By Lyndon Shakespeare
It is a sign of the times when London buses become the site of religious debate. Over the past months, a group in England has paid for advertising space on the side of London’s public transport. Instead of promoting the newest movie or latest gadget, the space purchased by concerned British citizens promotes the following message: “There’s probably no God: Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Not to be outdone, a local media CEO has released a pithy response that will soon invite the British public to consider: “There is a God. Don’t worry. Enjoy life. ” I imagine that there will be a great deal of humor generated from the public who now get to choose whether to board a bus that is pro-God, or pro -atheist.
Either way, I don’t imagine that either message will create converts. Of course, the point is not to create converts. The point, it seems, is to capture our attention with the hope that a snarky bus sign might invite a response from a distracted public. God or not God: Choose one and get on with enjoying life.
The Good Life
It is the invitation to enjoy life that makes the bus sign scrimmage worthy of our attention. The fact that both messages end with appeals to a good life is not insignificant. The atheists have plenty of abusive and violent religious history to point to as compelling evidence for a life of joy without the burden of potentially dangerous religious belief. The counter, for the believer, is to recite a litany of saints and saintly institutions that have borne peace, justice, and charity in times of war, hatred and disaster. A life of joy, so it seems, can include, and often does, an appeal to a life with God. The atheists are happy without God, the believers cannot be happy any other way than with God. So is this where the bus signs lead: to simply a matter of opinion, a reading of history or the thought, “Hey, I just need to ride the bus”?
We could agree that the mode of presentation used — that is, the side of a bus — provides too little space to really lay out a persuasive argument for God or against God. Fair enough. The real challenge as I see it is in making a case for a life of joy. What does a life of joy look like? Does it matter if you enjoy life one way, and I another? How would I know if I was enjoying life anyway? Would I feel it, know it, or would others tell me that my life is enjoyable? In any case, where would God fit into my description of joy?
We could explore these and similar questions until the cows come home; but at the center of any question about what it means to enjoy life, is this: What is the object of our joy? What or who is so attractive to us that it receives the kind of attention that brings about joy in us? How we answer this question says something of who we are as individuals who share our lives as part of a community.
It may sound overly simplistic, but the difference between an atheist appealing to the good life, and that of a Christian, is the object of our ultimate attention. That we confess belief or trust in God is what it means to have God as the object of our faith, the one who is our heart’s desire. As Christians, we confess in word and deed that the cause of all that is good and joyful is God and his divine love. Instead of finding the fullness of joy in other perfectly fine objects like a sunset, or baseball or our favorite car, we join with St. Augustine when he says: “As soul is life for the flesh, so God is the blessed life for man. Our true end and goal in life is found in God and his joy.”
It is a good thing for God to be the object of our attention, and to believe that God’s joy becomes ours as we learn to live more and more into God’s love. However, unlike a lovely sunset or our favorite baseball team, to look upon God — to have him as the object of our joy who gives us his joy — means to look upon one of our own, the human Jesus, the One who is God in the flesh. To speak of enjoying life with Jesus as the object of our faith is to press the language of joy almost to the breaking point.
What are we to see when we gaze upon Jesus? How is he an object for our joy? He is, in the words of St. John, the one who will be “lifted up” for the benefit of all. But more than that, to believe or trust the One lifted up is to receive God’s very life, his eternal life. We have here something more profound; more radical an object than anything else that defines what joy looks like in human life.
The invitation to share in the eternal life of God through the setting of all our life, our mind, and heart, in God’s direction is only possible because God makes it possible for us. God loved the world, he sent Jesus, and is saving the world through the one “lifted up.” The grace of God that makes our trust in Jesus possible confronts us, provokes and evokes a response from us. Will we receive or reject what God is offering? To receive with faith the grace to see Jesus as the source of all that is good, true and loving is to begin to learn how God alone can fill the heart completely by his infinite goodness and love. The scandal of Christian confession is that we only learn to know God when we can recognize him in the body of Jesus who overcomes sin and death in conquering both by being “lifted up.”
So where does this leave us in deciding which bus to catch? If both the atheist message and the pro-God message leave us enjoying life, what difference does it make for us as believers? Simply this: A life oriented toward God is a life oriented toward infinite goodness and joy.
In that Jesus is God in the flesh, and in that he died and was raised for us, then a truly enjoyable life is one that God brings about in us through the gift of grace. God’s joy resides in us and as such, the invitation before us is to live this joy or to reject it. To accept is to begin the journey of discovering how the enjoyable life is truly the life of God in us. In the end, it is not about an opinion or even a simple choice; rather it is about getting on the bus and getting on with living a Christ-shaped life of joy.
The Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare is the rector of All Saints Memorial Church, Navesink, N.J. This essay was first published in the August 2, 2009 issue of The Living Church.