Thursday, July 14, 2011

Baring Our Souls - John Piper & Christian Hedonism

Recently on Helm’s Deep there has been a number of posts on affection and emotion, mostly in connection with Jonathan Edwards. The other day I received from the publishers a complimentary copy of the new Piper & Carson book, The Pastor as Scholar, the Scholar as Pastor, at the request of ‘the author’. (I wondered, Which one? Is this a well-intentioned nudge, or sheer disinterested kindness?) Whatever the reason, I thank publisher and authors alike.

On beginning the book I was immediately struck by the way that John Piper distances himself from the late F.F. Bruce’s remarks in his autobiography about self-disclosure. Bruce says:

While some readers have observed that in these chapters I have said little about my domestic life, others have wondered why I have been so reticent about my religious experience. The reason is probably the same in both instances: I do not care to speak much – especially in public – about the things that mean most to me. Others do not share this inhibition, and have enriched their fellows by relating the inner story of the Lord’s dealings with them – one thinks of Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. But it calls for quite exceptional qualities to be able to do this kind of thing without self-consciousness or self-deception. (In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past, (Eerdmans 1980), 306)

And Piper comments

My second reaction was to say (this was in 1980, the year I left academia and entered the pastorate), ‘Good grief! You say, I do not care to speak much – especially in public - about the things that mean most to me.’ I say ‘The only thing I care to speak about - especially in public – are the things that mean most to me!’

He proceeds to register ‘zero empathy’ with the FFB outlook and adds

I am regularly bursting to say something about the most precious things in the universe – and not in any disinterested, dispassionate, composed, detached, unemotional, so-called scholarly way, but rather with total interest, warm passion, discomposure, utter attachment, and fully emotional, and I hope always, true. At least true is my goal. (23)

Dr Piper’s Christian Hedonism (‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him’) shares a good deal of the outlook of Jonathan Edwards’s view of the place of ‘raised’ affection in true religion which Helm’s Deep has recently posted on. There is an emphasis upon visibly expressed emotion, and upon truth as its basis. But more, I mean not only the emphasis on affection per se, and on exuberant emotions, but also the one-size-fits-all approach to understanding and characterising the Christian life. While for Edwards true religion consists much in holy affections, for Piper ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him’. He seems starkly to reveal the onesidedness of his outlook in those remarks about FFB.

Piper’s mantra that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him’ is either tautologically true or it is open to empirical test. If it is tautologically true then we may safely ignore it. If it is testable then (I say) it fails that test and is false. There are lives lived in which God is glorified, lives of self-forgetful service to God, in which the question of whether or not the person is ‘satisfied in God’ never arises.

Behind Piper’s banner headline lies the same sort of misunderstanding about affection (or passion or motion) that we have found in Edwards. In brief, there are, I believe, two misunderstandings, one about passion, the other about experience.

The misunderstanding about passion is to equate it with what Piper calls ‘discomposure’ and being ‘fully emotional’ and the aim he shares with Edwards ‘to raise the affections of our hearers.….in synch with what is true and in proportion to the nature of the truth.’ Time and again Piper privileges the affections over the will. For example he says, truly enough, that ‘the Devil, on some doctrines, is more orthodox than us – more correct than we are. But none of these doctrines, in the mind of the Devil, gives rise to any love for God, any worship of God, any delight in God…..So knowing right things about Jesus doesn’t automatically produce right affections’. (50) True. (Notice, like Edwards, the tendency to understand Christian virtues as emotions or affections.) But there is no mention of the fact that the Devil does not serve or obey God either. So distorting is this that Piper fails to appreciate than an academic who seeks ‘objectivity’ and whose attitude he excoriates may nonetheless be consumed with a passion for the exclusion of factors that distort his enquiries. The dispassionate is not to be equated with the passionless. To be dispassionate may be to be impassioned with the aim of not letting ‘raised’ or ‘full’ passions, or passions of any other kind, sway the judgment.

Second, experience. Always, for Dr Piper, ‘experience’ is some awareness of what is happening in a person. In this sense of experience, what such a person experiences is always worth talking about, and can be talked about. FFB is inhibited from this practice, caring not to talk about himself in this way, in the way of Augustine or Bunyan, though he is not laying down the law about this. He takes the view, evidently, that for him some things are too deep for words, and other things are simply not for public consumption. As Augustine memorably said, there are actions that are fitting in the bathroom that are not fitting in the lounge.

Note the emphasis and the gaping hole in these typical statements

The heart of magnifying God’s worth is feeling God’s worth. (47)

The word hypocrisy was created precisely for the effort to say with deeds what we do not feel in our hearts. (47)

Right thinking about God exists to serve right feelings for God (50)

Thinking exists to serve admiring. (50)

Thinking is meant to serve worship and delight and satisfaction in God. (50)

Thinking rightly and deeply about the Word and the world with a view to seeing the greatness of God and his works (especially the work of Christ) so that the affections of our hearts might rest on a true foundation and God might be honored by how we feel toward him and by the behaviours that flow from this heart. (52)

[Gaping hole? Think for a moment about what Dr Piper says above about hypocrisy and then about what Paul and Jesus say. Paul: while you preach against stealing, do you steal? And Jesus: Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self indulgence’. Always, hypocrisy denotes a failure of the will, and ne’r a word about feelings in our hearts.]

It is this almost exclusive stress on felt feelings, on self-awareness, the need to register and to check our emotional level, that enables Piper’s hedonistic calculus to operate. Checking themselves out with the calculus enables his followers to estimate whether what they feel shows whether they have some satisfaction with Christ, are more satisfied, or are most satisfied in Christ. But Jesus places his emphasis elsewhere, on self-forgetfulness: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?’ (Matt. 25.40)

In support of his autobiographical approach to the Christian gospel Dr Piper quotes Paul. But in the cases he cites, except perhaps one, Paul is focusing his attention on what happened to him, to public events, - ‘affliction’…’struggle’…’what happened to me’…and in one case, to his personal reaction. Elsewhere Paul also refers to the unspeakable, the ineffable, the unlawful. There are some matters that are not simply too deep for words, but too great for words. And Paul regularly urges on his readers not the cultivation of emotion, but the growth of virtue.

The alternative to adopting Piper’s hedonism is not to become Stoics. Augustine said: I refute Stoicism with two words: ‘Jesus wept’. We ought not to confine the shape of Christian character by a definition that focusses exclusive attention on passion, but to recognise the part to be played by every mode of the full human personality – not the understanding and the felt affections alone, but also the will and the virtues.