Does Christianity Hate Pleasure?
“Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to vice.” Frederick Nietzsche
It has become a fashionable truism in the modern world that Christianity is a pleasure-hating religion. Individual Christians are hopelessly enmeshed, so the Freudian logic goes, in a web of self-denial which denigrates comfort, the body , and human sexuality. Post-Christian Feminists have been the strongest advocates of this view. Highlighting Paul’s claim that ‘it is better to marry than to burn’ [1 Corinthians 7:9] and his dualistic assertion that the ‘desires of the flesh are against the Spirit’ [Galatians 5:17], thinkers like Mary Daly and Germaine Greer have come to the conclusion that Christianity has done the cause of pleasure more harm than good. Are they right? It is certainly true that Christianity has possessed its fair share of repression-junkies, hair-shirt prudes, and sexual neurotics- although I wonder whether such folk would have been in the anti-pleasure camp anyway- even if Christianity had never been born. After all, the ancient pagan world was awash with self-flagellating sages like Pythagoras who regarded sex and comfort as things best avoided. And of course, it was the antique Romans and the Greeks who obsessed about the sexual purity of women. When Christianity endorsed these worries through monasticism and marriage-codes- the Church was responding to a pre-existing set of practices and expectations. Christianity did not invent repression any more than the British invented the toothbrush. It’s not as if St Augustine arrived at Canterbury in 597, whereupon the English started sleeping on stone slabs and making love with the lights off! The libido (as Freud knew well) is no respecter of prevailing ideologies. It will have its way regardless of what the prudes of any given society say- although it can be curbed a little.
If Christianity’s role in matters of self-denial is somewhat unclear, is there something nevertheless, which makes Christianity hostile to pleasure? What is really being asked here is- does Christianity regard the repression of pleasure as preferable to enjoyment? The question is somewhat misleading of course. All cultures have to discipline pleasure in one way another to keep civilization ticking-over. The issue is perhaps one of making distinctions. What kind of pleasure does Christianity find praiseworthy and what does it seek to discipline? On these thorny questions, the New Testament offers us two intriguing postures. The first is embedded in Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man [Mark 10:17-31] while the second is made explicit in the story of Jesus’ anointment at Bethany [John 12:1-8].
In the first narrative, Jesus tells his earnest questioner that if he wishes to obtain Eternal Life, he must follow the Teacher into a life of deliberate poverty and service. Here the material safety and self-rule prized by the rich appears as the major stumbling-block between the would-be disciple and the obedience required by his Lord. The only resolution this narrative offers us is to choose service over our personal security. Yet, is Jesus’ answer to the rich young man binding on all Christians at all times? One can already hear the sharp intake of breath as critics prepare to castigate Christianity for glorifying poverty. Is luxury bad then? Are we to live awful lives; badly housed and badly nourished (on top of feeling guilty about our sex-drives)? Are the privileged of our economy (the workers with final salary pensions with a secure job) called to join the gray ranks of the precariat if they wish to become disciples? Not necessarily. The anointing at Bethany suggests a far richer conception of discipleship than the call of the rich young man allows. As the Fourth Gospel recounts:
Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages… “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” [NIV John 12:3-7].
In this provocative scene, Mary’s act of extravagance is authorized by Jesus despite its seeming carelessness in a culture of extreme scarcity. The implication of this passage is that personal dedication justifies the offering of a gift, even if it appears wasteful. This second vision of discipleship is much strengthened by a consideration of passages where Jesus is depicted in states of leisure. The Jesus who provides wine for wedding feast at Cana and is called glutton and drunkard by his enemies, emerges as a robust sanctifier of the libidinal principle of pleasure for pleasure’s sake- while Judas appears as the perverse spokesman for what Freud calls the Thanos principle; that deathly drive towards personal denial and negation which claim both Judas and Jesus as their victims. Judas betrays the man who offers him freedom, joy, and love, while Jesus’ is betrayed by the baying crowd who can’t accept the radical love and freedom he offers them.
The Marriage of Pleasure and Justice
Reading these two stories side by side, one can begin to see the radical strategy of the Gospels. Pleasure isn’t bad; nor is security. What is terrible is obtaining these things in ways which exclude the generosity and care involved in gift-giving. The rich young man may be a law-abiding citizen by the standards of the Mosaic Law, but he has no conception of what Mary knows intuitively; that righteousness requires love and personal devotion to others in ways which go beyond mere reflexive duty or the giving involved in market transactions. Pleasure should be geared towards community and not merely to one’s own personal concerns. Yet, the rich young man is not asked to accept the position of the lonely beggar; rather he is being asked whether he is ready to enter into a true community; one which is not divided according to two classes; one called rich and the other called poor. True, he loses the leisure and affluence he has hitherto become accustomed to- but he is not commanded to live a life of self-hatred. He has gained the love and security of a family which prioritizes care over possessions.
In short, he is invited to participate in a way of life in which all is held in common [Acts 2:44] and human pleasures are married to the principles of justice and reciprocity. Thus Paul tells the Christian community in Corinth that they will never go without if they give generously because their lack will always be met by the gift of another [2 Corinthians 8:10-20]. Paul’s point is that sufficiency and security are not to be rejected; only a safety and adequacy which relies on the impoverishment of others is to be shunned. This vision of pleasure offers a direct challenge to our own society. Our pleasures are fought for in a privatized marketplace- dependent for their expression upon our ability to pay for them. Even the degree, to which we find pleasure in the company of our spouse or friends, requires that we earn enough money to ‘support’ our leisure time. The poorer you are the less opportunity you have for doing things other than securing your basic needs. Our society’s tendency to ration much of what makes life meaningful according to the wallet makes us a great deal poorer spiritually, even if our basic material needs are met. The challenge of Christian ethics is this: Do the pleasures our society offer us, enhance our ability to give service? If not, what is wrong with the models of pleasure we are using?
Our key problem is that so many of pleasures are tied up with material accumulation and consumption rather than quality and meaning. How then do we enrich our pleasures? If we want a society which is both pleasant and just, it seems to me that we have to find more ways of holding more ‘things in common’- so that our social and economic life together is not based on the assumption of one individual against another- but rather a partnership so that the work of one may be seen to enhance the happiness and pleasure of all. Beautiful countryside, good housing, plentiful opportunities to contribute to the community and quality leisure-time, should not be rationed according to wealth but should be the birthright of everyone as a matter of human dignity. In that radical tone, perhaps what we need to do is re-visit the thorny matter of public ownership. What should be held in trust by the community as a whole and what should be left to the rough and tumble of market competition? What would the world be like if this pleasure-loving culture of ours turned more socialistic? What if the rich young men and women of the City threw themselves into the joys and risks of the community? What would happen if we got into the habit of giving extravagantly? Christian discipleship is our invitation to find out. It’s our chance to let go of the old certainties and safeties for a life which is much fuller and richer than we can possibly imagine. As Jesus himself tells us bursting with pleasure-seeking glee, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”[John 10:10].
 John 2:1-11
 Matthew 11:19