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.