Hedonism as Life Purpose

“Christian Hedonism”.  I encountered this phrase when I was about 16 and studying theology.  The concept had a big impact and stuck with me.  Whether or not you are religious there’s something powerful in it.

I believe it was a theologian named John Piper who coined the phrase, which made it especially intriguing because Piper was on the opposite side in many debates over free-will and other theological matters I was interested in when I first read it.  I won’t pretend to recall all the details but what I took away from the idea was that, in Piper’s mind, the Christian’s purpose in life is to take delight in existence, and take delight in God delighting in them for being delighted.  God created humans so that he could take pleasure in them, and seeing man take pleasure in life is what most pleased God.

I always associated the idea with a line from the movie Chariots of Fire, where the deeply religious Eric Liddell is chastised by his sister for missing church because he was running.  He said, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”  Not merely that Liddell was having a pleasurable experience himself, but that he felt the pleasure of God as he ran.

C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves describes the deep love that occurs when people are not only delighting in each other, but delighting that the other is delighting in them.

The word hedonism evokes excess, even destructive excess.  That’s a very shallow understanding of the idea.  It is true, if one merely indulges in short-run highs they may be called (and even call themselves) a hedonist.  But I think genuine hedonism, as the satisfaction of desires, is in fact life’s purpose.  The trick is discovering what those desires are and what it takes to satisfy them.  Running is not easy the way drinking a beer is easy.  Running is hard and at least a bit painful.  Yet Liddell (and he is not alone) described a kind of pleasure that far exceeds a mere exciting of the taste buds.

The deepest, truest human desires are not satisfied with temporary titillation alone.  Those can be a delightful part of existence, but cannot satisfy the soul’s most powerful longings.  Being fully alive requires some degree of challenge.  It requires some degree of pushing oneself, if even only to fight distraction and carve out time to marvel or think.  That is not to say it is only found in quiet contemplation.  Many of life’s most fulfilling moments are busy, bustling, social affairs.  But it seems true delight is best derived when some effort is required to obtain it.  It requires both connection to self and connection to something outside of oneself.  Simply taking what the stream of life floats us can be a decent indulgence, but it slowly erodes or numbs a deeper sense of meaning.

Hedonism as a conscious pursuit isn’t easy.  The self-knowledge and self-honesty required to take genuine delight in existence, and feel a kind of reciprocal delight being taken in you (whether by another, or by God, or by the universe, or whatever you may call it) is hard won.  It’s easier to let life happen to you and play the critic or the martyr.

With or without a religious narrative, the notion of finding your highest pleasure and pursuing it is powerful.  That seemingly paradoxical combination of the words, “Christian”, and, “Hedonist” has wisdom in it.  The former carries connotations of discipline, devotion, and the eschewing of worldly distractions.  The latter connotes joy, pleasure, and seizing every moment for pure delight.  That combination seems to be where the best life is found.  Perhaps the pursuit of pleasure is in fact a serious affair; as serious as life itself.