What's Tony Thinking

Got Joy?


My instinct on hearing that academics are studying “joy” is to be apprehensive. What could sap the joy right out of something like the academy?

Still, I found a recent interview with Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, and his work on a theology of joy intriguing.

What it is joy? What gives rise to it and what inhibits it? Can we be joyful in a world of so much suffering and mendacity? Can we not?

Here’s Volf:

“Joy’s an emotion, generally in response to a particular set of circumstances, state of affairs in which I find myself. But there are such people as joyous persons, that is to say, people who are capable in various situations of discovering the good over which they can delight and over which they can rejoice. So in that sense joyfulness is a disposition and joy is kind of a virtue.

“I think it’s very important for us to cultivate that. We all know that we sometimes are in such moods that no matter what happens to us, that joy has a hard time coming to the surface. We also know that we can be a kind of person that exults when something beautiful occurs. It pulls us out of ourselves and we can rejoice and find ourselves in a world that is full of reasons to not just live but rejoice over being alive.”

What inhibits joy? One of the things Volf cites is a persistent feeling, “I can never be good enough,” or “I can never achieve well enough.” This “never enough” anxiety is one I have, at times, known. It is indeed crippling.

And what gives rise to joy?

“I would say, open your eyes to the goodness, to what is good in your life and in the lives of others. That’s probably, to me, the most important thing.”

I’ve mentioned before my practice of doing a daily written gratitude list. It’s a way of opening my own eyes to the goodness.

I am also intrigued by the mention in the interview with Volf that several of the most popular courses at Yale these days pay attention to joy and goodness. The most popular course on the Yale campus is “Psychology and The Good Life.” Another that overflows is “Life Worth Living.”

I wonder if such courses and their popularity signal weariness with the  “de-constructionism,” and its relentless interpretative approach of suspicion. This has ruled academe for some time. It can all be quite heady and intoxicating for a while, but eventually you may realize that you’ve become very good at picking things apart, but not so good at putting things — or life — together in any way that is hopeful or makes sense.

Perhaps these kinds of courses and their popularity signal a longing for something different than the post-modernist reduction of everything to power and interests served?

Beyond that, people are drawn both to the black church and to evangelical churches, at least in part, by the joy. Sure, sometimes it can be phony or escapist. But might that joy also be a rebuke to the joyless earnestness of many mainline churches?

Too often the focus in mainline churches is on us and our responsibilities. Though probably not the intention, such a focus  tends to give rise to that “never enough” anxiety.  We’ve never done enough, never been good enough. Churches where joy is palpable tend to focus less on us and more on God, on God’s surprising grace and the way, with this God, the final word is not death but life.



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