We watched an old Meg Ryan / Nicolas Cage movie last night called City of Angels. It was a decent romantic tragedy, though a bit slow moving. But it got me to wondering: why is Christian philosophy so profoundly negative? Why does happiness always come at a terrible price? Why is love a zero-sum game where if someone wins, someone else has to lose?
(Spoiler alert!) In City of Angels, Nicolas Cage plays Seth, an angel who watches over the good citizens of Los Angeles. Meg Ryan plays a heart surgeon (Dr. Maggie Rice) who is having a personal crisis over the fact that some of her patients die. Since Seth is an angel, he doesn't have human senses like touch, taste or smell. To make a long (literally) movie short, Seth falls in love with Maggie, discovers that angels can "fall to Earth" and become human, and so he gives up his immortality for love. After a good dose of reality (cuts, bruises, rain and getting robbed), he gets to spend one blissful night with Meg Ryan before she is hit by a truck and killed.
I totally don't get this. This is one of the weirdest things about Christianity: whenever something good happens, it has to be balanced by something tragic.
Seth the angel is immortal and he loves saving people from danger and comforting them when they die. He gets to hear the choir of Angels in the sunrise every morning. But God has given humans the greatest gift of all. Seth is denied the pleasures of touch, taste and smell. He can't feel a caress, experience the burst of flavor of a fresh pear, inhale the fresh morning air, or feel love through a hug.
Why, if God is loving and merciful, didn't he make his angles truly happy? He's all powerful, so presumably anything is possible. Why can't Seth be an angel and enjoy the pleasures that humans have? Why is the Christian God so determined that nobody be truly happy, including His own angels?
And why the tragic ending? Why did God have to take Seth's happiness away, and take Dr. Maggie Rice's life in her prime? Apparently Seth somehow pissed God off by falling in love and choosing Maggie over immortality, so God decided to show Seth true bliss for a night, and then destroy it all.
I know ... it's just a movie. But it's more than that, because it embodies a theme that pervades Christianity, and for that matter, Judaism: there are no winners. All of the good things in life are temptations, and if we partake, God will get us. We have to be humble and ascetic or else God will be angered by our presumption that we deserve happiness and will take it away.
As for me, I'll take Humanism any day. Humanism starts with the basic idea that human happiness is a good thing, that we should cherish and nurture it at every turn. And more importantly, Humanism tells us that when we find happiness, we should simply enjoy it.
Life isn't a zero-sum game where joy has to be balanced by sorrow. Life can be good, but it's up to us to make it good. If we are always looking for the cloud, we'll surely find it. But if we believe that happiness is possible, we can make it so.