As a liberal protestant who pastors a small mainline church, it may seem odd for me to write a post defending a theological claim, made by Victoria Osteen, the wife of the famous and wealthy televangelist Joel Osteen. How much do we really have in common? Not just in terms of size and presence but also in terms of theological commitments. I serve a church that is open and affirming to lgbt folks, we’re a refuge from the mega churches that dot the landscape of Oklahoma. We’re rooted in modern scholarship and the values of progressive Christianity. That doesn’t describe any TV ministry that I’m aware of nor any modern mega church, including the Osteens.
And yet recently Victoria said something which caught me. Both the nature of her statement and the reaction against it which has been building over the last week or so. It has come from all quarters. From the right, such as Al Mohler and the Federalist magazine to the left at Huffington Post. I was struck by the fact that on a progressive Christian discussion board her comments where taken as self evidently wrong. When something is self evident, it could be that we are working with a number of assumptions that are worth examining.
But before I explore the nature of the opposition and as well as the claim I thought I would share the claim itself. Here is what she said:
“I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”
A lot of this discussion revolve around what constitutes happiness. Al Mohler treats it as a fleeting emotion, a pleasure and he contrasts that with joy, as a settled disposition and outlook we have. I haven’t read anything by the Osteens to know what it means for them though. Aristotle‘s understanding of happiness would be closer to how Al is using the word joy. That is, something part of our character. And it is fundamentally related to the good and the virtuous in life, not whatever gives us temporary pleasure.
At the same time, Aristotle does not divorce happiness from material goods in the way Al Mohler does. I’m not talking about the excess of American consumerism or the Osteens fortune, I’m talking about access to health care, food, a steady income, safety and security. Al lauds Christians who are without such things. But it is precisely those populations, especially in Latin America and Africa, who are drawn to the prosperity gospel in the first place. Because those basic needs are not met. And they do impact overall happiness of people, in the Aristotelian sense of the term.
There was a study done with mice (as many seem to be) and what they discovered is that there was a minimum threshold of hapiness the mice experienced when new toys and objects where placed in their pen. Without such things the mice were negatively impacted. Once they hit that plateau, they appeared content. Add more junk into the mix and it did absolutely nothing for them. So yes, while it is the case that one does not need to be rich to be happy, one does need some basic features of a good life, health, well being or you will be impacted. It’s not the wealthiest nations that were the happiest in a recent study by the Legatum Institute, but no poor nation ever made the list either. It was rather the overall sense of security, needs met, gainful employment, structures that provided for education, enjoyment in life which were key elements. A plausible account of God and the good in life will bear on those concerns.
The critique that I find more discouraging comes from Steve Camp, who makes a distinction between our well being and the good in life, as opposed to serving God. There is a separation operating here, that appears to be “orthodox”, which makes a person choose between God and humanity. Choosing the latter makes us humanist, choosing the prior means we are willing to serve “the glory of God.” It reminds me of the old Calvinist question “Would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?” Or as Steve puts it “She (Victoria Osteen) honestly believes that worship is about our fulfillment rather than His glory. That’s the bottom issue here.” But I don’t think that division is sustainable, at least for progressive Christians.
For one, it means that God and the good of life is separated. In which case what is left of God? If God is not to be found in the good of life, then how is it salvific that we relate to such a reality? We may have some extra power in the world, something which has bearing on life but if it is malevolent, we would be right to oppose it. If neutral, it may be interesting to keep note of. But if, good, then we ought to follow such a reality. I think progressive Christianity has to stake it’s claim in the latter. And to go with the apostle Paul, when he asks “If God is for us, who can be against us?”. The idea that God is for us, I treat as axiomatic. The ultimate expression of our calling before God is found in Deuteronomy when it is said, that we are given the choice of life versus death. Choose life that it will be well for you and your descendants. We choose God because God is the God of life, not because God is some powerful other.
When Jesus is asked what must be done to be saved he responds ” Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.” That is, the duties to God and to one another, to each others well being are never separated. They are always combined. In the Roman world, how we relate to each other, was considered philosophy and it was separate from religion which focused on our duties towards God. What Christianity and Judaism did was to bring these two together, that our duties to one another, to our self, and to God, are all part and parcel of the same life of faith.
And that is why ultimately I think Victoria Osteen is on to something with her claim. She connects God and humanity and the good together. Instead of doing something for God’s sake, as if God is a wrathful parent, demanding obedience, we are being told that in doing and engaging the good, worship, in all that we do which furthers human well being and flourishing, we are in fact honoring God. Of course one critique is it remains directed to ourselves. What about other people’s happiness and well being? And what about societal structures that perpetuate others oppression and therefore certainly bears on others prospects for happiness?
I think of the prosperity gospel as one unsuccessful attempt, like other forms of positive thinking to exert power over ones life when that has been robbed, whether on the job, in the marketplace, in politics, in our personal lives. I would rather have the poor stick with liberation theologians and priests over the mega churches and prosperity gospel preachers. But when effective power is lost, when politics is no longer an arena that meets peoples basic material means, they will find other places.
That’s why I don’t think of the prosperity gospel as an expression of American indulgence, selfishness, or excess. The TV preachers may represent that to us, but for the followers, I think it’s the first time where there worth and value as people are lifted up, where they are not beat down upon like in so many other areas of life. Victoria Osteen’s image of God, not as divine tyrant, but as one who rejoices and finds delight in us is indeed good news for many people. It doesn’t go far enough of course. Because it treats people’s real material needs as a problem of attitude, not of material conditions that can be changed if we come together to demand a more just common life.
I think for progressive Christians, it is not enough to point to the excesses of the Osteens. It requires us to take what is right and what is being filled by such ministries and translate them into something that can make a difference in peoples lives. I know I would choose that as more fertile ground to work with than Al Mohler who defines the problem of life as not enough conversions to Christianity and that we can divide the world into the lost and saved. I think progressives can work with what is often treated as sentimental, think of the show Touched by an Angel, as a basis to re-imagine a God who is for us rather then Steven Camp’s God that requires that we subjugate our worth and well being before the altar of God’s holiness and honor.
That doesn’t mean progressives should not critique the Osteens of the world. But it is a call to work with the resources that are already in play, that can transform our religious landscape, our ideas, in ways that honors and lifts up persons. It may be as Steve argues, this is a form of humanism. But it’s a much needed one because we live in a world, where people don’t experience that enough. I’ve never seen successful movements for progressive change that did not begin with that as starting point.
Dwight Welch is the new pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma