Salvation and the “Pursuit of Happiness”

by Paul L. Gavrilyuk


Our pop culture is presently awash with books offering assistance in the “pursuit of happiness.” A search for “happiness” on produces nearly 250,000 results, with books ranging from The Positivity Kit (“instant happiness on every page”), to a volume that more realistically guarantees to make you 10% Happier, to a teen’s guide How to Like Yourself, to How to Be Happy in an Unhappy World, to Happiness is a Serious Problem, to, finally, Authentic Happiness. Then there is more specialized literature, such as The Happiness Diet (featuring a yummy chocolate-dipped strawberry on the cover), The Weight of Happiness (combining both a diet and an exercise program), Financial Happine$$ (with the appropriate dollar signs), and of course, Complete Guide to Sexual Happiness after Age 60 (this one is self-explanatory). Should you feel cheated in this brave new world, there are also titles such as Who Stole My Happiness? and even The Happiness Trap. The books that tap into the spiritual dimension of happiness generally serve “religion lite,” such as Gratitude Works!, which assures us that becoming more grateful helps with depression. While there are notable exceptions,[1] the vast majority of self-help books confidently locate happiness in this life and this world.

In contrast, the Christian understanding of salvation, as it is traditionally expressed, involves everlasting life and the reality that transcends this world, namely, the kingdom of God. More precisely, salvation is the restoration of communion with God. The path to divine-human communion can be charted by means of complementary ideas: liberation from slavery to sin; healing of human brokenness; victory over the demonic; restoration of the image and likeness of God; imitation of Christ; divine adoption; justification and sanctification; purification, illumination, and perfection; participation in the life of the resurrection; mystical union and the vision of God. In modern Orthodox theology, it is common to capture the reality of the divine-human communion by means of the early Christian idea of deification or theosis. Deification underscores the grace-filled transformation of the human person as a result of participation in the life of God.

Clearly, there is a stark contrast between the popular accounts of happiness offered in the self-help literature and the classic Christian vision of salvation. The popular accounts of happiness are overwhelmingly oriented towards this world; traditional Christian theology, in contrast, locates salvation in communion with God, who transcends this world. In response to this situation, one might shrug one’s shoulders and conclude that the secular accounts of happiness and the Christian vision of salvation simply have nothing in common and have nothing to learn from each other. A secularist ideologue would be disposed to ignore or dismiss the Christian teaching altogether. A zealously countercultural Christian might claim that true believers do not need to be happy on secular terms, but that they just need to be saved on God’s terms — that happiness is identified solely with salvation, and the pursuit of any other kind of happiness is not only futile, but spiritually harmful.

The boldness of the countercultural approach could have an initial appeal to some Orthodox Christians, but on closer inspection such an approach does not appear to be particularly constructive. For it is counterintuitive and often simply disingenuous to pit salvation against any notion of happiness, especially that of psychological wellbeing and human flourishing. It is vital to connect human accomplishment in this life to the ultimate human fulfillment in the life of the resurrection. In the absence of such a connection, the bulk of human agency in the world – social, political, educational, cultural, and so on – comes to be perceived as irrelevant for salvation, and the sphere of spiritually relevant activity comes to be restricted to pious motions performed in church. Such a restriction would be a major failure of religious imagination and a very narrow understanding of the doctrine of deification, which is intended to encompass all forms of human endeavor and promises the transformation of the entire cosmos. For just as the kingdom of God is a reality that possesses both present and future dimensions, just as grace upholds, suffuses and transforms nature, so can salvation provide a framework for thinking about immanent (this-worldly) and transcendent (other-worldly) dimensions of the “pursuit of happiness.”

When correlating the “pursuit of happiness” and salvation, one should avoid the mistake of reducing salvation to a pursuit that dominates one’s culture. For example, the “Prosperity Gospel” falsely identifies the pursuit of money and riches with divine election and salvation. As a form of idolatry, the Prosperity Gospel is more poisonous than the “financial happiness” offered on purely secular terms, for the latter at least makes no pretense of being a path to God. While rejecting the Prosperity Gospel, it is at the same time expedient to articulate a vision of human flourishing and salvation in which responsible financial stewardship plays a constructive role.

There is clearly a need in Orthodox theology for more work on correlating the “pursuit of happiness” and salvation. Such a work could be undertaken by psychologists, political scientists, philosophers, theologians, and others. Outlined in the broadest possible terms, such a work would resist driving a wedge between the two concepts; avoid a reduction of the “pursuit of happiness” on purely secular terms to salvation and vice versa; consistently maintain a Christian grasp of the profound brokenness of human condition and the reality of sin, suffering, and death; attempt to include every authentic aspect of human flourishing and wellbeing in the cosmic vision of salvation; and enrich and deepen the understandings of happiness available in philosophy and psychology by correlating them with the concepts of transfiguration and deification. Such a work is needed, if the Orthodox vision of salvation is not to remain in theory and in practice an awkward postscript to the contemporary “pursuits of happiness.” For when it is properly pursued, happiness must lead to salvation, since salvation is the most authentic, fulfilling, and abiding form of human happiness.

[1] Accessible scholarly treatments include Paul J. Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life (2012) and Ellen T. Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (2010).

Paul Gavrilyuk is Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy, Theology Department, University of St. Thomas.