I am drawn to the works of John Piper, the self-described “Christian hedonist,” and so it was with great interest that I read your post about hedonism. Now, to Piper the word “hedonism” simply means the pursuit of pleasure. He defines pleasure quite expansively — to include deep, profound sensations of joy that can be experienced even in the midst of great physical or emotional pain. Indeed, he emphasizes that the “pleasure” that we are to pursue as Christian hedonists is first and foremost this deep-seated joy no matter how greatly it may seem to war against our natural senses. Additionally, he emphasizes the eternal nature of our quest -- that we want pleasure forever and not merely today, so we shouldn’t do things today that put our eternal reward at risk.
With that being said, I am left scratching my head about how, if at all, your criticism of hedonism would apply to him.
Since I am not closely familiar with the works of John Piper, rather than criticizing the gentleman let me proceed from first principles. Yes: Hedonism is the doctrine that the supreme good is pleasure. Thus understood, hedonism is incompatible with Christianity. If an ethic is really Christian, then it can’t be hedonistic; but if it is really hedonistic, then it can’t be Christian.
But why isn’t hedonism Christian? The issue is how pleasure is related to happiness. We are naturally directed to our good. This is how the Creator made us. So of course you want to be happy. But is happiness just pleasure? No.
Happiness is an activity: Not something we are feeling, but something we are doing. The activity for which we were ultimately made is to know God: To gaze upon Him face to face, completely immersed in seeing Him as He Is, not with the eyes of the body, but with the mind. The happiness which is possible in this life is but a glimpse or reflection of that final happiness with Him which leaves nothing to be desired. The attainment of the beatific vision far exceeds our natural powers, but in heaven, the blessed will be supernaturally lifted beyond them.
If I might be permitted a short digression, I would add that this very longing to see God is the basis of one of the proofs of His existence. Since for every natural longing there is something that quenches it, and since there is one natural longing which cannot be quenched by anything in creation, its satisfaction must lie beyond creation. Thus it lies in the Creator; thus He exists.
To resume the thread of the story, we naturally desire our final happiness, which is perfect, sufficient, and delightful. Consequently, the only way anything can attract us is through the promise – in some cases, the delusory promise – of sharing in at least one of these qualities. Since happiness must have perfection, distinction and eminence seem good to us; since happiness must have sufficiency, we strive to acquire wealth enough for our needs and the needs of those committed to our care; and since happiness must be delightful, we seek pleasure.
The problem lies in slicing one of these qualities of happiness off from the rest and pursuing it for its own sake -- apart from the guidance of reason, apart from consideration for our final good. The cardinal vices provide fine examples, for the proud and vainglorious take a misguided and excessive interest in eminence; the greedy and avaricious, in wealth; and the lustful and gluttonous, in the pleasures of the body.
But there are a thousand varieties of this sort of thing. Stoics are haunted by the desire for perfect control; valetudinarians, for perfect health; fashion queens, for perfect beauty. Materialists are consumed by getting, keeping, and having what is never quite enough, whether of money, automobiles, or even unread books. And there are an infinite number of hedonisms, each fixated on some kind of pleasure -- of the flesh, of the eye, or even of the soul, of the sheer delight of being caught up in spiritual excitement. That used to be recognized as a heresy.
The problem with hedonism, then, is the same as the problem with each of these. They are all cases of mistaken identification – of confusing the properties of happiness with happiness. It is one thing to say that the ultimate good is delightful; it is quite another to say that delight is the ultimate good.