Theology of Joy & the Good Life

The Theology of Joy and the Good Life project conducts research and facilitates interdisciplinary conferences and other gatherings to build a transformative movement driven by a Christian articulation of the joy that attends the flourishing human life.


joyful childJoy is fundamental to human existence and well-being, yet it is an elusive phenomenon that resists definition. For more than two millennia, the articulation and cultivation of joy was at the center of Jewish and Christian scripture, theology, and practices—an articulation and cultivation that in turn was grounded in and evolved over centuries of lived human experience, observation and discernment. Notwithstanding the importance of joy to human well-being and the deep, ancient religious foundations for understanding and cultivating joy, the very idea of joy has all but disappeared from modern theological reflection, is all but ignored by the social sciences, and is increasingly absent from lived experience. The consequence is a “flattening out,” a “graying,” of human life and communities—abundance of entertainment notwithstanding—and a sharp bloom of individual and communal dysfunction.

The Theology of Joy and the Good Life project seeks to restore joy to the center of Christian reflection on the nature of the good life and to restore the question of the good life to the core of Christian theology, the world’s colleges and universities, and our most significant global conversations.

Scholars from the 2014 consultations share their thoughts on the most basic question: “What is joy?”

The project has grown out of research conducted during the Center’s 2014 work on the “Theology of Joy.” This research led to several key insights and an operating hypothesis about the nature of joy and its relationship to the good life that we seek to research and test. Our hypothesis is that the good life has three basic dimensions:

  1. Agential (what you do) 

  2. Circumstantial (how the world is for you, both materially and culturally) 

  3. Affective (how you feel) 

Given this formal account, joy is revealed as the crown of the good life, both naming its affective dimension, and yet integrating all three. (See Miroslav Volf, “What is the Difference Between Joy and Happiness?”) Joy, as a positive emotion (an affective concern-based construal), is a positive affective response to an objective external good, construed rightly and about which one is rightly concerned.

Therefore, one cannot describe joy adequately without reference to the good life. Likewise, at least on the Christian account, one cannot describe the good life adequately without reference to joy. Each is integral to the other. When this essentially integral relationship of joy and the good life is grasped, it becomes apparent that joy is the affective dimension of the good life and that the good life is the life marked by joy.

This formal description constitutes the working hypothesis of the project, which the full proposal is designed to test by conducting research in three closely-related areas.

  1. The core body of research investigates joy and the good life so as to test and articulate this fundamental integrity of joy and the good life. That is, this research explores whether and to what extent joy is indeed a dimension of the good life and the good life is one marked by true joy. This research will be advanced through two series of consultations—Joy Among the Virtues, Actions, and Emotions and Joy and the Phenomena of Human Existence—as well as by YCFC research scholars, project leadership team members, and work funded by sub-grants and competitions. This research serves as the foundation for all other project activities, including the development of “Christ and the Good Life,” a new course that invites seminary and divinity school students to reflect on the particular shape the good life assumes when Christ is taken to be the key to human flourishing (offered for the first time in Fall 2015).
  2. Our 2014 consultation on joy and adolescence concluded that adolescence is a pivotal season for the cultivation of the good life of joy. For this reason, the project also studies factors that foster or inhibit joy in this crucial season of life and translate the fruits of this research into practical tools for youth ministry. This is the focus of the subproject on Joy and Adolescent Faith & Flourishing.
  3. The project explores joy and its analogs in other traditions, recognizing that the affective dimension of the good life may be described differently in different religious and philosophical traditions. In helping us attend to these differences and the ways that they shape the visions of the good life that motivate our lives, theology can serve as a bridge-builder rather than gatekeeper. This is the focus of the subproject on Joy and its Analogs in Other Traditions which will award eight $20k sub-grants to scholar-practitioners of non-Christian traditions to articulate visions of the good life within these traditions with particular attention to the affective dimension.
In all of its activities, the project seeks to involve and integrate the work of scholars working in sometimes disparate theological subfields, casting vision for a renewed and unified theological academy that places the articulation of normative visions of the good life at the core of its work. For this reason, the project begins in AY15-16 with a series of consultations on the “Future of Theology.” 
Over the three years of the Templeton Foundation grant (2015-2018), the project will distribute more than $900,000 in subgrants and prizes, inviting a wide network of scholars, pastors, and seminarians to participate in the life of the project. The project also will sponsor monthly public lectures, support the development of two university courses, produce a growing video library of contributors and guests, edited volumes and books—including an anthology of poetry—and curricula for two church-based youth ministry courses.
Ultimately, the Theology of Joy and the Good Life project aims not only to conduct theological research, but to lay the foundations for a movement pursuing questions of the good life in the academy and the culture more broadly. From the start, the project is led by an extraordinary group of scholars and religious leaders from more than twenty institutions around the globe, including Jürgen Moltmann, Jonathan Sacks, N. T. Wright, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

The Theology of Joy and the Good Life project is made possible by a $4.2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation with additional support from the Youth Ministry Initiative, the McDonald Agape Foundation, Yale Center for Faith & Culture donors, and the Yale Divinity School.

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The Theology of Joy & the Good Life project is made possible by the John Templeton Foundation with additional support from the McDonald Agape Foundation.