Saturday, September 16, 2006

Fr. Nuehaus on fashionable happiness

Richard John Neuhaus has a good understanding of that reference to Christians as salt. He breaks out a grain or two as he looks at feel-good religion and the current rage to brand all kinds of emotional discomforts, from juvenile angst to adult ennui as clinical problems looking for some pharmaceutical or "alternative" remedy.

His foil for this commentary is a book by Ronald Dworkin (as he said, "not that Ronald Dworkin, the legal philosopher at New York University. This Ronald Dworkin is a medical doctor and political philosopher who has written an informative and provocative book, Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class.")

In our discussion, I suggested that I was not very taken with his extended treatment of the fascinating discussions about the connections between brain, mind, and consciousness—discussions in which I have played a modest part over the years. Against the more vulgar materialists and determinists, the book seems to come out on the side of the proponents of “emergent materialism.” I indicated that I found this position philosophically unpersuasive, positing as it does the grounding of the rational in the irrational. Dworkin indicated that he was not advocating that position, only reporting it. I wish that were more clear in the book.

It should also be underscored that the pharmaceutical remedies for clinical depression—in the tradition usually called melancholy of various gradations, or acedia, or spiritual torpor—can frequently be a great blessing, so long as they help equip people to address other problems rather than escape or evade them.

A particular strength of Artificial Happiness is its treatment of the doping of millions of children with Ritalin and other drugs. We are running the grave risk of depriving the next generation of experiences that are essential to growing up. Sadness, failure, disappointment, and other aspects of unhappiness are both inevitable and necessary in learning and achievement. What is often called attention deficit disorder (ADD) is in many cases the most natural of childhood conditions, notably among boys. Dworkin makes a convincing case that the life experience of young people is often being repressed and distorted for the convenience of teachers and parents.
There is no doubt that entrepreneurial religionists—as is evident in the world of megachurches, but not only there—promote a gospel of happiness: Everything goes better with Jesus, just as everything goes better with Coke. But that kind of religion has always been around, and its sharpest critics are from within the Christian community. Dworkin’s argument is that more and more people are discovering that everything goes better with Prozac or Zoloft. Or at least everything that is going wrong is easier to ignore.

But most clergy, contra Dworkin, do not feel they are being pushed out of the happiness business by pill-pushing doctors, because they never understood themselves to be in the happiness business to begin with. More precisely, they do not understand themselves to be in the business of making people feel good about their disordered selves and their disordered lives. Their business, if one must use the term, is speaking the gospel to sinners, who are rightly unhappy with their sinful lives, and providing the sacramental means by which the Holy Spirit guides them toward holiness.

As usual, when Neuhaus hold something up to the light he shows an angle or two that others may miss. In this case he points to what should be obvious: Sometimes sin is simply sin, and the way out of its wages is to give it up and seek salvation. Sounds more like a preacher than a priest.

No comments: