Finding Happiness in Union With ChristNov 22, 2022
Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have dealt with human ethics and developed theories about how to find and live a good life. To do good and experience happiness are, perhaps, the biggest desires of humanity. Therefore, the most important questions asked today are: What makes people happy, and what is the highest good for humanity? It is the thesis of this essay that, in order to establish a Christian view of happiness, it is necessary to retrieve the doctrine of union with Christ as the basis and the foundation for ethics. My purpose is to demonstrate that the good life and true happiness must be properly understood within the framework of union with Christ, and I will demonstrate that based primarily on Herman Bavinck’s theology.
I. The Good Life on Aristotle and Augustine
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) affirms that happiness is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct, and for him, humans can flourish and reach happiness by means of living and practicing virtue, that is to say, human happiness is the highest aim of moral thoughts and conduct, and the virtues are the requisite skills and dispositions needed to achieve a good life. He writes, “the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind” (Nicomachean Ethics, I, 7). To the question of “whether happiness is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training, or comes in virtue of some divine providence or again by chance,” (Nicomachean Ethics, I, 9) Aristotle tends to answer that happiness is acquired by the activity of learning and creating habits of some virtues. The basic idea is that, the real good life can be experienced through practical wisdom and the practice of virtue. Ethics, happiness and moral goodness are the results of habit. He believes that, human beings live well when they act rightly and possess all of the virtues, both intellectual and those relating to good character.
Hundreds of years later, Augustine (354-430 AD), along with the Christian Church fathers, attempted to explain the meaning of happiness and the goal of humanity far different from that of Aristotle, although he studied the concepts of human reason and natural law mainly from Aristotle and agrees with the Greek philosopher in some sense. Augustine, along with the Church fathers, viewed human beings as sinners, with a sinful nature, and for this reason, he believed that humans only experience a good life and find happiness by means of obedience to God’s law. Unlike Aristotle, Augustine views the goal of humanity in terms of heaven and of a blessed life: “It follows that we could say of peace, as we have said of eternal life, that it is the final fulfillment of all our goods” (City of God XIX.11).
For Aristotle, the highest goal of humanity comes through intellect, reason and rationality, by learning and practicing intellectual and moral virtues. For Augustine, the highest goal is achieved by using the intellect to turn away from sin and to pursue God. He writes, “man indeed desires happiness even when he does so live as to make happiness impossible… Why this paradox, except that the happiness of man can come not from himself but only from God, and that to live according to oneself is to sin, and to sin is to lose God” (City of God XIX.25). In fact, despite the differences, both Augustine and Aristotle understand that the good life is the life of rational understanding and practice of virtues in order to experience happiness.
II. Where to Find True Happiness?
In the sixteenth century, the Reformation introduced a new basis for the good life: faith over rationalism as the basis for virtue, Scripture and the reality of divine grace as the foundations for moral knowledge and moral goodness. For Luther, for example, moral goodness and virtue are not result of creating habits but the result of the work of the Holy Spirit through his grace within human beings, that is able to transform their hearts and to enable them to do good (Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, thesis 7). According to Luther, one cannot live a life of moral goodness apart from God’s restoring grace (Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, thesis 4). Calvin follows the same path as Luther, although, as Andrew J. B. Cameron claims, “Calvin does not seek with them [philosophers] a denotative definition of the good man, the good life, or human flourishing” (Engaging With Calvin, 2009, p. 235). Calvin writes,
the intellect is very rarely deceived in general definition or in the essence of the thing; but . . . is illusory when it goes farther, that is, applies the principle to particular cases. In reply to the general question, every man will affirm that murder is evil. But he who is plotting the death of an enemy contemplates murder as something good. The adulterer will condemn adultery in general, but will privately flatter himself in his own particular adultery. Herein is man’s ignorance: when he comes to a particular case, he forgets the general principle that he has just laid down (Institutes 2.2.23).
The Reformation took sin into account, bringing prejudice against rationalism. Calvin introduces the union with Christ as fundamental to Christian life. As Andrew Cameron claims, “union with Christ can integrate some disparate ethical themes and is rich enough to generate a ‘positive ethic for life in the world’” (Engaging With Calvin, 2009, p. 232). Through participation with Christ, human beings can find their highest purpose and begin to live the good life; in other words, the union with Christ is the basis of a Reformed ethics.
Only in union with Christ human beings are empowered to obey God’s law, achieve moral goodness and find true happiness. Apart from Christ, it is impossible for humans to experience happiness and to do any good, because of their sinful nature. Thus, we could affirm that real happiness is only possible as long as humans are united with Christ.
Thus, the doctrine of union with Christ is at the center of ethics and of the happy life because the problem of humanity is sin, and Christ alone can break the power of sin and make us to live a good life of moral goodness. Herman Bavinck affirms that, “sin, in the first place, breaks off fellowship with God, and then, in consequence, all genuine relationships that humans have with all other creatures. Thus, the first order of the day is restoring our proper relationship with GodThe cross of Christ, therefore, is the heart and mid-point of the Christian religion.” (Bavinck, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” 443).
For Bavinck therefore, this Christian religion is grounded on the mystical union with Christ. He writes,
However, it is not itself a substantial but an ethical union between human beings and their God. In the case of God, one cannot speak of religion. It is his indwelling in human beings that from that side fosters the relation to God we call religion. Thus this relation, too, is of an ethical nature; it is regulated by the same moral law that governs the other relations human beings sustain to their fellow creatures. All religious actions performed by human beings are moral duties, and all of religion is a moral mandate. Conversely, the moral life is in turn a service to God. (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics II, p. 262).
As John Bolt points, in his book “Bavinck on the Christian Life”, that Christ restores fallen human beings to fellowship with God and enables them to live once again as the image bearers they were created to be. The imitation of Christ is of fundamental importance for a Reformed approach to ethics the good life. As van Keulen affirms, Christ is not only a king, a priest and a prophet, but also a model, an example, an ideal. This implies that we have to follow Him.
And according to Bavinck, the imitation of Christ does not mean that we have to duplicate Christ’s way of living literally or physically, especially not his poverty, chastity, and obedience.” It means that, inwardly, Christ must take shape in us. Outwardly, our lives must be shaped in conformity with the life of Christ. The imitation of Christ becomes manifest in virtues like righteousness, sanctity, love, and patience. In other words, moral virtues and true happiness do not come by reason alone as Aristotle and many philosophers claim, but are the result of the union with Christ and of his work within human beings.
Only the union with Christ enables humans to live in obedience to God’s laws, to find true happiness and achieve the purpose for which humans were created to.
Therefore, to the questions: how can one find true happiness, and what is the highest good for humanity, the answer the Reformers provide is that humans cannot be fully happy and experience the highest good apart from Christ. In fact, humans are happy when they achieve or experience the highest good, and Christ is the highest good of humanity, therefore, true happiness comes when humans, united with Christ, live in obedience to God’s laws in their relationship with God, with one another, and with all creation. It is not the purpose of this article to deal with all the implications of this union with Christ, but to provide a starting point for one to think about the highest good of humanity and how the union with Christ must be the foundation and the basis of a Reformed ethics, because only in union with Christ humans are able to obey God’s commandments out of love and gratitude, and experience real happiness.
True happiness, according to the Reformed tradition, does not mean absence of suffering or hardships in this life, but it consists in the enjoyment of God in union with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only by means of union with Christ human intellect is able to keep God’s law and is able to learn and practice virtues and experience the good life. Without union with Christ, the concept of happiness and the good life provided by Aristotle, Kant and other philosophers remains only a theory that can be vaguely and partially achieved. In order for one to talk about happiness and the good life from a Christian perspective, it is necessary to retrieve the doctrine of union with Christ as developed mainly by the Reformed tradition.
Pastor Thiago Silva