The promise of religion has much more to do with the next world than with this one. None of the great religions can be pursued seriously except upon this view. They also promise benefits in this world.
What makes for achievement, satisfaction and happiness?
Every human action involves thinking and desiring, and every human achievement is a product of ability and willingness. All serious human achievements require sustained excellence in both. That means we must learn to want the right things and to think rightly about them.
People who achieve this are said to have good characters, an interesting word that comes from the Greek term that means to etch or engrave. Your character is engraved in you, something indelible, something placed there by experience and long and intentional practice.
Successful people are typically hard workers. They think hard and clearly under pressure, face risk or pain without panic, deny themselves immediate or debilitating pleasures. It takes time and application to develop these qualities.
What can sustain the effort that produces this excellence? It takes many things, but the most obvious is devotion to high purpose. That is what religion is about.
In the first philosophy, God is the perfect being. So He is also in Christianity and Judaism, and in those religions we are created in His image. We are animals, true enough, but we are rational animals. This means we can understand what kinds of things things are. Therefore, we can give them names. This is how we talk. We recognize things by their kind because we know the attributes that make up the kind. These essential attributes are their good. Without our ability to see this, we could not distinguish man from beast or man from God or even a cow from a moose.
Aristotle writes that our unique relations with other humans, especially our political relations, are born in this understanding of what things are and our ability to communicate that with one another.
This argument has its place in the Bible, too. God told Adam to give names to the beasts. In the Bible, God speaks directly but to a few, and they are the most blessed human beings. He could speak to them because they were like Him, even if inferior, in their ability to speak and to understand.
If one aims for something high, he is more likely to rise. Also he is more likely to cultivate good desiring and good thinking. In the first philosophy, and in Christianity and Judaism, God is the highest thing. In those religions, we are created in His image and we are called to be like Him as fully as possible in this world to prepare for the next.
We are necessitous creatures: We must work to live, and God commands us to do so. If work is understood as a mission and a service, then the dignity of work is increased. The motive to do it well is multiplied. The motive to deny oneself lesser pleasures is increased, to give into fears decreased. This is quite apart, but also swelled by, the blessings or the sanction promised in the afterlife.
The Founders of our country achieved for the first time the regime of freedom of religion. It is at the center of all their achievements. But also they thought that religion was essential. The greatest of the Founders, George Washington, said in his parting words to the nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
George Washington was among the most moral of our national ancestors. He saw the standard of morality in the whole “course and economy of nature.” He saw it finally in God. People who see that have the best reasons to live well. And they do.
• Larry P. Arnn, Ph.D., is the 12th president of Hillsdale College. He is on the board of directors of The Heritage Foundation, the Henry Salvatori Center of Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Institute, and is the author of “Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.”