Joy and the Phenomena of Human Existence

The core research agenda of the project is composed of two complementary series of consultations. “Joy and the Phenomena of Human Existence” begins with the good life and considers how it appears, on the Christian description, as the life marked by joy.

This series of consultations is organized around phenomena of human existence, following roughly the life of Christ, and advances the work of the Center’s existing God & Human Flourishing program. Focus on these concrete phenomena (rather than, say, a formal account of human life) allows the project to remain attentive to the lived experience of individuals and social groups.

Consultation topics will include:

1. Home, Family, and Tradition

Is the good life the one that achieves freedom from the constraints of our origins (as on certain Modernist accounts) or does it involve a deep fulfillment of that original sense of place and belonging? (Christ’s relationship to home, family, and tradition exhibits this tension.) How does the good life navigate the tension between the fertile potentialities latent in our social origins and their coercive constraint—and lead into joy? In what ways is our very boundedness—a function of our finitude—a condition of the possibility of joy as a human (rather than divine) experience?

2. Call and Responsibility

How does careful attention to the fact of our being called by God and responsible to God and to others structure the good life and condition the way we conceive of joy? In what ways does a sense of call and engagement in the discharging of responsibilities foster joy, and in what ways does experience of joy shape the call and energize the discharge of responsibilities?

3. Prayer and Devotion

The experience of joy often affirms the goodness of created goods. God’s character and relation to creatures is itself a source of joy. That said, how do disciplines of prayer and devotion—practices rooted in this-worldly embodiment and inculturation, yet oriented toward the transcendent—expand our sense of what it is to be human and of the character of the good life?

4. Wealth and Poverty

Our “happiness culture”—our “Spaßgesellschaft” [fun society] in German—can suggest that joy is tied up in material acquisition. Yet wealth by no means guarantees joy, nor does poverty foreclose on its possibility. How ought we properly relate to wealth and how is joy itself part of “personal capital”?

5. Sex and Pleasure

In developing a Christologically-shaped account of the good life as the life marked by joy, sex appears as a problem—because it is a lacuna in the life of Christ that challenges simple application of “imitatio Christi.” Yet throughout history and particularly in contemporary culture, sex is associated with joy. How ought we understand sex and pleasure as components of the good life? How should a sense of authentic (rather than counterfeit) joy inform the meaning of sex and pleasure, our sexual practices, and our experience of pleasure?

6. Feasting and Fasting

Feasting is a central site of joy in Jewish and Christian scriptures and religious life. What is the proper role of feasting in the good life? What might be the relation between fasting and joy?

7. Obedience and Freedom

In many ways, the great promise of modern Western capitalism is that choice is the essence of freedom and the key to happiness. The biblical witness (not just Christ, but also Paul) argues rather that obedience to the Divine will is a prerequisite of real human freedom and the fount of abiding joy. How does attention to joy and the good life reframe our understanding of authority, obedience, and freedom?

8. Suffering and Death

Hebrews says that Jesus went to his death, “for the sake of the joy set before him” (12:2). How is Christ’s stance toward suffering, death, and joy related to the stance of Stoics, who were famous for their claim that the sage would rejoice even in the face of death? If joy is related to the experience or prospect of a good, can we then rejoice in the midst of suffering (as Paul suggests) or do we suffer in view of future joy (as Hebrews’ account of Christ seems to suggest)?

For more information on these consultations, contact Director of Research & Publication, Matt Croasmun.


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