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Miroslav Volf delves into the theology of joy: A Q&A

Miroslav Volf, left, speaks with post-graduate students at the Yale Divinity School on Jan. 4, 2017, in New Haven, CT. Photo by Mara Lavitt

Miroslav Volf, left, speaks with postgraduate students at the Yale Divinity School on Jan. 4, 2017, in New Haven, Conn. Photo by Mara Lavitt

(RNS) — Theologian Miroslav Volf, who has written books on subjects ranging from the Trinity to the challenges of reconciliation in divided societies, has turned to what might seem like a frivolous subject: joy.

But Volf, 61, the leader of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, says studying the theology of joy with students and scholars is “hard work.”

He spoke with Religion News Service about the difference between joy and happiness, biblical lessons on joy and how the average person can find joy.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You are the principal investigator of Yale Divinity School’s project on the “Theology of Joy and the Good Life.” How do you define the theology of joy?

I think a theology of joy is a kind of theological endeavor that tries to determine the nature and the place of joy in human life. We study it from the perspective of the Christian account of the good life and the place joy has in that account.

How is joy different from happiness, especially from a religious point of view? Why isn’t happiness enough?

Happiness generally is today understood as a kind of pleasurable feeling of whatever sort that I might get. Joy has something specific about it. We rejoice when we are united with the object of our love, with things that we love. Joy is elicited when something good comes our way and, for the most part, when that good is unbidden, when it comes in a kind of gratuitous way.

For instance, I may get a good salary on a monthly basis and I think, “Oh, I work for it, I get it.” It’s not a particular reason for joy. It’s what normally happens. But if I get an unexpected bonus at the end of the year, then I rejoice. Something good has come to me and come not simply as a result of my dogged efforts to achieve it.

Is there a particular place that you find joy in Christian theology? Is there a biblical story in particular that you look to?

One of the signature stories of the Bible is the story of the prodigal son. When the prodigal returns, there is great rejoicing. It’s a central story in the Gospel of Luke. At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, you have an angel declaring that the coming of the savior is the one that brings joy. At the very end of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus Christ is resurrected and ascended to heaven, the disciples leave him and, though they were despondent when he died on the cross, they go with joy to return back to Jerusalem. The whole Gospel of Luke, you can say, is framed by the theme of joy.

I think that’s tied with the idea that Christian faith isn’t primarily about something that we need to do or achieve but it’s about the good news: something that somebody has done for us.

Miroslav Volf. Photo by Christopher Capozziello

A just-concluded course on “Psychology and the Good Life” at Yale was the most popular on campus. What difference did it make for divinity school students as well as their peers?

My sense is it’s a very good thing that courses of this sort are being taught. It obviously testifies to a hunger for the art of living: How does one have a good life, live a good life in the context of multiple pressures that we find ourselves? That’s a very good and very important exploration, and psychology has much to contribute to it.

One of the courses that I taught, which was parallel to this course — somewhat less popular but nonetheless a quite popular course – was a seminar called “Life Worth Living,” where we ask a slightly different question than the one that’s being asked in “Psychology and the Good Life.” We try to school students in what is truly worth wanting, what kind of life is truly worth having. We explore various options, whether secular or religious, that sketch a way of life and then we examine those and school students in what will direct our desire, what will give vision to our shape of the good life.

You gathered scholars from a range of traditions earlier this year to discuss joy and the good life. Is there an example that might be perhaps a surprising one of what they had in common?

One of the things that just about all traditions have in common, and which is closely related to joy, is that they all contain a call for us to go out of ourselves and attend to something that’s larger than us. So we studied not only what brings joy but what are the joy inhibitors: What inhibits joy? And I think we can name a number of things — great suffering or something of that sort. But in the ordinary course of human life today what inhibits joy is if I’m trying to achieve a goal that’s not achievable; that inhibits joy. Competitiveness of self-achievement, that inhibits joy. It’s very interesting the prevalence of depression and often it’s traced to this, “I’m never good enough. I could never achieve well enough.”

Can anyone experience true joy? Or does one need to have faith in God in order to know joy?

I think everybody can experience joy. I think most people have experienced joy in the course of their lives — some less, some more. I think where maybe the question of God comes in is: How do we nurture the state of joy? How do we prepare ourselves for the advent of joy?

I think for people who believe in God, much more depends on God’s relationship to me because God’s relationship to me is prior to my relationship to God.  Also, my relationship to God can nurture, magnify joy, and if it’s maybe a twisted relationship to God, which often happens as well, it can stifle joy. But a proper relationship to God will bring joy to flowering.

But even without God, I can definitely rejoice. Many people rejoice really well even without belief in God.

Is joy a virtue? Why or why not?

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.

Are there any virtues that are prerequisites for joy?

If you take something like gratitude, if you take something like humility — there is such a thing as an ecology of virtue that provides a soil from which the joy can grow and that characterizes the joyful person. You think sometimes humble persons are not joyous persons because they’re all maybe down on themselves. But humility actually is the state of not thinking too much about oneself. Humility ends up being one of those virtues that opens us up to joy.

You’ve written about everything from Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue to the theology of work. Is it easier – or maybe even joyful – to study joy? Or is it as hard as everything else you’ve done?

Joy’s hard work. Some of these soft kinds of things of life, often people think they’re not really so intellectually demanding. But if you want to understand them rightly, they really are.

But I have found in life knowing how to enjoy and rejoice in the labor of love is as important — maybe even more important — than knowing how to rejoice in the immediacy of the experience of love.

I’ll give you an example: I have a 6-month-old daughter. Seven o’clock, she wakes up. I come in the room and she’s just all smiles, so excited to see me. I think, “Oh, this is fantastic: She likes me, I like her. Life can’t be better.” And then I change her diaper. Now, if I am just totally grumpy changing the diaper it’s going to take away from my experience of her. But I have learned and I try to practice the joy in the labor of love. The fact that I’m doing that for her, and what’s done for her, itself brings joy. And that applies also to my intellectual work.

If a person says, “I want to lead a joyful life,” what would you tell them to do?

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.

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

21 Comments

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  • Then there is the Joy of Reality via the Great Kibosh of All Religions:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • “Jesus, however, that author and perfecter of faith, endured the cross for the JOY set before Him – the JOY of sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God”!

    He sure did “lead a JOYFUL life”, alright, but NOT by “open[ing His] eyes to the goodness, to what is good in [His] life and in the lives of others”, which, like brother Miroslav Volf says, is “the most important thing.”

    No, “the JOY” of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation came from the sure hope of “sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God”!

    Source: Hebrews 12:2.

  • Putting the kibosh on Rational Conclusions in less than two seconds: Priceless!!!

    Unless you have some heretofore undisclosed training in religions, all of your statements are cut-and-paste job.

  • Using the term, “As far as one knows or can tell” is a hedge phrase used by those who are not 100% confident in the accuracy of their statement.
    Therefore, bullet points one and two are invalid arguments.
    Therefore, Judaism, Christianity and Islam exist and have strength of purpose.

  • One would have thought that the author of Revelation would have found a reason to use the word “joy”, but apparently not.

  • New York Times origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482
    NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly

    Adverb:

    Almost certainly; as far
    as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in
    the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls
    of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem
    into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was
    later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions — the product of findings by archaeologists digging in
    Israel and its environs over the last 25 years — have gained wide acceptance
    among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these
    ideas or to discuss them with the laity — until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million
    Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and
    commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz
    Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that
    incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and
    the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it
    represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious
    mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document.”

    From Wikipedia:

    Authorship of the Book of Exodus (see the supporting references from the Wikipedia review at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Exodus

    “Jewish and Christian tradition viewed Moses as the author of Exodus and the entire Pentateuch, but by the end of the 19th century the increasing awareness of discrepancies, inconsistencies, repetitions and other features of the Pentateuch had led scholars to abandon this idea.[8] In approximate round dates, the process which produced Exodus and the Pentateuch probably began around 600 BCE when existing oral and written traditions were brought together to form books recognisable as those we know, reaching their final form as unchangeable sacred texts around 400 BCE.[9]

    Genre and sources[edit]

    The story of the exodus is the founding myth of Israel, telling how the Israelites were delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belong to him through the Mosaic covenant.[10] The Book of Exodus is not a historical narrative in any modern sense:[11] modern history writing requires the critical evaluation of sources, and does not accept God as a cause of events,[12] but in Exodus, everything is presented as the work of God, who appears frequently in person, and the historical setting is only very hazily sketched.[13] The purpose of the book is not to record what really happened, but to reflect the historical experience of the exile community in Babylon and later Jerusalem, facing foreign captivity and the need to come to terms with their understanding of God.[14]

    Although mythical elements are not so prominent in Exodus as in Genesis, ancient legends have an influence on the book’s content: for example, the story of the infant Moses’s salvation from the Nile is based on an earlier legend of king Sargon of Akkad, while the story of the parting of the Red Sea trades on Mesopotamian creation mythology. Similarly, the Covenant Code (the law code in Exodus 20:22–23:33) has some similarities in both content and structure with the Laws of Hammurabi. These influences serve to reinforce the conclusion that the Book of Exodus originated in the exiled Jewish community of 6th-century BCE Babylon, but not all the sources are Mesopotamian: the story of Moses’s flight to Midian following the murder of the Egyptian overseer may draw on the Egyptian Story of Sinuhe.[15]”

  • A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    “Scientology is a body of religious beliefs and practices launched in May 1952 by American author L. Ron Hubbard (1911–86). Hubbard initially developed a program of ideas called Dianetics, which was distributed through the Dianetics Foundation. The foundation soon entered bankruptcy, and Hubbard lost the rights to his seminal publication Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1952. He then recharacterized the subject as a religion and renamed it Scientology,[4] retaining the terminology, doctrines, the E-meter, and the practice of auditing.[5][6] Within a year, he regained the rights to Dianetics and retained both subjects under the umbrella of the Church of Scientology.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

    Hubbard describes the etymology of the word Scientology as coming from the Latin word “scio”, meaning know or distinguish, and the Greek word “logos”, meaning “the word or outward form by which the inward thought is expressed and made known”. Hubbard writes, “thus, Scientology means knowing about knowing, or science of knowledge”.[13]

    Hubbard’s groups have encountered considerable opposition and controversy.[14] In January 1951, the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners brought proceedings against Dianetics Foundation on the charge of teaching medicine without a license.[15]Hubbard’s followers engaged in a program of criminal infiltration of the U.S. government.[16][17]

    Hubbard-inspired organizations and their classification are often a point of contention. Germany classifies Scientology groups as an “anti-constitutional sect”.[18][19] In France, they have been classified as a dangerous cult by some parliamentary reports.[20][21]”

    see the supporting references at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology

  • probably – as far as one knows or can tell – implies a limited base of knowledge and leaves open the possibility that Abraham and Moses did exist. Let me know when you get to a 100% affirmative statement; until then your argument doesn’t hold.

  • Your disagreement is with 1.2 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis and their exegetes. I am sure you will be able to convince them that they are wrong.

  • “At the very end of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus Christ is resurrected and ascended to heaven, the disciples leave him and, though they were despondent when he died on the cross, they go with joy to return back to Jerusalem. The whole Gospel of Luke, you can say, is framed by the theme of joy.”

    Christ spoke often of joy all throughout the Gospels. It was the central objective he had set forth for his entire earthly ministry. That was to destroy the artificial barriers we erect between male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, in-crowd and out-crowd and every other human distinction designed to divide one group from all the others. The smug superiority of the “betters” is not joy, any more than the feelings of exclusion and rejection are to the “lessers.”

    Joy comes from personally and deeply knowing the great love with which we are loved, and the tremendous grace, through which we are pardoned, I believe it’s the essence of the Abundant LIfe Christ spoke of in St. John 10:10.

  • I knew it. You spoke way too soon. Impulsively. Then again you’re not a Bible Christian. Otherwise, you’d have thoughtfully and openheartedly considered this gospel of joy in Revelation:

    Revelation 11:10
    And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice [euphrainontai = make glad, cheerful, merry, revelling, festive, joyful] over them and celebrate; and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth.

    Revelation 12:12
    For this reason, rejoice [euphrainesthe = make glad, cheerful, merry, revelling, festive, joyful], O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.

    Revelation 18:20
    Rejoice [euphrainou = make glad, cheerful, merry, revelling, festive, joyful] over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her.

    Revelation 19:7
    Let us rejoice [chairohmen = rejoice] and exult [agalliohmen = exult, be full of joy] and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.

  • 1) You’re right, I am not a “Bible Christian”. (Neither was Jesus, since none of the New Testament had been written while he was alive, and we have no way of knowing which OT writings he may have ever seen or known about.)

    2) You can go to biblegateway.com and search, as I did, to determine whether the word “joy” is in Revelation. It isn’t.

    3) The problem with being a “Bible Christian” is that you can draw weird conclusions. The context of most of your quotations is catastrophe and vengefulness, not real people experiencing real joy for any real reason.

  • 3 Greek words for joy in Revelation, which you didn’t know was originally written in Greek, are:

    (1) euphrainontai or euphrainesthe or euphrainou; which means make glad, cheerful, merry, revelling, festive, JOYful.

    (2) chairohmen, which means reJOIce.

    (3) agalliohmen, which means exult, be full of JOY.

    Respectively, they’re found in 4 passages in Revelation:

    Revelation 11:10
    Revelation 12:12
    Revelation 18:20
    Revelation 19:7.

    CONCLUSION: Joy is in Revelation!

  • You sure don’t know your bible (not even the English one; never mind the Greek New Testament, forget about it), because here’s Jesus “endorse[ment]”, actually and most “certainly”:

    (1) Matthew 5:11-12 – “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.. Rejoice [chairete = rejoice, be glad] and exult [agalliasthe = exult, be full of joy], for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

    (2) John 16:20, 22 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice [chareesetai = rejoice, be glad]; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy [charan = joy, gladness, source of joy]. … But I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice [chareesetai = rejoice, be glad], and no one will take your joy [charan = joy, gladness, source of joy] away from you.”

  • I’m not “against Jesus” as you might imagine. I’m against religion being ruined by the “every word of this Bible is true” gang. Of course Jesus endorsed joy. I doubt he would have endorsed the book of Revelation or that portion of church which spends all of its time trying to speculate on the so-called end times from THAT bunch of writing.

    As for Greek, it’s fine but unnecessary for us, thanks to multiple modern translations from the Greek which have been done within the last century. You can go to Bible Gateway and read any passage in dozens of translations by people who sought to bring the correct understanding to English speakers out of that Greek. We don’t have to tell people they are stuck with either KJV or a literally foreign (to us) language.

  • There you again with this, heart-hardened, same-as-before, doubling-down, unbelief: “I doubt [Jesus] would have endorsed the book of Revelation” – even though His “theology of joy” (to borrow, if mock, the wording of Miroslav Volf’s book sales pitch) in:

    (1) Matthew 5:11-12 “would have endorsed … Revelation” 11:10 / 12:12 / 18:20 / 19:7.

    (2) John 16:20, 22 “would have endorsed … Revelation” 11:10 / 12:12 / 18:20 / 19:7.

    I’ll show you. For instance, His statement, “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice [chareesetai = rejoice, be glad]”, is a perfect match with this line in Revelation: “Those who dwell on the earth will rejoice [euphrainontai = make glad, cheerful, merry, revelling, festive, joyful] over … these two prophets”!

    Also, this what He said, “Rejoice [chairete = rejoice, be glad] and exult [agalliasthe = exult, be full of joy] … for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”; lines up with Revelation where it says, “Rejoice [euphrainesthe = make glad, cheerful, merry, revelling, festive, joyful] … because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath”!

    And, of course, especially these words of Jesus – “You will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy [charan = joy, gladness, source of joy] … [when] I will see you again” – echo these words in Revelation: “Rejoice [chairohmen = rejoice] and exult [agalliohmen = exult, be full of joy] … for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.”

  • I really do not know how to talk with you about this except to start with your citation of Revelation 11:10 as a “joyous” matter and reprint here the first 14 verses of Revelation 11 from a clearly-spoken Bible translation, the Easy-to-Read, or ERV version (found with so many others at biblegateway.com ) :
    Revelation 11 Easy-to-Read Version (ERV)
    The Two Witnesses
    11 Then I was given a measuring rod as long as a walking stick. I was told, “Go and measure the temple[a] of God and the altar, and count the people worshiping there. 2 But don’t measure the yard outside the temple. Leave it alone. It has been given to those who are not God’s people. They will show their power over the holy city for 42 months. 3 And I will give power to my two witnesses. And they will prophesy for 1260 days. They will be dressed in sackcloth.”
    4 These two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 If anyone tries to hurt the witnesses, fire comes from the mouths of the witnesses and kills their enemies. Anyone who tries to hurt them will die like this. 6 These witnesses have the power to stop the sky from raining during the time they are prophesying. These witnesses have power to make the water become blood. They have power to send every kind of plague to the earth. They can do this as many times as they want.
    7 When the two witnesses have finished telling their message, the beast will fight against them. This is the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit. It will defeat and kill them. 8 The bodies of the two witnesses will lie in the street of the great city. This city is named Sodom and Egypt. These names for the city have a special meaning. This is the city where the Lord was killed. 9 People from every race of people, tribe, language, and nation will look at the bodies of the two witnesses for three and a half days. The people will refuse to bury them. 10 Everyone on the earth will be happy because these two are dead. They will have parties and send each other gifts. They will do this because these two prophets brought much suffering to the people living on earth.
    11 But after three and a half days, God let life enter the two witnesses again. They stood on their feet. All those who saw them were filled with fear. 12 Then the two witnesses heard a loud voice from heaven say, “Come up here!” And both of them went up into heaven in a cloud. Their enemies watched them go.
    13 At that same time there was a great earthquake. A tenth of the city was destroyed. And 7000 people were killed in the earthquake. Those who did not die were very afraid. They gave glory to the God of heaven.
    14 The second terror is now past. The third terror is coming soon.

    The operative questions are “Who is rejoicing here? Over what?

  • Just as “the world rejoices” because, by crucifying Christ Jesus, they “will no longer see [Him]” (John 16:16, 20) – so, too, shall “those who dwell on the earth … rejoice” because, after “[His] two witnesses” are “kill[ed]” by Satan “and their dead bodies … lie … where also their Lord was crucified”, none of these inhabitants can be “tormented by these two prophets” ever again (Revelation 11:3, 7-8, 10).

  • There is no actual joy in “the world rejoices” because, by crucifying Christ Jesus, they “will no longer see [Him]”, and there is no actual joy in people looking at the dead bodies of two prophets killed by Satan. Do you not get it that the Revelation author, if anything, is making a mockery of reasons for rejoicing, that is, he is suggesting that all humans are such fools that they will be rejoicing over that which they should not rejoice over? That’s not real rejoicing and has nothing to do with real joy.

    We would have been much better off if the Revelation author had said nothing (nothing) but “The Lord has showed to me that he will return. Be joyful in that thought.” But that’s not what we got.

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