God and the Art of Happiness
by Ellen T. Charry
Eerdmans, 311 pages, $35
Princeton Theological Seminary professor Ellen Charry continues her work on the pastoral function of Christian doctrine with this helpful volume in pursuit of what she calls “a Christian doctrine of happiness,” which she names “asherism.” Her conviction is that there need be no ultimate divide between being good or godly and being happy. We may say that God creates the world out of no necessity but sheerly for his own enjoyment, that our human flourishing (happiness) is central to creation, and therefore that God enjoys himself when we flourish.
The first half of the book is a masterful historical retrieval of the views on happiness of Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, and Butler. The second half provides a theological construction of asherism, with extended biblical work in the Pentateuch, Psalms, Proverbs, and John. Charry rightly shows that the moral commandments in Scripture are overwhelmingly of the sort, “Do this in order to flourish”; Scripture does not summon us to blind obedience to heteronomous norms but to a thoughtful appropriation and continued reapplication of sapiential guidance.
God and the Art of Happiness is a work of theological brilliance that manifests the philosophical and biblical competence of its author. Others, I hope, will extend her work by placing it in dialogue with contemporary moral theologians, such as Servais Pinckaers, on the importance of happiness.
But even more, I hope this work has an impact, albeit indirect, in the dramatic arts. In her final pages, Charry gives vignettes of how asherism leads to flourishing lives in concrete and even quite painful situations. These vignettes help the reader understand what has been at stake throughout the book. May Christian novelists and playwrights drink deeply from the doctrines and disciplines of asherism and help us envisage widely and vividly the art of happy living!
—Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence
at St. Thomas Church in New York.