Soul Wellness Means Rejecting False Promises (371)

When I first read Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by two seemingly contradictory reactions: (1) Pinker’s data was thoroughly researched and clearly accurate – violence, intolerance, and poverty are on a world-wide decline and that trajectory continues; but, (2) Pinker’s conclusions didn’t square with other data that indicate we live in a world where people increasingly report to be lonelier, more anxious, and in search of greater meaning in their lives. How could both of these be true? If things are getting so much better, if we’re progressing so much, then why are we so unhappy, anxious, and lonely? After all, the project of western democracy and market capitalism was supposed to make things better for more people. But it all comes down to one’s definition of “better.” Our culture defines “better” primarily in materialistic terms. We have no shared definition of what it means to have a sense of doing and being well in the world apart from one defined by the gratification of our material desires. This also perverts any intelligible notions we have about the nature of human freedom. Freedom now appears to be solely defined by the ability to get what we want when we want it.

This week, I read an insightful piece by Andrew Sullivan that made sense of both sets of data. Sullivan writes: As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. He goes on to write: [Pinker’s] general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

Sullivan nails it. This “deeper kind of happiness” is what Aristotle called eudaemonia, which literally means a “well-spirit.” It’s often translated as “happiness,” which wrongly conveys what he intended. Aristotle was describing a “soul wellness” that comes from living a certain way and not by pursuing happiness. For Christians, we’d say that eudaemonia comes from living our baptismal identity and purpose in the world rather than from pursuing our culture’s definition of freedom and happiness. That means there is indeed a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul, but that healing requires us to reject deeply-seeded American cultural values about happiness and freedom that most people have accepted as true without much reflection. Those values will never bring us “soul wellness.” On the contrary, they’re making us emotionally and spiritually sicker. Time Magazine reported this week that a record number of college students are seeking help for anxiety and depression, which is probably in part due to their growing unease with these unfulfillable cultural promises. This is an evangelism opportunity, but before we can share the promises of the Good News of Jesus, we first must confess the sickness in our own souls from swallowing these false promises.



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