Modern Myth - Progress and the Promise of Happiness
Updated: Jul 30
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Then he told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
The problems of the rich
Once, speaking with my dad, I told him: “Dad, you don’t really want to be rich. The rich just have bigger problems.” His answer resounds in my ears: “But I would like to deal with those problems.”
Malcolm Forbes once said that “He who dies with the most toys wins.” But he is still dead. Are possessions the meaning of life? Are we just supposed to acquire things and take our security from possessing things, stuff?
The man in today’s Gospel seemed to take that view. He tried to have as much as possible. He had a full granary. He had big barns. He had enough things, enough stuff, to rest, eat, drink, and be merry. But he died. And all of a sudden, his theory of happiness seemed to be very empty.
The modern myth of progress
We all have implicit theories of happiness – what we think we need to be happy. As postmoderns, most of us are in the clutches of the myth of progress.
“The notion of a universal history, a historical narrative taking all of humanity as its subject, came to prominence during the Enlightenment. Universal historians aspired to surpass ordinary historians in breadth and depth and aimed to penetrate the surface play of events to discover fundamental laws of historical development. These laws would not only explain the past but could be used to predict the future. Although a universal history need not be an account of improvement, all accounts of progress rest explicitly or implicitly on a universal history”. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Progress”)
So we have the idea that the past is bad and the future is good. We are hundreds of years past the Enlightenment, yet we live with a dogma that our time is the best of times. It seems better to have the honesty of Charles Dickens at least. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (Dickens, Tale of Two Cities) Here in the United States, we have even toyed with the idea of Manifest Destiny – the idea that the United States should spread “from sea to shining sea.”
One problem that feeds into our growing materialism is that we show off what we have and grow in greed (cupiditas) constantly. We see our neighbor’s vacations on Instagram. Nobody shows off a simple night at home, eating hot dogs and drinking water. Social media allows us to lie about our reality, or at least to tell an interesting fib.
“Love in truth — caritas in veritate — is a great challenge for the Church in a world that is becoming progressively and pervasively globalized” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 9) The world seems more and more interconnected. It is hard to look at the world in such a way that respects truly the needs of each people. It seems that some countries have a great priority in seeing how resources will be distributed.
“No man is an island.” (John Donne) These words seem even truer in the times in which we live. The problem is that although we all depend on each other, we cannot always trust each other to act morally in a consistent manner. “The risk for our time is that the de facto interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 9)
Some cry out to stop population growth. But there seems much less concern about creating wealth in such a way that the poor of the world participate effectively. “Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value. The sharing of goods and resources, from which authentic development proceeds, is not guaranteed by merely technical progress and relationships of utility, but by the potential of love that overcomes evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21), opening up the path towards reciprocity of consciences and liberties.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 9)
Looking for Heaven
We want to be happy, but we willfully ignore the way of happiness. We forget about heaven or do our best to push it out of our minds. We would do well to think about heaven frequently, as it is the place of ultimate happiness and gives meaning to much of what we live as Christians.
We do not bend to the will of the Universe. We enter a real relationship with Christ. This is the miracle we celebrate each time that we receive the Eucharist. It is God himself who comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine.
“It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws; we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 5)
We want to get to know the Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love. We recognize in ourselves a lot that prevents this. Our own evil thoughts and actions seem to separate us permanently from God. How do we break through sin in order to reach the transcendent?
In order to get to heaven, we need to reconcile ourselves with God. Pope Francis spoke recently about reconciliation. “What does Jesus tell us when he speaks about reconciliation, or when he prompts us towards it? What does reconciliation mean for us today? Dear friends, the reconciliation brought by Christ was no agreement to preserve outward peace, a sort of gentlemen’s agreement meant to keep everyone happy. Nor was it a peace that dropped down from heaven, imposed from on high, or by assimilating the other. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus reconciles by bringing together, by making two distant groups one: one reality, one soul, one people. And how does he do that? Through the cross (cf. Eph 2:14). Jesus reconciles us with one another on the cross, on the “tree of life”, as the ancient Christians loved to call it.” (Pope Francis, 25 July 2022)
Let us not spend our lives building up towers and saving up money that can disappear in an instant. Rather, let us build for heaven, through good deeds and a life lived in love.