Emotional Hedonism

Standing firmly for the truth is a primary responsibility of a Christian, and especially the responsibility of the evangelist who preaches the Word of God. Among the many challenges to the truth which exist in the world, the self-destructive philosophy of hedonism has caused a lot of damage for thousands of years. As we continue into the 21st Century, there exists a new form of hedonism which has the potential to be highly destructive to the body of Christ.

A Different Kind of Hedonism

Classical hedonism

As a concept, hedonism is sometimes misunderstood. In its original, classical sense, the goals of this philosophy were somewhat laudable, even if horribly misguided. Suggested as a naive philosophy to bring about general “good” for the public it fails as a philosophy for the same reasons human Utopias cannot exist.

Simply stated, a hedonist espouses that pleasure is the most important intrinsic good or virtue. Such pleasure is not necessarily of a carnal of flesh-pleasing nature (though it includes such things). The goal of hedonism is to bring about this pleasure, as well as to lessen the problem of pain in the greatest measure for the individual, and by extension the general populace.

Classical Hedonism

In this light, such a philosophy might be seen as similar to the “pursuit of happiness” or the “promotion of the general welfare” as stated in the American founding documents. However, this fails for the same reason all Humanistic philosophies fail: the absence of objective moral authority. What constrains your pleasure in favor of mine? How does one balance the pain of one versus the pleasure of another? Is all pleasure profitable or intrinsically good?

Over the intervening centuries, various other groups have espoused similar thinking, corrupting more and more the already flawed notions of the original Greek theorists:

  • Epicurean Greeks
  • Various pleasure cults and societies
  • 19th Century Utilitarians
  • “Free Love” 1960s Hippies
  • “I’m OK, You’re OK” Post-moderns

In every case, even the best intentioned proponents succumbed to the destructive outcome of man’s inability to be virtuous master of his own destiny.

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 17:6 (NASU)

Emotional Hedonism

Thus far we have discussed hedonism as a Greek philosophy and its failings. However, there is a new and somewhat differing attitude (it is not specifically defined enough as yet to be a “philosophy”) that has become more prevalent in the modern/post-modern church. This author is choosing to call this “attitude” Emotional Hedonism (EH).1

This attitude’s similarity to Classical Hedonism is such that it only requires a difference of what is considered intrinsically good or virtuous: “good feelings”.

Some might question a real distinction between “pleasure” and “good feelings”, but the difference is key. While it is not impossible for these two things to overlap, “good feelings” focuses primarily upon the emotional comfort of the individual. Therefore, EH describes the greatest emotional comfort as being the most important intrinsic good or virtue, as well as the removal of emotional discomfort.

Emotional Hedonism

Emotional Hedonism explained

Perhaps this attitude is best explained by how it manifests. As an example, consider such an attitude in response to a sermon from the Word challenging any particular practice of sin. Classical Hedonism might respond to such a challenge with offense because to challenge a practice that is pleasurable denies this “good” to the individual, without consideration for the consequence for such a practice. (Remember that objective moral authority must be rejected as it limits personal pleasure).

The response of Emotional Hedonism is similar in its rejection (or perhaps better discomfort) with the challenge stated by the Word. However, the reason for such rejection will differ. It is not that denial of such practice will deny a “good” to the individual, but the challenge itself causes emotional discomfort which is best avoided. In essence, it is not the substance of the challenge that upsets as much as the reality of the challenge itself, and its need to be made in the first place that causes the rejection.

In many cases, this rejection comes in the form of a criticism of the tone of the challenge rather than its substance (e.g. “the sermon was too harsh” or “you could have presented that differently”, etc.). While it is important to consider how one approaches the presentation of God’s Word (Col. 4:1ff; 1 Cor. 9:19-23, et al.), this criticism is all too often in reality focused upon the challenge itself, no matter how it is presented. The discussion itself causes the discomfort and it would be better if it were simply never brought up in the first place.

Dealing With Emotional Hedonism

Given the great danger such an attitude that in essence is a “worship of feelings” can be to the body of Christ, it is important to then consider how to confront such an attitude.

A different response

A key element to understand when dealing with this attitude is that one cannot respond to it in the same manner one would respond to Classical Hedonism, because the causes of the assumed “virtue” are different.

When dealing with Classical Hedonism, one can appeal to logic as a means of defeating the philosophy. This is primarily due to the philosophy having its roots in the examination of logic and ideas. One can possibly convince a Classical Hedonist that a particular act or idea is not virtuous by showing the greater harm. Bounds upon “pleasure” which harm the innocent are accepted arguments. One many not convince as to the need for objective moral authority, but it is at least a step in the right direction.

With dealing with Emotional Hedonism reason and logic are seldom in view, because of the intrinsic emotional element. This is not to say such a person cannot be confronted, one must confront the emotional element in order to make an argument.

This appeal to emotion might frustrate some, but is a necessary reality in reaching those with this kind of attitude. It is much the same as becoming “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Spirituality vs. Emotionalism

Another key element to consider is that many people have conflated the ideas of “spirituality” and “emotionalism”. Spirituality is more and more considered a “sensation” or “experiential” idea. Such things are most commonly manifest in “feelings”. For example, to “feel” the presence of God, or to be emotionally “uplifted” or “stimulated” in some fashion while participating in a religious service.

This is a dangerous conflation because one must be very careful not to totally divorce the emotional from one’s relationship with Christ. In reality, much of Christianity is very emotional. When one is confronted with the Gospel it should cause great despair and pain because of the reality of sin, then great joy at the free gift of God (Rom. 6:23).

However, bare emotion without context does not “spirituality” make. The things which are spiritual are beyond both the physical and the emotional. To claim one has a spiritual “connection” to God because one “feels” it is treading dangerous water. The truth is, there are many different emotional stimulae, religious and otherwise, which can invoke a strong emotional response!

True spirituality certainly involves emotion, but better it transcends emotion. The limitation of a spirituality based upon “feelings” is its dependence upon good feelings (e.g. Emotional Hedonism). Spirituality in the case of the Christian who is walking in Christ (Eph. 4:1ff; 1 John 1) can overcome hardship, difficulty, the world, and yes, even bad feelings!

An appeal to faux-Christianity

Because of such conflation between “spirituality” and “emotionalism”, there is one last element which is a natural result. Those who espouse the attitude of Emotional Hedonism and misunderstand “spirituality” build a Christianity divorced from much of what the New Testament teaches.

It is important to point out that this differs from the denominationalism, creedism, and sectarianism of the past. In those cases it was issues of doctrine which were the real points of contention. One could debate someone upon differing aspects of Christianity in relation to whether they are in line with the Bible.

With the Emotional Hedonist, such debates are themselves suspect. In such an exchange, there will be disagreement. In such an exchange, one party may be found “right” (or both can be “wrong”), but both cannot be considered “right” or “true”. Such a thing is uncomfortable. It also might make others uncomfortable. It is therefore easier to avoid such doctrinal questions altogether.

The end result of such avoidance of the uncomfortable, while perhaps not an actively planned result, is the abolition of anything deemed “controversial”. Given time, anything that creates a question creates controversy and is therefore controversial This leaves an empty husk at best of the New Testament - a Christianity-lite free from any substance or meaning. One becomes more accepting of outside ideas or influences because it would be uncomfortable to challenge anything different or foreign, even to the Bible.

Conclusion

Historically, the failed philosophy of Hedonism has been greatly destructive to the cultures of mankind. Despite repeated attempts to resurrect such an intrinsically flawed idea, every single Utopia of man has fallen as short as man falls from perfection. That this happens should surprise no one, especially the child of God.

However, in recent years a similarly destructive attitude has crept into the common thinking of some in the church, and it has the potential to do great damage. When one places good feelings above everything else, including the truth, the only real outcome is a group of people who feel very good about themselves while they plunge closer and closer to destruction.


  1. It is important to note that there is no real “philosopher” at the center of this attitude, nor do many people who adhere to its ideas do so with the intention of following a “philosophy”. That is one of its greatest dangers! [return]
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