The Good Life
It begins by seeing, or imagining “the good life”. We see it in others. We see it on TV. We naturally want it for ourselves and we try to figure out how to get it, and after we’re a bit older and have children, how to secure it for them.
The elements aren’t a secret
- Strength, beauty, health, intelligence by good parents or good genes
- A safe, secure, environment with good food and good people
- A good education, good morals, good friends, a good start
We quickly begin to realize that this can’t be done alone. It takes a village. It takes a city. It takes an economy. It takes a civilization. So we get into politics to try to secure these things not just for ourselves but also for our neighbors because we’ll need neighbors to enjoy these things if we can enjoy them and offer them to our children.
We even might begin to imagine that it takes a god or gods. After we have exhausted all human efforts we look to the “spiritual” to make life work. This is the deep source of human religion and spirituality.
Rome and Augustine
The ancient Romans knew this. Augustine engaged in these questions in possibly the second most important book in the history of the world after the Bible “The City of God”. This from Charles Mathewes Great Courses on the book.
Now, everyone wants happiness, Augustine argues. For pagan thinkers, happiness—true human flourishing—is found in our lives as citizens of some human city, such as Rome. This is effectively a morality of patriotism. You exercise your virtuousness— your kind of manly power; this is really addressed to men here—to gain imperium—rule, or domination—which gives you and your city gloria—glory, or splendor.
Again, this remains a view which many if not most people today share, that human happiness is the product of this-worldly striving, and that to advance such striving, governments are established as one central vehicle for empowering it. Happiness is realized by worldly achievement.
What separated the Romans from us in many ways was their religiosity. They were very interested, involved and committed to religious ways. In fact Augustine’s book was written because when Rome was sacked, and the empire increasingly eaten away by “barbarian” forces traditional Romans turned to blame the Christians for this. Christians were “atheists” in that they didn’t support the temples and the traditional gods and this must be the reason for the decline of the old world.
The top and the bottom of the heap
If you’re around this world very much you begin to realize that what we blithely observe in nature via Darwin is at least as true among human beings. John Lennon might lyrically muse “imagine” but he did so from the top of a very large pile of fame, fortune, and power. If all the world were to live as one, what “one” would it live like?
Median household income in the world is about $9700. You can decide if that’s an upgrade or not.
So people quickly realize that world history is a story of cutthroat competition with winners and losers and the best way to insure that you are a winner is for your tribe to flourish.
This again in the ancient world carried over into religious competition. Flourishing in the world was supposed to validate or discredit patron gods. However much money or power you had was supposed to signal the relative power and supremacy of your spiritual patrons.
Jesus’ Disciples Nagging Question
The book of Act jumps off with the disciples of Jesus, after the crucifixion, after the Resurrection and before the Ascension asking “now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?”
All the talk about the “Messiah” that had developed in the lands formerly known as Israel remembered its “golden age” when King David replaced the tyrannical Saul, put down the Philistines and all their other adversaries and established what was a small empire.
David is portrayed, during his rise to power as the nearly perfect Israelite. He was strong, good looking, powerful, just and with respect to God “a man after God’s own heart.” He wrote many of the Psalms that Israel and then Jews and Christians read, pray and sing.
Jesus regularly identifies as the descendant of David and surely the disciples had something like David’s kingdom in mind when they asked if Jesus would please, now make Israel wealthy, secure, powerful and famous again like it was back in the days of David and Solomon.
Augustine with Rome and the Bible with David
Now the disciples wanted deliverance from Rome, but Rome wanted the same thing as the disciples. In fact not only did Israel regard themselves as the hope of the world but Rome did too.
That the Romans thought such a thing should not be surprising to us. After all, most of us basically still think it, too. The most powerful and popular formulation of it in Augustine’s world goes as follows. Rome, as a liberally-minded empire bringing humanitas, civilizing customs, a cosmopolitan mindset, and vast transcontinental trade, can actually work over time to make the world a fit place for human habitation. Rome has a truly civilizing mission, sort of nation-building for the rest of the world.
And the Romans could point to evidence to back this up, for they behaved, relative to subjugated peoples, in a unique way. Whereas most of the rest of the ancient empires had been effectively vehicles for plunder, snatch-and-grab operations, the Romans actually spent money on their conquests, bringing them roads and good plumbing, a legal system that was reasonably intelligible, and participation in a cosmopolitan pan-Mediterranean economy. Rome understood itself to have a calling to civilize the barbarian north, and render less decadent the Greek east. Rome served the rest of the world.
Augustine, however, in City of God wouldn’t let them get away with this.
Now, Book 3 analyzes and diagnoses the Roman psyche and the character of pagan longing, and in it he uncovers what he takes to be the basic psychic dynamism at the heart of this desire for thisworldly happiness. The way that the Romans’ fixation on physical evils and concomitant blindness to moral failings means missing the way that their very conquests turn out, over time, to become chains. He calls the psychological energy driving this enslavement the libido dominandi.
This means something like that desire which conquers us with the desire to conquer. Now, the libido dominandi is a tricky term. We can capture some of its sense in the tense, equivocating, semantic ambivalence of the English translation: dominating lust. Here, we get the idea of the lust to dominate that is also, and at the same time, the lust that dominates. The master is revealed to be the slave in his own need to be a master. No one is more enslaved to anxieties than the one who is always on his toes to ensure that no one else makes him look like a sucker. That person is most governed by his own fears who always acts preemptively to avoid those fears.
Augustine didn’t get this out of thin air. He knew his world, but he also knew his Bible.
Now we might say “but this is Israel we’re talking about here. This is David! Surely if it could happen anywhere it could happen here?!”
How Sin Infects Even our Best Moments and Intentions
When we left off the story of David we did so at one of the two most famous stories about him, that of the Bathsheba incident. While this is, along with the story of Goliath very famous, the story that follows is hardly known, but cripplingly devastating. The authors of the book of Samuel tell it in a way that links the stories together. The “lust for domination” or the “dominating lust” are in David’s household and they will reek havoc in ways that David, and all those around seem powerless to stop. They are made powerless, by of all things love.
2 Samuel 13:1–22 (NIV)
1 In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. 2 Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. 3 Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. 4 He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?” Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.” 5 “Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’ ” 6 So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.” 7 David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” 8 So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. 9 Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat. “Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. 10 Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. 11 But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.” 12 “No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. 13 What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” 14 But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her. 15 Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!” 16 “No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” But he refused to listen to her. 17 He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” 18 So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. 19 Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went. 20 Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman. 21 When King David heard all this, he was furious. 22 And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.
All of the elements are there
- How has David’s success formed Amnon? How is he like David?
- How has David set up Tamar for this catastrophe?
- How has Tamar’s goodness been used for her own calamity?
- How has Amnon’s “dominating lust” not really about Tamar after all? What really did he want?
- How does David’s love keep him from doing what must be done?
- How is all of this planting seeds of bitter fruit for the future?
- How has the multiplication of David’s wives brought on this misery?
The questions could go on.
We are caught in a double bind. If we want to see humanity flourish we exert our lust to dominate, to control, to enforce that vision of shalom that we find or believe to be best. In doing so we, even because of this, spoil the very work that we do. David’s regime is better than Saul’s, and better than being slaves to the Philistines, but it poisons itself.
You must be disciplines and thorough if you want to accomplish anything, but that every effort tends to destroy you from the inside.
Amnon saw the beauty and excellence of his sister, and when he finally had it no longer wanted it, destroying by grabbing and then hating. Amnon’s story is humanity’s story and as we’ll see in coming weeks it will careen in ways that no one expected and miseries that tore at every fiber of what seemed to be God’s promises.
The Strangeness of the Christian Life
For the first part of David’s life things seemed straight forward. Evil was out there, in Saul, in the Philistines, etc. Then he gains supremacy over these things.
In the story of David and Bathsheba we see David’s flaws revealed, but also God’s mercy in that in repentance David’s sin is forgiven. So then we revert again to imagine:
OK, worldly power, control, management doesn’t work. Forgiveness can work.
But now in this story we see that sin is a contagion that will not be dealt with by quarantine. The virus is out, infecting his children, bringing destruction to his home.
Augustine runs the same experiment in the City of God.
He details this happiness by sketching its presence in his model of the ideal political actor, namely the good Christian emperor. Surely the emperor, above all people, has all the conditions of life to make for happiness in this condition, in this world. Surely if anyone in the world would be happy, it would be he.
And Augustine has an example of such an emperor in Theodosius, emperor from 379 to 395, the last emperor to rule over East and West, and perhaps the last great emperor the Romans ever had. Ironically, many readers take his exposition of the great faith and godliness of Theodosius as an act of a sycophant, as if anyone in the imperial hierarchy in 430 would reward Augustine for being such a vigorous brownnoser of an emperor 30 years dead. But that totally misses the point of his discussion of Theodosius’s virtues.
The chilling point for Augustine of this discussion is that those virtues were largely irrelevant to his own happiness; that in fact, if anything, they made his life harder and more unpleasant; that the praise is a positive thing only in retrospect, from the perspective of a whole life lived out. “Call no one happy until they are dead,” goes the ancient Greek’s adage, reportedly first said by Solon.
Our idols are revealed and exposed. Christians draw in their borders and imagine “in areas we gain control THERE can we secure happiness for ourselves. Augustine says no.
Christians affirm the necessity and genuine good of social life, and especially the happiness of domestic family life. But society is corrupt and dangerously unstable, and family life is, as both experience and scripture teach us, just as perilous. Neither of these settings offers secure happiness. The perils of the polity are even more vivid; the necessity of judgment and the use of violence screams out the wretched corruption of the human condition in the polities of this world. The differences of language and the misery of war offer still further evidence of humanity’s corruption. Not even friendship is carefree because we fear the loss of our friends, whether to death or distance or the sheer changes of character and personality that happen over life.
In short, the world as we find it gives hints of being a sort of suitable host for a flourishing life; but when scrutinized close-up, the tantalizing promise of settled joy turns out to be a taunting mirage. The world is a site wherein creatures could perchance be happy; but particular features of this specific world, and certain characteristics apparently inherent in us, at least in this dispensation, invariably subvert our plans to be happy here, and vex our hopes for joy.
David has only begun to learn that the lessons of his youth, there he is powerless and weak, are perhaps more important for him in his power, wealth and supremacy. The gifts of God are purely gifts, things are are completely unable to secure.
The Equality Nobody Wants
We live in an age where we are feverous for equality, but a certain kind of equality. We don’t really want the equality of the median as seen in the world as 100 people. What we are offered is an equal need for recognition of dependence. It is in this way that those who are fortunate are woeful, as Jesus notes in his sermon on the plain. To be fortunate in things is to live in the unhappy delusion that this is the product of your wisdom and strength and the misfortune of others is their own darn fault. The fortune of the unfortunate is that life is an opportunity and an invitation to actually reach out to the author and source of all good things. In this they are blessed.
CS Lewis noted that this world seems perfectly designed towards such an end.
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). The Problem of Pain (p. 116). New York: HarperOne.
Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude
Where this leave us is the truth we are all in. We are unable to secure what we want and need. We experience misery and this itself is a cause of misery for us. We deeply wish to be self-sufficient but we are not.
The good news is that our God is good. We are the sheep of his pasture. We see this in his work as creator. He reveals it in the life, death and resurrection of his Son.
The Christian way to live is by keeping these three things in mind as we live, that we won’t be surprised by the miseries, that we can fix our eyes on the deliverance, and live out of them in gratitude which, incidentally, afford the experience of happiness and joy even as we suffer.
We see in David’s travails the exposing of our pretense, that even the “kingdom” the disciples asked Jesus for was denied them not because it was too good, but because it wasn’t good enough. Jesus sidesteps the question in Acts 1 because his disciples simply don’t know how big to ask. They were still wanting regime change even as Jesus was working to give them not only himself, which is the best thing, but everything else too.