Review of “the Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life”

 by J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler

Good “anti” but bad “thesis” 

             My favorite philosopher J.P. Moreland’s 2006 offering (with Klaus Issler) is a brief read that ultimately makes a strong case for the problem, but then offers a wrong-headed solution. Their indictment of contemporary American culture on the charge of being unhappy is spot-on. They argue that people have forgotten how to live lives that result in happiness, and it is certainly true that people are less happy than ever despite gains in health, wealth, and leisure. The problem is that people pursue happiness directly, which recalls the paradox in Matthew 16:25—“Whoever wants to save his live will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” This alone is a profound point that is very helpful for us to understand.

            According to Moreland and Issler, in America the pursuit of happiness is an obsession. But the ancient understanding of happiness—even up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence in which the pursuit of happiness was an “unalienable right”—was very different than the current direct seeking of positive feelings of pleasure. Happiness used to mean “A life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness” (p. 25). So as a result of our shallow feelings-obsessed campaign for self-fulfillment, we end up with “empty selves” who are overly individualistic, infantile, narcissistic, and passive.

            The key to finding happiness is that happiness is a by-product of seeking something else. My favorite quote in the entire book is: “Feelings are wonderful servants but terrible masters” (p. 23). I started using this quip immediately in training graduate student psychotherapists. So, “when people make happiness their goal, they do not find it and, as a result, start living their lives vicariously through identification with celebrities” (p. 23). The solution? “People literally need to get a life. They need to find something bigger and more important to live for than pleasurable satisfaction” (p. 23). The authors then spend some time contrasting the contemporary (pleasurable satisfaction) and classical (virtue and well-being) understandings of happiness. All this in the first chapter.

            The second chapter is entitled Gaining happiness by losing your life, and it immediately goes awry. Seeking the Kingdom of God—this brings happiness. But how does this work, according to Moreland and Issler? Spiritual disciplines. To quote the authors, “Christianity is an aesthetic religion…whose transforming power is tapped by regular and rigorous discipline and self-denial, done in constant dependence on the filling and power of the Holy Spirit” ( p 39 ), and the rest of the book unpacks this assertion.

            This book came out before Kingdom Triangle (2009), which have already criticized with regards to its treatment of spiritual disciplines (http://jhughes.neoblogs.org/2008/06/review-of-kingdom-triangle-part-2/). In this older (Lost Virtue) book, learning to play golf or the piano through practice and instruction is the metaphor used to explain how spiritual disciplines work. Using Romans 12:1, 1 Cor 9:24-27 (“exercise self-control…discipline my body and make it my slave…”), Colossians 3:5 (“put to death the members of your body”), 1 Tim 4:7-8 (“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness”), etc. They assert that the flesh in these passages refers to “sinful tendencies that reside in the body and whose nature is opposite to the kingdom of God” (p 44). Thus, Moreland intends the golf metaphor to be taken literally. We present the members of our “golf body” to the golf instructor to gradually get rid of bad golf habits and replace them with good ones. So, spiritual disciplines are habitual repeated bodily exercises (like solitude retreats), involving specific body parts (like the stomach), which results in putting to death our bad habits by removing the flesh that resides in those body parts and replacing it with righteousness that comes to reside in the members of our body.

            Well, that’s enough of that…it went in a weird direction and the remainder of the book is practical strategies for practicing at spirituality. I don’t have a high opinion of spiritual disciples, as I have said before in my review of Kingdom Triangle and my diatribe against Christian faculty conferences (see the section titled “Spiritual disciplines are stupid” at http://jhughes.neoblogs.org/2008/09/why-i-do-not-attend-christian-faculty-conferences%E2%80%94part-2/).

            To conclude, the book offers an excellent portrayal of the problem of discontent and unhappiness in America, but ultimately offers no workable solution. This is a real shortcoming of the book, in my view. Unfortunately, spiritual disciplines are a big theme of contemporary evangelical ecclesiology. What Moreland and Issler needed instead of self-effort sanctification is a refreshing view of the joy of being engaged in the body of Christ, fulfilling the Great Commission, and generally rampaging around as outlaw Christians living the dream. Now that is an antidote to the modern malaise.

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