The Way of Holiness and the Way of Hedonism

Holiness and happiness, purity and pleasure, benevolence and blessedness, virtue and vivaciousness, faithfulness and fulfillment, character and contentment: what do these seemingly contradictory concepts have in common? What do these ideas—often pitted against each other as mutually exclusive—have to do with one another? Is this some kind of paradox?  

There are some Wesleyan principles that I will take with me wherever I go, and one of these is the idea that holiness is the way to happiness.

Believe it or not, the idea that the moral life is the good life dominates ancient thinking. Holiness and happiness, in particular, are woven together in classical Christian thought. Augustine recognized that the pursuit of happiness reaches its end in God, and Aquinas emphasized the happiness of the saints in his Summa Theologica. But the connection between holiness and happiness is probably most clear in the theology of John Wesley—the founder, though perhaps unwittingly, of Methodism. 

I went to a seminary that was heavily entrenched in the Anglican, Methodist, and Wesleyan traditions. For better or worse, I learned a lot about the life, ministry, and teachings of John Wesley while I was there. Though I don’t see eye-to-eye with Wesley on everything, there are some Wesleyan principles that I will take with me wherever I go, and one of these is the idea that holiness is the way to happiness.

This classical perspective is quite foreign to our modern sensibilities. In the contemporary landscape, most of us have developed a negative view of traditional morals, classical virtues, and religious teachings on “right and wrong.” We tend to think that such things oppose personal creativity and curb self-expression, robbing us of pleasure, happiness, and life. In contrast to the Wesleyan path, many of us are inclined to take the opposing path, which can be summed up here as the way of hedonism—the way of licentiousness, instant gratification, personal indulgence, and physical pleasure.

Isaac Brock: Good News for People Who Love Bad News

This well-traveled path is portrayed rather positively in much of our current art and media. The music and prose of the iconic indie rock band Modest Mouse serves as a good example. Modest Mouse has been around since the early ‘90s. They started writing and playing music during the heyday of the grunge era. Hailing from the great state of Washington and growing up in the shadows of Seattle, they didn’t earn the kind of attention and acclaim that neighboring bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam had earned.

In life, if I am presented with two alternative paths—one easy and one difficult—why wouldn’t I choose the easy one?

Modest Mouse is considered to be one of the first indie bands of the modern era. Known as true “road warriors,” they didn’t gain a ton of recognition until 2004, the year they released their most accessible album to date: the critically-acclaimed Good News for People Who Love Bad News. After playing shows in small clubs and dive bars across the country for more than a decade, Modest Mouse had finally made it. 

Their lead singer and primary songwriter is Isaac Brock, an open and self-designated atheist. He’s written several songs that are representative of an atheistic perspective. Some of these songs function as explicit critiques of faith and religion. For instance, on a track entitled “Bukowski,” Brock refers to God as an “Indian giver,” a “control freak,” and even—in a roundabout way—an “a**hole.”

In the song “Ocean Breathes Salty,” which was one of the hit singles off of Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Brock expresses the prevailing hedonistic sentiments of the day, sentiments that are characteristic of a youthful—and maybe even juvenile—mindset. On the track, Brock sings: 

I hope heaven and hell are really there,
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?

At the end of the song, Brock rewords those final lines, proclaiming: “You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?” 

Brock is essentially saying what many in our culture would say: that the religious life is a wasted life. The consensus today, at least among young people, seems to be that to live according to classical conceptions of piety, of traditional morals and religious values, is to throw one’s life away.

As they say, “You only live once!” “We want to have fun!” “We want to enjoy this fleeting life as much as we can before we die.” “What a waste of a life—to follow the rules, to make sacrifices for a God that may not even exist, to pursue virtue, to be disciplined, to avoid excess and abstain from certain pleasures and indulgences, to take the difficult path, the road less traveled.”

In life, if I am presented with two alternative paths—one easy and one difficult—why wouldn’t I choose the easy one? That’s a good question! Maybe the reason why we shouldn’t choose the easy path is because it won’t actually take us where we want to go. Maybe the easy path is not the path to happiness. Maybe it’s true that nothing good, rewarding, and truly worthwhile, is easy.

Is the Religious Life Really a Wasted Life?

Based on personal experience, I would push back rather hard on the notion that the moral life or the religious life is a wasted life. I believe the exact opposite to be true, based on first-hand experience. I think it’s important to challenge some of these societal assumptions. It’s particularly important if we genuinely care about people. 

Contrary to popular belief, it is actually the impious life that is a wasted life.

I believe that one can make a very strong argument—based mainly on shared human experience—that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually the impious life that is a wasted life. I think we lie to ourselves; we lie to other people. The world around us lies to us—and all of us are eating it up! I’ve eaten it up! I’m still eating it up! It’s such a human thing to do; it’s natural. It’s so simple and easy, but it’s also so flimsy and hollow.

When people say that a religious life or a moral life is a wasted life, they often have three traditionally prohibited behaviors in mind. Isaac Brock almost certainly had these three things in mind when he wrote the lyrics to “Ocean Breathes Salty”—heavy drug use, excessive alcohol use, and casual sex. 

But do these things really make us happier and healthier? Do they really make us more complete? Are they good for our relationships, friendships, and marriages? Do they make us feel better about ourselves and lead to personal fulfillment?  Do they make us feel loved and at peace? 

On the contrary, don’t these things drain us (and others) of emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being? Don’t these very things hurt and hamper us more than they help us? By and large, doesn’t the presence of such habits cause more guilt and shame, more depression and despair, more numbness and emptiness, more insecurity and stress, more brokenness and bondage, more angst and weakness, more laziness and impotence, than their absence does? 

In the long run and for the most part, do these behaviors not add to our discontentment rather than subtract from our discontentment? Don’t people typically practice these habits for the very purpose of masking and avoiding their deep-seated issues—issues that are often directly tied to personal pain and trauma—instead of dealing with them, which would likely result in a better life? We usually don’t want to think about these things, partly because it doesn’t seem to be very… much… fun….

The Way of Happiness

I can’t answer these questions for other people. I can’t answer them for you, but only for myself—and I think I know what the answer is… I think I have come to know what the answer is, even though sometimes I still don’t want to believe it—even though sometimes, like a child, I plug my ears, shake my head, and scream at the top of my lungs in order to avoid the truth, that inconvenient truth that a part of me—a very real part of me—doesn’t want to be true. “Evil… me, oh yeah, I know…” Brock sings in “Bukowski”—perhaps the most self-aware thing that he sings throughout the entire song, maybe even more honest than the title of the final track on the album: “The Good Times Are Killing Me.” If they’re killing you, then are they really good?

Wesley was right: we were made for happiness, and happiness can only be found in our joyful Creator—the God of eternal happiness, the God of Holy Love.

Thomas Oden, a theologian in the Methodist tradition, wrote an 859-page systematic theology called Classic Christianity. At the end of his section on the “Character of God,” he talks about the doctrine of divine happiness, a dogma that we simply do not hear enough about in the church today—if we hear about it at all. God is eternally happy; He is eternally fulfilled and joyful. This God of happiness, this God of felicity and blessedness, wants us to be like him—not primarily for his own sake, but for our sake! He wants us to be happy. He wants us to share in his blessedness. He wants us to experience “life and life abundantly.”

But this God of eternal happiness is also the God of holiness and righteousness. The God of everlasting joy is the God of “Holy Love.” The holiness of God is an integral part of the happiness of God. The righteousness of God directly contributes to the joyfulness of God. In and through God, we see that the holy life is the happy life, and vice versa.

This is what John Wesley helped bring to my attention as a young seminary student, something that I now know to be true through experience. Like most people, I’ve had my seasons of immorality—unholy seasons. But, when I look back on those seasons, I can’t help but think that they were all a waste! What did I gain? More than that, what did I lose? Those were wasted seasons, wasted potential, wasted life. My waywardness robbed me of the meaning, the beauty, the joy, the peace, and the fulfillment of the good life. It prevented me from experiencing the blessedness of God. Wesley was right: we were made for happiness, and happiness can only be found in our joyful Creator—the God of eternal happiness, the God of Holy Love.