Joy Among the Virtues, Actions, and Emotions

The core research agenda of the Theology of Joy and the Good Life project is composed of two complementary series of consultations. “Joy Among the Virtues, Actions, and Emotions” begins with joy and considers how it functions, on the Christian description, as the crown of the good life.

Our 2014 Theology of Joy consultations provided several foundational hypotheses and related questions that structure and inform the series as a whole. They are:

  1. Joy is an emotion. Participating scholars agreed that joy is best understood as an emotion, though not just any emotion.
  2. Joy has an object. As an emotion (understood as an affective construal of the world or some small part of it), joy has an object—one rejoices over something. Joy (perhaps unlike happiness) is therefore subject to normative judgment.
  3. Joy has a moral dimension. The consensus of planning grant consultants is that joy has a moral dimension. Joy can be corrupt (with eyes wide open we can construe an object of joy as good, when it is in fact profoundly wicked; e.g., the euphoria at Nazi Nuremberg rallies); joy can be self-absorbed (we might rejoice only in our own good); joy can be perverse (as we rejoice in the misfortune of others); joy can be generous; joy can be attuned to the suffering of others (as when, in a period of intense joy, we continue to be mindful of those who grieve). This may be what most distinguishes joy from happiness—and why, despite the recent glut of happiness research, our culture still needs careful consideration of joy.
  4. Joy can be commanded. Because of this moral dimension, joy can be commanded (a recurrent feature of the way Hebrew and Christian scriptures treat joy).
  5. Joy is a matter of habit and virtue. Because joy depends on construing the world a certain way, a number of participating scholars concluded that the cultivation of joy has to do with the way one is formed by one’s habits or practices. In this sense, joy has very much to do with the virtues.

Specific topics for this series of consultations were generated by the 2014 Theology of Joy consultations:

1. Joy, Love, and Hatred

The first three consultations situate joy in the context of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love—beginning with the “greatest of these,” love (1Cor 13:13). Joy is always associated with the possession or expectation of goods that we love. What do the objects of our joy tell us about the order (or disorder) of our love? How might love—or hatred—serve to reveal our joy as authentic or counterfeit?

2. Joy, Trust, and Suspicion

What has joy to do with trust: trust in persons, in social and natural environments, and in God? How does suspicion serve as an inhibitor of joy? Must joy be naïve? Does joy require relating to One who is trustworthy?

3. Joy, Hope, and Despair

Jürgen Moltmann has defined hope as “anticipated joy.” How does hope for the goods we desire arise in the absence of joy and give birth to joy? How does the memory of or hope for joy in experience of good things equip us for facing despair?

4. Joy, Gratitude, and Complaint

Karl Barth defined joy as gratitude for the reception of something hoped for. Does joy require gratitude? Does it depend on receiving the world and varieties of things, persons, and situations in the world as gifts?

5. Joy, Humility, and Pride

In an age desperate for “recognition,” as Charles Taylor suggests, humility, like joy, seems largely lost or at least severely threatened. Is this no coincidence? Is humility, like gratitude, a posture required for the cultivation of joy—and for similar reasons? Is pride, like entitlement, an inhibitor of joy—and for similar reasons?

6. Joy, Innocence, and Guilt

Wilfred McClay has suggested that the marked lack of joy in contemporary society has to do with an overwhelming sense of responsibility—and guilt—that we cannot manage. Some degree of moral responsibility is a basic feature of human existence. Does joy require innocence (real or imagined)? How do we experience joy without shirking our responsibilities and dealing honestly with the reality of our guilt?

7. Joy, Security, and Fear

While Moltmann has defined hope as “anticipated joy,” he defines fear as “anticipated terror.” What has joy to do with a sense of security? Is security required for the experience of joy? When does pursuit of security itself became an inhibitor to the experience of joy? Does joy sometimes require risk?

8. Joy, Desire, and Contentment  

Economist Tomas Sedlacek has said: “If we have chosen discontent to be the engine of our progress then fine, but we should not complain that we are not content.” How do we live with joy in a cultural environment of systematic production of insatiability and discontent? Is joy a matter of the fulfillment of desire or of the cessation of desire? Does hypothesizing joy as the “crown” of the flourishing human life suggest a shape to eschatological hope either as an unfolding of the infinity of God as fulfillment of infinite human desire or, rather, as Sabbath rest from desire in eschatological contentment?

9. Joy, Justice, and Bondage

How ought one construe and cultivate joy in a world rife with injustice—an environment that seems more appropriately to produce grief and anger than joy? How can joy function as a work of resistance against domination?

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.