“The divorce of the natural and moral universes is perhaps the worst legacy of the Enlightenment, and the most urgent challenge facing modern humankind.” So said British theologian Colin Gunton 35 years ago.Colin E. Gunton, Enlightenment and Alienation: An Essay Toward a Trinitarian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 25.
One might reasonably claim that little progress has been made over the last quarter century. Ideas like meaning, value, and purpose are sometimes exclusively tied to human enterprises, while our pursuit of the physical structures of the universe presses on, seemingly independent of such qualitative concerns.Scripture’s affirmation of the goodness of creation extends beyond Genesis 1, God’s declaration that what he has created is good. C. P. Snow, in a now famous lecture, spoke of this as the “two cultures” of the university—one the “literary intellectuals” and the other “natural scientists.”C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). First published in 1959.
Throughout the 2020–2021 academic year, the Henry Center will be exploring this divide. More specifically, we are asking the question: What does it mean that creation is “good”? Scripture’s affirmation of the goodness of creation extends beyond Genesis 1, God’s declaration that what he has created is good. It is intricately tied to the goodness and sovereignty of God, our Creator; it is also closely tied to how we understand what’s wrong with the world, the problems of sin and evil.
Joshua W. Jipp, Associate Professor of New Testament at TEDS, believes these issues can be explored not only in Old Testament creation theology, but also through Pauline theology, with special attention to human flourishing—the good life. “Paul’s theological communications are best understood as an invitation to pursue a particular way of life,” says Jipp. “A way of life shaped by humanity’s ultimate good.” This is the topic that he will explore during his year of research and writing. His book is provisionally titled, “Paul and the Pursuit of Happiness: Paul’s Christological Vision for Human Flourishing.”
An Ancient and Modern Question: The Good Life
Of course, the question of the meaning of life is not uniquely Pauline. That was true in Paul’s own day, and it is equally true in our own.
The question has an ancient philosophical pedigree; indeed, the word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” From its beginning, philosophy was concerned with the good life. According to Jipp, “ancient philosophers were preoccupied with the question of human existence and flourishing.” Questions about what emotions are, why friendship is important, or the meaning of suffering and adversity were fundamental philosophical topics. These questions were pursued reflectively, rationally, one might even say theoretically, but never in separation from the question of a good life.The question of the meaning of life is not uniquely Pauline. That was true in Paul’s own day, and it is equally true in our own. Plato and Aristotle, Stoics and Epicureans, all had different answers to these questions, but they were nonetheless unified in the common quest for human flourishing—the good life, happiness. “One aspect I appreciate so much about the ancient philosophers is their attempt to understand the supreme good and then bring it to bear in practical ways on human life.”
Where are these questions to be found today? Specifically, where are we to find such a fundamental commitment to reflecting upon and pursuing the good life? While not a perfect comparison, Jipp believes one of the closest analogues lies in Positive Psychology (PP). The term was coined in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Although ideas like “happiness” and “flourishing” were already part of psychological research, they claimed that the field was dominated by a disease model. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi wanted to create an alternative field of research, one focused on human well-being, as well as the conditions that allow people to thrive. “In some ways,” Jipp notes, “PP practitioners are acting as contemporary pastors/philosophers, giving advice that looks a lot like pastoral care.”
The new field has made inroads in the academy, with peer-reviewed publications and the development of research centers, and also with a popular viewership. One commentator has even called the movement the “darling of the popular press.”Beth Azar, “Positive Psychology advances, with growing pains,” in Monitor on Psychology (42.4), p32. It has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, been featured in the Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, and U. S. News & World Report, as well as a six-part BBC series. It has also been diversely applied, influencing therapy practices, business theory, and even the U. S. Army, where it has incorporated into their Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program. “I’ve never seen a field change so fast,” says University of Virginia psychologist and popular author Jonathan Haidt.The above cited coverage, as well as the Haidt quote, are all referenced in the Azar article.
Some have wondered whether the change has been too fast, as practical applications have out-paced scientific discovery. Popular culture, moreover, has compounded the problem, with “life coaches” and self-help gurus further distorting the actual claims of psychology. In short, the new, self-willed optimism is finding a corresponding pessimism—and perhaps, some say, this isn’t all bad. Yet, however much disagreement there may be about this new field of study, one thing is undeniable: the quest for the good life has taken center stage in the discipline of psychology.
Paul and the Pursuit of . . . Happiness?
What, though, of Paul? What has the apostle, theologian of the cross, to do with opportunistic psychology and the pursuit of happiness?
“I don’t think many Christians think enough of the Scriptures and certainly Paul“I’d love for more Christians and pastors to recover his theology as one that is deeply engaged with this world and question of the human good.” as someone who was engaging in serious reflection and then offering practical strategies, advice, and exhortations for how to implement lives of human flourishing,” says Jipp. Rather, we tend to treat him as an abstract theologian—more like an academic, we might say, than a pastor. That’s certainly how Pauline theologies tend to be organized. Doctrinal loci like “Christology,” “Justification,” or “Soteriology” are given the primary organizing focus, which gives the misleading impression that Paul was primarily interested in doctrinal theory and conceals the fact that Paul’s letters are given to us in response to highly pastoral circumstances and his desire to instruct those congregations in godliness. “I’d love for more Christians and pastors to recover his theology as one that is deeply engaged with this world and question of the human good.”
While Jipp has no intention of presenting Paul the Apostle as a proto-Positive Psychologist, he does think that drawing out similarities between Paul, ancient philosophy, and this modern psychological movement will help us see Paul’s concern for human flourishing, as well as the attention he gives to practical exercises and strategies for living the good life. “Paul is an important and passionate participant in the quest for the good human life and one who has a robust understanding of how human flourishing is dependent upon and flows from his vision of the end or telos of human existence.”
There are, or course, as many differences as similarities between the diverse disciplines and schools. PP, for example,“For Paul, the person of Christ is the singular surpassing good.” has received some criticism (unlike ancient philosophers) for giving the misleading impression that strategies and techniques are sufficient for one’s pursuit of the good life. Ancient philosophers, on the other hand, grounded the good life in some account of nature and the natural order. According to Jipp, Paul has yet another transcendent norm and corresponding prescription for the pattern of life. “Paul is emphatic that human teleology is consistently Christologically determined,” says Jipp. “For Paul, the person of Christ is the singular surpassing good.”
Both the similarities and the differences will be part of Jipp’s Pauline-inspired reflections on the nature and telos of the good life. “The opportunity to have a productive conversation amongst these disciplines about visions of the good life and their transcendent/natural grounding (or indeed lack thereof) is what truly excites me about my project,” says Jipp.
Good Theology, Good Life: The Making of a Project
So, what, according to Josh Jipp, is the good life?
“For the past couple of years,” he says, “I’ve been reading everything I could get my hands on that attempts to provide a thoughtful answer to human flourishing and the meaning of life.” This is one of the aspects that interests him most about ancient thought, whether ancient Hellenistic or Roman eudaimonistic philosophers—an area where this New Testament scholar finds himself on familiar ground. It is also what initially drew him to Positive Psychology, an arena more foreign to him. As Jipp’s first major interdisciplinary project, as well as his first foray into the discipline of psychology, the project will have its challenges. “I’m so excited to continue learning,” says Jipp, “but finding the way to put all three conversation partners together as well as doing justice to a new discipline will be challenging.”
This will also be Jipp’s second major book related to Paul and his theology. Christ is King: Paul’s Royal Ideology was his first. But a better place to look for Jipp’s scholarly trajectory might be Saved by Faith and Hospitality. In that book, we find Jipp’s first attempt to engage Scripture with some of the important questions that confront us where we are—in that case, questions about strangers, friendship, and human relationships.
This book, similarly, aspires to provide Pauline answers to the question of the meaning of human life, and to do so in conversation with contemporary alternatives. “I still love and want to engage the academy and the typical historical-critical questions that are often posed in the NT guild,” says Jipp, “but I hope to continue writing books that help people and help them make connections between ancient text and the real world within which they live.”
From the positivist history of a previous generation to Positive Psychology, this is indeed a new kind of biblical scholarship and a new perspective on Paul. As to what he believes the good life is, what account of the world it assumes, and what way of life it exhorts us to, well, we’ll just have to wait to find out.