Is This All There Is?
By Nathan Carlin
April 21st, 2014
The following is a slight adaptation of a homily preached at St. Philip Presbyterian Church (USA) in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, during the Season of Lent. The sermon focuses on Genesis 2:18-20. It is relevant to readers of this blog specifically (and those interested in the mission of the Institute for Spiritualty and Health more broadly) because it assimilates pastoral theology and evolutionary psychology—an intellectual and religious exercise in, as it were, spiritualty and health.
When he was sixteen years old, Tal Ben-Shahar (a popular lecturer at Harvard University who teaches a course on happiness) won the Israeli national squash championship. Leading up to this victory, he had trained for five years, believing that the fulfillment of this goal was essential to his realization of happiness. This, he thought, was the only way he could rid himself of the nagging sense of emptiness that he felt inside. And when he won he was in fact happier than he had ever been—happier, even, than he imagined he would be.
But this elation did not last. After celebrating with family and friends, he had an experience that he would never forget: the waning of bliss and the return of emptiness. He became afraid that happiness just might not be possible in this life because he knew, intuitively, that simply substituting a new goal would not lead to happiness [see Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2007); also see Nathan Carlin and Donald Capps, 100 Years of Happiness: Insights and Findings from the Experts (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012), 129-141].
Is this all there is, Ben-Shahar seemed to wonder?
Many readers of this blog probably know that there are two creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis. One way Genesis tells the story of creation is this way: The first thing that the LORD God did was to create Adam from the ground (from dust to dust, we say during this Season of Lent). Then the LORD God created vegetation and placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to work it. After this, the LORD God created animals, presumably to give Adam company and to make him happy. Which brings us to our scripture lesson: But for Adam there was not found a suitable helper.
Reflecting on this passage, pastoral theologian James Dittes (who spent his whole teaching career at Yale University) writes: “The Bible tells it clearly, from the beginning: paradise wanting. Adam looked around Eden and asked, Is [this] all there is? The sorrow of incompleteness is [there] from the outset—part of creation, not a symptom of sin or fall . . . . Life in want, life detoured, in a closet, a gift not yet unwrapped” [James Dittes, Driven by Hope: Men and Meaning (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 4].
Is this all there is, Adam asked, a chapter before he ate from the Tree, a chapter before sin entered the world?
Some readers may know that my academic training is in psychology of religion. While I am primarily interested in interpretive and introspective brands of psychology—such as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis—in recent years I have felt as though I cannot ignore a new empirical force in psychology called positive psychology.
Positive psychology basically studies happiness. If traditional psychology studies problems and frustrations (such as depression and anxiety), positive psychology studies possibilities and flourishing (such as “flow” or “being in the zone”).
During my reading, one book that I found especially fascinating is Daniel Nettle’s Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile [Daniel Nettle, Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)]. Nettle reads the many empirical findings relating to happiness through the lens of evolutionary psychology.
Let me give you an example. One consistent finding of positive psychology is that greater financial wealth, once basic needs are met, is not associated with higher reports of happiness. Money does not make people happy. Yet most of us often act as though it does and it will; most of us can’t help wanting more money. Why? Nettle argues, from an evolutionary psychological perspective, that we are programed to pursue things that we think will make us happy—things like a lot of money or a national squash championship—but we are not programmed to be happy. This bears repeating: We are programmed not to be happy but to pursue happiness. From an evolutionary perspective, this is because pursuing happiness keeps human beings, as a species, moving forward. If we were completely happy and fully satisfied, we would not be motivated. Happiness, apparently, is not good for the species [also see Nathan Carlin and Donald Capps, 100 Years of Happiness, 101-114].
It is striking that evolutionary psychology seems to confirm what Dittes observed about Adam: The sorrow of incompleteness is there from the beginning, from day one, part of God’s original creation—unhappiness is the order of things.
Is this all there is, we seem to be programed to ask?
During his tenure at Yale, Dittes wrote a couple of essays on St. Augustine. In one of them he focuses on the death of Augustine’s best friend and Dittes suggests that Augustine’s depiction of tormented grief is a vivid portrayal of the religious quest [James Dittes, “Augustine: The Search for a Fail-Safe God to Trust,” in D. Capps and J. Dittes, eds., The Hunger of the Heart: Reflections on the Confessions of Augustine (West Lafayette, IN: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1990), 255-264; also see Nathan Carlin, Religious Mourning: Reversals and Restorations of Psychological Portraits of Religious Leaders (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014), chapter 3]. Dittes writes: “The soul yearns to pour itself out—but not upon the sand” . He elaborates: “The longing to become totally alive by becoming totally present, [completely] committed to another, “all there” in firmly reliable bond, to love God with the whole heart, whole soul, whole mind . . . this is the religious impulse” .
But the religious dilemma is how to find something worthy of such commitment—how to find something that is sure, sturdy, fail-safe? Augustine turned to parents, to teachers, to mentors, to students, to friends, to lovers, and to ambitions, but none of these were fail-safe. In this life—biblically speaking, evolutionarily speaking—we are never fully at rest, at least not for long. Our hearts are restless, Augustine knew so well.
Is this all there is?
This question, while indeed sorrowful, while indeed painful, keeps us moving, keeps us searching, keeps us loving. We know that there is more. So for this reason this question—Adam’s question—gives me hope, as it did for Dittes, as it did for Augustine: Our hearts are restless, which keeps us looking for God.
The Reformed tradition rightly teaches that we do not fully and clearly see God face-to-face; we look through the glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). Complete sanctification is not to be found in this life. And evolutionary psychology also rightly observes that we always will be afflicted by a desire for more. Complete satisfaction is not to be found in this life. This was Adam’s experience; this is ours.
My prayer for you—my prayer for me—is, when we find ourselves unhappy, unsatisfied, and restless, that we take our restlessness as an invitation to seek rest in God, knowing full well that we will be restless again, knowing full well, also, that God will give us rest again.