Posted by: Alex | June 9, 2011

Christian Libertarianism in Desiring God

Writing now from the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center in New Hampshire.  This place is beautiful, the staff is great, its gonna be an awesome summer!  Also a very busy one… but still have a little time to read and write in the course of the day.

Continuing with our examination of Desiring God by John Piper.  Looking today at Chapter four, which is titled “Love.”  I think this chapter clearly illustrates at work the tendency of what I described as “Christian Libertarianism” in a previous post.  This is, in other words, the pursuit of self-interest as motivating actions in relation to others.  This is what is behind the economic theories of Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, for instance- that left to their own devices, people will pursue their self-interest.  Which, the economic theory goes, will result in a distribution of goods where the supply matches the demand in various markets and resources are distributed efficiently.  The opposite of this would be a centralized market in which someone directs all transactions and tells people what they need/want and what goods are going to be made or offered.  There is a huge middle-ground between these two extremes, however.  Modifications to the “libertarian” ideal have been happening for as long as market economies have existed because while self-interest might drive markets to balance supply and demand, it does nothing to stop abuses like environmental waste, wage discrimination, exploitation of labor (especially of children), and cut-throat monopolizing of markets.  People are vicious, and self-interest has generally been seen as insufficient for regulating markets on its own because of this.

What Piper wants to propose is that self-interest in the form of the pursuit of our own pleasure should regulate our Christian service of love:

This chapter’s answer is that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed.  Or, to put it another way:  If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.  (112)

Piper explains this to mean that we should love others because of the gain we will get from loving them.  He realizes that this seems extraordinarily counter-intuitive and selfish, however, and so this chapter is largely an exercise in defending such a notion of self-interest guided charity.

One of the major ways he goes about making such a defense is to put a major limitation on the kind of “self-interest” that qualifies as love:

Love does not seek its own private, limited joy, but instead seeks its own joy in the good- the salvation and edification- of others. (116, emphasis his)

What we can notice about this is that it takes us back into the kind of word game that we have accused PIper of playing in prior posts.  Typically, when we define love, it has to do with a concern for others over ourselves, which frequently works out to being self-sacrificial.  Piper wants to explicitly reject the notion of self-sacrifice in this chapter and make even seemingly self-sacrificial love into love motivated by the self-interest or pleasure of the lover.  How does he accomplish this?  By defining this self-interest motivated love as concern for the good of another.  So are we back at the “normal” definition of love?  Well, not quite.  Piper still wants to insert the idea that we pursue the good of the other ultimately because it brings us pleasure.  In other words, the final goal of pursuing the good of someone else is still our own good.

There are some other interesting comments throughout this chapter.  Piper claims that “an act does not qualify as love unless it involves right motives” (117).  He finds that right motive in the love of God, which is a very standard move in Christian theology:

Could it be that Paul’s conception of horizontal love between people is such that it is authentic only when it is the extension of a vertical love for God?  (117)

Piper’s twist, of course, is that the love for God is essentially an extension of our own self-interest and the pursuit of our own pleasure.  Thus, he argues, it is hedonistic to love God and by extension hedonistic to love our neighbor.

This then leads into another interesting word game worth noting here:

Part of the thesis of this chapter is that if you try to abandon the pursuit of your full and lasting joy, you cannot love people or please God… If we are indifferent to whether we do a good deed cheerfully, we are indifferent to what pleases God.  For God loves a cheerful giver.  (121)

Our pursuit of our own pleasure in God extends to our attitude in service: we must be cheerful to please God, and we must please God to be happy ourselves, therefore we must be cheerful to be happy.  To me this seems incredibly artificial.  He takes it farther a few pages later, writing first:

We are commanded to enjoy our work!  (127)

And literally two lines later writing:

the impulse should come gladly from within, not oppressively from without.  (127)

I would very much like to hear the balance of these two statements explained.  How do we gladly obey the command to enjoy our work without that enjoyment being “imposed from without?”  How do we make ourselves enjoy our work, to respect a command, and have that enjoyment be genuine?  Here is one of the few places in this book where it seems explicit that for Piper’s hedonism to work, determinism must be true.  Which is of course one of the main places Piper and I would have a serious theological and philosophical disagreement.

A final quote to summarize the chapter and my mixed feelings on it:

If we really are being attracted by the reward of being made holy as He is holy, then we will be attracted to those acts that partake in His holiness.  If we delight in the prospect of knowing Christ even as we are known, we will delight in the sorts of acts and attitudes that reflect His moral character.  (138)

In some ways this sounds great to me- our love of Christ and the joy that causes us will cause us to show love to others.  However, what still bothers me about this, and about Piper’s “hedonism” in general is that ever present notion that at the end of the day our motive for both loving God and loving others both is and should be our own self-interest.  In the economy of love that Piper is creating, we are consumers driven by our own needs and wants.  The goods for sale are seemingly noble: the glory of God and the happiness of others, purchased through worship and service.  Still, the hint of commodification and selfishness in this idea just seems contrary to my intuitions.

What do you think?  Should self-interest motivate our love of others?  Is that turning service (and the people we serve) into commodities for our own enjoyment?


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