Friday 30 March 2012

Happiness on Trial – Part I

By Artur Suski, S.J.

What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose, our end? What is the deepest desire of our hearts? These are all very relevant questions for contemporary society. But what should be the Christian response to these questions?

Back in the days of the Church Fathers, St. Augustine thinks that all people desire to be happy. The “who” and the “how”, though, is another matter. St. Augustine, along with St. Thomas Aquinas, are said to have successfully baptized the teachings on happiness by Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. These two saints are the representatives of a certain take on the Christian life which is called ‘the way of ascent’. According to this model, the goal of the Christian vocation is the ascent of the soul toward God – the Beatific vision – in which the human will find his ultimate happiness and fulfillment.

The Christian hence leads a virtuous and prayerful life, to further dispose and perfect themselves so that he may participate in this divine encounter that will bring him unending happiness. One can say that this model of happiness has dominated the Christian understanding of the Christian life.

Not all schools of theological thoughts, however, have adopted this notion of happiness. Some holds that the end of the Christian life is not a way of ascent to the perfection of the human being, and hence to complete happiness; rather, our ultimate end is to be configured to Christ and in order to participate intimately in the mission of Christ.

I would like to present three interesting takes on this model of life that I think are significant to this conversation on happiness: those of Blessed Duns Scotus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The ultimate end for Scotus is no longer personal perfection and happiness. Instead, he posits a new ultimate end: the Alpha and Omega that is God. Scotus emphasizes that we ought to love God not for our own sake, but for God’s own sake. Finally, Scotus states that we can only love because we have first been loved by God. Ours is a free response to a free gift.

Scotus makes some daring claims, and by doing this, he departs from the Aristotelian notion of happiness: the focus is no longer on me, in what I will get from this relationship with God. It is, rather, on God Himself. Our life becomes a free gift to the Beloved because I love Him for his own sake. But where does happiness fit in? Has it disappeared from the scene? Not at all; rather, happiness comes as a fruit, as an effect, of our love of God. It is no longer our end, but rather a by-product, if you will, of our relationship with God.

This should hopefully provide enough fruit for thoughts for the moment; next time I will continue to build on this with the writings of St. Ignatius and von Balthasar. A blessed Holy Week to you all!

[Continue to Part II]

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