The happiness of creation

My wife was preparing for a Bible study yesterday, and we were discussing whether “blessed” or “happy” is the better translation in the beatitudes of Matthew 5. It turns out to have some relevance for the understanding of the theology of nature.

The Greek word is makarios, which has a rather tangled etymology, but the key to Jesus’s usage is the many similar “Blessed are…” passages in the OT, where the Hebrew word is ashere (from the same root as the Israelite tribe of “Asher”) meaning “happy,” translated makarios in the Greek Septuagint. A typical example is Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.”

Now this word ashere, translated both as “blessed” and “happy” in the KJV, is always used of people in the Bible, but it does not bear simply the sense of “feeling good.” In fact, it is most often used in connection with our relationship to God or his commandments, and perhaps the most instructive examples are those instances where we would certainly not expect to find the word “happy” in the hedonistic sense. One example of this is Psalm 94:12:

Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O Lord,
And whom You teach out of Your law.

Even more telling are the words of Eliphaz to Job, in the midst of his suffering, Job 5:17-18:

“Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves,
So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
“For He inflicts pain, and gives relief;
He wounds, and His hands also heal.”

The word of Job’s comforters are interesting because, although they are trite and later are rebuked by God, they contain theological truths: these particular words prove to be the case in Job’s story, albeit it misapplied in his situtaion. They reveal something of what this word ashere, “happy,” means.

And that has to do not with an upbeat mood, or with meeting personal ambitions, but something more like the Greek philosophical concept of “greatest good,” which in Aquinas’s Christian interpretation means the good for which God created us. And so, in Plato’s dialogues, like this seriously-intended spoof, “happy” is characteristically contrasted not to “sad” but to “disgraceful.” Philosophical virtue is the only “happiness” that is worth having.

Vine’s Expository Dictionary actually says of makarios that:

In the beatitudes the Lord indicates not only the characters that are blessed, but the nature of that which is the highest good.

And in Luke’s rendition, the beatitudes are contrasted with ouai!, “Woe,” which also translates Hebrew terms in the Septuagint.

The conclusion is along the lines that I’ve been drawing in this whole series on the theology of nature – that there is a huge contrast between the sovereign God of the Bible, who does indeed “call all the shots” in creation for its well-being, whether we like it or not, and the common view nowadays that stresses, in one way or another, the idea of God giving space for creation to “be itself.”

And so our predominant worldview sees the purpose of life in being free to seek “authentic happiness,” of our own definition, particulary in postmodernism, in which our choices trump even reality. Whereas in the beatitudes (as well as all those parallel Old Testament passages promising blessedness in knowing and obeying God’s law, being corrected by him and so on), Jesus presents a set of attitudes which God has already prepared for us as goals, and which he has created us to achieve.

This is actually a pretty dynamic concept, in that it is about becoming all that we were intended by God to be, with all the choices, errors and graces that might entail. It is neither static nor passive. But it is a fundamentally theocentric one – all that we can achieve is to be found in God, and in what he has already prepared for us. We work towards a telos determined by God, not one that we invent for ourselves or, even more, one that we stumble upon fortuitously. Our purpose is to fulfil what we were always created to be, and the result is that peculiarly God-shaped blessedness, or happiness, summed up by the Hebrew ashere or the Greek makarios. There is a good case for equating it with eternal life.

Now, this blessedness of finding our way to conformity with God’s will is the “highest good” for us human beings, the heirs of creation and the very children of God, formed in his image. That should scarcely surprise us, for the whole aim of the ontological Son of God was to be in conformity to his Father. Why would we wish for something less than the one whose image we bear?

Although Scripture does not use the “happy” word of the rest of creation, yet as soon as we even begin to use personifying analogies of it, such as “freedom”, “creaturely dignity,” and so on, they must be controlled by that same understanding of God’s teleological oversight.

The metaphysics of Aquinas recognised this overtly. To him, each and every created thing had its own telos from God, the highest good towards which they would tend by actualising the potentials within their created natures. And so for the acorn, the telos is to become a great tree bearing acorns. The highest good for a shark or a comet is something quite different, yet equally a part of creation, in the sense that the goal, as well as the means, are of God. That is the meaning of “autonomy” in Aquinas – each entity has its own peculiar set of potentials and goals from the Lord, which constitute a “law” for it: it does not mean self-government.

Now, this thinking obviously accords with Greek philosophical thinking, in which for man virtue was the “philosophical highest good” for people, and other, lesser, purposes logically the case for irrational creatures. But my point here is that this general conception is also core Christian teaching, demonstrated in the very Sermon on the Mount.

This does not speak directly to the truth, or otherwise, of biological evolution. But it ought at least to guide our thinking on the kind of evolutionary ideas that we hold within our theology of nature, because it tells us about the kind of God we have. Any theory incompatible with the kind of divine telos Jesus reveals for man (for the achievement of which, note, he also provides fully sufficient, means) must be suspect. For it would be irrational for God to determine ends for rational creatures with free will, and yet not to do so for the world from which they arose, and which they are to govern.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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