Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 25th August 2013
25 August 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Morality, wonder, failure, pleasure. Four basic features of human experience woven deeply in the texture of human life; four experiences of life which can also draw us closer to God: and so four subjects I’m talking about in a series of sermons at Matins throughout August. During the last three weeks, morality, wonder, failure. Today, finally – pleasure! And what I mean by pleasure is not just those higher spiritual experiences like joy in love, or in beauty, or deep satisfaction at a job well done: I also mean the ordinary sort of pleasures we get through things like money, consumer goods, good food, drink, and other sensuous pleasures of the body like sexuality; things which some of us in this cruelly inequitable world get very little of, but others get the opportunity to enjoy a lot…
My question is: should we enjoy them a lot when we can? The liberal conscience finds them haunted by a ghost of doubt and guilt. So does the christian conscience. Is this just because of the injustice of inequality? Or is there more, is there something in the very notion of material and sensual pleasure which is suspect? It can, after all, be so blighted by law of diminishing returns. The more you have the less satisfying and the more you feel you need. Is this a sign that it’s intrinsically wrong in some way? Does it mean that far from bringing us to God, these sorts of pleasures are more likely to push us away from God? So– what is their moral status?
CS Lewis’s imaginary devil in his book the Screwtape letters has no doubt. Pleasure in itself is good. It comes, unequivocally, from God. ‘Never forget’, a senior devil writes to a junior, ‘that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy form …we are on [God’s] ground. It is his invention, not ours. All we [devils] can do is encourage the humans to take their pleasures… in [the wrong way]. He [God] is just a hedonist at heart: there are pleasurable things for humans to do all the day long without His minding in then least…eating, drinking…making love… Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us…’
And Lewis’s devil is right. He knows his biblical doctrine of creation. He knows ‘God saw everything that he had made and saw that it was good’. He knows the scripture which tells us that ‘everything created by God is good, nothing is to be rejected… for God provides us with everything richly to enjoy’. He knows that Jesus himself enjoyed all kinds of material things: he was a wine-drinker who feasted with his friends, someone who enjoyed what philosopher JS Mill later called ‘the lower pleasures that a pig would enjoy just as much as the so-called higher pleasures like poetry that Socrates would enjoy’. Jesus enjoyed them - and so should we, because they are all God’s good gifts, all part of his creation and redemption. This christian doctrine of pleasure has had to fight its corner against all sorts of world-denying philosophies from Manicheism to some forms of Monasticism and Puritanism, and now the liberal conscience: but it is a proper part of the faith - and so it should be.
So why then this ghost of doubt? It is because, as Lewis’s devil also knew, all these really good material pleasures can also be so easily twisted, ‘taken in the wrong way’. As we often do. It’s the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, the story of us all. And it is when we take pleasure in the wrong way, that it is spoiled, and the spiral of destructiveness begins. It happens with the higher spiritual pleasures we get from beauty, faith, love: they are easily corrupted into self-righteousness, self-indulgence, pride. With material pleasures the twisting is even more obvious: we know how easily the pleasure of drink becomes the destructive demon of dependence; how easily the pleasure of sex becomes the destructive drug of self-gratification, power, or manipulation; how easily the pleasure of material prosperity and having beautiful things becomes the destructive delusion of possessiveness, so that we are then trapped in the fear of losing the thing we cling onto - just as we have been warned: ‘if riches increase set not your heart on them…do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume.’ This trap then becomes even more deadly because of that law of diminishing returns which kicks in precisely when we grasp at our pleasures possessively like this - and find that we now have an ever increasing craving for an ever decreasing return of pleasure. This way in which things which are good in themselves are so easily corrupted is in fact at the heart of Christian understanding of all evil. Evil is not a reality in itself: it is parasitic of something good, always a twisting of something which is good in itself. So that is why this good gift of pleasure is both holy and haunted…
How then can we enjoy it without falling into its trap? By being aware of the trap of possessiveness: by not storing up good things just for ourselves but always seeing them as a gift to be shared; by not seizing sexual pleasure as gratification for me but receiving it gratefully as a shared commitment for us; by a society not seizing the world’s resources for itself but becoming a steward of them for the wider world’s use. In short, by always subjecting our pleasures to the test of love and justice. Take your pleasures without a firm grip on love and justice and everything does go wrong – but take them with love and justice and we can enjoy them to the full. This is not easy of course, either in personal or social and political life. It is complex world. So we need help. We need discipline and prayer in our private life, and strong principles in public life. We will also need the deeper resources of the Christian tradition: the gift of God’s judgement to call us to order and help us see where we’ve gone wrong; the gift of repentance and forgiveness to turn us round and help us act differently: In all this, we need the gift of God’s grace.
And grace is given, endlessly. Grace is an eternal return: it was God’s grace which gave us the pleasures in the first place to enjoy; but if and when we spoil it is also grace which can return pleasure to us, decontaminated, so we can enjoy it again, forgiven, to enjoy it ‘100-fold’, as he has promised. Because, in the end, that is God’s good pleasure - to give us pleasure: ‘at his right hand there are pleasures for evermore’. Yes - God really is a hedonist in his eternal heart! It is all part of God’s utter and unequivocal goodness.