Do you know people who are very content with life without bothering about the question of God? Ravi Zacharias sat down with Danielle DuRant to discuss the idea of the “happy thinking pagan.” To hear the interview, go to Just Thinking Broadcast Archive.
Danielle DuRant: You’ve spoken about the “happy thinking pagan.” What do you mean by this phrase?
Ravi Zacharias :I think the first time I heard that term was about three decades ago. It was from Os Guinness and he talked about the fact that this was the emerging new way of thinking. That is, “I don’t believe anything but I’m very happy. What does it matter?” And of course, it was also along the time of slogans such as “If it feels good, do it” and “Don’t worry, be happy.” Then the whole question came up about what does the so-called happy pagan actually believe, and it was borderline radical scepticism: not really taking any view of the transcendent seriously but just the pursuit of happiness, raw and unbridled. This sometimes moved into radical hedonism, other times just to contentment. So I mean people who are very content with life without bothering about the question of God.
DD: Philosopher Peter Kreeft argues that “the most serious challenge for Christianity today isn’t one of the other great religions of the world, such as Islam or Buddhism.” Rather, it is paganism, which he defines as “the religion of man as the new God.” Would you agree with him?
RZ: Partly. I don’t think I’d agree with him completely though Kreeft is a much wiser man and a better informed man than I am. I suppose I would wonder what he means by that in the pervasive sense of a belief system. Yes, paganism can be especially daunting with the revival of certain types of Gnosticism and mysticism. Yes, the numbers in the West are growing, but in terms of a threat to stability and freedom, I don’t think that’s the greatest threat we face. I think the whole Islamic worldview has a real challenge and I’ll tell you why. It has a challenge because it is comprehensive. It is political. It has a moral theory. It has a cultural theory. It has a financial theory. So I think in its core the Islamic worldview would pose a greater challenge to the life and the lifestyle of the Western worldview because in the Western worldview you are given the freedom to believe and disbelieve. It’s not always true in Islamic nations. So I would say in terms of the freedom of these things, the greater challenge to the world right now is coming from that worldview, but in terms of the pervasiveness of belief systems, paganism is certainly a daunting one. I don’t think it’s as fearsome but it is real.
DD: You’ve said that the problem of pleasure rather than the problem of pain more often drives us to think of spiritual things. So how would you account for the happy pagan?
RZ: Good question. I think the reason it can be accounted for is the same way materialism succeeds. There is always the sense that one more digit in my pay cheque will make a difference. One added home. One added car. One added excursion. One other vacation. We think by the simple act of change we will alter everything on the inside. So it has that lure to it. But at the same time pleasure, when it has delivered what it can, definitely does leave you empty. Nothing is more obvious than this in the Hollywood world: the breakup of relationships, the breakup of homes, the breakup of commitments. Who knows all the heartaches with which many of them go to bed.
I remember Michael Landon, Jr., talking about the heartache of his family and how even though his father was so wonderful to watch living out on the homestead on “Little House on the Prairie,” deep in his inner life it was a total chaos. That is true of the entertainment world and they epitomize pleasure. They are purveyors of pleasure.
On the other hand, those who watch from the sidelines, I think all of us included, somehow think success is more than what we actually think it is. Now let me qualify that. I do believe it is great to be comfortable in our material holdings. Who wants to be poor? Who wants to worry about the next meal? We all like to have those comforts. But it is only the inner being within you that is able to transcend that and look beyond that and not look at ultimate reality through a skewed way.
DD: You contend in your new book, Why Jesus, that both pleasure and pain are rooted in the question of our origin. What do you mean?
RZ: There is absolutely no doubt that our lives are constantly invaded with either ecstasy or heartache. Nobody is spared this. In my line of work now as I look at it in the last stretch over against the beginning and middle distance, what I see more often is people disappointed, disheartened, disillusioned becoming sceptical and trying to find their way out of the mess. On the other hand, there are those who have been there, done that, who also still continue to ask questions. The only way to interpret these emotion-laden realities is to go back to the intellectual backdrop of how to handle them. How do you handle success? You know, we often think of the fall of Lucifer. The biggest sin in the church today is anything to do with sexual sin. But it was not sexual sin that brought Lucifer down. It was autonomy, pride, and power—that’s at the root of all evil. All these other things, while they are real, are secondary. So I think the whole issue of the struggle to interpret who I am will ultimately lie at the root of how to define pleasure and pain. And those realities, while symptomatic, are anchored in essence and definitions of ultimate meaning.
DD: So do you think the happy pagan is truly happy or maybe, as you even alluded, do we need to begin first with a definition of happiness?
RZ: Yes, I think I’ll have to say that on the surface some people would seem to be happy. I always like these commercials outside restaurants for “happy hour.” You know, I just find it is so ridiculous. I remember in Bangkok once walking out of my hotel, and this guy was standing there announcing “Happy hour, happy hour.” So I stopped and said to him, “Are you only happy for one hour?”
Do I think they’re truly happy? I think they have punctuated moments of happiness. I do not think true happiness is ultimately found unless you’ve got a relationship
that is the bulwark from which everything else is explained. And I don’t think ultimately all relationships will stand without that relationship with God. (And C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed is one of the most powerful books of how to face even the loss of your greatest human relationship.) So I would say there are moments of happiness. But as G.K. Chesterton said, they can be happy because the peripheral questions are answered for now, but they ultimately can’t have joy because the fundamental questions are not answered. So happiness is possible but it is not systemic.
DD: Well, I think of the late Christopher Hitchens, who our colleague John Lennox debated and spoke with on a number of occasions. He seemed quite content in his animosity towards Christianity as well as his appetite for pleasure.
RZ: Yes, I think that is certainly the way one would convey it. You know, people often talk about Christians being hypocrites— they feign emotions while their lives may be falling apart in private. And yet, do we really know that in the darkest moments of his aloneness that he was not recognizing that his real questions are hostile towards the sacred? How can anyone find total fulfilment with an animosity towards the sacred? I think it is incoherent. It’s an incoherent worldview. I think Christopher Hitchens’s book on Mother Teresa was one of the worst books I’ve ever read in forty years of reading. It showed me how hostile he was towards anything that smacked of an ethic that came from a belief in God. Whether he was genuinely happy or not is not for me to tell. Whether he was content with pleasure or not, he did show that his life fell apart ultimately physically. That happens to all of us and that is only a manifestation of what also happens to us on the inside. Life is not continuous apart from God. And if that’s all he lived for, and has come and gone, then Bertrand Russell was right: you cling to a philosophy of unyielding despair. That is, that’s just the way it is.
But I think it is a dressing-up verbally of something that has no meaning essentially. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in his shoes to think that’s all life was about: have some fun, go and debate a few people, earn some money, go to the bar, have a great time. He battled, as you know, issues of alcohol, and so I would have to ask the question if he was really that happy, what was all this about? Why did one need to escape away from reality? Or was that part of the reality he wanted to live in? It’s not for me to judge. I think Hitchens was a loveable person; he had an air of likeability to him. He’s now found out whether his belief was right or wrong. If his belief was wrong, it’s pretty serious. And if his belief was right, he doesn’t know it.
DD: You’ve alluded to the need for worship and wonder. Do you think that worship can also be an escape for some?
RZ: Yes, I think the way we worship can be an escape. Sometimes I wonder about the evangelical world where worship to us has become so much noise. I often wonder how much that really couches the most important thing: for you to be still. Sometimes we’re afraid to be alone.We’re afraid to listen to our inner voice. Worship can be an escape, but if worship is the ultimate recognition of the sacred then it’s not an escape. It’s a fountain from which all else flows and you sense it. But it’s a great question and I think you’re right. Many times not just worship itself but even religion in general can be an escape. All kinds of things can be an escape:
watching television, watching sports. So the truth ultimately has to be settled: What is the paradigm from which I view everything else? The Bible talks about what you believe, so you are, and how you think, so you are. Worship, when it is a legitimate expression, is not an escape; it’s ultimate fulfilment.
DD: So back to engaging the happy thinking pagan. What do you think is the most effective way to engage them for the gospel—through their mind or through their heart?
RZ: That is the most difficult question to answer. I think often about that because there are parts of Europe today where even apologists will tell you, yes, apologetics is answering questions, but what if the people aren’t even asking the questions? And many cultures have come to that point. It is fascinating distinguishing the East from the West. In the East, where the questions are not asked demagogically, they have been drowned out. Take China: don’t ask these questions, just work. Work makes you free and that’s all you have to do. But they couldn’t ultimately suppress them for the East is always incurably religious and spiritually minded.
In the West, it is about a “hands-full pursuit.” You get into your car and come back to your home, live in your boxes, and be happy. So they have learned not to ask those questions. But you know what? Everybody makes moral pronouncements. Everybody. Every culture makes moral pronouncements. And the best way for me to approach them is to ask them questions about their moral pronouncements. The very honest ones will find there is a breaking point. The dishonest ones will find they are really escaping reality rather than facing it.
The second thing is grief comes your way— and children. I think one of the most important ways that God communicates to us is through children. Whether you are observing a child who is not even yours or you watch a child being hurt. Why is it that even pagans will want to show a child being hurt in the Middle Eastern conflict to draw your emotions into it? Or you raise one in your own home and sickness comes or death comes, and you are forced to ask the questions. So the entry point is determined through the inescapable moral framework and relational framework with which people live.
DD: What about the individual who once upheld Jesus’s teachings but has chosen a lifestyle—and I use that term very broadly— that is contradictory to the Scriptures and yet professes to be happy and still a Christian?
RZ: Sort of moving away from the community of faith but still claiming to have faith but is not pursuing Christ?
DD: Yes, or engaging in a life that clearly would be contradictory to Scripture and Jesus’s teaching.
RZ: Yes, you see that, and it basically tells you that the person has done a masterful job at duping themselves. That’s really what it tells you. I mean, take it in any other vein—suppose you do that in your marriage. “I really love you; you’re my spouse. I’m really committed to you but don’t ask me where I am every night until midnight.” Or, “Don’t expect me to treat you with respect. Don’t expect me to be kind to you, but I want you to know that I really love you.” Who would buy into something like that? Who wants to be loved that way unless you yourself have become cynical in the process? So to say, “I love the Lord”—the Bible talks about bringing forth fruits that are in keeping with repentance. And if you don’t bring forth that kind of fruit, then what you say about repentance is nothing more than theoretical. So a person like that has done the ultimate job of picking their own pockets. If your life is not in keeping with your profession, then your profession is fake. There is no other explanation for that. So such a person will sooner or later start looking for intellectual reasons to renounce their faith so that they can be comfortable with their lifestyle. And that’s where many go.
DD: So what do you say to the person today who might identify with the happy thinking pagan or perhaps would call themselves a believer or Christian and yet is living this duplicitous life as you’ve suggested?
And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”
RZ: You know, there was a famous sermon preached by Robert Lee called “Pay-Day —Someday.” 1 One day it comes home to roost. Look at the whole financial crisis globally right now. It is the happy pagan philosophy. That’s exactly what it is. In the banking system and the insurance system, just go and live any way you want, borrow and don’t worry about having to repay, we can keep printing more money, we’ll dole it out from the government, we’ll bail you out, we’ll do this, we’ll do that. And look at what’s happened. Ultimately what’s happened is like Greece: burn the buildings, burn the government, pull down your lampposts, destroy your systems, and so on. So I will just say to them you can coast for some time this way, but if this is your long term plan, that’s exactly what the Bible speaks of when it says, “‘I’ll eat, drink and be merry’ and God said, ‘You fool, today your soul shall be required of you.’” It is a foolish way to live, both for yourself and for those you love. But God has a way of bringing things into our lives.
DD: And his love and his greatness that really have no other comparison. You’ve been speaking about love having moral entailments—in our culture, at least in North America, we see that as a disconnect. And yet that is clearly the gospel, is it not?
RZ: It is clearly the gospel and it is a gospel with all of its profundity that the human heart ultimately longs to belong. If you can belong with legitimacy, then it is fulfilling. If you belong with illegitimacy, it is haunting. How do I find legitimacy? By recognizing the sacred. The beauty of Jesus is something we really need to uphold before people: his warmth, his care, his ethos, his ethic. When you see a troubled person, help them. When you see a person hurting help them. So I think the gospel is beautiful.
DD: What about the individual today who may be reconsidering their beliefs—what would you say to them?
RZ: I think that’s a real fact. I see it. It’s very interesting to me that there are so many illustrations around that you can borrow from, such as this man who goes to Vegas and ultimately takes his life and says, “Out here, there are no answers.” One of the wealthiest women who ever lived who passed away recently lived in a forty-room home in Manhattan but walked away from that and checked into a hospital and lived for so many years in a hospital bed. She said that wealth was a poison and noxious to the soul. Why do they say these things? Recently on a flight I watched a documentary on Kurt Cobain, who was in his twenties and ended his life. So there are illustrations of people who carry it to the extreme.
Now somebody may say, “Look, I’m not in that extreme. I try to do things right. I honour my family. I do this for my children. I’m not a hedonist per se; I just enjoy the good things of life.” I would say to you ultimately you will look for a reason for all of this—not just the fulfilment. Fulfilment itself is never sufficient reason because anybody can be fulfilled by doing opposite things. So what you have to find out is the reason that you come together when you love your family, when you’re doing your work, when you’re home with those who need you is because God has made you in his image and there is something essentially sacred. So break this idea that you don’t need God. You need him for the answers. You need him ultimately for your own pursuit of meaning and for your family.
How do you break away from it? If you are struggling with a network of friends for whom it will be hard, just start talking to them. What do you think about
ultimate matters? What do you think about origin, purpose, meaning, destiny? Do the right kind of reading. Do the right kind of listening. Take the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It all comes together in the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When you are reading the Bible, begin by saying, “God, if this is your word, I want you to speak to me and I’m willing to listen.” You’ll be surprised how many people just by reading the Scriptures will say, “This has the ring of truth,” and they will trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour who gives them the reason for the hope that can be within them.
DD: It seems that we don’t have a doctrine of happiness, if you will, in Christianity. We speak of joy but it’s always eternal joy or looking ahead to heaven. But yet, is an earthly sense of happiness perhaps missing?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
RZ: I think it is missing, and we almost associate being happy with therefore you must be doing something wrong. That is, you need to feel guilty about being happy. And so we pound people—“grace killers,” as Chuck Swindoll used to call them. But look at a little child. I’ve become a grandfather now, and I watch the little guy bouncing around on his jumper or splashing around in a bathtub. What more beautiful thing to see a chuckling little baby enjoying the nice things of life. God has given the enjoyment of sports, the enjoyment of food, the enjoyment of entertainment, legitimate entertainment I should add, of beauty around us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Yes, we can enjoy happiness, contrary to Richard Dawkins who says that there’s no God so go ahead and do whatever you want. There is a God who intends for you to have life abundant and happiness is well-bounded. When the Bible talks about the beauty of holiness that means beauty is bounded. There is an absolute nature to it. So is happiness. You can have wonderfully happy moments and God intends for us to have them.
DD: I believe Augustine said that God has made us for himself—for his pleasure—and we aren’t at rest until we find our rest in him.
RZ: And this comes from an Augustine who once upon a time was seeking pleasure in the wrong direction. So I think it is important to know the background from which people even say that. Music has tremendous sentimental value. Enjoy great instrumentality, good humour, good jokes, laughter. It’s good for the soul, and I find it actually very therapeutic because my life is so heavy in speaking.
Danielle DuRant is Director of Research and Writing at RZIM.
Just Thinking is a teaching resource of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and exists to engender thoughtful engagement with apologetics, Scripture, and the whole life.