|An interview/profile of my project can be found at the Henry Center website (here)|
Great news! I’m elated to share that I am a recipient of the 2020-21 Carl F.H. Henry Residential Fellowship for science and theology. As part of the grant funded by the John Templeton Foundation for the center’s Creation Project, the plan is that I will spend the next academic year on the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School campus with three other fellows (Josh Jipp, Kevin Kinghorn, and Alexander Stewart) in a collaborate environment as each of us work on our individual projects.
My project is titled:Natural Desire as a Moral Index of What Is Good: What Paul and the Epicureans Have to Say about the Orders of Pleasure. Click the title of the project for a nice article and interview by Matthew Wiley and why I think a theory and theology of pleasure matters for the church today.
Here, I’m happy to give more technical details about my work for the coming year. The goal is to write a book under the more user-friendly and general audience title: Pleasure: Enjoying God and His Good Gifts in an Epicurean World (currently looking for a university press publisher). The book examines the issues of food consumption (1 Cor. 8:1–13; 10:23–30), sexual pleasure (6:12–20), and entertainment (15:12–58) in the ancient dialogue and debate between the Apostle Paul and the group which New Testament scholarship has called “the Corinthian strong” or “the Corinthian wise.” I make the case that the Corinthian slogans: “I am free to do anything” (6:12; 10:23), “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” (6:13), “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:32), and other maxims find their origin in Epicurean hedonism.
Contrary to modern popular caricatures, the Epicureans were not gross hedonists. They practiced a type of moral naturalism where satisfying natural desires for food, sex, wine, and other bodily pleasures were seen as goods as long as they did not cause pain. Their brand of hedonism was self-controlled, pragmatic, and culturally influential. The Epicureans and Paul each provided moral instruction on how best to consume pleasurable goods in a way that led to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. In my analysis of Epicurean moral naturalism and Paul’s interaction with its major tenets, I examine not just key Pauline texts but also the treatises of Epicurus, Philodemus of Gadara, Lucretius of Rome, Diogenes of Oinoanda and other ancient ethical theorists.
Both Paul and the Epicureans affirm that the body matters, but Paul uniquely understood that bodily experience can be transformed by a believer’s participation in God (15:20–50). The believer’s union with Christ changes the temporal and futile condition of embodied existence, infuses it with meaning, and allows for eating, drinking, human intimacy, and other created goods to be expressions of faith and divine-human correspondence. Sharing in the triune life of God is an important theoretical and theological category for Paul because of its transformative effect on the participant. While Paul does believe that natural desire and aversion can function as an epistemological index for assessing what is good and can act as a means of moral valuation, he is also aware of how dangerously overpowering and idolatrous desire can become.
This project is interdisciplinary. It brings a biblical theology and theory of pleasure in conversation with neurobiology, philosophy (ancient and modern), cognitive science, and experiential psychology to explore both the potential and limits of natural desires to gauge what is beneficial or harmful. Medical studies on trauma, for example, demonstrate that while the mind of victims might not recall the violence done to them, the body does remember. There is an epistemology of experience measured by the human body’s interactions with its environment which Christian theology cannot ignore and must take into account.
However, embodied human experience can neither be the sole arbitrator of what is true and moral. Sin taints human existence and places limits on the extent of an experiential epistemology. I’m hoping to define those limits more precisely in my work.
My work would be incomplete if it does not offer new biblical, theological, and spiritual insights which inform the practices of the Christian church. We live in a culture of consumption, and so did the churches of Paul. My suspicion is that most Christians consume pleasures much more like modern Epicureans than as believers who participate in the triune life of God. If the virtue of pleasure is no more than its moderate consumption and enjoyment, Christians today may not be wanton hedonists but our practices are no different from ancient Epicureans or contemporary ones. Pleasure by itself is incomplete. It sends the person on a search for something transcendent and eternal. That search ends when we discover our ultimate delight in the person and presence of Christ. I plan to offer some examples of healthy Christian practices that make pleasure a gift which leads us into the grace of God and helps us avoid harmful, idolatrous patterns of living. MJL.
** Postscript: My home institutions North Park Theological Seminary and North Park University featured the news of the fellowship on the university website here. I’m indeed very grateful for their support and making it possible for me to take the next academic year as a sabbatical research leave.