Apologist Matt Fradd sent me a link to an interesting article by Christopher West titled “Has Brad Pitt Found What He’s Looking For? (I Haven’t)”. In the article West reflects on the way a fellow Christian appropriated a confession from actor Brad Pitt. In the quote, Pitt comments to an interviewer on his own melancholy nature:
“You’re talking to a guy … who’s always had this kind of congenital sadness. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know what it is. … I see it in so many people. I just always had so many questions growing up; why this, why the state of the world, why does God want this? Congenital sadness. It always came up, for no reason. I don’t know what it is.”
This other Christian appealed to Pitt’s confession as evidence for Augustine’s famous thesis: our hearts are restless until they rest in God. As for West, he agreed with this “Augustinian Thesis” but strongly disagreed with the other person’s additional suggestion, we can call it the “Happiness Thesis,” that becoming a Christian promises to remove this melancholy from one’s life. West comments:
“I couldn’t agree more that this “ache” Brad Pitt feels is a longing for the Infinite, an emptiness only God can fill. But the article left a bad taste in my mouth by concluding, ‘The moment you repent of your sins and accept Christ as your Savior, the void within is filled by God. The emptiness is gone….'”
This prompts me to make two points, one in response to each of these theses.
Why I reject the Happiness Thesis
First, I heartily agree with West that one ought to reject the Happiness Thesis. That is, becoming a Christian does not always “dispel the emptiness”. West makes the point by citing U2’s “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” a song that poignantly reflects the restless reality of many Christian disciples.
This point is worth underscoring because the myth of the happy Christian is a persistent one. Thirty years ago I was a big Stryper fan, but even then this lyric from their song “Reason for the Season” struck me as absurd:
Seriously Stryper? Everyday can be a holiday when he’s with you? Yeah, except for the days when you lose your job, contract a wicked case of norovirus, get your bank account hacked, have your spouse say he/she wants a divorce, discover your sixteen year old daughter is pregnant, or get the dreaded “cancer” diagnosis.
It is worth emphasizing over and over again that the Christian life offers no such guarantees. I talk about this in “Taking the Stigma Out of Doubt” and my Tentative Apologist Podcast “21. Depression and Christianity: An interview with Stefano Piva.”
Why we need to be careful about defending the Augustinian Thesis
What about the Augustinian Thesis? I agree with West that we only find the deepest existential fulfillment in right relationship with God. But that is a theological claim and it doesn’t mean that becoming a Christian promises some demonstrable increase in happiness, joy or peace. As a result, Christians ought to be very careful about appealing to personal testimony as evidence for the Augustinian Thesis.
Let me put it in the terms of A.A. Milne. Some people have an Eeyore personality type (ranging from generally melancholy to clinically depressed) while other people are Tiggers (ranging from generally optimistic to manically jocular). If the Augustinian Thesis promised some demonstrable increase in happiness, joy or peace, then we would expect non-Christians to be (generally) Eeyores and Christians to be (generally) Tiggers. An endless number of examples can be invoked to contradict that simple prediction.
Take the case of Martin Luther. According to Protestant legend, Luther struggled with doubts about his salvation until he had his tower experience and discovered true grace (thereby becoming a Protestant). And from there on it was smooth sailing. But the reality is very different. Luther struggled with depression throughout his life. For example, his close friend Philip Melanchthon recalled years after Luther’s tower experience that he would often find the great reformer curled up on his bed in agony over God’s hidden decree of salvation.
Just as many Christians are Eeyores — at least on some days — so many non-Christians are Tiggers. I suspect we can all think of examples of non-Christians who have a sunny disposition and are far better adjusted, more affable, and generally pleasant than many Eeyore Christians.
This brings me to the practice one often finds of appealing to quotes like that from Brad Pitt as some kind of evidence for the Augustinian Thesis. Does Pitt’s description of his own melancholic streak provide evidence of the Augustinian Thesis? Or is it just evidence of an Eeyore trait in his personality profile which might very well remain even after he became a Christian?
It may be that there is no way to settle this question. And this leads me to conclude that we should be very careful about appealing to instances of non-Christians expressing melancholic traits like that of Brad Pitt as evidence for the Augustinian Thesis. If we do this we are engaging in an indefensible confirmation bias. Unless, of course, we are also willing to recognize all those happy non-Christians and melancholic Christians that count as evidence against it.