The Egoism of Christian Hedonism

Renowned Pastor and Theologian, Dr. John Piper, has very eloquently articulated throughout his career the theology and morality of Christian Hedonism: “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him”. The chief end of Man, Piper argues, is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever. Similar to Ayn Rand, Piper rightly understands and argues for Man’s pursuit of happiness as an absolutely essential aspect of true morality. Both Rand and Piper agree that the moral aim of Man is to pursue his highest rational pleasure. Piper (rightly) sees the pursuit of one’s happiness as a properly Christian virtue because one’s highest happiness will always ultimately be found in God. Therefore, he reasons, to the extent that a man truly seeks his highest pleasure, he will find it in God and God will thus be glorified through the happiness (satisfaction) which that man finds in Him. In other words, “because God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him”, therefore – for the sake of His glory – you should eagerly seek satisfaction in Him.

With this infinitely valuable theological recovery of morality, Piper pierced through the immensely thick veil of the morality which has suffocated the Church and the world for the past few centuries; he pierced through the morality of Immanuel Kant. Kant advocated the morality of altruism and held that an action is moral only to the degree that the actor does not benefit from the action in any way. In other words, Kant held that action for one’s own benefit (“selfishness”, “hedonism”, “self-value” – call it what you will) is the essence of evil and that self-denial is the essence of the good. Sound familiar? This morality (altruism) is at the core of most moral assumptions in the culture today (especially within the Church). Piper, in one of the first messages of his that I listened to, once said that he is on a campaign against Immanuel Kant and the stoics. He is not alone.

Ayn Rand, more than any thinker in the modern era, ruthlessly and comprehensively decimated the morality of altruism in her writing and in her philosophy. She was an avid Atheist (mostly due to the evil morality and irrationality presented to her by modern day Christianity), but God used her as a passionate and devout advocate of truth in every other area of thought – particularly in morality. And it is to her morality that we must now turn.

If Piper’s morality is summarized by the two words “Christian Hedonism”, then Ayn Rand’s morality is summarized by the two words “Rational Egoism”. Man, she held, ought to pursue his own rational values, because to do otherwise is to contradict his nature and to defy justice. Contrary to Kant, Rand held that an action is only moral to the extent that it does benefit the actor because the alternative is unjust. And she was right: It is unjust for one to not benefit from one’s own action. Justice demands that the one who does the acting benefit from the action. She also taught that Man ought to value himself because apart from such self-value, no other values are possible. And here again, she is also correct. A man who does not value himself is not capable of valuing anything else. This is because to value is necessarily an activity of the self. A non-self cannot do anything – let alone value. Further, to value is to seek that which one considers valuable to one’s self  - but if the self is not to be valued, why should it seek that which is valuable to it.

In other words, If I am not to value myself, why should or would I pursue anything that is valuable to me? And if I don’t pursue anything that is valuable to me, then how and why would I pursue God in a way that glorifies Him? And now, hopefully you are beginning to see the connection (and this is just the beginning of the connection): If –according to Piper – pursuit of my happiness (my values) is essential to glorifying God, and if value for my self is essential to the pursuit of my values, then value for my self is essential to glorifying God. I cannot love God (or anything else for that matter) if I do not value myself.

Allow me to flesh this out: If I do not value my God-given mind, I will not cherish it and train it in a way that enables me to see God and His glory clearly. If I do not value my God-given affections, I will not jealously examine them and test them in order to ensure that they accord with what is due to God and His glory in creation. If I do not value my God-given will, I will not discipline it and use it in a way that speaks of the glory of who I am meant to be: an Image of God. If I do not value myself, as an Image of God, I will not passionately pursue the multitude of possibilities to image Him forth in my life. And If I do not value my life, I will not guard it from being wasted.

All of morality hinges on one’s pursuit of one’s own rational happiness. And therefore, all of morality hinges on one’s truly and rationally valuing one’s own self. God will not be glorified if I do not seek to delight myself with what is supremely satisfying – and I will not seek to delight myself with what is supremely satisfying if I do not value being satisfied; if I do not value my life and my self.

 

Related Posts

Selfish Love: With C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand

Jonathan Edwards on Egoism

Brothers, Value Your Self

13 thoughts on “The Egoism of Christian Hedonism

  1. mmasztal

    Thanks for the excellent article. I hope you post this over at the Objectivist Forum. While I’m sure you get flamed, it is food for thought for those who understand that Christianity and Objectivism nedd not be mutually exclusive.

    Reply
  2. I don't think I would post *this* one at the forum - it would be very much out of context since this particular post is geared more toward a Christian audience. There will be future posts geared more toward an Atheistic/Objectivist audience that would be more suitable to put onto the forums.

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  3. Found you through That Moral Squint. It sounds like you're heavily influenced by Piper. Desiring God is on the right track in many ways. However, Piper also represents the worst in modern Christianity at times. He even wrote his own critique of Objectivism and ultimately concluded differently than you have. (http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/the-ethics-of-ayn-rand) Would love to see a post addressing where you think he goes wrong.

    Reply
    1. I was very heavily influenced by Piper when I first became a Christian. Although, a less subjective way to say that is: I agreed with much of his ideology regarding Christian Theology and Ethics. I still do in many ways. However, I also recognize some very unfortunate and grave errors in his thought and teaching - errors which are characteristic of much of modern Christianity. I've been aware of his critique since I began reading Ayn Rand and I do hope to breakdown his critique in depth at some point on this blog (perhaps I'll start on that in the next few days).
      For now, I will only mention the first error in that critique - which is incidentally the error from which most of the others flow, and the error which is most typical (and most harmful) of modern Christian thought: The error is anti-intellectualism.

      It first appears in the words of the Seminary Professor who warned him that Ayn Rand's writing "is incredibly dangerous". Paul says that the spiritual man "appraises all things" - particularly ideas. He also says that the Church is to "destroy every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought (doctrine/idea) captive under Christ" - meaning that the Christian is to evaluate and judge every philosophy, destroying false ideas as irrational and evil, and commending true ideas as good and ultimately God-glorifying. This is the exact opposite of the attitude portrayed by that professor - and, unfortunately, by most of modern leading Christians. Piper's mistake is in agreeing with it (to an extent) and in not correcting it - which demonstrates that he himself does not see the proper role of the Church in relation to various ideologies and philosophies. He, and most of the modern Church, either misunderstands, under-emphasizes, or wars against the proper use of the mind in the Christian life and the importance of ideas - particularly philosophy. This results in almost all of the other errors that he (and the Church) unfortunately promulgate. However, to his credit, I would say that he is light-years ahead of *most* in the modern Church in many respects. This just goes to show you how far behind the Church actually is... and how much of a revolutionary corrective is needed.

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  4. I like the article, and John Piper's ideology is correct in many ways, but one of the problems I see with this is the term 'Christian Hedonism'. Allow me to explain.

    From Wikipedia - Hedonism is "a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain)."

    And Ayn Rand's summary of Objectivism, in the 50th Anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged - "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest actvity, and reason as his only absolute."

    Note that Rand says happiness is the moral purpose of a man's life, not pleasure. Hedonism was a school of thought held first by ancient Greek thinkers who did not believe in "productive achievement as his noblest actvity, and reason as his only absolute" when it comes to Man. They desired pleasure, generally physical and shallow, and did not care about morality when it came to achieving pleasure. Thus, they could and would engage in immorality in achieving pleasure.

    On the other hand, Rand's heroes' happiness was due to physical, mental, and spiritual fulfillment (although they denied God.) Francisco D'Anconia was willing to destroy his industrial empire because he knew that in doing so, he would beat the looters and then have the opportunity to reestablish D'Anconia Copper, and take it to even greater heights. Jesus Christ endured immense physical pain on the cross, and three days in Hell, because he knew he would rise from the dead.

    Another thing to note is that the Cyrenaic school of hedonism (the school which held completely to Aristuppus of Cyrene's teachings) believed that Altruism was a means of achieving pleasure.

    Reply
      1. Travis, thank you for your insights. I'd suggest reading some of Piper's work in order to clear up your above concerns (particularly his flagship book on the subject - Desiring God, though there are plenty of free resources on his website that would also be helpful - desiringgod.org).

        Just as Rand needed to specify and qualify what she meant by "egoism" in order to avoid commonly held and historic connotations, so also Piper has done the same with his "hedonism". What he means by it (and he is VERY explicit about this) is that the chief moral aim of man is to pursue his highest pleasure. He assumes (and explicitly teaches) that irrational pleasure is lower pleasure and therefore the concept of rational pleasure is subsumed under the term "highest pleasure".

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  5. LukeThompson

    I would like to start by saying that I really enjoyed your blog post. I agree with pretty much everything that you said (I didn't go over it with a fine tooth comb, though ;)).

    The one thing that I would add to the comments is that Piper is avowedly anit-"anit-intellecual". I have read and listened to his teaching quite a lot, probably moreso than any other intellectual out there. If you were to write a critique of his essay on the ethics of Rand, cool. I would love to read it. However, to lump him in with the anti-intellectual Christian teaching crowd would be a mistake, and a huge misunderstanding of something that he has said. Like with anything, we need to take things in context. Local context first, then expand in concentric circles.

    Trying to understand authors (their authorial intent) is massively important. If one understand an author as their intending to be understood, we distort their message. This principle is infinitely important in reading anything, whether the Bible or any other book, essay, etc. Otherwise, we're not really engaging with the author's ideas (and having a constructive, honest interaction with them). We're simply interacting with a strawman of our own imagination. Piper actually is one of the primary ones to teach me this fact in a section of his book "Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God" where he teaches on what he calls "Practical Relativism" brought out from Jesus's dealing with the chief priests and elders in Matthew 21.

    It's one of the most profound things that I can remember learning. Check it out.

    Reply
    1. Luke,
      Welcome to the blog. And thank you for your comments. I really do not want to communicate an overall negative slant regarding Dr. Piper. I love him dearly. I really do. God has used him in unimaginable ways in my life, in my thinking, and in the lives and thinking of millions in this generation. I hope that you did not miss the following in my above comment:

      "However, to his credit, I would say that he is light-years ahead of *most* in the modern Church in many respects."

      Though, I realize, that does not give him credit enough. I certainly would not "lump him together with the rest of the modern Church crowd" in every (or even most respects). You're right that he is explicitly anti "anti-intellectual" - I have read "Think!" (and almost all of his other books) and listened to / read a majority of his online resources. But, for whatever reason, that explicit claim of his does not always and fully translate into his handling of particular issues. Perhaps it is just that philosophical thinking isn't his main focus (being a pastor and preacher of Scripture is) - which is absolutely legitimate. My hope is that he wouldn't actually disagree with a whole host of philosophical issue that I speak of - but apart from the opportunity to sit down and speak with him about those things (and that's not happening any time soon), I'll never know. All I can go off of is what he has (or hasn't) said on particular issues and in particular contexts - and then be as charitable as possible. That is what I am aiming to do.

      Piper seems to have fully grasped the gravity of the Kantian delusion that most people have bought into regarding morality (hence his "crusade against Immanuel Kant" in his Christian Hedonism), but it does not seem as though he has fully grasped that gravity of the Kantian delusion which most people have bought into on the levels of worldview thinking and implicit philosophical assumptions (especially within the church). There are a wide number of God-belittling, worship-destroying, Gospel-denying, life-threatening un-spoken (and un-noticed) philosophical assumptions which absolutely dominate western thought in the last few centuries -- particularly among those who claim and desire to be God-glorifying, worship-fueling, Gospel-affirming, life-sustaining, good hearted Christians. Apart from those insidious assumptions being directly and explicitly exposed and expunged, the best intending Christians will continue to promulgate very evil and dangerous ideas - without noticing or meaning it.

      Like I said, Piper seems to have caught on regarding morality, but there are a number of other issues on epistemological and metaphysical levels which he is silent on. Again, perhaps that is simply because it is not his area of focus. That's fine -- but it does need to be focused on, whether he does it or not.

      I hope that clears things up. I'd be happy to talk more in private messaging about particular issues (and I will be blogging on many of those particulars in the future). If you'd like, please contact me through the Facebook page for The Christian Egoist (www.facebook.com/thechristianegoist)

      Reply
  6. LukeThompson

    Sorry, correction: Paragraph 3

    "If one understand an author as their intending to be understood, we distort their message." This should read, "If one does not understand an author as they're intending to be understood, we distort their message."

    Wow, that was a bad one. I need to learn to read back over things I write!

    Reply
  7. LukeThompson

    Also, I should clarify. Piper's writing on Practical Relativism is not about proper interpretation of a writing, per se. It has applications toward that end, I suppose. His point was that the cheif priests and elders could not understand the truth about him (and whether the baptism of John was from God or Man) because they didn't care about an honest pursuit of truth. They cared about saving face, saving their own skins. They were most concerned with protecting and buttressing their own understanding of reality, rather than pursuing a truth that may threaten what they value most (i.e. their own reputation, power, and self-love devoid of God). They were practical relativists.

    Reply
    1. I completely agree with Piper on this, and I look forward to writing extensively on this topic in the future. In fact, it will be a prominent theme in my book, THE GALT-LIKE GOD:Meditations of a Christian Egoist -- particularly the chapters on Jesus and the Gospel. :)

      Reply

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