Faith Matters

Martin Henry: The quest for happiness

The pursuit of happiness seems to be hardwired into the human psyche. But where, ultimately, can it be found? Fr Martin Henry explores one of life's perennial questions...

Happiness is no laughing matter, observed a Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin in the 19th century. Yet the quest for happiness is a universal human pursuit

THE nineteenth-century Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately (1787-1863), once wryly noted: "Happiness is no laughing matter."

One of the oldest and in fact one of the most serious questions in the world is the question of - or perhaps we should say the quest for - happiness. How can it be achieved? Is there any formula that will produce it? Is it attainable perhaps by a correct understanding of reality? And if so, is it confined, then, to the life of the mind?

The eminent American theoretical physicist, Steven Weinberg (1933-2021), who died just this year, understood quite a lot about how the universe works, but he also wrote that, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless". And that doesn't sound like a very happy conclusion.

So, whatever happiness is, it doesn't seem to be only a matter of comprehending things correctly, important though that would appear to be.

For, as the view just quoted shows, understanding things better can lead some simply to a keener sense of the pointlessness of the world. So presumably there must be more to happiness than what science and understanding - for all their strengths and benefits - can achieve.

If we are inclined to think, therefore, that happiness is achieved fundamentally by the way we live, by whether we live a good moral life or not, even that doesn't seem to answer the question.

For Saint Paul claimed that even if someone were to make the supreme sacrifice of their life, but without love, then it would be of no use to them (1 Corinthians 13:2–3).

So, even living a morally exemplary life doesn't seem either to be the answer to the question of how happiness is to be reached.

Some such considerations may help make sense of an episode recorded in the Gospel of Mark, where, in response to a scribe's question about the commandments (Mark 12:28–34), Jesus includes in his reply a reference to the nearness of the kingdom of God.

The scribe seems to have been motivated not by any mere curiosity about what Jesus might say in response to his question, but rather by the desire to know what was the best way for human beings to live.

For observant Jews of Jesus' time, the best way for human beings to live was to follow the commandments. This was the royal road to fulfilling God's will, and so, it would seem, the royal road to happiness.

What is interesting in Jesus' reply, it seems to me, is that when the scribe agreed wholeheartedly with Jesus on what the most important commandments were, Jesus didn't say to him that he had now reached the kingdom of God.

Rather, after commending him for the wisdom of his reply, he then added: "You are not far from the kingdom of God" (Mk 12: 34).

What this appears to imply is that knowing and even doing what is most moral in life is seemingly not enough to reach happiness. If happiness consists in being in the kingdom of God, then it cannot apparently come merely from knowing how we should live or even from acting upon such knowledge and actually living a life in conformity with the commandments.

This seems, in turn, to be a kind of echo of the announcement Jesus made at the very start of his ministry, when he told people that the kingdom of God was near (Mark 1: 15).

But he never identified the world itself, or even obedience to the commandments in this world, with the kingdom of God. For in his answer to the God-fearing scribe, Jesus appears to be saying that even a life lived in accordance with the most important commandments is not quite the same thing as being in the kingdom of God.

The fundamental reason for this kind of statement by Jesus can surely only be that the kingdom of God is always more than anything we can ever imagine it to be, and always more than anything we can ever understand or achieve.

And the very simple reason why this is so is that the kingdom of God is the kingdom of God. It is not something we can ever generate by ourselves, not even by the highest achievements or sacrifices. Because it is God - and not we - who is at the centre of the kingdom.

And if this kingdom is believed to fulfil the human quest for happiness, then we can add that it is God who, for Christian faith, is at the centre of this quest, like a magnet drawing us into the kingdom.

Perhaps that's why St Paul said that without love everything else is pointless. And from a rather different source, Goethe (1749-1832), in old age, reflecting in his famous poem Marienbad Elegy on a tragically lost late love, wrote: "I have lost the whole world, I have lost myself" (tr. David Luke).

The Christian message from the very beginning has always been that God not only created us, but has come to us in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, out of love for humanity, in order to bring us to heaven, and in this way assure our final happiness, in a way that is not possible for unaided human endeavour.

However, if we believe that God is love, as the writings of St John teach over and over again, then the Christian message appears to contain not only the agonising possibility that the quest for happiness may be ultimately frustrated, but also the hope of its ultimate fulfilment in the kingdom of God.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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