Q: In Chapter 6, he writes about an epiphany he had when he encountered a drunk beggar who was laughing and singing. He realizes that his ambition to succeed made him more miserable and finds that money and status doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. He writes, “I was hoping to win the joy of worldly happiness, the very thing which this man had already secured at the cost of the few pence which he had begged.” What is happiness? Is it relative or is there an absolute, universal standard everyone strives for? Even though the world tells us that we should strive to work harder, get a better job, and make more money, and therefore live a happier life, why is it that that’s not the case all the time? (In your response, please refrain from using too much hokey spiritual/religious claims like, “This is why you need Jesus/God in your life so that he will become your true happiness, etc.” unless you can philosophically and or theologically justify it and add some depth to your response please.) Can a Christian have both worldly success and live an authentic Christian life? In other words, can he or she drive a Bentley, own a private yacht, a private jet, and live in a mansion in Beverly Hills and still be a God-fearing Christian? Or are there too many temptations? Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter into heaven”? Do you feel that Augustine is presenting us with an “either/or” situation – i.e. you can have worldly success but not be an authentic Christian or vice versa?
“For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4: 11)
The pursuit of happiness is not limited to Christianity or religion. That is the question we all are asking. Today, in our capitalistic society, it seems to be money, power or women/men/love/sex/pleasure. Many, after obtaining these goals, come to the empty feeling that they are not happy, but the lack of these things is frightening.
Material or worldly success is not necessarily contradictory to a Christian life.
In response to Jesus’s point with the needle, his disciples despaired, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responded, “With man this is impossible, but not with God.”
Admittedly, success and riches can be very distracting from our need for God while the poor more readily recognize their fallen state and the need for a higher power. It is much like pain which is unpleasant, but lets us know that we are hurt. Those rare people who suffer from congenital insensitivity to pain don’t live very long because they don’t recognize any damage to their body and need someone to carefully examine their body at the end of each day.
Stoicism has been mistakenly thought of as carrying on or ignoring suffering. True stoicism is instead the finding of joy regardless of circumstance. Much like after the Grinch stole the material food and presents of Christmas, the Whovillians still gathered together on Christmas morning to hold hands and sing with joy. Or in the recent film “Cinderella” who at the end, when it seemed she would never see her prince again to rescue her from her wicked stepmother, she could still sing in joy. Much like the sadness of her parents’ death could not negate the happiness of her childhood, she treasured the happy memory of the ball, and that she sacrificed herself to keep the prince and kingdom safe.
Q: To Augustine, becoming a Christian or answering the call to become a Christian was the call to a “philosophical” life. This meant a life designed to be as simple as possible and free from external demands, as this would let them devote his or her life to the pursuit of wisdom. Augustine describes how Ambrose was often too busy to meet with him because he had devoted so much personal time to reading and studying. To Augustine, Ambrose seemed to epitomize a mind for God. How does one glorify God with the mind? Do you think this aspect is often neglected in the church and or believers today? Why or why not?
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-39).
Last year I attended a two-day conference on modern philosophy hosted by New York University. It is an annual conference, and each year the organizers pick one topic and invite philosophers and professors all around the world to come and give talks on that one topic. Last year’s topic was on “God.” Talks on Leibniz, Kant, William James, and other thinkers were given. One might have gotten the suspicion that a room filled with philosophers and academics discussing the topic of God might have been all about how atheism prevails or how God cannot possibly exist because of this philosophical reason X and Y, and the like, but that was hardly the case at all. Not one talk or paper submitted by these world-class philosophers, at least to my assessment, denigrated or dismissed God as being unnecessary in today’s highly technologically advanced age. The topic of God was given the utmost respect and rigorous thought. This was highly satisfying for me to listen to and witness firsthand on what philosophers do and how they handle perplexing questions, and it felt like a gust of refreshing wind from the excessively dry moral therapeutic deistic sermons I was accustomed to hearing each and every Sunday at church. But as I look back, it was quite disheartening to see that there was hardly anyone in the ministry or even theologians in the audience (although I only saw one theologian/former minister there). Were there any Christians like me there? I’m not sure. I did announce it on my facebook, but only one friend showed up. None of my church friends showed up (although a couple of them did muster to hit the “like” button in my status bar about me attending the conference).
Whenever I read a book about God, whether it be focusing on science and God, philosophy, history, or the Bible, I have always considered that time to be an act of worship toward God. Though I am not good with finding time with personal prayer or hardly become enthusiastic while singing praise songs, I am good at finding the time to sit down and study for long periods of time on any subject matter pertaining to God. I find that I come closest to God when thinking and engaging in deep conversations about Him – that’s what gets me excited for God and He seems most “real” to me, paradoxically even when I share about my doubts and struggles in belief about Him with others. I feel blessed to have a group such as this, where I can have intellectual conversations about God with like-minded people. Small groups and community groups from church have their place in a believers’ life, but they are more like spiritual therapy groups where people gather to pray for one another and or share their burdens with each other, but rarely, if ever, do they engage in real deep theological conversations.
As I have attended multiple churches throughout the years, I have encountered countless people who sincerely loved Jesus with all their hearts and harbored a level of belief and devotion that I am envious of at times, but when you try to engage in deeper levels of thought about God, his nature, and his actions, I always come out disappointed in many respects. For me, it seems like God or Jesus is more like a great life-coach or therapist when I listen to them talk about theology. Mind you, I’m not talking about metaphysics, Kant, Spinoza, special relativity, or Karl Barth with them, but trying to get just general thought-proving questions about God with them. It’s even worse when I engage the Bible with them. Though many claim they love the Bible equally as much as God, it seems as though it’s nothing more than a book about encouragement when life is getting tough. When you ask deeper questions about God and biblical theology (or theology within the Bible), you mostly get blank stares and nervous smiles. When I try getting church folk more interested about the Bible (such as doing learning about biblical exegesis and hermeneutics or just going beyond doing personal quiet-time devotionals) or theology, most provide lip-service and a nod, but not much else, so I don’t really expect much from fellow church-goers these days. All I can conclude is that though they outwardly say they consider God and the Bible important, I really think it’s far less than they really think it is.
I don’t think churches or church leaders are doing enough to encourage critical thought about theological subjects with the congregants. Most people get their biblical/theological knowledge through a pastor’s sermons and often unconsciously adopt and inculcate their pastor’s viewpoints, and most will leave it at that. (It becomes part of their adoptive authority.) Few will challenge or out-right disagree with a pastor on a face-to-face level. Most of the Bible studies used during church services mostly center around “How does this Bible verse speak to me?” or “How can I apply this biblical principle to my life?” Very little time or hardly any time at all is focused upon the historical context, authorial intent, and exegesis of the text, but jumps almost immediately into hermeneutics and application. It almost always has to boil down to some basic moral or ethical viewpoint or a heavy spiritualizing of the biblical text that usually offers a watered-down version of what the biblical text whose true meaning was missed.
A lot of this has to do with the culture of anti-intellectualism that is quite rampant in evangelical circles today, especially in America. One can argue that anti-intellectualism is the culture of America in general. Of course, I cannot go into the history of anti-intellectualism in America here, but in a nutshell, America seems to value pragmatism and practicality over and above intellectualism. We live in a results-driven, consumer, individualistic society that values self-interest or personal happiness above everything else. We don’t have time to engage in all this needless head-knowledge, I just want to know the quickest way to get what I want right now, whether it be money, a job, a relationship, or God. I know, many will argue against this and that it seems too pessimistic. Thinking things through, even in things about theology, is a chore and there’s little if anything practical about it. This mindset has become part and parcel to the Christian mindset of much of America today. There is also a culture of suspicion and fear about more advanced learning in evangelical circles, where asking too many questions might lead one away from the faith. Though it happens in some cases, I don’t think this is the norm when one pursues a higher education in theology or biblical studies.
A mind for God will glorify God by studying about God for His own sake, and not for wanting get anything material blessing out of it I believe. A mind that is not afraid to engage in tough, uncomfortable questions and challenge the status quo of established orthodoxy. A mind for God will be passionate about learning more and more about Him and then carry that knowledge out, not to show off to churchgoers or be better at debates against atheists, but because he or she loves God or is passionate about learning more about Him. A mind for God will be like the 12-year old Jesus, who was found “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at His understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47).