Monday, September 8, 2014

What Victoria Osteen Got Right

Victoria Osteen, wife of mega-church prosperity-gospel preacher Joel Osteen, got some attention recently for a poorly-worded bit of theology, delivered (with a benign smile and a cheerleader attitude) to a stadium-sized church and countless television viewers.

Her words were spliced onto a brief clip from the Cosby Show to generate a video meme that went the rounds of social media, garnering a couple of million views. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

When I saw the video, I chuckled and moved on. But then, yesterday, I read a piece by Dwight Welch, a progressive pastor here in Oklahoma, that inspired me to stop and reflect a bit on the content of Victoria Osteen's words. Here, again, is what she said:
I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?
Dwight Welch rightly notes that many of Victoria Osteen's critics seem to be operating with a view of happiness that--contrary to Aristotle's view--severs happiness from morality, the "good life" from the life of goodness. He asks, "If God is not to be found in the good of life, then how is it salvific that we relate to such a reality?" In articulating what he appreciates about Victoria Osteen's claim, he puts the point as follows:
She connects God and humanity and the good together.  Instead of  doing something for God’s sake, as if God is a wrathful parent, demanding obedience, we are being told that in doing and engaging the good, worship, in all that we do which furthers human well being and flourishing, we are in fact honoring God.
Now, from a broadly Christian perspective, there clearly is room to criticize what Victoria Osteen has to say. By putting the focus squarely on our own happiness--by framing good works and worship as a means to personal happiness--her words suggest that we should prioritize ourselves. Doing good is relegated to an instrumental strategy for self-gratification. Worshiping God sounds like it's to be valued in the way we value a decadent meal.

But Dwight Welch's invocation of Aristotle suggests an alternative way of understanding her words--a way that may or may not be what she had in mind, but which deserves a response more thoughtful that dismissal-by-Cosby-clip.

For Aristotle, virtue is the essence of happiness. That's not to say that you can be happy while you're starving, so long as you're a good person. Aristotle thinks we need to have basic needs met as a precondition for happiness. But once those conditions are met, the path to happiness isn't found through self-indulgence or accumulating wealth. It's found through self-actualization. It's found by becoming a good example of a human being. And for him, virtues such as generosity and temperance and courage and wisdom are all parts of that process of becoming a fully actualized human being. The truly happy people are those who, by cultivating their character, come to find pleasure in what is genuinely good.

Within a Christian context, true happiness is found when you love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you love your neighbor as yourself. Rather than there being a division between personal fulfillment and being a good person, the two are intimately bound together. The greedy business tycoon who steps all over others might experience ephemeral pleasures, but not true life satisfaction--not true happiness. That is reserved for those who live a life of love made possible by giving themselves over to the loving source of life.

Here's what I think Victoria Osteen gets right: When you worship and obey God, you aren't doing it for God. Doing it for God's sake makes no sense, because the infinite creator of the universe doesn't need anything from us in order to be fulfilled. God doesn't need to be glorified by us, as if God is somehow diminished by failing to be properly fawned over. If there is a need here, it's our need. We can't be fully actualized human beings if our priorities are wrong. And to get our priorities right, we need to recognize the inherent value in things, and then let our priorities be shaped by that.

If Christian theology is even remotely true, then this means we should value God above all other things--not because God is a wrathful parent or a vain megalomaniac demanding sycophantic obedience, but because we cannot love anything in proportion to its inherent worth if we do not first love that which is the infinite source of all inherent worth. And if Christian theology is true, this also means that our capacity to love has its origins in God and is nurtured to the extent that we open ourselves up to God and make ourselves into instruments through which God's love can work in the world.

If worship is about anything, it is about such orienting of the self towards the ultimate good and the source of all goodness--so that we become better people and more fulfilled people, more full of love and more full of joy. In that sense, glorifying God has merely instrumental value: it's purpose is not to make God feel better about Himself, but to transform us and lift us up. Worshiping God is essential to getting our priorities in order.

I am not saying here, by the way, that atheists are therefore incapable of having their priorities in order. Many atheists orient themselves towards the good, the inherently valuable, in a way that amounts to what theists are doing when they orient their lives around God. And I've seen theists who claim to put God above all things but whose understanding of God is shaped by their own prejudices in such a way that they have lifted up an idol of their own making and made it into the supreme object of their devotion. If there is a God--as I believe--then I've met atheists who worship God but don't call it that, and theists who don't worship God even though they claim to. On this front, the debate over God's existence is not so much a debate over what a life lived well looks like, but a debate over how to understand such a life and unpack the metaphysics behind it.

On Christian metaphysics, Victoria Osteen is exactly right when she says we don't worship and glorify God for God's sake. We do it for our own. God needs nothing from us, least of all our worship. But if we think God is worthy of worship, then failing to worship God displays a disorder in our value system that will compromise our ability to love others and find joy in life. And if God is the infinite source of value, then connecting with God in worship becomes a way of communing with the good, of letting it enter into us, in a self-actualizing way.

What Victoria Osteen gets wrong is this: It is one thing to recognize that our self-actualization--our moral character and happiness--depend upon putting God first. It is something else to put our own self-actualization first. When we do that, we are likely to get confused about what will really fulfill us--and we might walk away with the confused notion that life is about material comfort and security, or something equally superficial.


  1. It's about perspectives. Joel and Victoria are prosperity cheerleaders...this is the new marketing strategy to get ppl to "seed" into their lives. The more seeds you sow...God will return it two-fold or three-fold. This is as phony as any other pastor or evangelical has used any of the other marketing strategies that yield loads of profits. I do not follow them, nor do I give them any money. I sow with my family, I sow with organizations that I know use the money for what they say they use it for. If Jesus was among us today, do you think he too would preach prosperity, while sporting a new Bentley and a $10M home?

    1. Thanks for this. I agree that the Osteens' prosperity gospel is wrongheaded. I think their ministry ends up misdirecting resources that could be used to help lift people out of desperate circumstances and to that place where they can actually focus on building meaningful lives. I suspect that they help to fuel a view of personal happiness that is disproportionately materialistic--which not only fuels the misdirection of resources in ways that don't help the poor and do no good for the rich who already have enough, but is clearly at odds with much of what Jesus represented in His teachings and His life.

      May aim in this post is not to defend the Osteens' ministry overall. But there is a dangerous tendency to sweepingly dismiss everything that those we disagree with have to say. It was very easy for me to simply chuckle at the mocking dismissal-by-Cosby-clip, in part because I am so suspicious of the Osteens' prosperity gospel. But then I was invited to look again, and I realized there was a truth worth preserving--one that ridicule is likely only to obscure.