Presiding bishop offers a Christian perspective on the pursuit of happiness

October 18, 2010

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori encouraged an Atlanta audience Oct. 18 at Emory University to explore the blessing of friendship as an aid for attaining happiness.

She joined three other speakers from Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist traditions to provide a Christian perspective on the pursuit of happiness during the Interfaith Summit on Happiness conference hosted by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

The full text of her presentation is available here.

The event followed her participation Oct. 17 in a panel discussion on happiness with the Dalai Lama.

Addressing in her paper what she called "a tension between the goal of happiness and the journey toward it," she cited Hebrew scripture and New Testament writings and focused on Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century English writer, historian and abbot known for his well-developed reflections on happiness and spiritual friendship.

"Aelred develops a remarkable framework for discussing happiness," Jefferts Schori said. He uses the second creation story in Genesis, she said, "to insist that human beings are created for friendship and equality" with God," who is "the ultimate source of human happiness."

Aelred, she said, taught that "getting wisdom, learning the mind of God and loving neighbor as oneself are the pathways home" to Eden and to God. "Aelred points to friendship as one significant aid on that journey," she told about 300 people gathered for a day of lectures at Emory Law School's Tull Auditorium.

"Friendship, in (Aelred's) understanding, is love expanded by intimacy," she said. "One can love one's neighbor, treat him or her with justice, and do so without affection or much internal vulnerability." As an example, she cited voting to raise one's taxes so that others might have enough to eat, an act where there is little intimacy.

But friendship builds intimacy, according to Aelred, and "ultimately, intimacy can be a taste of divine relationship, despite the American tendency to assume that all intimacy implies sexual intimacy. Knowing and being known as gifted and flawed, fearful and courageous, warty and luminous -- that ongoing process of revealing one's being -- builds friendship."

Jefferts Schori also spoke about sin and justice, and body and soul. She noted Aelred's view was that "sin results when the power of choice is ill-used, and justice results when choices are well made.

Such tensions challenge Christian definitions of happiness, Jefferts Schori said. "If we equate happiness solely with external or physical goods, we lapse into hedonism, and in a biblical sense, commit idolatry." In substituting the material creation for God, "we deny the desirability of God as a partner in human happiness."

All Abrahamic religions share the ancient prophetic vision for which shalom is the byword: human beings living together in friendship with God and one another, having food and drink in abundance, and in whom all sorts of illness and brokenness are healed, she said.

Justice, which she called "the fruit of loving and befriending God and neighbor," prevails and "uses every resource available to human creatures -- mind, body, heart, soul, spirit, affect, inspiration, cooperation -- love in all its forms and parts," she said.

"The result is the beloved community, the community of friends who know themselves beloved of God."

Jefferts Schori followed Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations, who expressed the Jewish tradition's view of happiness. Seyyed Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, gave the Islamic perspective, and Matthieu Ricard, teacher and monk, presented a Buddhist's view.

Video recordings of all presentations will soon be posted here.