He not keeping the promises He has made? Why have I been consistently offering my tithes to the Church if God isn’t going to resolve my financial difficulties? Why have I been faithfully attending worship services, praying and fasting, if He isn’t going to heal my child of her debilitating illness? Why am I working so hard to be good if God is going to go ahead and let bad things happen to me? When operating from hedonistic premises, especially when they are not recognized as assumptions in the first place (much less secular ones), it is all but impossible to offer a satisfactory answer to such questions, answers in which God is not seen as being untrustworthy, arbitrary, or malicious and false. A serious crisis of faith is the usual (and very predictable) result.

“If I change my convictions, my world, at least as I experience it, changes with them.”

Fortunately, there are other premises from which we might understand the nature of divine commandments, prophetic counsel, and the possibilities of genuine relationship with God. It is possible to “think differently” as we strive to make sense of our faith and our experience of suffering and tragedy. Indeed, I would argue, the Christian worldview might well demand it of us. As Wilkens and Sanford point out in their excellent book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives, secular and theistic “convictions differ radically” and “what exists (and does not exist) in my universe, the means by which it is known most accurately, my place in this universe, and a host of other questions will have answers that are molded by my convictions. If I change my convictions, my world, at least as I experience it, changes with them.” 

Our assumptions about the nature of ourselves and the world, be they genuinely theistic (Christian) or purely secular, “radiate outward to shape our ethics (what we believe we should or should not do) and values (what we take to be priorities).” Ensuring that we have actually thought through the premises that undergird the lives we live, the goals and aspirations we have, and the kind of God we can experience requires vigilant examination of the incongruities that exist between what are, clearly, rival perspectives on who we are, who God is, and what possibilities for a meaningful, authentic relationship might exist.

One possible avenue available for exploration and comparison is one in which the fundamental reality of moral agency is merged with the equally fundamental reality of the “pure love of Christ,” or what has long been known in the Christian tradition as agapé. In contrast to the secular assumption of hedonism being intrinsic to human nature, and thus the foundational context for all human relationships, we might consider the possibility that as moral agents we are capable of forgoing instrumental reasoning and self-interested action by acting unreservedly out of love for another in self-transcending desire for their welfare, with no thought given for our own. Of course, as moral agents we can certainly give ourselves over to self-regard, taking up the invitation to seek after personal benefit, or yielding to the desire for manipulation and control (of others) in order to gain what we seek for ourselves. However, as moral agents, we can also yield instead to the “enticings of the Holy Spirit” as we are called to the possibilities of selfless love and humble gratitude.

In this perspective, moral agency is our nature in a way that hedonism is not. While it is certainly the case that we can act out of a desire for gratification, out of self-interest and self-regard, even more basic to our divine nature is that we are the sorts of beings who can act, rather than just be acted upon (by the unrelenting force of hedonism, for example). Thus, we can yield to the possibilities of being more loving, more truthful, humbler, and focused on the needs of others—and not in any way that requires that we combat or control a fundamentally selfish nature. Rather, yielding to divine invitation to forget ourselves by being-for and loving others as ends in themselves, and doing so in self-transcending gratitude for a Savior who is the very truth that sets us free and makes all things possible, is the clearest and fullest expression of just exactly who it is we are as sons and daughters of God, made in His very image and likeness.

In giving ourselves over to the subtle whisperings of the Spirit—the quiet and persistent promptings of divine invitation—we can begin to understand that obedience to the commandments of a loving Heavenly Father and the compassionate and wise counsel of religious leaders is not some instrumental means by which we secure for ourselves the satisfaction of our individual desires. Instead, we come to know that divine commandments and prophetic counsel are in fact themselves heavenly blessings, and genuine obedience is at its root an act of loving gratitude for the blessing of commandments. 

Imagine what a world devoid of heavenly guidance and structured command might look like. It takes only a moment’s reflection on such things to see the chaos and confusion that would ensue. Indeed, it really only takes a moment’s observation of the moral turmoil and mayhem in the world around us—or, even, in the world within us—to understand the consequences of living outside of Divine law and command. The unrelenting intensity of the moral anguish of it all begins to beggar the imagination. But, once seriously considered, it also becomes quite clear just how it is that commandments are in and of themselves blessings—the very blessings God always promised. 

Considered anew, from a perspective free from the reductive hedonism of secular liturgies, obedience can be seen to constitute the recognition of one’s dependence on and adoration of a compassionate, caring God who seeks always—and in all ways—to comfort and bless and ennoble His children. Divine commandments as blessings are the very embodiment of God’s wish to guide His children to fuller, safer, and more meaningful lives—specifically, lives more like His own.

Seen in this light, then, concern for the calculus of personal cost and benefit that has been subtly inscribed on our hearts through the formative processes of secular liturgies loses its persuasive power over our religious imagination and spiritual understanding. Of course, trials and suffering and painful setbacks will come—it would be foolish to assume otherwise—but it becomes possible to see that these things happen not because God has failed to keep His end of the “obedience bargain” with us. Rather, tragedy comes because that is the nature of life in a world such as this, a world jam-packed with other moral agents working out their relationships with one another and with God—sometimes doing it well and bringing much joy, but at other times doing it poorly and bringing much misery in their wake. 

We come to know that divine commandments and prophetic counsel are in fact themselves heavenly blessings, and genuine obedience is at its root an act of loving gratitude for the blessing of commandments.

Reasoning from the premises of moral agency and charity, rather than inescapable hedonism, one’s perspective on justice also changes dramatically as we begin to see that it is only mercy that can make sense of a world of injustice. Only in light of unearned mercy can unearned injustice be made, if only in some small measure, intelligible. In Christ’s merciful love for each of us in the midst of the supreme injustice of His suffering for and because of us, in Gethsemane and again on the Cross, we find an alternative image of humanity and human possibility—an image in stark contrast to the secular assumptions of the hedonic basis of human nature. As the poet and author, Arthur Henry King noted, “Christ in his incarnation as man shows the possibilities of the human.” 

In Christ, we discover that commandments are gifts freely and lovingly given, not instruments to be used in the furtherance of individual aims and ends. And, though injustice will come into every life and pain will follow, we are never alone, even in the deepest anguish of our own personal Gethsemanes. “Lord, I resented your silence,” Father Rodrigues confesses in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. “I was not silent,” God responds, “I suffered beside you.” In Christ, the demands for fair exchange are swallowed up in the promise of mercy, compassion, communion, and a peace that speaks directly, soul to soul. The test set before us in this life is, thus, not whether we will maximize our blessings by calculating obedience to divine laws and commandments, or whether we will earn our place in heaven by compiling a spotless record of dutiful compliance. Rather, the great test set before us is to learn what it means to be moral agents, beings who can not only truly love but who must allow themselves to be loved. In so doing, we are able to give ourselves on the altar in sacrificial similitude of the infinite and eternal sacrifice of the Son of God. 

No negotiation is needed here, and no contract is necessary—only yielding submission to the loving will of God is required, submission as an act of pure love and humble gratitude unburdened by the quest for personal benefit or calculations of the relative costs and benefits of discipleship. This does not, however, mean that we need not enter into sacred covenants or be vigilant in keeping them. Rather, it only points to the fact that, unlike contracts (which are entered into by equal parties pursuing individual ends), covenants are sealed on altars as sacrificial acts of one’s will to a loving God—a God who makes demands and expects much of us.

In the end, then, the questions and doubts that generate so many crises of faith for so many of us must be met by more sustained and careful reflection on the premises from which such questions and doubts spring. In setting aside the all-too-often hidden secular assumption of universal hedonism, we are at last able to consider a genuinely alternative view of what it means to be a human being, to love others, and to honor God. This is an alternative view in which moral agency is taken to be the foundational fact of human nature and existence, and one in which the economic concerns of the Self can be dispensed with as deeper, more intimate engagement with a truly relational God can begin to take place. However, in order for such reflection to do more than just recapitulate the tired assumptions and categories of secular thought, we must be willing to open ourselves up to this alternate starting point and the very different ways of understanding ourselves, others, and God which this perspective entails. Perhaps (as I have noted before), in so doing, we may at last come to see what the real, most fundamental difference is between secular starting points and sacred ones. Perhaps, if we are sufficiently open to instruction, we will come to see that the living Christ is our one true foundational premise.

About the author

Edwin E. Gantt

Edwin E. Gantt is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues and Who is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (co-authored with Dr. Jeffrey L. Thayne). He has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University.
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