A few weeks ago my church began running Alpha. In the first session, we ask this question: “If it turned out there was a God after all, and you could ask one question, what would it be?”
As I was listening to other people’s questions and imagining my own question, even though I am a Christian, I was deeply moved by this question: “God, will you, or can you make me happy?”
Now I know that the world “happy’ gets a bad rap. Happy is associated with an emotion, a fleeting feeling. But I think that that desire for happiness or contentment or delight points us to something true real about humanity. It leads us to a fact that whatever way we define happiness, we all know we want it and will do almost anything to strive after it. When we really think about it, happiness strives beyond the feelings towards something deeper, something substantial, something with weight, and value and meaning, something that makes sense of everything else.
Augustine and Aquinas argued that “all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness” (Aquinas, 1-2.1a7). Now everyone wants to experience this bliss, this sense of fullness, meaning, purpose or “perfection” as Aquinas calls it. But what will bring about this perfection, this true sense of being who I am supposed to be, that is where it gets all muddled. For Aquinas, the final end of human longing, the end for which we were created, is life in God, communion with God and the vision of God. In fact, the sight of God is called the Beatific Vision which is the same word for happy (Beatitudo).
Now obviously, not many people will agree with either premise of Aquinas’s understanding of happiness: either that we were created for a particular end, and that that particular end is the vision of God. Western culture rejects both of these for a self-made definition of our ends and our beginnings. However, that lingering sense and longing for happiness remain, and Aquinas’s thoughts can help us think through what this longing says about humanity. Aquinas argues that we have this longing because we were created for a particular end, but we are trying to fulfill that end in other things (Aquinas, 1-2.1a7). If we grant that we do long for something beyond ourselves, we can at least listen to what Aquinas says that longing is. Another theologian, Augustine, defined this longing as restlessness and said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God” (Confessions, 1).
So what of all the things that we think we will find our happiness in? Aquinas goes through a pretty extensive list and tries to demonstrate that no created good will satisfy our longing, will really make us happy. For example, wealth cannot make you happy, because we acquire wealth as a means to a further end, either for the needs of life or to fulfill inordinate desires for other things (Aquinas, 1-2.2a1). Perhaps the most pervasive form of seeking happiness today is physical, either through sex, thrills, or physical exertion. Aquinas basically argues that we are more than physical creatures with physical needs, and thus that ultimate longing will not be fulfilled with physical pleasure. Though, it is understandable that we seek pleasure as our happiness because we are embodied souls (Aquinas, 1-2.2a6). Aquinas covers, wealth, power, fame, glory, intellectual abilities, and shows that all of them will not satisfy our longing for happiness.
In summary, Aquinas argues that no created thing can give us real and true happiness:
It is impossible for a created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e., of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. That is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. wherefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Ps. 102.5: who satisfieth thy desires with good things. Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness (Aquinas, 1-2.2a8).
Here Aquinas is saying that the thing we long for in happiness is being wholly contented with nothing left to be desired. The only thing that can satisfy us is that which is perfectly good, beautiful, and true, and that is actually God, who is both the source and end of human existence and desire.
Aquinas goes on to define happiness in light of the fact that God alone can make humanity happy, and how one can then attain such happiness.
To define happiness Aquinas first shows that happiness is a created reality. Why is the important? Because Aquinas is careful to maintain the infinite distinction between God who is our source of happiness and humanity, who finds their fulfillment in creaturely participation in God. (Aquinas, 1-2.3.a1). Humanity is created to enjoy God as creatures, God himself is happiness in his essence, we enjoy God through his Grace (Aquinas, 1-2.3a1). Aquinas proceeds to show that Happiness is nothing less than this: “final and perfect happiness consists in nothing else than the vision of the divine essence” (Aquinas, 1-2.3a8). Why is this the case? Happiness is being fully content, no longer seeking or desiring, and only God is capable of fulfilling such a longing.
In Question 4 Aquinas ponders what is required for happiness, and distinguishes between imperfect and perfect happiness. In this, he acknowledges that humans experience happiness on earth, but it is only a shadow of true perfect happiness, which will be experienced in the Eschaton.
Finally, in question 5 Aquinas asks how we can attain happiness. He affirms that we can attain it, but then asks how. He argues that humans attain happiness through sanctifying grace that comes from the work of Christ on behalf of humanity in his life, death, and resurrection (Aquinas, 1-2.5.a7). Here, Aquinas does argue that humans attain happiness as a reward for works of virtue. But the principle of these works is Grace, which is given without any merit or work.
In summary, Happiness is found in the Vision of God which can only be attained in Christ through Grace. As an Anglican, I would push Aquinas a bit on the idea that meritorious works of virtue giving us access to the beatific vision. Through an Anglican and reformational lens, I would couch what he says in terms of sanctification. I would say that we are justified by faith, in such a way that we are given access to God in Christ now, even as we grow in our sanctification towards the beatific vision in the age to come. All of this is through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, The path to the beatific vision is grounded in Union with Christ; the objective work of Christ is infused into Christian through the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us and makes us virtuous. Thus, through Union with Christ, there is a foretaste of the beatific vision enjoyed now, one that is nourished through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and enjoyed in the Body of Christ the Church, through worship, reception of Grace on Word and Sacrament, and service to others. We begin to rest now even as we walk the pilgrim road to the end of our discontent, to the final joy and delight for which we were created. To know God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).