Posted by: Alex | June 25, 2011

Suffering and Christian Hedonism

Our staff training has drawn to a close here at the Barbara C. Harris Camp.  This week I actually met Bishop Barbara Harris, after whom the camp was named.  She was the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion and is quite a character in person.  Thoroughly enjoyed driving her around the camp on a golf cart to show her some of our activities, including archery and watching a t-rescue of canoes out on the water.

More relevant to this blog, this week my attention was drawn to a written response to my critique of Piper, put forward by my friend and fellow alum of Southeastern Bible College, Dallas Goebel.  His critique of my critique, as well as my reply, can be read here if you are interested.

In this post I want to focus on the last chapter in Piper’s book Desiring God, which is entitled “Suffering.”  My understanding is that this chapter is new to the Revised Edition which I have been reading, so it may not be familiar to some readers.  In part, I think the chapter is an attempt by Piper to answer two possible challenges to his Christian Hedonism:  (1) the Problem of Evil; (2) the Health, Wealth, and Prosperity Gospel.  Piper vaguely references the Problem of Evil in this chapter and he doesn’t actually ever mention the Health, Wealth and Prosperity gospel, but I mention both of these because I think this chapter provides the material Piper would/should use to respond to them.  Essentially, the argument of the chapter is that the Christian Hedonist can make sense of suffering by pointing to the ultimate reward in in the next life.  Christian Hedonism is eschatological, in other words: the pleasure we seek is not immediate but something we look forward to at a later date:

Paul did not see his relation to Christ as the key to maximizing his physical comforts and pleasures in this life.  No, Paul’s relation to Christ was a call to choose suffering– a suffering that was beyond what would make atheism “meaningful” or “beautiful” or “heroic.”  It was a suffering that would have been utterly foolish and pitiable to choose if there is no resurrection into the joyful presence of Christ.  (261, emphasis his)

This quote also references the alternative perspective that Piper explicitly identifies in this chapter, which is exhibited by an old Abbot in an interview on Italian TV quoted by a persecuted missionary Piper heard speak once:

The interviewer was was especially interested in the Cistercian tradition of living in silence and solitude.  So he asked the abbot, “And what if you were to realize in the end of your life that atheism is true- that there is no God?  Tell me, what if that were true?”  The Abbot replied,  “Holiness, silence, and sacrifice are beautiful in themselves, even without promise of reward.  I will still have used my life well.”  (254)

Piper doesn’t like what this Abbot has to say.  He thinks it doesn’t square with the Apostle Paul’s view of suffering, which is the “eschatological reward” view Piper outlines in this chapter.  When I read this quote it immediately resonated with me.  So it would seem we have here an example of where Piper and I have very different perspectives.  But before we get too hasty, its worth pondering both of these things a bit more.  This post is going to be less an exegesis of Piper and more a meditation on two different approaches to the Christian life that I think are illustrated by these two quotes.

The first approach is that of the Abbot.  We need to defend the Abbot a bit from Piper’s later statements about “Western Christianity.”

This is an utterly crucial question for the Christian church, especially in prosperous, comfortable lands like America and Western Europe.  How many times do we hear Christian testimonies to the effect that becoming a Christian has made life easier?  I once heard the quarterback for a professional football team say that after he prayed to receive Christ, he felt good about the game again and was proud of their eight-and-eight record because he was able to go out every Sunday and give it his best.  It seems that most Christians in the prosperous West describe the benefits of Christianity in terms that would make it a good life, even if there were no God and no resurrection.  (255)

Now, what I want to point out is that I think (though of course I can’t know this) that the Cistercian Abbot would be quick to join Piper in this criticism.  The life of contemplation and solitude is not the comfortable life of a professional athlete (not to diminish the work that athlete’s put into their careers, but they aren’t sleeping in a monk’s cell every night).  I suspect that the Abbot would not look too fondly on the material comforts of many in the West.  They are distractions from the contemplative life.  So Piper’s attempts to link the materialism of the West with the statement of this Abbot seems a bit of a misstep to me.  I think both the Abbot and Piper would actually say something remarkably similar: that living the gospel is about living in a way that is radically different from the culture around us.  The Abbot has chosen to do this by living a life of simple solitude and prayer, following a long tradition of Christian monks.  Piper encourages his readers to do this by embracing suffering for the sake of the gospel, taking his cue from Paul’s evangelistic journeys.  The difference in these two “radical” approaches to living out their faith is the answer to the question “what if it wasn’t true?”  The Abbot has chosen to live his faith in a way radically different from his culture, but in a way that he also thinks is beautiful in itself.  He can answer that he has spent his life well, even if his faith was misplaced.  Piper wants to argue that we are in a major gamble- its all or nothing.  We either get the reward or it was all a waste.  This risk is what he calls the Christian Hedonist to.

The question that I found myself asking as I read this chapter is why this has to be an “either/or.”  Cannot Christians legitimately embrace both ways of living the gospel?  Why must the genuine Christian life always look like Piper’s “zero-sum” game?  This is not to discredit what Piper is saying.  I greatly appreciated much of what Piper said in this chapter.  I also think this chapter contained some of the best exegesis in the book.  But I’m not convinced that Piper’s portrayal is as universal as he wants it to seem.  I wonder if in various places and various cultures, such as perhaps heavily Christianized and yet heavily modernized Italy, the Cistercian method of living apart while living in the midst of a people is not a more genuine example of living out the gospel than what Piper seems to have in mind (his stories are mostly set in anti-Christian authoritarian regimes).  Can this not be a “both and,” varying with particular circumstances?

What do you think?  Is there something really wrong with the Abbot’s way of living the gospel?  If so, what is it?  Can both of these approaches be considered genuinely Christian expressions of faith in different circumstances?


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