On not always being euphoric

by Clive Marsh.

I made a short contribution to a major, regional Christian event recently at which I suggested that one of the challenges to those gathered together was how to ‘come down’ from the euphoria of the event, and re-enter the humdrum world of the local. Whilst it is nice, from time to time, to get a real ‘high’ from a celebratory event at which there is much singing, considerable joy, a bit of mind-stretching perhaps, but almost always much spirit-uplifting, there is the mundane to be returned to. Christian faith and practice cannot solely comprise a catalogue of peak moments. I was challenged immediately afterwards very directly and bluntly by a man who had heard my contribution. He was indignant that I had been so presumptive about the euphoria that people would experience. He was, of course, right that I could not guarantee that all would feel joyful as a result of their participation. It had, though, I felt, been a fair assumption that at a ‘celebration weekend’ people might, on the whole, be more positive than negative and that there would be an issue about ‘coming back to earth’.

Be that as it may, there are two practical theological challenges at issue here. First, how are we to deal with the fact that no human being can be joyful all of the time? Christianity has to be able to handle the negative aspects of life, and accept that despite the hopeful message it carries, not all can be consistently hopeful. Second, how are the positive aspects of Christian theology and practice to be presented in appropriate ways? Whilst Christian faith has not had much of a good press for its jollity, it is not unreasonable to recognise – even if with some irony – that a message of ultimate salvation should be able to be enjoyed and communicated with some verve. Friedrich Nietzsche has not, though, been the only thinker that has suggested that Christian faith might be more attractive if those who espouse it were a bit happier now and again.

The first challenge can perhaps be addressed more easily than the second. Christianity does, of course, address the negative aspects of life. If anything, it is (or has been) more prone to address these than the positives. Sin is real, after all. To deny sin as a basic aspect of the human condition – even if it does need closer definition than the references to it, or to ‘sins’ in daily speech and lazy journalism – is to fail to respect what human life is actually like. Frailties, shortcomings, limitations, deviousness and downright evil all have to be acknowledged and addressed. If the simple message of Christian faith in response to the question ‘but how do we deal with all of this?’ is ‘we can’t!’ (as in ‘we can’t’), then let’s work out how we are to unpack that answer now, in contemporary terms. Whether or not my critic was suggesting my support of joy and euphoria was overlooking this negative stuff I’ve no idea. But he’d be right that gathering a bunch of spiritual ‘highs’ – even weekly via worship – doesn’t necessarily get to grips with grasping how to face, with God, as God is known in and through Christ, the reality of daily life and the human condition. It’s also why sloppy handling of prayers of confession, and declarations of forgiveness, underplays the depth of what worship achieves, both spiritually and psychologically.

Perhaps, though, because of a Christian reputation for sometimes being really down on joy we do need to work harder at spelling out the positives. Faith doesn’t automatically make people happy. Nor should it. There may be very tough things that individuals have to face which aren’t simply ‘dealt with’ in faith, but have to be lived with and through. The companionship of God will surely prove profoundly supportive. But it may not inevitably lead to unqualified joy. That said, Nietzsche’s cheeky observation is well-made. Christians really could, at times, be a bit happier. Whatever our own particular take on salvation – have we been saved already? will we be saved (at the end of time)? are we in the process of being saved?…let’s get Luther, Calvin and Wesley in the room to see what they say on that – if it’s to do with our ultimate standing before God, and we know that God wants the best for all, then what greater joy could we possible want to claim? To answer the question more fully, in a more contemporary way, when life expectancy is greater in many (though not all) parts of the world we do, of course, need more than three White male Europeans round the table. Personally speaking, Grace Jantzen challenged me to think of salvation more in terms of flourishing than on what we are saved from (though I want notions both of what we’re saved ‘from’ and what we’re saved ‘for’ in my understanding of salvation).[1] Latin American Liberationists got me thinking much more urgently about the material dimensions of salvation, lest any sense of joy and euphoria become solely an inward thing (much easier to focus on when you have enough food to eat, a roof over your head, and a stable, largely peaceful, society in which to live).[2] But can salvation and happiness be equated? Perhaps not; perhaps the latter term is just much too weak. Joy, contentment, flourishing, health, well-being, peace are all words we need to try and get to grips with, though, in relation to salvation’s many dimensions.[3] Even if we cannot be euphoric all the time, we can try and articulate in positive ways what living with God actually feels like.

 

 

[1] Grace Jantzen, ‘The gendered politics of flourishing and salvation’ in Vincent Brümmer and Marcel Sarot (eds.), Happiness, Well-being and the Meaning of Life (Kampen: Kok Pharos 1996), pp. 58-75.

[2] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1973/London: SCM Press 1974); Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings (London: SCM Press 2011); Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation: In Search of a Balance Between Faith and Politics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1984).

[3] I’ve had a bash at this in A Cultural Theology of Salvation (Oxford University Press 2018), esp.pp.  219-227.

6 thoughts on “On not always being euphoric”

  1. Why was the picture which came to my mind that of my little brother long ago who on December 26th said he wished EVERY day could be Christmas?

    I know about coming down to earth after a mountain-top experience – when we were young my husband knew not to try to talk to me for an hour after I had sung in one of the great choral works as a member of a big choir. But I think it is confusing to think of joy as either happiness or euphoria. What I would call joy transcends both, goes much deeper, and is a constant. Like the sky, perhaps. Cloudless sometimes, pouring water all over us another time, dark sometimes – but every morning there is a new skyscape which no-one has ever seen before nor will see again. Joy is in the mundane too. Perhaps there isn’t a word big enough?

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    1. Yes, Josie. Joy is much more than a temporary reaction to a specific situation. I have visited people who bedfast, in a great deal of pain and who knew that they had only a short time to live, and I have come away feeling blessed for having been in their presence.

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  2. If you are talking about the same event I attended recently, ‘Flourish’ at Scarborough, North Yorkshire, it was a fantastic event, inspirational and motivational. I was on a high for days afterwards. It gave me renewed hope for the future of the Methodist Church. Of course we can’t stay on the mountain heights forever; we’d end up with altitude sickness! But if worship doesn’t draw us into another realm occasionally, it’s not worship for me.
    ‘Love lifts us up where we belong, where the eagles cry, on a mountain high ….’
    (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes)

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    1. “…… Love lift us up where we belong
      Far from the world below
      Up where the clear winds blow.”
      (To complete the verse)
      Not sure what to make of that!

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      1. Even Jesus liked to escape from the world occasionally. He had a tendency to withdraw to a quiet place, sail off in a boat or climb a mountain, far from the madding crowd. My God is transcendent as well as immanent; it does us good to rise above our own cares from time to time.

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  3. There is a danger that traditional interpretations of salvation become very individualistic and very self-centred. It’s all about me and how I become saved; what I am saved from and what I am saved to. I celebrate because I am one of the small minority who are saved from the terrible fate that awaits the large majority and my future happiness is assured. But surely faith is about far more than assuring one’s own survival and salvation and gaining God’s favour during this life. In a true relationship of love, one is more concerned about what one gives to the other than what one receives; one rejoices in the well-being of the other.

    An alternative view of salvation is that of the healing our spiritual failings, restoring us to wholeness, which is a process rather than a transaction or an event. It is taking into our lives the empowering love that enables us to realise our full potential as human beings. Jesus provides us with an example of how someone filled with the spirit of God can aspire to the ideal of selfless love. He set the normal human values aside – the priority given to survival and to satisfying the individual’s own needs and desires. He broke down the barriers of prejudice and self-interest that separate us from others.

    Jesus reached out to people rather than judged them. He associated with those considered ‘undesirable’ by the religious authorities. He responded to their needs and saw potential within each of them. As a result of meeting him, these people felt themselves to be of value in God’s eyes and were able to live more fully as a result of the hope, self-belief and joy that this created in them. This is what salvation offers to each of us.

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