Happiness and Evangelization

I recently finished reading psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, an examination of how the human brain attempts to make decisions about what will make us happy — decisions that, if studies are to be believed, we don’t make very well.

Gilbert’s book is summarized in this 2008 TED talk (the whole talk is about 24 minutes long and is well worth watching on its own merits):

Gilbert’s explanation vis a vis how we make decisions about happiness over time got me thinking about the aims of evangelization. Given that comparisons over time are extraordinarily difficult to make and that, all things being equal, it takes a tremendous payoff to delay gratification, is it possible that the extension of the human lifespan makes arguments for religious belief less convincing?

The stereotypical Christian argument is: “Have faith in Christ and his saving work, turn away from sin, and you will be rewarded with heaven.” Putting aside whether this is an accurate representation of the Gospel, in Gilbert’s terms we are asking people to delay today’s gratification (at least as it pertains to immoral acts) in favor of a reward in the afterlife.

This may have been a compelling argument when the average lifespan of a citizen of colonial Virginia was around 25 years. Death was imminent. The frame of reference for questions of happiness were much more immediate. As a result, it would have been easier to put off gratifying (but possibly immoral) behavior in favor of a “heavenly reward” because that   reward didn’t seem too far off.

But today the average American can expect to live well into his 70s. Most people simply don’t think in that kind of time frame. I can hardly put together a budget for the next month, let alone think about the state of my eternal soul in 40 years. Couple that with a consumer culture that prizes personal autonomy and immediate gratification and the Gospel seems much less compelling. Again, in Gilberts terms, the payoff for waiting simply doesn’t compute for the average person.

So how do we evangelize in such a situation? We know that, in the long run, final happiness is to be found only in God. But when people today enjoy more daily comfort, longer and safer lives, and greater individual autonomy that in any other period of history, how do we convey that fact in a compelling and credible manner?

Ratzinger on the Intersection of Belief and Unbelief

No one can lay God and the Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel itself thereby justified it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words “Yet perhaps it is true.” That perhaps is the unavoidable temptation which it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide away from themselves and the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape doubt and belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and uncertainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever, for the other the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.

– Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity