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Emory professor's book turns to Bible to redefine 'Pursuit of Happiness'

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April L. Bogle

What does the Bible have to say about the pursuit of happiness, and how does that fit with modern-day understandings of this complicated phrase crafted by America's founding fathers? A new book edited by Emory University's Brent A. Strawn provides some well-reasoned answers but no quick fixes.

"When you look to the Bible about human flourishing or the good life, you come away with something more complex and variegated than having lots of money, free time, and pleasure," says Strawn, professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology and a senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR).

A product of CSLR's Pursuit of Happiness Project, "The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life" (Oxford University Press, 2012) points out that happiness is not about prosperity, even though the Old Testament frequently references the accumulation of wealth as a good thing. It also demonstrates that the "pursuit" of happiness is not solely about individual quests also includes communal experiences.

Happiness ill defined

Strawn leads the volume with an introduction that tackles the "pollution" of the word happiness and a promise that the essays in the book, written by esteemed scholars of the Bible, homiletics, psychology and systematic theology, will "set the record straight on happiness when it comes to the Bible."

He writes, "'Happiness,' like 'love' … [is] consistently and constantly ill defined. In the face of no clear agreed-upon definition, the words become super-injected with whatever personal content and meaning are at hand, regardless of context or situation. One is 'happy' because breakfast was yummy, and one is 'happy' to be cancer free."

Happiness from three perspectives

The book illustrates this point in a series of essays divided into three sections: Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New Testament and Beyond the Bible.

In section one, Jacqueline Lapsley (Princeton Theological Seminary) points out the complicated nature of happiness espoused in the Book of Isaiah.

"The simplest thing to say is that happiness for Isaiah is grounded in God…to live…oriented and faithful to God and embedded in the covenantal community is to flourish. But for Isaiah, true human flourishing is not possible without the consistent pleasure of a good meal and a fine glass of wine," she writes.

Other contributors to the section include:

  • William B. Brown (Columbia Theological Seminary, on the Psalms),
  • Terence E. Fretheim (Luther Seminary, on the happiness of God),
  • Nathan MacDonald (University of St. Andrews, on the Torah), and
  • Carol A. Newsom (Candler School of Theology, on Job and Ecclesiastes).

In section two, Greg Carey (Lancaster Theological Seminary) explores how even some of the Bible's darkest content "contribute[s] to the sense of identity and commitment that promotes human flourishing during difficult times."

He writes: "Apocalyptic texts do not rank one's own individual happiness—whether here or in the hereafter—as the ultimate good. Instead … [the] discourse reveals a transcendent reality to which one devotes allegiance…that contributes an essential resource for happiness under trying circumstances."

Other New Testament essays are provided by:

  • Carl R. Holladay (Candler School of Theology, on the Beatitudes),
  • Joel B. Green (Fuller Theological Seminary, on Luke and Acts), and
  • Colleen Shantz (Toronto School of Theology, on the Apostle Paul).

In section three, psychologist Steven J. Sandage (Bethel University) acknowledges the "wealth of empirical data on any of the biblical connections between happiness, virtues, and spirituality" and explores the integration of biblical and positive psychology studies.

For example, Sandage tells us that people of faith tend to be happier as individuals and when they are part of religious community.

"Measures of individual religiosity tend to correlate positively with well-being and mental and physical health variables, and this is particularly true when religiosity measures assess intrinsic motivations and commitments, or tap into social support elements of religiosity," he writes.

Other viewpoints come from Ellen T. Charry (Princeton Theological Seminary, on systematic theology) and Thomas G. Long (Candler School of Theology, on preaching and practical theology).

'Pursuit of Happiness': It's not what you think

Strawn also wants readers to know that "happiness" isn't the only word in the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence that has been polluted.  "Pursuit" has suffered the same problem. Citing findings of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, he says the authors of the Declaration of Independence actually meant "the practicing" of happiness.

"So contrary to common (mis)understandings, the point was never that happiness was something a people were entitled simply to strive for -- but as something that was theirs by natural right,'" he says.

Does that mean the founding fathers intended for happiness to be the responsibility of the state?

Yes, replies Strawn. "In context of the Declaration of Independence, happiness is not an individualistic quest. Rather it's a matter of public policy -- the government ought to ensure these things because these are unalienable rights of all citizens. All people should be able to experience happiness, not just have the chance to pursue it."

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