Earlier this week, I wrote about happiness–specifically, about how Christians often claim to be happy when they really aren’t. I talked about how I sure wasn’t happy as a Christian, nor was anybody else I knew (with only a few rare exceptions). Even today, all someone has to do is run a quick search online to discover that loads of Christians are totally confused about why they’re so unhappy. Today I want to discuss one of the weirder attempts to capture happiness that I saw during my time as a Christian: my onetime tribe’s efforts to create euphoric states in themselves and others.
In the Christian narrative of happiness, followers of Jesus have–if not outright giddy glee–at least a sort of deep-seated contentment and joy-joy-joy-joy-down-in-their-hearts about them. How often have we, as non-believers, been asked outright if we’re Christians because we seem so happy? (Answer: For me at least, often. Not for nothing did an old buddy of mine call me Sparkles.) Happiness is simply one of those attributes most Christians imagine as one of the basic attributes of a dedicated, sincere, and properly observant Christian.
The source for this joy is, of course, the Christian god, who is thought to dwell inside the hearts of his followers and who from that vantage point gives them every single thing that is good in their lives. Nobody could be down in the dumps with such a divine love infusing their every motion and thought, now could they? Or, for that matter should be, because it’s almost ungrateful to be anything but happy about such an unspeakably fine gift.
So once a person starts believing in Christianity’s supernatural claims and pledges allegiance to this god, happiness is one of the normal, expected emotions to come.
But not just any happiness. The kind of happiness that resulted from a god’s divine presence should be appropriately big. A still, quiet little happiness wasn’t good enough. It had to be YUUUUUGE.
Enter my denomination’s obsession with euphoria.
I’m not talking about the /r/atheism kind of euphoria here, either. I’m talking about the real deal.
They Had That Euphoria-Euphoria-Euphoria-Euphoria Down In Their Hearts.
Euphoria is a very strong feeling of excited happiness that overwhelms the person feeling it. It’s like standing under a waterfall. And I’d certainly experienced it myself and thought it the best high I’d ever felt at the time. This emotion was an expected part of the conversion experience–new converts would typically feel it when they first sobbed their Sinner’s Prayers, when they first spoke in tongues, and when they got baptized (all of which might happen around the same exact time, as you might imagine, for a triple dose of Jesus Power). I can’t remember anybody who went through any of these experiences at my church who didn’t feel that outsized rush. I’m not sure we’d have trusted that the infilling had “taken” properly otherwise. I was under enough suspicion as it was for not being able to speak in tongues at will–but at least I’d felt that required euphoria.
Just as I had once, these new converts tended to use the same terminology and expressions when discussing this emotion. They spoke of feeling “washed clean” and feeling like “a new creation.” They declared that they were totally different people now and that everything they had done before that night that wasn’t approved by Jesus, they now had the strength to stop–be it drugs, smoking, overeating, playing D&D, having sex, or whatever else they liked doing before they became Pentecostal. This similarity was not connected to a strong, immersive groupthink-suffering culture with a cohesive and completely consistent way of talking about many things, but to the same Jesus inhabiting everyone. Of course.
Sometimes I felt like I was a 12th-grader seeing all the 9th-graders entering high school in September, all excited and wide-eyed and eager to leap into the new year and experience all the amazing stuff that the next four years would bring to them. I knew this emotional high wouldn’t last–it hadn’t lasted very long at all for me–but I sure wasn’t going to rain on their parade and neither was anybody else. We wanted them to feel this way. I was faintly jealous of what I knew would be weeks of delight and giddy excitement as they began to navigate their new lives as Christian fundamentalists.
For all I knew, something was wrong with me that I never felt that way anymore.
The Problems With Euphoria.
The first main drawback with my denomination’s obsession with euphoria is that by its nature, this emotion is not sustainable. Euphoria, being such a strong emotion, isn’t something people can maintain for very long even if they want to do so. It’s both physically and emotionally draining and tends to distract us from all those day-to-day things we have to get done. I don’t have any hard figures on exactly how long converts felt this overwhelming joy and optimism in my church, but it definitely wasn’t permanent. Most of them seemed like they coasted through a week or two maybe, but inevitably they’d wake up one day and realize that life pretty much looked the same way that morning as it had before they’d converted in the first place. That was never a fun day for anyone.
Another big problem with euphoria was that there was a distinctly uncomfortable parallel one could draw between our religious version of it and the versions people got from distinctly unapproved sources (like drug usage) or even the type of euphoria that features as one of the mood states of psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder. That ours was Jesus-flavored didn’t change that this parallel existed.
Probably the biggest problem with it, though, was that once that initial rush had worn off, people wanted more of this incredible surge of emotion. In theory, it shouldn’t have been difficult to find that rush. After all, there was still supposedly a god inhabiting the Christian in question and he hadn’t gone anywhere. But in practice, things looked very different.
That first dose was free. After that point, if people wanted to feel that overwhelming emotion again, then they’d have to work for it. And work they did. Altar calls, that heartfelt invitation issued at the end of a church service for people to come to the front to pray together, dance and hop around, recite the Sinner’s Prayer, and speak in tongues for whatever reason, seem to me now like little more than deliberate attempts to recapture euphoria in a group setting, since it’s so much easier to lose oneself in a crowd. At my church, people would knit their brows and babble in tongues, working themselves into a sweat-soaked, lathery froth chanting and jibbering at the ceiling, and generally got what they wanted in the end.
I tended to avoid altar calls. Even watching these displays of mass catharsis made me feel unsettled and disturbed, though I didn’t know why at the time.
Now I think I had worked out how contrived these scenes were. There was nothing divine about these altar calls, and certainly no god behind the euphoria manufactured during them. Anyone of any religion–or no religion–could work themselves into the same exact state doing what my peers were doing. When I saw some poor schmuck in the middle of a huge crowd of screaming, chanting, babbling, sweat-soaked Christians, rocking him back and forth in what amounted to a group bear-hug until he exploded into the state they desired out of sheer self-preservation if nothing else, I wasn’t seeing anything supernatural happening at all. I think I knew that even then.
I wasn’t the only one who sat out altar calls, which were seen as mainly the province of the super-gung-ho members of the church–like Biff, who never missed one if he could help it–and the new converts those ultra-fervent Christians preyed upon. I had lots of company in the more experienced Christians of the church, who talked about that euphoria like it was that rush of desire, admiration, and affection that one feels upon first falling in love. Relationships needed that first rush of limerence, it was thought, but they couldn’t last without there being a bond of deeper love and commitment between the people involved. So these older, more mature Christians presented themselves as having developed that deeper bond with Jesus, which meant they weren’t chasing the dragon that Biff and his pals sought during every altar call. When Biff developed that bond, they implicitly assured me, he’d pull back from those displays. (That was the expectation, at least. The last I knew of him, he hadn’t done so yet.)
These older Christians admired that Biff could summon this feeling so readily, but acknowledged that they weren’t up for it anymore. And nobody once said that maybe euphoria wasn’t the best way of getting new converts situated in the religion’s doctrines and theology; I suspect that even whispering that suggestion is one of the closest things to genuine heresy one could encounter in fundagelicalism.
I think other branches of Christianity think the same way. As only one example, a great many evangelical youth ministries exist to cram as much giddy rah-rah as possible into teenagers in the hope of carrying them through into adulthood, which is when they’ll hopefully have developed a deeper, more mature appreciation of the religion’s focus. When a church’s pastor looks out across the crowds of shrieking, sobbing, arm-waving, singing, dancing teens wearing Christian swag, he might well be forgiven for thinking that his church’s next generation is secure. It’s hard to imagine that someone could feel that intense rush and ever leave, or even doubt the religious tradition that produced that emotional high.
Chasing the Dragon.
The pursuit of happiness might be ingrained into America’s Declaration of Independence, but euphoria is not actually happiness. Like any other strong and deep emotion, it’s not bad in and of itself, but I don’t think most people realize how easy it is to achieve that state with the right mix of environmental cues, social reinforcement, psychological priming, and cultural practices–or how temporary it is, or even how different it is from the kind of happiness that actually sustains us in our everyday lives.
We’re not really prepared, as a culture, for the shock of euphoria. We’ve built fairly staid, predictable lives for ourselves in many ways. Some practices and situations can produce this feeling–such as Burning Man, mosh pits, the aforementioned mental illnesses, and of course the use of some drugs and medications. But these aren’t situations that most people encounter (or even want to encounter) normally, so it’s easy to be taken completely by surprise by the emotions that can result from a properly-rowdy fundagelical church service–and to mistake those emotions for something supernaturally-inspired, as I once did.
Once we’ve felt euphoria, we need to remember that as awesome as it can feel, it’s not permanent. Once it wears off, we’re going to be back to wherever we were before then. It’s easy to think that this rush is the spark that changes our entire lives, but it usually isn’t. It’s something separate. And again, it’s not bad, but it’s not divine and it’s not generally life-changing. That’s why those aforementioned youth ministries might be able to create regular and reliable euphoric states in their young charges, but those kids grow up and still leave the religion in droves as soon as they’re old enough to decide for themselves what they’ll do about religion.
We are right to be careful of groups that advertise those rushes of euphoria as some kind of divine blessing or try to claim a monopoly on that feeling–or offer it as proof that their system is objectively true and correct. We are right to avoid groups that rely on the creation of this state in their members as a kind of admission-price to purchase membership in the tribe, or as a marker of their superiority over other tribes. Those are people who use euphoria opportunistically as tools to induce and maintain control.
And if we’re leaving Christianity, then we don’t need to feel bewildered about those rushes of emotion. I sure did for a while: How could I have felt what I did even as briefly as I did and it not be some sign that Christianity is the one true religion? But I learned in time that euphoria is simply one part of the human condition. It’s as natural as breathing to feel it sometimes.
When we look to find happiness, euphoria is not where our gaze should rest. Next time we’ll talk more about the happiness narrative sold by Christianity, and why it fails. See you then!