That definition is a key phrase, “considered in terms of pleasant sensations” and it provides us with a logical course for the second image:
There are many reasons this may be of concern to a Christian, but I want to lay aside the first one: Hedonism is not only about anti-Christian moral choices. Once can find intrinsic pleasure in long periods of silence, luxurious polyphony, Gregorian or Byzantine Chant, religious art is all kinds of expensive and collectible, religious garb is pricier than even the most expensive of bespoke hipster clothing, one can enjoy the health benefits of a feast/fast cycle, and there are even fetish clubs celebrating celibacy and enforced chastity. One can be a Christian for purely self-interested, hedonic reasons. There are a lot of “Church Shoppers” who make very hedonistic choices in their churches: better music, better choirs, better sermons, better people, better coffee hours, better Sunday Schools, better parking, better service times… I rarely hear “better theology” as a reason but when I do hear bout theology it’s most often “I’m XYZ and I need a church that won’t judge me for that.” Churches are “shopped” for hedonism all the time.
We make the same choices in clothes, sex, food, housing, bank accounts…
Choice is the problem, really; and freedom of it.
Christianity asks us to make a choice – any choice – for another reason: St Paul asks us to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling”. Every choice we make is part of that. This homeless person in front of me now? This argument with my spouse? This supper with my parents? This meeting at the office? This random flirtation on the subway?: This invitation to a Christmas party? This job interview? This customer service phone call? This customer call me at work? This is the tool God has given me right now for working out my salvation here and now. The choices I make will echo through eternity as either steps forward or backwards.
Which shall it be?
Hedonic choices would have us decide based on what makes me feel good. Christianity asks (compels?) us to make choices based on what is true. Additionally, Christianity posits Truth not on doctrinal points or moral regulations but on relationship: Truth is a person, Jesus Christ. Any action of His is True, and any true action on our part is His. Since Jesus Christ is God, is Love: Truth is Love, not an offensive or defensive proposition or exclusive fence, but an embracing, engaging Divine Person. Mind you, I’m not saying that ordering the steak over the pasta is a choice for or against salvation. But why did you decide to go out at all?
One of my own personal struggles is acceptance of what’s in front of me. A daily morning prayer has us ask God for the grace to accept what he sends but how many times do we just go out looking for something else? When Jay and Sean-Franc got me a new phone for Christmas last year how long was it before I was looking for something new? When the house is full of food, why do I go out to eat? Because there’s nothing here I want right now.
Clothes? Why do I have so many clothes above and beyond what I need to wear: because they look nice, they make me look nice and because they make me feel good about myself. Clothes let me do that? Yup. I don’t think I really know what is going on on my brain – beside hedonism – when I turn to clothes to make me feel good about myself.
We want to include sex in the envelope of love, but is it? Remember Truth is relationship and Love: not lust, not the grinding need to get off that allows us to use another person as a toy. Our society floats something called “Sex Positive” attitudes. Certainly sex-negative attitudes provoke judgmentalism, but promoting sex as a positive and always good – because it feels good – is equally abusive to the most intimate relationship into which we can enter. But what happens when the person in front of me is there for these sexual reasons? Do I turn him or her away out of charity or out of judgement? Do I deny any intimacy because it might lead to sex, rather than learning to walk the moral tightrope? Do I cave in to “it feels good” or do I run away and hurt others? Both propositions seem damaging to my soul and to others. That same prayer I cited earlier asks God for the ability to “act firmly and wisely without embittering or embarrassing others”. So often it is far easier to embitter and embarrass others and feel just a little bit superior at the same time in an act I like to think of as eremitic masturbation. It’s just as hedonistic as if you had jumped in the sack together: it feels that good.
I prefer to eat green, organic, locally produced, vegetarian fed, everything. Farm-fresh food, veggies hand-harvest and raw, beer locally brewed with hops grown in the back yard of hippies I love and pigs slaughtered after being pre-mourned by the children of Farmers I watched grow up. There’s honey grown in hives fed on flowers hand-watered by the ladies up the street and Meyer lemons rolling down the walk way in my garden along with bitter oranges that make for excellent marmalade for topping the local artisan bread raised up on the native yeasts of the Bay Area. Life is good, especially at dinner time.
The thing is: picking the thing that feels good is usually the easiest! We are so focused on here, now, make me feel good, that we forget the long term effect. Just today I heard a podcast daring Urban Activists to stop focusing on smaller is better and realize that combining more people in sustainable ways in large cities is greener than letting the population run wild everywhere: but that might mean my housing prices collapse! Al Gore admits Ethanol is a bad idea, but that the time getting Iowa farmers behind him seemed like a better presidential option.
It feels good now, but it’s gonna suck later always seems like the better option over it sucks now.
I hear a lot of talk among the conservative folks about sex. Increasingly, though, I think the sex issue, the divorce issue, the abortion issues, the gay marriage issue: these are all symptoms of the same thing that keeps us fat, that addicts us to drugs of all kinds from caffeine to adrenaline and endorphins, from pot, alcohol to scary movies and roller coasters (which are, admit it, rather like publicly acceptable porn). We wear immodest clothing because it makes us feel good – even when we are chilly. Seems we have built a society designed to satisfy our every desire – for good or ill. You know how easy it is to care for the poor? You never even have to see them.