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?
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.
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.