Christian Theological Perspectives on Joy, my review of “Joy and Human Flourishing”

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Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life, eds. Justin E. Crisp and Miroslav Volf, Fortress Press, xviii + 155 pp. Link to purchase.

joy and humanThis little essay collection reflects a paradigm shift in the theological scene today. Theologians are beginning to think about the deeper questions of life rather than limit their discourse to doctrinal disputes from the past 2000 years. This edited volume brings together many of the foremost theologians and biblical scholars of this generation: Jurgen Moltmann, Charles Mathewes, N.T. Wright, Miroslav Volf, Marianne Meye Thompson and Mary Clark Moschella. Each author attempts to define joy, and then to work out a theology or framework of Christian joy from the perspective of their particular discipline.

Moltmann opens with a short chapter on the very nature of Christianity as “a religion of joy,” by emphasizing the celebratory character of one’s response to God’s blessings. It acts as an introduction to other contributor’s essays.

Marianne Meye Thompson identifies three versions of Joy in scripture that all end up centering around the idea of joy “because,” even the concept of joy “notwithstanding (some suffering)”; In this case, because of something God has done or because of who God is. N.T. Wright continues the biblical interpretation section of this book through his helpful discussion of joy as the response to God’s presence both now and in the future as a kind of hope. Yet, he is careful to distinguish the difference between the centrality of hope within second temple Judaism, in that it was always looking to what God will eventually do, with the way the first Christians aligned their perspective around joy, in that God, in Christ, has already brought his kingdom to earth. That salvation has been realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the cause for the Christian’s joy in the present.

Next, Charles Mathewes, as usual, develops his theological program on the basis of some Augustinian idea; in this case, desire. Most of the readers will be familiar with Augustine’s notion of infinite human desire that is only satisfied in God. Mathewes applies this to the idea of joy which he considers to be “in the middle voice,” that is, it is not fully something that happens to us nor something we do, but in-between. He argues that real joy is only possible when our desire is rightly oriented toward God, toward cultivating lives of flourishing for others, and that we experience joylessness when we place the hopes of our desire in what is not God.

For the more pastoral-minded chapter, Mary Clark Moschella identifies what she renders a problem with modern pastoral education. Pastors are only taught how to discover the good within the bad, and not, perhaps, the joy within the good. She thinks this one-sidedness has actually contributed to a less joy-filled society than if pastors were comfortable strengthening into joy the perceived experiences of well-being within their congregants and those they care for.

Finally, Miroslav Volf adds a final summation of the theologian’s project of joy. He connects, as do all of the other authors, the idea of blessing/gift to joy. When one has the ability to experience life, including all of its goods, as “blessing,” one can have joy knowing that this is how life was designed by God.

Overall, this book is significant because, as I mentioned initially, it represents some of the firstfruits of this paradigm shift towards articulating the Christian vision of flourishing humanity. Further, the caliber of the individual contributors is another important reason why many Christians, and scholars of religion, cannot afford to miss out on the insights available here, all in one place thanks to the editorial efforts of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture as well as doctoral fellow Justin Crisp. I certainly look forward to the other books the Center publishes in the coming years as the results of their John Templeton Foundation grant to research theology and joy. You won’t want to miss those either.

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