The basic question addressed by religion is not "Does God exist?" but rather "How can we find eternal happiness in the world as given?" Religion is a recipe for dealing with life and succeeding. By "eternal happiness" I do not mean happiness in some afterlife, but rather a form of this-worldly happiness that exhibits long-term stability, continuity, endurance, and impregnability, therefore cutting through waves of vicissitude.
We had better worry a little about the nature of this world "as given." Traditional religious language speaks of the world as fallen, implying that there once was an unfallen world. We are the victims of original sin (to continue with traditional language) yet at the same time we are fashioned in the image of God. Human nature is both satanic and divine, and the rest of nature is the same: cruel, dirty, destructive on the one hand, yet beautiful, heavenly, idyllic on the other. In sum, life as given is ambiguous, problematic. Let me therefore amend my original statement and say that religion is a recipe for being eternally happy in a world that is morally ambiguous.
How many of us succeed in this? Very few, I’m afraid. Very few have this impregnable, stable sort of happiness; very many are anguished at worst and only intermittently happy at best. Since the failures are all around us, and the successes hard to find, it might be best to investigate the ways in which people fail, since then we might learn how to transcend these mistaken modes.
The best analysis of all this, in my opinion, is Søren Kierkegaard’s. He says that all of us strive to attain happiness, and that we do this in three ways: aesthetic, ethical, and religious.
The aesthetic, as used here, has nothing to do with artists, at least not necessarily. The aesthetic person is someone who seeks to have moments of such strong feeling that he or she is lifted out of the threatening world of ambiguity and ambivalence into some other realm akin to eternal happiness. For the aesthetic person, time is the great enemy because it dulls feeling. If one’s heightened feeling is occasioned by love, time ages the beloved and ultimately removes him or her. So what do aesthetic people do? They break time into discrete units—moments—each of which has the capacity to confer happiness only because it has been separated from the complications, unpredictability, etc. of past and future—from the true flux of time. Aesthetic people try to be happy by converting this flux, this "motion picture," which of course is threatening, into a series of discrete snapshots.
How does this work out in practice? If the aesthetic pleasure comes through love, the love will be fleeting, involving a series of spouses or lovers, each one a snapshot, so to speak, which can be abandoned and replaced by another and then another in an (ultimately vain) effort to escape the continuity of time.
Furthermore, the spouse or lover that gives this discrete, momentary heightening of feeling (and remember that this can be achieved just as well through a beautiful piece of music, a sunset, or climbing a mountain, etc.) must be idealized—sentimentalized—as perfect, and hence not subject to time’s corrosion.
I’m sure that we all know people whose major mode of obtaining eternal happiness is this aesthetic mode. We may even recognize this mode in ourselves. The question is: does it work? And the answer is: yes, up to a point. But not ultimately, for reasons that should be obvious. It falsifies the true nature of time, which is not discrete and discontinuous. It relies on an idealized conveyer of happiness. It requires constant, even frantic, repetition.
So let’s turn our attention to the ethical mode. Just as the aesthetic is not necessarily concerned with artists, so the "ethical" is not necessarily concerned with goodness. For Kierkegaard, the ethical person is one who seeks eternal happiness in an ambiguous world by commitment: following a code of behavior.
This involves a very different relationship to time. Instead of converting the flow of time into a series of independent, perfect moments, the ethical person lives in the flow of time; indeed, he or she is obsessed by the past in relation to the present, and also by the past and present in relation to the future.
Happiness in the ethical mode comes not from discontinuous moments of heightened feeling but from the satisfaction of remaining true to a commitment despite all of life’s vicissitudes. The commitment, of course, can be various: to a husband or wife, to a code of law, to one’s heritage, etc. Whatever it is, ethical individuals will be willing—in order to keep their commitment alive—to sacrifice themselves. To a much greater degree than aesthetic individuals, ethical individuals control their own lives; their reality is not defined so much by others as by themselves by virtue of the choices they make. In sum, ethical individuals attempt to find eternal happiness in the world as given by acting and thinking within a framework of law, custom, allegiance, and judgment deriving from their own will.
Again, we have to ask: does it work? And again the answer is: yes, up to a point. Yet the ethical response, just like the aesthetic, is ultimately bound to fail. Aesthetic individuals fail because, despite their strenuous effort to chop life into discrete moments of perfection, life in its inescapable continuousness will invade their sanctuary. Ethical individuals fail because they, too, ultimately refuse to exist in an inescapably ambiguous world. By judging A to be superior to B, and by adhering to a given commitment, they presuppose that a separation between their choice and everything else can be made with impunity. It cannot, argues Kierkegaard, because ethical judgments themselves are ambiguous, given the moral complexity of the real world. So although a life of ethical commitment may work up to a point, bringing a sense of eternal happiness, it is liable stop working sooner or later, as the ethical individual begins to acknowledge the subversion of his or her lifestyle and is therefore cast into despair.
It is precisely this despair, however, that may become the impetus driving someone to take the leap into the religious mode. Remember that this has nothing to do with allegiance to a particular credo; instead, it involves adopting a particular lifestyle as a way of dealing with reality in all its vicissitudes, and succeeding.
The aesthetic person "conquers" life’s vicissitudes by means of heightened feeling, the ethical person by means of commitment. The religious person, according to Kierkegaard, deals with life through caring and forgiving—in a word, through love. But this love is very different from the love practiced in the aesthetic and ethical modes. In the former, love depends on a love-object that is idealized. In the latter, love has as its object someone or something chosen because deserving. Religious love, contrariwise, neither idealizes nor chooses. It simply cares for other people, and indeed all of nature, as given—that is, cares for them, loves them, in their full ambiguity. Religious love is acceptance of love-objects that do not deserve to be accepted; thus the great precondition of religious love is forgiveness.
All this should be familiar to Christians, for Christianity states that God so loved the world—an undeserving love-object—that he sent his only son to it, a son whose major characteristic was his capacity for forgiveness. In everyday life, religious love is probably most easily seen in the love of a parent toward a child, because (a) we do not choose our children and (b) we do not love them because they are deserving. Rather, we display forgiving acceptance of a problematic love-object.
Religious love is what enables us to be eternally happy, according to Kierkegaard. To begin to understand why, we need to return to the relationship with time. In the religious lifestyle, time is neither the enemy of happiness, as it is in the aesthetic mode, nor the medium of happiness, as it is in the ethical mode. Religious people dance in and out of time. Their existence is defined neither by single discontinuous moments of intense feeling nor by all moments taken together. Instead, it is defined by a relationship to the Absolute—that is, by a relationship of someone in time to something altogether out of time. Religious people’s real love—their real caring—is not for others but for the Absolute. This is what enables them to be eternally happy in the real world of temporality and ambiguity—because they do not need it. Unlike people in the aesthetic and ethical modes, religious people do not base their happiness on someone or something that is bound to fail them.
This lack of reliance on the imperfection of the real world does not lead religious people to renounce the real world. On the contrary, since they are free from reliance on imperfection, they are also free to affirm imperfection, ambiguity, and ambivalence without fearing these forces, idealizing them, or choosing them.
Lastly, because happiness in the religious mode is not something that a person develops for himself or herself but is, instead, something discovered (perhaps in moments of despair), religious people exhibit humility. This humility is expressed through gratitude for the gift of life and the gift of happiness—the condition of being accepted although one is unacceptable.
How, then, can we find eternal happiness in the world as given? How can we deal with life in all its ambiguity and succeed? Kierkegaard tells us that we need a lifestyle determined by a relation with the Absolute, outside of time, rather than a lifestyle determined by successive relationships with idealized objects removed from the continuity of time, or from a lifestyle determined by commitment grounded in time’s continuity. To be sure, these other modes work, up to a point — that is why they are so popular. But they are also guaranteed to fail owing to inner contradiction. Kierkegaard insists that only the religious mode of happiness may be called eternal, since it alone exhibits long-term stability, continuity, endurance, and impregnability against the inescapable vicissitudes of the grossly imperfect world in which we live.