Is morality about becoming “fully alive”?

My brother John Meunier recently responded to a blog post from Episcopal priest Martin Elfert in which Father Elfert had contemplated a question from a woman about the morality of living in a polyamorous relationship. As the foundation for his answer, Elfert quoted church father Irenaeus who said, “God’s glory is the human being fully alive,” basically intimating that the moral criterion for evaluating polyamory was to ask whether it makes the people involved “fully alive.” This made me a bit uncomfortable. But read both Elfert’s post and John’s response. What do you think? Is it valid to say that Christian morality is about making us more fully alive?

The specter of polyamory (multi-partner sexual intimacy) often gets deployed in the argument against homosexuality as part of the same alleged slippery slope that leads to pedophilia and bestiality becoming morally defensible. The underlying presumption is that God’s moral expectations can only have “authority” if they are grounded in an abstract standard of “holiness” that is categorically aloof from human flourishing. If we think that God’s law is only concerned with our happiness or vitality, then eventually we’ll all start jumping on farm animals because we won’t be able to draw any moral boundaries. That’s the presumption that makes Elfert’s moral philosophy sound so flippant.

Nonetheless, what Elfert wrote is actually not incompatible with the thought of my favorite uber-conservative 5th century bishop Augustine, who wrote in his book “On Happiness” that God is the ultimate good who can make us the most happy/alive and we are unhappy/dead to the degree that we embrace idols other than God. The idea that holiness is supposed to be contrary to our fulfilling desires and becoming “fully alive” does not originate in Christian thought, as C.S. Lewis shares in his sermon “Weight of Glory”:

If it lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith… Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak.

I was turned onto this critique of Kantian/Stoic morality strangely enough by the ultra-Calvinist John Piper in his book Desiring God (never mind that Piper often uses the Kantianism he critiques in other places, convinced as he is that God has to be sufficiently mean in order for us to be confident He is not a product of our own invention). At the same time, there is a flaky and irresponsible way of understanding the vitality of which Elfert speaks that is left over from the 19th century Romanticism that rebelled against Kantian ethics and rationalism and continues to shape the American liberal ethos. The voice of Romanticism talks like this:

Be true to yourself. Don’t lead a life of quiet desperation; find yourself a Walden Pond where you can suck the marrow out of life like Henry Thoreau (because your mom will do your laundry while you experiment with self-absorption — true story). Just eat, pray, and love. Because life really is all about you.

I suspect that’s the kind of narcissism that causes my more conservative brothers and sisters to be nervous about any account of morality that makes God’s law look too benevolent or any theology that doesn’t “balance” the yin of God’s love with a tough enough yang like “holiness” or “judgment” or “wrath.”

I experienced my own “eat, pray, love” journey on Mondays when I take my Sabbath. At first, I wasn’t sure how to rest on that day. Should I fast and pray? Or should I pamper and indulge myself? One Monday I went to my favorite Ethiopian restaurant in DC, loaded up on honey wine, got a black and mild cigar from the neighborhood convenience store, and walked around my old stomping ground in Malcolm X park. It was a beautiful autumn day. I felt really “alive” for about an hour, but God gave me no rest for indulging myself in that way. I had to learn for myself what my favorite fifth century bishop once wrote: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.”

So the next week I started fasting and praying in solitude on Mondays. And the life that I gained through this far richer sabbath has been indescribable. In fact, this week I’m going to be a mess because I ate today instead of fasting. I can’t explain why but it’s been true every time I’ve broken my fast in the last two years. I don’t fast because I’m trying to show God honor or prove my loyalty to Him or something. I do it because God uses it to make me more alive. Obviously Christian morality concerns more than just my life; it’s about making the whole of humanity more alive. When we fall into shallow self-indulgence, it keeps us from being fully alive even if it doesn’t seem to harm anyone else in which the ethical problems are more obvious.

In any case, I would recommend reading what Father Elfert said with a sympathetic hermeneutic as an attempt to get at what both Irenaeus and Augustine were saying, rather than moving too quickly to pan it as an echo of the shallow, self-indulgent 19th century Romanticism. God doesn’t want us to have a miserly Pharisaic existence in which we try to prove our loyalty through our dourness; He wants us to be swallowed up in the joy of His eternal life. But this requires the humility of understanding that we don’t know what in the world living really is and we absolutely need Him to teach us.

  • Tom V

    Here’s a quick, not-that-well thought out reply. I didn’t have time to read everything so I’m going on the risk that I may give a foolish, uninformed response but I wanted to give my quick, instinctual reflex to your initial question regardless. I have two thoughts: First, I’m not sure I’m ready to equate “alive” with “happy.” Secondly, I think there may indeed be a connection between morality and being made more fully alive. However, like the first thought, I’m not sure we know exactly what it means to be “fully alive” and our assumptions may mislead us as to the best way to define it. Further, it may be a cart before the horse issue. In other words, does Christian morality make us more fully alive or does our being fully alive lead us to Christian morality? One is a reaction to God’s work in your life as God’s fullness of life pours into and through you. The other is an adjustment of determining God’s work in your life on the standard of what makes you feel good (or happy). Do we look through the lens of our own happiness or through the lens of “the glory of God” (as the Irenaeus quote seems to me to suggest in the order of its own wording)? Just some quick thoughts and questions in passing. Peace.

    • Morgan Guyton

      “It may be a cart before the horse issue. In other words, does Christian morality make us more fully alive or does our being fully alive lead us to Christian morality?” Bingo! I couldn’t figure out how to say it that way, but you’re exactly right. Happy and alive aren’t necessarily coextensive. But I don’t like it’s right to make happiness the shallow foil of deep joy either. When I think “happy,” I think beati as in beatitude. If the beatitudes were translated properly, they would say “happy are the poor in spirit, etc,” instead of “blessed are…” Makarios and beati don’t need to be translated with a “religious” word. They just mean having a sense of contentment and fulfillment, i.e. being happy.

  • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

    “For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers incorruption for eternal life, which comes to every one from the fact of his seeing God. For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendour. But splendour vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life. And for this reason, He, beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith. For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him. It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness…

    …Therefore the Son of the Father declares from the beginning, inasmuch as He was with the Father from the beginning, who did also show to the human race prophetic visions, and diversities of gifts, and His own ministrations, and the glory of the Father, in regular order and connection, at the fitting time for the benefit [of mankind]. For where there is a regular succession, there is also fixedness; and where fixedness, there suitability to the period; and where suitability, there also utility. And for this reason did the Word become the dispenser of the paternal grace for the benefit of men, for whom He made such great dispensations, revealing God indeed to men, but presenting man to God, and preserving at the same time the invisibility of the Father, lest man should at any time become a despiser of God, and that he should 490 always possess something towards which he might advance; but, on the other hand, revealing God to men through many dispensations, lest man, falling away from God altogether, should cease to exist. For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God. For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God.”

    -St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies Book 4, Chapter 20

  • http://whosesideareyouonanyway.wordpress.com jmobeox6

    I know that being “fully alive” can be interpreted in many different ways and different levels and from a secular as well as from a spiritual angle. We must be careful to not confuse being alive in Christ and being alive on this earth. I offer and illustration, on the spring season 13 edition of the reality show The Biggest Looser, some of the contestants breeched their contract and left the show prematurely because they didn’t agree with the fairness of an upcoming contest. The particular contest in question was clearly noted and specifically mentioned in the contract each one of them signed. In their justification for breaking the contract, comments from the contestants included “the side of me that is like my morals and what I believe in is telling me that I shouldn’t continue to do something that isn’t making me happy right now” another said “I’ve got to stand for what I feel like is right”. The fact is many have fallen into very similar practice in the church where feelings and my happiness are dictating the actions of many instead of biblical principals laid out in our covenantal contract with God. It’s especially sobering to know the contestant who made the second comment above was a Christian youth pastor from Texas. And even though there are many clearly noted and specifically mentioned sins which are prohibited in scripture, many of those sins are on the increase and, in many churches, are being dealt with more as one might deal with a changing weather pattern rather than with something that can both destroy us as individuals as well as our corporate witness.

    The covenant we accepted from Christ carries with it far weightier consequences than any earthly contract could ever impose. Each successive generation is faced with the challenge to maintain covenant and the standards of holiness called for therein. Standards of moral conduct in the church are constantly being adjusted downward to match the declining character of congregants. We just want to do what makes us happy or feels right or good. Those standards and principals, some etched in stone by the Father’s own hand, instead of being anchors against the moving tide of society, have become more like clay in the hands of some church leaders. These unchangeable laws of God are being molded, modified and sometimes nullified. This is done primarily in order not to offend and to keep those important tithe checks rolling in. But what we have done, in fact, is to place the cart before the horse. By letting sinful practices be the driving force behind the amending and massaging of biblical standards, instead of the other way around, we are allowing the tail to wag the dog.

    • Morgan Guyton

      So the challenge is to learn how to present the life that is really life evangelistically. That’s what I heard the Episcopal priest in this blog trying to do whether or not it was successful. I think we need to scrutinize our own motives in how we talk about holiness. There’s no reason to pretend that it doesn’t have to do with our needs; it’s just an enlightened grasp of our real needs that God has handed down to us. We need to battle the Romanticism of the self-indulgent libertines we also need to battle Kantianism of the self-justifying exhibitionist martyrs.

  • brambonius

    Interesting question. I’d say that morality is indeed about ‘becoming fully alive’, but that our idea of what ‘being fully alive’ means can be quite warped… But yes, the only life there is to be found is in living Gods way, all other ways lead to nothing and worse, even if we don’t see them like that…
    strange way of approaching polyamory, but I find the taboo on polyamory as something quite alien (and something to which gay marriage might lead) quite weird, the bible is full of polygamy…

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      But from the beginning, it was not so.

  • Tom Lambrecht

    This question brings to mind some Scriptures:
    “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 10:39)
    “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Lk. 9:25)
    “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Lk 17:33)
    “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (Jn 12:25)

    I agree with you that true life, true happiness, is found in and through God alone. If we seek God, we will find happiness. If we seek happiness, we will lose them both.

    • Morgan Guyton

      In Greek there is a duality between psyche, the word translated in those passages as “life,” and pneuma, the word for “spirit.” Bonhoeffer did a lot with this duality between psychological and spiritual life in his book Life Together. Zoe, the life that Jesus brings, is a totally different entity.

  • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

    “Gosh…” -Episcopal priest