[Hieronymus Bosch, 1500, Temptation of St Anthony]

Pope Francis and the Lord’s Prayer

If this is the Age of Happiness, you might also say this is the Age of Temptation. Never before have so many humans been offered such a baffling choice of alternative pleasures. Temptation and happiness are related, but not always on the best of terms. As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘I can resist anything except temptation.’ Is temptation God’s work or the Devil’s work?

Today Pope Francis has sparked a debate that we can confidently predict will remain unresolved at the end of our days.  Apparently he objects to the words ‘lead us not into temptation’ in the Lord’s Prayer. And no, disappointingly, this doesn’t mean he recognizes the merits of temptation. He’s not recommending that Christians start pleading: ‘Lead us into temptation’. He just doesn’t want Christians implicitly blaming God for the temptations they suffer (and it’s pretty clear that he – like most Christians and perhaps most nonChristians too – associates temptation unambiguously with suffering and sin).

Francis is certainly confirming here his reputation for having more courage, and a more modern sense of humour, than we’re used to seeing in a Pope. The idea of God being so sadistic as to deliberately tempt humans into wrongdoing is, he suggests, a slur on the good reputation of his master. Active inducement of misbehaviour clearly wouldn’t be God’s style, so that must be the Devil’s department. (Either Francis is being wickedly ironic here, or he can’t have been paying much attention when he read the nastier bits in the Old Testament). The translators or the note-takers, he insists, must have got it wrong: it is humans who ‘fall’ into temptation.

Still, God’s purpose in creating temptation must have included the possibility that people actually would fall into temptation, otherwise it wouldn’t really be temptation, would it? So if you imagine a purposeful and even remotely competent God, you can’t really pretend that she or he was entirely innocent of the charge of leading people into temptation, can you? For example, unless I’m being 100% independent or devil-driven, God seems to been to some degree co-responsible for me being just slightly cheeky about Pope Francis right now.

Presumably, then, Francis must accept that in some sense temptation is part of God’s creation. Temptation must have some purpose in God’s mysterious master-plan. If you are dutifully reaching for your happiness lens at this point, there are a few questions that may be instructive. Let’s assume that the Pope’s intervention has some plausible purpose, and that this purpose may have something to do with happiness. In what way would his proposed change to the Lord’s Prayer help Christians to live not only more virtuously, but also more happily? A different but overlapping question implied by this debate concerns the role of temptation in the human condition. Would humans be better or worse off without temptation? Or, rephrased in theological terms, did God or the Devil create temptation?

Temptation through a happiness lens.

Before answering these we must note one fundamental difference between traditional Christian attitudes to temptation, and looking at temptation through a happiness lens.

Temptation, from Latin temptare (to feel or try something out), is about pausing to consider the rights and wrongs, or the costs and benefits, of some kind of action. It is ‘tempting’ to change jobs, because this isn’t the kind of decision you’d rush into. A heftly slice of chocolate cake is ‘tempting’ because it would be fun eating it but you might feel ill or guilty afterwards. In other words, the concept of temptation arises from the uniquely human ability to mentally rehearse our choices.

Temptation is mainly, perhaps solely, an issue for humans. If you’re a non-human animal, the nearest you get to temptation is when you wonder whether you’ll get away with taking a sip from the waterhole when bigger animals are still drinking there. Generally, if you see an opportunity for pleasurable reward, you’re going to take it unless you can see someone who will punish you for taking it. We humans, by contrast, frequently punish ourselves for even mental misdemeanours, let alone for giving in to physical temptations. When we’re being tempted, we’re pondering much more complicated pros and cons. The essence of human temptation is morally complex uncertainty.

Being tempted means considering complex longterm interactions:

  • between wanting something and liking it;
  • between enjoying something and regretting it afterwards;
  • between a necessary and a foolhardy risk;
  • between personal benefits and social costs; or
  • between a private victimless crime and one that causes widespread grief through public exposure.

Christian doctrine, which has largely been based on disparagement of human willpower and motives, has historically seen temptation through the lens of sin rather than happiness.

A nonmiserablist approach to temptation

Most of the familiar mythical or iconic examples of temptation are about resisting sin – St Anthony and his visions of young women; Gandhi chastely co-sleeping with his grandniece; the Dalai Lama resisting the temptation to slap a mosquito. But there’s no good reason why we can’t see giving in to temptation as potentially the right thing to do in lots of situations. The essence of temptation isn’t resistance to disastrous sin, but consideration of options where there is reasonable doubt. In any case, life would surely be awfully boring if everyone resisted temptations. We shouldn’t assume that stubborn resistance and ascetic self-denial are virtues.

One of the most fascinating myths about temptation is Odysseus’s encounter with the deadly Sirens. Not trusting his own powers of resistance, he protected his sailors from their beautiful song by filling their ears with moulten wax, then got them to tie him to the mast. He was then the first person to be able to enjoy their exquisite song without paying with his life. Even excruciatingly painful temptation can be life-enhancing.

Fortunately, not all temptations are as impossible to resist, or as deadly, as the sirens. All of us mature by gradually increasing the deliberateness with which we resist or give in to temptations. So the question about possible benefits of tweaking the Lord’s prayer is really about self-awareness and the sense of personal agency. Fatalists pretend that gods, demons, or fate are responsible for their life outcomes, and in entertaining such beliefs they attempt to save themselves a lot of complicated thoughts about their motives and choices. Self-aware people, by contrast, accept that to live well they need to negotiate temptations intelligently, and avoid giving in to the harmful ones.

Arguably, therefore, what Pope Francis is really on about, in a very roundabout and theologically metaphorical way, is that we could all live better by accepting full responsibility for our own actions. Suppose the Devil puts a bottle of wine, a bar of chocolate, or a sexual opportunity in our path. Instead of pretending that God has done this, we use our own nous to work out whether these are good temptations. If they are bad ones, we should look into our own mental resources for the strength to resist.

The question about the role of temptation in the human pursuit of happiness is much more hypothetical. We’re not really at a point where we could organize a world without potentially harmful temptations, although already we may be at a point where a bit of hormonal or genetic tinkering could enable us to choose not to experience some kinds of temptation we want to experience. For example, if passing beautiful strangers in the street causes sexual anguish we might choose to opt out of sexual attraction. Or if you have a weight problem and the sight of cakes makes you miserable, you might want to consider selective appetite suppression as a life option.

Temptation as interest and entertainment

So while the fundamentalists squabble away with the reformists, let’s pause to consider the both the brighter and the darker sides of temptation. What does temptation contribute, if anything, to the good life?

Mainly, what temptation seems to contribute is interest or entertainment. It makes life less humdrum and less predictable because characters and plot lines are largely made up from opportunities forgone, or dodgy enticements given in to.

I notice on Twitter that a lot of nonCatholic twitterati have failed to resist the temptation to be downright rude about the Pope. Yet in doing so most have exposed the idiocy of their own fundamentalist belief that the Lord’s Prayer is infallible because it was literally dictated by God. So with papal infallibility competing with the divine infallibility of fundamentalist protestantism, the rest of us are treated to a mildly entertaining slogfest of mutually incompatible infallibilities. Atheists will no doubt be tempted at this point to go into Dawkins mode and expose the sheer intellectual incompetence of both sides. You could entertain yourself all day rubbishing theological codswallop, but would it make you happier?

These might seem relatively trivial examples, but actually resisting nonphysical temptations, such forgoing the pleasure of demolishing people’s beliefs, is a rather important virtue in a world where other people’s attitudes and creeds are increasingly unavoidable. It’s not that we should avoid offence altogether. If we avoided all offence we’d be pretty bored and we’d struggle to improve our understanding of the world. But the temptation to be entertainingly rude is probably worth resisting a lot of the time.

Also, we must remember that temptation isn’t just interesting for the alternative pathways of sin or virtue that it leads to. Francis has at least got one thing right here. Temptation is one of the more important, interesting, and morally vexing features of the human condition. Temptation is never far away when you explore the causes of just about any kind of human happiness or misery. So if you’re into sophistries about temptation, here’s a potentially instructive thought experiment. Imagine if you were able to choose to be reborn into one of two worlds – one with, and one without temptation – which would you choose?

So here’s the sting in the tail. Pope Francis, his critics might argue, has succumbed to the temptation of pride by daring to challenge a sacred prayer that has been recited by hundreds of millions of people over many centuries. Perhaps in doing so he has sinned, and if anyone says he can’t sin because he’s infallible, then they are guilt of the sin of laziness – they are giving in to the temptation of a lazy cop-out from reasonable moral debate. Similarly, the fundamentalists who say Francis can’t question a sacred prayer because it’s the word of God are also guilty of giving in to the same temptation of apathetic denial of one’s duty to take moral complexities seriously.

Religious dogma is tempting but sinful

To conclude, there are two things we might all, Christian or otherwise, consider for human betterment. First, we should recognize and respect temptation as a mixed blessing. It’s not all bad, and the mental and physical struggles associated with temptation are linked to many of life’s most interesting twists and turns. And living well isn’t all about resistance: we should resist some temptations and enjoy consciously giving in to others. Secondly, some forms of religious dogma are themselves temptations that believers should seriously consider resisting. Hiding behind the abstract fundamentalism of ‘God’s Sacred Word’ is arguably an immoral act, giving in to the temptation of intellectual and moral laziness.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *