Christian Hedonism

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[Note: I've post a slightly fuller, more philosophically detailed version of this post at Prosblogion.] Reading the reviews of Sex and the Glory of God, co-edited by John Piper (see Stefan Matzal's review, and then follow the links at the bottom for more) has gotten me thinking about what Piper calls Christian hedonism. Wink also told me recently that he has stopped believing in Christian hedonism after having been convinced by Piper that it's correct. So I've been trying to figure out exactly what sort of hedonism Piper endorses, because it seems to me that it simply isn't any of the positions philosophers have called hedonism. I'm aware of four distinct theses philosophers refer to as hedonism, each a kind of hedonism with respect to a different issue. I do think Piper holds one of them, but I don't think it's equivalent to what he calls Christian hedonism, which doesn't seem to me to be a kind of hedonism at all.

First, here is Piper's account of what Christian hedonism is (this is all directly quoted from Desiring God, p.23):

1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience; it is good, not sinful. 2. We should never try to resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
3. The deepest and most enduring satisfaction is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
5. To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is, the chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever.

I don't think this view is hedonism according to any of the standard philosophical views I know of that are called hedonism. (It's clearly not hedonism in the popular sense, but I'm concerned about the philosophical views called hedonism, which are what Piper had in mind in choosing the term.)

Psychological hedonists say that our only motivation is to seek our pleasure. We never act for any other reason. We often fail at this, doing self-destructive things in the name of pleasure, but the only reason we do anything according to this view is in seeking pleasure. Now I think Piper would say that people rightly ordered will seek God and thus be attaining their pleasure, but is this what his thesis amounts to? He does think fallen humanity seeks selfish desires, and restored humanity seeks what turns out to be best for them in seeking God. We are seeking our own pleasure to the same degree that we are restored. Those who are more transformed into godliness will seek their true pleasure more.

I think Piper is, in fact, a psychological hedonist. He about says so in the preface to Desiring God. He favorably quotes Pascal:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.... The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hand themselves. (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, thought #425, as cited by Piper, Desiring God, p.16

But is this the claim that he calls Christian hedonism? Hardly. Piper continues that this thought "made great sense" to him and opened up the door for developments in his thinking, leading eventually to Christian hedonism. So Christian hedonism is a further claim. He does't want to say just that we do seek our pleasure and that the most perfect way to do so is to seek God. He includes some ethical component. He thinks we ought to seek the fulfillment of our deepest desires in seeking the glory of God, which will lead to the most pleasure of anything we could do. That's not psychological hedonism. I'm just not sure it's any of the others either.

The three other hedonistic theses involve a genuinely normative component. That is to say that they involve something to do with rightness or goodness. Psychological hedonism is just about what we do. The three other brands of hedonism are about what is good or what we ought to do. Welfare hedonism is a theory of the good, in particular of what's good for an individual person. Value hedonism more generally speaks of what is good overall. These, again, aren't directly about what's right to do. They're simply about which situations are good, in the first case what is good for an individual person and in the second what is a better outcome or situation. In this case, the hedonist view defines what's good (for me or in general) in terms of pleasure (my own or perhaps of the most people).

Even if Piper did believe one of these views, it wouldn't be what Christian hedonism is. Christian hedonism clearly involves statments about what we should do, not just about which situations are good or bad. I don't think he believes them, though. I'm confident Piper thinks someone in the Matrix or on the Truman Show is worse off than anyone who had the same experiences but with real people not acting or being generated by computers. I'm also sure he thinks a world like ours is better than a world where we're all experiencing the same things but with no objective basis, e.g. the Matrix. Those views are incompatible with welfare and value hedonism, because the welfare and value hedonist will insist that one's experiences, particularly how pleasurable they are, would be all that could contribute toward well-being, and the same is true on a larger scale for value hedonism. Also, for Piper the highest good is God's glory, which isn't itself pleasure. That's enough to show that he's no value hedonism. The thing with the most value isn't pleasure.

Ethical hedonism is all that remains. This view says we ought to do what leads to the most pleasure for ourselves. The reason it's right to do it is that it leads to the most pleasure for us. Once you clarify what counts as pleasure, this isn't as radical as it sounds. The truest, deepest pleasures are long-term, higher pleasures, so it's not like the tendency to give in to immediate short-term pleasures that modern society calls hedonism. Epicurus in ancient times and Ayn Rand in modern times have defended this sort of view, and most of the things they say are good and right line up well with what most people say are good and right. They just provide a radical basis for why they're good and right. It takes rare and unlikely scenarios to find cases where this sort of view really does lead to radical statements about what we should do.

It's tempting to see Piper as taking such a position, with the highest pleasure as pursuit of God, and he does think it's our moral obligation to do what leads to that highest pleasure, but this isn't Piper's view. In fact, he explicitly denies it:

Christian hedonism is not a "general theory of moral justification." In other words, nowhere do I say: an act is right because it brings pleasure. My aim is not to decide what is right by using joy as a moral criterion. My aim is to own up to the amazing, and largely neglected, fact that some dimension of joy is a moral duty in all true worship and all virtuous acts. I do not say that loving God is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving God.... I do not say that loving people is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving people. (Desiring God, p.20)

He doesn't think we should seek God merely because it leads to our pleasure. He thinks we should seek God because God is the most worthy being of our pursuit. It does lead to the most pleasure we could possibly attain, but that doesn't seem to me to be Piper's main basis for why we should glorify God. Valuing the most truly valuable is what's central for him. The fact that it leads to the most pleasure and the fact that we get pleasure out of it are not incidental, because he insists that we have these desires and ought to fulfill them in the best way possible, but at the same time it's not the fact that it leads to pleasure that makes it right to glorify God. He explicitly denies that. So Piper is no ethical hedonist.

Where does this leave us? I don't think Piper's Christian hedonism is enough like any of the standard hedonist views to be worthy of the name. Hedonism starts with a philosophical question and answers it in terms of pleasure. The four versions I've discussed give pleasure as the answer to what motivates us, what makes something good for me, what makes a situation good overall, and what makes an action right. Piper isn't out to do anything like that. What is he doing, then?

I think Christian hedonism is really just a general moral theory. Most moral theories take one element and then evaluate it in terms of some moral considerations. Act hedonism takes my actions and then evaluates them in terms of whether those actions produce the most happiness for me. Act utilitarianism evaluates my actions in terms of whether they produce the most good overall. Rule utilitarianism evaluates sets of rules in terms of which one will lead to the most good overall, and then we should follow that set of rules. Virtue hedonism evaluates character traits in terms of which ones would be best overall for people to have, and then we should seek to have those traits.

I propose that Piper's Christian hedonism takes the primary element to be evaluated as desire-fulfillment, and it evaluates it in terms of whether the desire is being fulfilled in the best way it can be fulfilled (which, as it turns out, is always going to be in seeking to fulfill it in God). This is just a general moral theory, one that I think is fairly interesting and uncommon. Desire-fulfillment is the primary thing morality will evaluate. Actions, rules, character traits, motives, and societal institutions may also be evaluated in moral ways, and this theory as I've spelled it out doesn't necessarily subsume all of them under desire-fulfillment. Piper might think there are multiple things to be evaluated morally, and this is just one essential element to be evaluated. I wonder if his denial that this is a general hedonistic account of morality is his attempt to say that he doesn't try to reduce all morality to this one principle. One way or the other, I think he's presented an interesting view that I don't think has been explored very well philosophically.

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In last week’s Christian Carnival, I found the link to Parableman, Jeremy Pierce’s piece on his evaluation of John Piper’s Christian Hedonism. It is an interesting read, and one that I am still working through myself. As I think thr... Read More

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Interesting that you've posted this now because I've been reading The Dangerous Duty of Delight, the abbreviated version of Desiring God (something I would normally never do but it was a gift) and I was rather uncomfortable with the term "hedonism" but now I've come to view it as a literary device (for effect) rather than an actual philosophy. On the other hand, could it work as a philosophy depending on how we define the word "pleasure"? It seems like a lot of so-called "philosophical" issues are actually semantics, but I'm just speaking off the cuff, so...

In philosophy, hedonism usually involves a broad conception of pleasure. Happiness is pleasure, and the deepest and most fulfilling kinds are the heights of pleasure, and it's always about long-term pleasure and not just immediate pleasures. That's why the popular sense of the term 'hedonism' is just completely out of step with what the term has classically referred to. Piper still isn't expressing hedonism, but all the views that are called hedonism are thinking of pleasure this way. If fulfilling your desires in the broadest sense counts as having pleasure, which is what he and philosophers have always said, he's still not expressing a hedonist view. He's giving a moral theory about which desires should be fulfilled, not explaining some moral or other fact in terms of pleasure and pleasure alone.

Jeremy, thanks for that explanation. I think I'll still with seeing it as a literary device which Piper didn't think through to the level that you have.

Just wanted to clarify that I wasn't saying I wouldn't normally read Desiring God (it's been on my wishlist for a while) but that I wouldn't normally read an abridged version of any book.

Jeremy, you may be correct that Piper is only useing the word "hedonism" as a literary device. Still, you must recognize that he calls it a philosophy, and so does his church. That, in fact, does make it into a philosophy. Even more, it is also a doctrine.

There is a page of articles that pretty thoroughly digs into the doctrine and theology of Christian Hedonism, but my favorite article is the one about Solomon:

I think his view is pretty clearly a philosophical view. That's why I spent the whole post trying to figure out which philosophical view it is.

The term 'literary device' was Marla's expression. I would prefer to say he's using the term for rhetorical reasons, not necessarily because he thinks he's taking a classic hedonistic view. It's more that he thinks this should be a radical view for many Christians, and he wants a radical term to describe it. If that's what she means by calling it a literary device, then I agree.

The URL you give about Solomon is using the popular sense of 'hedonism'. That's not what I'm talking about, as I said at the outset.

Jeremy, that's exactly what I mean. I have a tendency to oversimplify at times (the whole big picture vs. details mentality). Eagerly awaiting your Intellectuelle votes... :)

Ya know...all this philisophical discussion about hedonism is very important and I hope you get it all figured out Jeremy!

Because.... I have a real question. And the answer to this question directly relates to the outcome of whether one takes a "Christian Hedonistic" view or not.

First I will give the real life question. Then I will ask you to tell me if it has relevance to this topic.

We attended a recent wedding of my cousin's daughter. The ceremony was Roman Catholic. The reception was completely traditional. A dinner/dance with a DJ. He was spinning danceable oldies. My husband and I were in attendance with our four oldest children ranging in age from 18 to 11 years.

In order to be the best witness for Christ should we have:

a.) Had a couple of glasses of wine to unwind and then cut loose on the dance floor with our best enthusiasm and all out enjoyment of the moment, dancing with each other, our cousins, and our kids in jubilant celebration?


b.) Should we have sat sour-pussed and disapproving at the secular music and crazy dancing and left early, disgusted with the whole thing?

In other words... is it really so wrong to be joyful, happy, participatory in the sense of "when in Rome?" Must we always have a sober over serious tone to everything we do?

Do you think my real life scenario reflects this discussion? I do... I spent many years mired in somehow thinking the Cross was a sad, sorry deal and had difficulty entering into joy. I think I was a product of a certain philosophy coming down from somewhere which warped the true biblical center of the issue. So I am glad, Jeremy, that you and your colleagues are getting this straightened out. Keep me posted. In other words, compare and contrast the themes of the Cross and suffering which produces fruit with themes of joy in the Lord and the role of pleasure seeking for the Christian.


I don't think you need to do everything in choice a to avoid choice b, but the general sense of choice a seems right to me. You don't need to be what Piper calls a Christian hedonist to say that, though. You just have to think that God wants us to enjoy what he's given us.

Piper says something stronger. He says the driving force behind moral living is to fulfill our desires in God, and he ends up saying some controversial things. The thing that got this started was his latest book, co-authored with a team of writers, about sex and God's glory. His controversial thesis in that book is that the primary (though not the only) purpose of marriage and even sex is to serve as a witness to the relationship between God and the elect. The pleasure that sex brings, its reproductive potential, and its unitive function are all genuine purposes, but they are all secondary to what it symbolizes. That was the singlemost concern most of the reviewers had with the book. They think Piper goes too far with that. God did have that in mind when he created sexual union, but that doesn't mean it's more fundamental than any of the more immediate purposes.

He says similar things about many things, including any action we might do. The purpose of preaching is ultimately only to glorify God. It does so by building the church, by speaking God's word so that people will be transformed, but it's as if people's growth is only a means to God's ultimate end of bringing glory to himself. The purpose of evangelism is ultimately to bring glory to God, and the people who are saved in the process are merely a means to that end. It's as if their own salvation is good not so much because it's good for them, though it is, but primarily because it's good for God that people be saved, because God is the one whose moral rights are the most important. This isn't Piper's language, but it's what his view amounts to. I think there's a sense in which something like this isn't far from the truth, but he goes beyond scripture and ends up saying some things that I think are false in the process.

God's ultimate moral view, for Piper, is to treat everyone, even the elect, as mere means to his self-centered end. It's true that it's not immoral for God to be self-centered, because God is the being most deserving of anyone, including God, to treat as the center, but it doesn't seem to me to fit with scripture's language to reduce all of God's motivations to this one thing.

God's greatest moral action, according to Piper, is to bring glory to himself, and the things God does in relation to us are primarily for that purpose rather than out of love or jealousy for his people, for example. He doesn't deny that those are motivations in God, but he says God has those motivations only because they are God's best way of bringing glory to himself. God's glory is truly supreme, and we should be motivated by that, and I think Piper's writings are valuable in moving people more in that direction, but he seems to me to go too far in talking about God's glory as the most supreme good, as if these other things are only secondary. It may well be that you can see God's glory as including his love, jealousy, and so on, but once you do that you're no longer focusing on what we in English can talk about just by talking about his love. So Piper's views have wide-ranging consequences for things unrelated to our pleasures.

Dr. Piper uses exageration as an instructional technique. I find this to be a flawed approach, since I think we are supposed to be accurate with the Word, only emphasizing what God emphasizes. Exageration is the opposite, emphasizing what man wants to emphasize. It is a distortion of truth.

When Dr. Piper wrote "Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when it makes the joy of worship its goal." and "I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in him." he is exagerating.

Pleasure and joy are good attributes of Christianity, and always have been. But they are not the REASON for worship. Nor are they the pre-requisite to salvation as Piper writes elsewhere.

If you read Piper, I suggest a strong caution regarding his tendancy to exagerate without footnote or apology.

Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when it makes the joy of worship its goal.

I have no problem with this. Christian hedonism isn't about our pleasure. It's about the utter desirability of God's glory and God's sufficiency for all our needs.

"I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in him."

I'm not sure this is deliberate exaggeration. He thinks this is the biblical emphasis, that we really should seek for our motivations to be for the glory of God, i.e. in fulfilling our desires only in God. Worshiping for any other reason is evil, because it's truly about God. The place to question it isn't in saying that we should fulfill our desires in some other way. It's in saying that we can have motivations that aren't transparently about desire fulfillment. This is a philosophical mistake he has made, not a deliberate exaggeration. If you start where he starts and say that the only motivation for our actions is to fulfill our desires, then he seems to be right that moral living is about having our desires ordered properly.

Ah, good point. I do not start where Piper starts, nor do I accept his philosophy as a beginning point. If I start with Scriptures instead of his philosophy, it says there is pleasure with God, but only rarely does it say this. Scripture emphasizes love over all else, love for God, love for neighbors, love even more than gifts or faith and hope.

Since pleasure and being motivated by "desires" are a very minor topic in Scripture, to put them up at the top of the worship hierarchy is exageration, exageration compared with where God views them. The importance of desire and pleasure are grotesquely exagerated.

I do not doubt that Piper believes in his philosophy, however, if one wishes to glorify God, one must do it on God's terms. God emphasizes love as a motivation, not desires and pleasures.

I wouldn't say it rarely says it. He spends a whole chapter going through passage after passage. It really is overwhelming in the scriptures. The psalmists delight in God's presence, tasting of the rivers of his delights, the treasures of God being more valuable (i.e. more worth valuing) than silver or gold, and so on.

Love is part of this, because it's love of God that Piper is talking about. That's what he means by having your desires directed toward God. If we're motivated by love for God, then we're doing exactly what Piper says we should be doing. You're thinking of the words 'pleasures' and 'desires' as much more restrictive than the way the biblical authors use them. Piper is talking about delighting in God, loving God because God is the being most lovely, the being most worthy of love. It's because God is so glorious that we worship him. That's exactly what Piper says when he says our desires should be aiming toward God's glory. You're simply saying the same thing but coming at it from a different direction.

This is the part of Piper that I think is just plain biblical. We should seek to have our desires aligned in this way. I'm just not as sure that's this is the core idea of morality.

Keep the main thing the thing. Piper says the main point contained in Scripture is taking pleasure in God. His proof text for this is quoting a fistfull of verses that in some way or another use the word delight or joy.

I disagree with his approach and with his conclusion.

What is the main point contained in Scripture? I would argue that it is: The foremost command is to love God and your neighbor--for in this love is all the law and all the prophets summarized. I do not need a fistfull of questionable verses, I have actual Scripture that tells me what the main point from Scripture is. And it is not getting pleasure, it is loving God and our neighbors.

There is a world of difference between loving God and pursuing pleasure. Just look at how the Bible defines "love."

Piper gives an overwhelmingly high number of passages in favor of his thesis that we should have our desires ordered so that our love for God is stronger than any other love, than any other delight. It's likely that he takes some of these out of context. It's extremely unlikely that the whole gamut of references shows nothing in the direction of what he's saying.

I'm not sure what you mean by how the Bible defines love. It's certainly not mere delight, but Piper doesn't think it's mere delight. He spends a whole chapter on love in Desiring God. One of his key theses in that chapter is that love is more than than feelings but is also not less than feelings. It's not just a feeling of love like how the English word is often used, but it's got to include feelings or it's not really love. "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." (I Corinthians 13:3, ESV) This isn't something particular to Piper. D.A. Carson makes exactly the same point in almost exactly the same language in Love in Hard Places.

Reducing love to mere action is just as reductionistic as Piper. Love for God is worship for God, and it includes serving God and obeying God, but it's simply not love if it's only service and obedience without delight in God. There must be an emotional component, which means the only way to love God properly is to do what Piper says we must do, to have our desires and priorities ordered properly. I think his exegesis of I Corinthians 8 is convincing enough to show that the love Paul expects to see from the Corinthians involves an emotional component, including an abundance of joy and earnestness.

"There must be an emotional component" to love. I agree. Love is the whole, the emotion is a sub-component. No one would think to elevate the component as being a higher priority than the whole.

Desire, an emotion, is a component of love. We should not elevate desire higher than the love it is a component of.

Should our desire be only for God? Not biblically. We must love (desire) our neighbors. We must love (desire) the Word. We must love (desire) our spouses and our children. We must love (desire) justice. We must love (desire) to do good. And we must do all this loving by obeying the Word which says "Do nothing from selfishness." We do not love others to "get pleasure" but to please God and to please others.

Christian Hedonism? No, I don't think so.

Thanks for the discussion and the challenges. It was educational.

Piper doesn't say our desire should only be for God. He says our desire for God should be our most fundamental desire.

Of course, it's pretty easy to show that, biblically, you can't love God without loving your neighbor, and you can't truly love your neighbor without loving God. Piper says both. He's same the same about God's word, and he'd say the same about justice.

He doesn't say we should love others to get pleasure. That's a pretty uncharitable caricature of his view. He says we should love others in part because it flows out of a desire to honor God, who is worth honoring far more than the others that we're loving. He explicitly denies the view you're ascribing to him.

God's greatest moral action, according to Piper, is to bring glory to himself, and the things God does in relation to us are primarily for that purpose rather than out of love or jealousy for his people, for example. He doesn't deny that those are motivations in God, but he says God has those motivations only because they are God's best way of bringing glory to himself.

Leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And that whole sex bit you mentioned kinda freaks me out. I want to be fundamentally focused on my wife during that time.

I think Piper would say that the focus during sex should be your wife, because that's the best way to glorify God in it. The motivation to want to glorify God in it, to want to seek your wife in it, is grounded in the motivation to glorify God. The distinction is between what gives us our desires for doing various things and what desires we have for doing things. It's the first level that Piper says should be motivated by God.

It's funny that in my criticism of Piper I have to defend him because people are taking my criticism well beyond what's fair to him. We should only critique him for things he says, not for things he doesn't. I think there are real worries with what he does say, so I want to make sure my criticisms are about that and not about what people falsely take him to be saying.

Yeah, very true. I'll have to read this book sometime to get a vibe for it.

Jeremy, you said "Piper doesn't say we should love others to get pleasure. That's a pretty uncharitable caricature of his view."

You may be right, however, with all the definitions changing all the time, it gets hard to follow. Hedonism doesn't mean hedonism to you, though Piper says that hedonism means, "My old Webster's Collegiate Dictionary of 1961… defines 'hedonism' as 'a living for pleasure.' That is precisely what I mean by it. If the chief end of man is to enjoy God forever, human life should be a 'living for pleasure.' " And "It is a general term to cover a wide variety of teachings which have elevated pleasure very highly." And, "I would be happy with the following definition as a starting point for my own usage of the word: Hedonism is 'a theory according to which a person is motivated to produce one state of affairs in preference to another if and only if he thinks it will be more pleasant, or less unpleasant for himself.'

Personally, I think Piper feels hedonism means what we all think it means--the pursuit of our own pleasure. But we are all free to believe what we want about what hedonism means.

Going back your statement, "Piper doesn't say we should love others to get pleasure. That's a pretty uncharitable caricature of his view."

You again may be right and I may have gotten it wrong, but Piper did write: "The only way to glorify the all-sufficiency of God in worship is to come to him because 'in his presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures for evermore' (Psalm 16:11). This has been the main point so far, and we could call it vertical Christian Hedonism. Between man and God, on the vertical axis of life, the pursuit of pleasure is not just tolerable; it is mandatory-'Delight yourself in the Lord!' The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. But now what about horizontal Christian Hedonism? What about our relationships with other people? Is the pursuit of pleasure proper and indeed mandatory for every kind of human love which pleases God? This chapter's answer is that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed."

Personally, I think when Piper says, "the pursuit of pleasure is proper and indeed mandatory for every kind of human love" he is saying the same thing as "we love others to get the pleasure we crave and pursue." I don't think it is uncharitable to alot to Piper the very meaning of what he has said.

Thanks again for the conversation. It is very thought provoking, and you are a very interesting young man.

It is a general term to cover a wide variety of teachings which have elevated pleasure very highly.

But I think that's wrong. I think I gave a more accurate account of what hedonism is, philosophically speaking. It's when you try to analyze a concept in terms of pleasure, usually in terms exclusively related to pleasure. All the cases of hedonism that I discussed do that. I don't think that's what he's done. He's analyzing what kinds of pleasure are best to pursue, not defining something else in terms of pleasure.

Hedonism is 'a theory according to which a person is motivated to produce one state of affairs in preference to another if and only if he thinks it will be more pleasant, or less unpleasant for himself.

That's psychological hedonism. Piper is clearly saying more than that. He's got an ethical thesis.

On the last point, he does say the pursuit of pleasure is necessary for love, but that's because he thinks the pursuit of pleasure will happen no matter what. The key is making sure it's the right sorts of pleasures that you're pursuing. He doesn't say we should love people merely because it makes us happy to do so. He denies that sort of thing repeatedly each time he discusses a new subject. In the case of love, we don't love because it makes us happy to do so. We love in a way that includes our getting pleasure out of it as an essential component, but that's not because we're doing actions with selfish motives. It's because part of our motivation for even wanting to love is that we love God and want to pursue him, which we do in part (but not only) because we're seeking to fulfill our deepest joys in him. So loving people will involve our seeking to fulfill our deepest longings in God, but it's not the only thing going on. It's just the most fundamental motive that will then ground the motive that you want to say is fundamental. You have to distinguish between the different levels, with lower levels of explanation grounding higher levels of explanation.

OK, interesting discussion. As you say, for hedonists the most fundamental motive is the pursuit of pleasure in God. For me, not being a hedonist, just a run-of-the-mill Christian, I am motivated by love for God.

Happily, God does not require of me to conform to Piper's rules and definitions, He only requires that I conform to His Word. He does not ask me to measure my heart against hedonism or Desiring God, but against 1st John. Perhaps I am unsofisticated but I find God's Word so freeing and I find Piper's call to convert to hedonism, well, misguided and confining.

Best to you Jeremy.

The one hesitation I have about that way of describing what you're doing is that I don't think he'd object to what you say you're doing. I think he'd object to what you say you're not doing. If you're motivated by love for God, I think Piper would say that you are doing what he says you should be doing. It's your denial that it's hedonism that he'd take issue with.

Jeremy, it seems to me that one of the over-riding issues in all of this is that there is often "Christian scholarship" and then there is "scholarship." Sometimes there is cross-pollinization, but often there is not. Many conservative Christian grow up in a conservative Christian "greenhouse", speaking their own dialect of English, writing and reading their own books, and thinking in their own unique ways with little interaction with what scholars in fields related to their own interests are saying. I suspect that much of the separation (and that word "separation" is, of course, very important to certain subsets of conservative Christians) comes from the liberal/conservative theological debates and divisions from the late 1800's and early 1900's. Christians lost faith in public educational institutions and founded their own institutions.

We see much of this great divide today in U.S. politics where people refer to the "evangelical right" versus the liberal left. And yet some of the causes which the liberal left cares so deeply about are ones which conservative Christians should be far more devoted to, but are not, because it is not currently part of their worldview.

In my opinion, when conservative Christians become so ascetic in their worldview, it becomes more difficult for them to speak to a postmodern world and to offer a message of hope. We don't even speak the same language, in many cases. We are arguing about whether or not to use words like "sanctifiction" and "justification" in our English Bibles. That's not where the rest of the world, some of whom are looking for answers, is at.

I think that many of the most popular Christian authors and preachers have become part of "greenhouse Christianity" with us talking to ourselves.

And so we sometimes don't use words and concepts in the same way that the rest of the world does, to our loss, in my opinion.

P.S. We even do our Christian greenhouse thing in blogging. I appreciate Christian fellowship. But I wonder sometimes about how much we talk to ourselves in our blogs. We refer to the "Christian blogosphere" and even create blogrolls for it.

Who, in the rest of the world, is listening in? Who is being benefitted by our discussions, even those which try to deal with some of the difficult philosophical issues confronting us today?

The issue here isn't Christian word use vs. everyone else's. It's philosophers' vs. popular usage, with Piper coming up with his own idiosyncratic third sense of the term.

You're right about the general phenomenon. It's not so true at this blog, though. A significant amount of the interaction here has involved people who aren't Christians, particularly on my more philosophical posts.

I do work in the Third World and I say that Piper's work on Christian hedonism is totally irrelevant to anything. Why get bogged down in these kinds of discussions? Was Jesus a hedonist? Was pursuing pleasure His own objective? He gave up everything and demanded the same of His disciples and by extension you and me. His work is muddled nonsense. We are forbidden to pursue pleasure but we are to pursue God and the best for our neighbor. Whatever pleasure evolves from that is a gift.

I've spent some time in what's sometimes called the Third World, and I think that's totally irrelevant to what this is about. When I was there, I was especially moved by some of Piper's teaching.

You've misrepresented Piper in all the ways I've been pointing out so far in this discussion. I'm not going to repeat all that, of course, but I'll say this. You're pretending Piper thinks pursuing pleasure is the objective. He simply doesn't. He says we shouldn't pursue pleasure as an end in itself. What we should do is pursue God rather than fulfilling our desires in other things. He sees whatever pleasure comes from that as a gift, but he doesn't think that means we can't think about God as the proper object of our desires.

If we're thinking of pleasure as the goal, then we're not going to be seeking the proper goal. If we're thinking of God as the goal, then we will be fulfilling our deepest desires. That's why Piper spends most of his time talking about delighting in God and absolutely none of it talking about delighting in pleasure. He doesn't think we should pursue pleasure. He thinks we should pursue God. One good reason to pursue God is because it will fulfill the desires God gave us that he intended to be fulfilled only in him. The best reason to pursue God is because God is truly glorious. It's impossinble to read Piper in any serious way and not come away with that.

As for Jesus, Piper would probably say that Jesus did what he did because of the joy that was set before him. I guess he's making that up as muddled nonsense.

On the subject of why it's good to discuss theology, I don't know why any Christian wouldn't want to think on God and the things of God. Why is it so unspiritual to pursue greater understanding of such things? That kind of anti-intellectualism is one of the biggest scourges in contemporary evangelicalism.

I think everyone is being a little to judgemental here. Of course we all are at times, so I won't cast the first stone.
I have been a pastor for 11 years, and as I read through Mr. Pipers ideas, I must say, they really aren't to far out. There is always an extremist in every bunch who says " may God have mercy on his poor unlearned and demon filled soul". Ultimately the idea of finding pleasure in God and in daily life, actually stirred me up quite a bit. The old theology of living a life filled with dark clouds and terror, really doesn't sound to appealing, and I certainly would not want to be saved knowing that I had to live in gloom all of the time. Yes, I think we should rejoice in God always. While I would never call myself a Christian Hedonist. I would love to call myself a joy full Christian. Paul states in Romans that " if we cause a brother to stumble because we are ok with drinking wine, but he isn't and this causes him to drink wine. Even if he believes it's not ok than we have caused him to do something contrary to what he believes. So if Mr. Piper believes that we should strive to find joy in God and all that we do. Maybe that is where his faith lies, and therefore it's ok with God. (Maybe). Besides why wouldn't God want us to live in a constant state of happiness, rather than pain. I don't believe that we have to feel the nails going through our hands, but rather be thankful that Jesus took them for us. Be Happy or better yet. Be of good cheer, for I have over come the world.

I agree with you in general. I would agree with you entirely if all Piper were doing is saying that we should delight in God. He's going beyond that, though. He reduces everything else to that, and I think he unbalances the balance in scripture between that and other things, just as he does with God's love and God's desire for his own glory.

Hey Jeremy..

I'm a latecomer to your blog but am intrigued by the topic and flow of discussion..

As you say, very interesting how so many people have mis-represented Piper. I've read Desiring God, I've read Pleasures of God, I've read a few others too of his. I've listened to a lot of his preaching.

I think you represent his views correctly. I think the others haven't and so object to something he never actually believes or says - as you've already stated.

But, and I say this with all kindness, I think when you take issue with his use of the word hedonism - you're doing so from an academic standpoint. Piper uses the word to describe a philosophy, but doesn't do it to interact with existing philosophical terms.

What I'm saying is, Piper is writing his thoughts to interact with the general crowd - people outside of universities and thinkrooms. For something to be hedonistic in those terms is to be pleasure seeking. Piper says he then makes it his philosophy to live finding pleasure in God. It doesn't have to fit the textbook philosophical definition of hedonism (or one of the modes of hedonism which you walk through).

He isn't interacting with classical philophy and the terms it uses. He never claims to be. He's using the word "hedonism" to refer to seeking pleasure. And in that sense he is totally justified in using the word. Because that's what it means. When I chat with Mr Normal at church and drop the word hedonist into the conversation - Mr Normal immediately thinks "pleasure seeking".

I haven't read his book on sex. Don't really intend to.

And I'm yet to be Biblically convinced that Piper is unbalanced. But your words are indeed thought provoking.

I believe I've said this before, but the only motivation I can think of to depart from the philosophical tradition's use of the term 'hedonism' would be to defer to the masses' use of the term to refer to a lifestyle of raw pleasure without regard for consequences or the nature of the action that produce such pleasure. Piper clearly doesn't mean it that way. He goes out of his way to deny it. I'm not sure he's thinking of himself as using in a thoroughly new way, however. The sense I get is that he's distancing himself from the popular usage to return to a more historical usage, but he isn't really using it in the historical sense. It's as if he thinks he's using it the way Epicurus would, but he hasn't succeeded in doing so.

My main point in this post wasn't to complain about what Piper does with this term. It was to figure out just what he means and be able to put it into the terms of contemporary philosophy. I believe I've done that, and I think the result is that his view is a genuinely new one that hasn't occurred in the history of ethical theory. Piper really has accomplished something here, because it's very hard to come up with a new option in ethical theory that's never been defended before and then to spend book after book developing that theory and applying it to every aspect of life you can think of. Piper really has done that.

I haven't defended the imbalance here. Wink did a really good job explaining the problem with God's love and God's glory. Piper reduces everything in God' love to God's glory, and I think that's biblically untenable. I know you've already read that post and the comments, but someone stumbling across this post might be unaware of that.

The other element I think Piper gets wrong is primarily philosopical, though its philosophical import is something scripture denies. The way Piper talks, you'd think we should be spending most of our time evaluating whether our actions are leading us to pleasure. I'm not criticizing his statements that doing the right thing will lead to the kind of enjoyment God designed us to have. My problem is that he explains the moral goodness of an action in terms of whether we're fulfilling our desires properly in God. I'm sure that you can delight in God and also love your spouse fully, and perhaps even a complete love of one's spouse requires loving God. What I'm not sure of is that you can love your spouse fully if you want to reduce all motivation to delighting in God.

Piper wants all good motivations to be identical with delighting in God, which deemphasizes love for others. It's true that love for God is primary in scripture, but Jesus feels the need to emphasize love for neighbor as the second commandment that is like it but is not it. I John and the middle chapters of John make it clear that you can't do one without doing the other, at least in the fully Christian sense of love. That doesn't mean that love for someone else is the same thing as love for God, as if God doesn't value the other person at all except as an instrument for achieving his own glory. That kind of reductionism would make it not love for the neighbor at all but simply a means to an end. That's not how God's love is portrayed in scripture, but Piper's view of God's glory as fundamental requires not just God to be using people as a mere means to an end but basically says we should do so as well. I don't see the Bible tolerating such means-to-end thinking.

I've actually been thinking over the problems *I* have with Piper's writing these past few days. His book "Future Grace" places a massive emphasis on trusting in the future grace that God will provide in order to live aright.

I think this book actually is a bit of a departure from Piper's main thesis and perhaps unintentionally so. I think a life of faith in God's trustworthiness and truthfulness is what allows us to live aright. We know this by faith because of verses like John 3:16 and Romans 8:31-39. I don't think we live this way particularly with a view to God's glory but to His faithfulness to His love for us.

I think Piper is correct in "Future Grace". We trust God because we know Him to be faithful. We trust He will continue to be faithful to those whom He loves. Like you say, this isn't simply reducible to serving His own glory.

Thanks for interacting with me (and bearing with my initial abruptness) on this though - it has helped me over these past few days to analyse what I really do believe in terms of God and His glory and love.

Makes me yet again thankful for both God's glory and love. It's awesome to know I can live in the light of both actually.

The following page may of course be helpful:

Jeremy (if you still check this post),

I found your post because I'm currently reading a book on Christian hedonism from an Early Modern perspective and wanted to check it against what Piper's philosophy is. I'd heard of Piper but never spent the time to read his stuff, though I'd heard many good things. The book I'm reading is about Pierre Gassendi, a French priest who was interested in mathematics, natural philosophy, the effects of rising Science on philosophical systems, and like Pascal, the ethical considerations. Pascal, by the way, was during his early life a part of the group which Gassendi worked in (along with Descartes, Marin Marsenne and others). When he became involved with the religiously conservative Jansenists, he, like Gassendi, turned to ethical and spiritual matters and away from mathematics and natural philosophy.

What is interesting is that Gassendi does something *very* similar to what John Piper seems to be doing. He is reformulating traditional, Epicurean hedonism (also an ethical philosophy debated among Greek philosophers, including Aristotle) to put the highest focus on pleasure as spiritual tranquility found in using Reason to discover and choose an enlightened, practical and Christian life. His levels of pleasure were:
1) instinctive desire (all creatures have);
2) calculated search for physical pleasure (rational creatures have);
3)true pleasure (tranquility, lack of pain not as Epicurus defined it but as wise, Christian moral lack of guilt/sin because the right choices were understood and pursued)
4) sublime pleasure (pleasure of viewing the beauty of God directly, therefore not possible until after death)

I doubt sincerely that Piper knew or tried to reference Gassendi at all, but the quote you mention about Pascal from his _Pensees_ seems to be similar to Gassendi's. And given the proximity of their work and the fact that they had mutual acquaintances and were part of an intellectual circle discussing morality and methods/philosophies of science, it seems likely that Pascal knew of Gassendi. I don't know whether they ever corresponded. Gassendi's views were criticized by others, particularly Descartes who didn't like Gassendi's position on epistemology (Gassendi thought that we can only make good judgments, about nature as well as ethics, while Descartes clearly thought that rationality could lead to certain knowledge of at least existence which then provided a foundation for reasonable inferences about the nature of man and God.)

Anyway, if you're interested in looking at what is essentially a Christian reworking of hedonism as a ethical philosophy, a good place to start is the work of Gassendi. The book I'm reading currently has one of the best discussions of Gassendi's aims and the changes he makes to Epicurus. It's called _Gassendi's Ethics: Freedom in a Mechanistic Universe_ by Lisa T. Sarasohn. It's a book on intellectual history, but it's readable. The extent of jargon tends to be terms of philosophy, some background to early Humanism and the late Greek philosophies they were re-examining.

Gassendi was a genuine Epicurean. He thought Epicurean views and Christian moral teaching would coincide, both leading to the same conclusions but from different sources.

That's not Piper's view at all. Piper thinks the only important pleasure is pleasure in God, since God is the highest and only truly perfect good. The way to receive that pleasure is to live the Christian life, but it's not because leading the Christian life leads to pleasures, as Gassendi would say. It's because leading the Christian life leads to the only pleasure that counts, which is pleasure in God.

But I think the most fundamental reason why I think Piper isn't Epicurean is because he explicitly denies it, as I explained in the post above. He doesn't think morality is explained in terms of seeking pleasure. What's good isn't good because it leads to pleasure. It's good and morally obligatory because God commands it. It's a divine command theory, really. Now the thing God commands does lead to our pleasure, and he commands us to seek our pleasure in him, but it's not ethical hedonism as Epicurus would define it. So I think what he's doing is very different at the foundation, even if one thing is common to both views.

I got the book desiring God as a birthday gift and I think that it answered a lot of questions that I have in mind as a growing Christian. The struggles I have had between seeking what would pleasure me and what would pleasure God had always torn me in two. But this book is helping me realise that all I have to do is to delight in God so much so that I would find pleasure in no place/nothing else. Delighting in God, simply enjoying him.
I think David was a perfect example of this, and no wonder the bible says that "David fulfilled the purpose of God in his generation." The book of revelation says "for thou hath created all things and for thy pleasure they are and were created."

Yemi, that's just about what I think Piper's work is excellent for. (I wouldn't say no pleasure in anything else, because God created good things for us to enjoy, but I would say that you're getting at something right. I'd just want to word it differently.)

My criticisms of Piper should never be taken to undermine that. Wink and I have both criticized Piper in places where we think he goes too far or gets things upside-down, but on that issue he's helped do quite a bit of good in a lot of people's lives, including mine and Wink's.

Jeremy, you have an awesome taste in fiction, just sayin' is all...

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