"I look at joy as an act of resistance against despair and its forces. ... Joy in that regard is a work, that can become a state, that can become a way of life." Willie Jennings joins Miroslav Volf to discuss the definition of joy as an act of resistance against despair, the counterintuitive nature of cultivating joy in the midst of suffering, the commercialization of joy in Western culture, joy segregated by racism and slavery, how Jesus expands and corrects our understanding of joy.
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- Click here to watch the full interview in video
- Click here to learn more about the Theology of Joy and the Good Life project
- Defining joy—an act of resistance against despair
- "Resisting all the ways in which life can be strangled and presented to us as not worth living"
- Singing a song in a strange land
- Making productive use of pain, suffering, and the absurd—taking them serious
- How does one cultivate joy? You have to have people who can show you how to sing a song in a strand land, laugh where all you want to do is cry, and how to ride the winds of chaos.
- "In contexts where your energies have to be focused on survival, it doesn’t leave a lot of energy for overt forms of complaint—you’re spending a lot of energy just trying to hold it together."
- The commercialization of joy in the empire of advertising—contrasting that with the peoples serious work of joy
- The work and skill of making something beautiful out of what has been thrown away
- Segregated joy—joy in African diaspora communities
- Joy is always embedded in community logics
- The Christological center of joy
- Pentecost joy—joy together
- Geographies of joy: Christians tend not to think spatially, but we should
- Public rituals bound to real space
- Hoping for joyous infection, where the space has claimed you as its own
- Where can joy be found? The church, the hospital room, the barber shop and beauty shops—“things are going to be better"
About Willie Jennings
Willie Jennings is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Africana Studies, and Religious Studies at Yale University; he is an ordained Baptist minister and is author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race,Acts: A Commentary, The Revolution of the Intimate, and most recently, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. You can hear him in podcast episodes 7 and 13 of For the Life of the World.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Willie Jennings: I look at joy as an act of resistance against despair and its forces, all the forces of despair. And joy in that regard is a work that can become a state that can become a way of life.
Miroslav Volf: And it resists what?
Willie Jennings: Despair and all of the ways that despair wants to drive us toward death, and wants to make death the final word.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Would you say that these are joyful times? No doubt you won't find many people who regularly think about their lives in this very moment and associate joy. But isn't difficulty, suffering, hardship—aren't these necessary conditions for joy to even take place?
C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, "All joy reminds it is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away, or still about to be." Now that feels a bit closer to home in this era, a desire for something long ago, far away, about to be. And the Yale Center for Faith and Culture conducted a three-year study of joy and its connection to the good life. Funded by the John Templeton foundation, gathering a diverse group of scholars and practitioners, including theologians, philosophers, pastors, psychologists, the project sought to restore joy to the center of Christian reflection, and what it means to live a good life, a life worthy of our humanity.
But the emotion, the phenomenon, the virtue, the state, whatever joy is, it resists definition: different from happiness, and pleasure, and positivity, often out of our control, often present in the most surprising circumstances. It's clear that joy is the crown of the good life, as Miroslav Volf has said. In the Gospel of John, Jesus explains that the very point and the purpose of his teachings on love and keeping his commands are "so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."
This week, we're featuring a conversation between Miroslav and Willie James Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and africana Studies at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of the Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, as well as his most recent book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging.Jennings' joy is not for the faint of heart, the fair-weather friend, or a life of ease. It's a robust act of resistance against despair. This is joy for our time. We must walk a path of joy even against our doom. Thanks for listening.
Miroslav Volf: I'm here with Willie Jennings, a very good friend of mine. Professor Jennings, it's great to have you with us. Willie, wonderful to have a conversation with you about joy.
Willie Jennings: My pleasure, Dr. Volf. My pleasure.
Miroslav Volf: What is joy for you as a theologian, as a church men, as a black man?
Willie Jennings: Yeah. I look at joy as an act of resistance against despair and its forces, all the forces of despair. Joy in that regard is a work that can become a state that can become a way of life.
Miroslav Volf: And it resists what?
Willie Jennings: Despair in all of the ways that despair wants to drive us toward death, and wants to make death the final word. And death in this regard is not simply the end of life, but it's death in all its signatures: death, violence, war, debt—all the ways in which life can be strangled, and presented to us as not worth living.
Miroslav Volf: So is this a way of singing Lord song in the strange land? Is this a way of living a right life in the false one, to use Adorno's phrase? How would you put it?
Willie Jennings: I like singing a song in a strange land. I also like, as I love to say, I'm making productive use of pain and suffering in the absurd, not in order to take them lightly, but to take them very seriously, but not to make them gods. So it is pushing back. It is counter-intuitive in that regard.
Miroslav Volf: How does one find the kind of strengths? How does one forge the weapon of joy in the midst of suffering, oppression? How does one cultivate joy?
Willie Jennings: Well, practically you have to have people who you've heard sing those songs in strange lands. You have to have people who have been able to make you laugh in the places where all you want to do is cry. You have to have conditions set up where those people who have learned how to ride the winds of chaos can say to you, "Come on, let me show you how to do that." I think that's the first thing you have to have.
And then the second thing you have to have is a willingness to want to hold on to Life, even when there is very little that makes sense in life. Joy is the currency that is flowing between hands in such situation.
Miroslav Volf: I don't know whether I'm maybe romanticizing things, but it seemed to me that from what I have observed growing up, but also when I have traveled, that I find more joy in the midst of oppression in almost paradoxical way, than I find in plenty. It's almost like joy is this plant that is more easily springs in adversity than it does in a kind of plenty and posh kind of life that breeds more indifference.
Willie Jennings: Yeah. I would say something similar, but I would probably read it in this way. In context where your energies have to be focused on survival, it doesn't leave a lot of energy for overt forms of complaint. There can be complaint, but you're spending a lot of energy just trying to hold it together. And I think at another level, the work of joy becomes serious work, which I think in our context—and by our context, I mean in the West—the work of joy in many ways is not fully the people's work.
Miroslav Volf: Whose work and is it?
Willie Jennings: It's brought to us. And it's commercialized. It is a part of the empire of advertisement that they do the work, the creative work, of presenting to you what is joyful and what can become part of the reality of how you create enjoyment and pleasure. But in context where that isn't fully, hasn't fully taken hold, the people's work of creating joy is there.
I grew up in such a situation—learning how to have a good time with nothing because we had nothing. And there's something very powerful about that because as one artist says, "It's how, especially oppressed in poor people, can make something really beautiful out of what has been thrown away." We are not attuned to a world in which we have to work with what's been thrown away because we are the ones who throw away. But what does it mean when you're at some place where the world's trash comes to you and out of that trash, you have to do something. And it creates a very different way of thinking about joy.
Miroslav Volf: You've spoken about kind of segregated joy, joy that's part of a particular identity inherited, forged in adversity, and in your particular case, as a legacy of slavery.
Willie Jennings: Yeah. There is something absolutely beautiful about the joy created by communities, especially oppressed communities. And the clear example I'm drawing on is African diaspora communities in which there's a reality of joy built inside the forced segregation. The separation of the races geographically speaking, and not simply socially speaking. And there's something very powerful about a womb of joy that nurtures and helps constitute identity.
But there's also another side, not only to just African diaspora forms of joy, but the joy in many communities. And that is: segregated joy is fundamentally a part of the reality of segregation, which means that it is a joy that in many instances is built on insult, is built on hatred of the other. And here I'm not thinking primarily about African-American or African diaspora communities, but I'm thinking about the way in which multiple communities, their joy is inside of a hard segregation.
And so the question becomes for me: can there be a form of joy that helps to constitute identity that happens in the in-between, in the gathering of different peoples? There is a joy that creates. There is a joy that draws peoples together rather than a joy that's built within segregated spaces. And I think this is one of the problems theologically in talking about joy that we don't put it on the ground sufficiently, to grasp the way in which joy is always embedded in the flows of community logics, the cultural logics of particular communities. And because of that, we probably have to press more deeply when we start to talk about the integrity of a Christian vision of joy until we understand that dynamic.
Miroslav Volf: So if you have a kind of cultural logic that sets patterns for expressions of joy, but it ends up being segregated joy, how do you break open out of the enclosure?
Willie Jennings: Yeah, this is where I wonder out loud if the life of Jesus, a kind of Christological intervention, is what's necessary for us to re-conceive joy that opens us out rather than encloses. Now I do want to take seriously the way in which a community finds joy and creates joy and creates patterns of pleasure that are imagined to only exist in integrity when the outside others are kept out. We understand that. But here I'm wondering: if there is not a Christological intervention that the life of Jesus draws us toward, that brings an invitation—that the very form of joy and pleasure and contentment and comfort that you imagine in the enclosed space can actually be something far richer, far more beautiful, far more pleasurable in this new space, in which your joy is constituted with some of the very people who you imagine are a part of your despair, not a part of your joy—or those who you imagine their joy that is absolutely in what they find enjoyable is absolutely foreign to what I would.
And I do think there are some analogies, as I said. I think there are artists, musicians, painters, and others who have shown that there's possibilities of living in being sustained by a form of joy that is not homogeneous, that is fully captured inside, if you will—an expanding world of different people being brought together inside the sheer love of the music, for example.
Miroslav Volf: So if I hear you correctly, there's something right and good about a kind of particularity of joy for an individual, particularity of joy of a family, particularity of joy of a cultural group. But, there's also the goodness of the joy that transcends, that reach us out, that includes the other people, and music is one of the spaces where that can happen.
Willie Jennings: To press even further, it could be that one thing under utilized by Christian intellectuals is precisely this latter reality that Jesus himself points us toward, a family that becomes reconfigure. So it's not the badness of that family's vision of joy against the goodness of something else, but it is the opening up of that family's vision of joy.
Miroslav Volf: So it's almost like a Pentecost joy, each speaking in their own tongue, but speaking that language of joy together.
Willie Jennings: Yes. And those who are doing the speaking, never imagining that this in fact would be the sign. "Oh, the Spirit's coming." This is not what they imagined.
Miroslav Volf: They're slightly drunk, in any case.
Willie Jennings: They had dreams of power. They didn't have dreams of speaking other's language.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. You talked about certain geographies of joy, the spaces which are configured in particular way. Can you expand on that?
Willie Jennings: I think this is really important for us. As I like to say, Christians, we are geographically adrift. We don't think spatially as we should. And so what we have neglected is that joy is fundamentally tied to space. At one level, it is tied to real spaces and places. Segregated joy is most often sequestered joy, bounded joy territorially, in particular places. So the cultural haunts and habitat of a people, this is where their joy is made known. And what we have to understand is it's precisely that kind of geographic dimension that we have to think about, if in fact we want to think beyond segregated joy. We cannot simply say we ought to have a joy that we have it together, but no one wants to think about where are our bodies in space, and how was spaces configured.
Miroslav Volf: So you need a kind of public spaces and public rituals possibly.
Willie Jennings: Public rituals bound to real space. And that's what's key, the kind of mapping of joy that would be necessary to actually start to think about the reconstituting of a different reality of joy. That's what's necessary.
There's also the other ways in which space exists. As I said, there is the kinds of spaces constituted by practices of joy, like in music, as I call it "sonic space." There is that space. But fundamentally, that is built upon—and I never want to draw too sharp a distinction between other kinds of spaces and that geographic space—we really should start to attend to where do we find joy, where do we find joy.
Miroslav Volf: And in some ways you've got this space for joy, but you can constitute in it also a space of joy. So somebody can walk into a space that have been marked by joy. What happens when somebody walks into a space marked by joy?
Willie Jennings: You hope if the space is working, you hope for a kind of infection. And we know that—and my own experience in churches is that that's often what happens, a kind of infection of joy. You've come into a space that is not your own, and in some ways that space has claimed you as its own. There's a very powerful analogy to, if you will, the work of the spirit at that moment, that a space is created not by you, but in a strange sort of way without you knowing it, it's for you.
Now, obviously we're talking beyond a kind of cultural tourism or kind of theological tourism. We're talking about people entering a space and in some very powerful way that we can't really chart out specifically. It takes hold of them. Maybe they didn't intend it, but it did. What would be great is if we start to think more intentionally about how such spaces are constituted and how might such spaces, the constitution of such spaces be a fundamental part for those of us who are Christian in our discipleship.
Miroslav Volf: So you walk and you think, "I need to walk into a space of joy." What would that space look like for you? What are spaces in which you yourself find joy?
Willie Jennings: As I like to say, I'm a child of the church. And not every church I've been is a space of joy. All in all, the church and multiple churches have been places of extreme joy, surprising joy, and to quote the title of a famous book by CS Lewis, places where I've been absolutely "surprised by joy," stunned by joy.
But, the reality of it is that I have been in spaces of joy in hospital rooms, gathered with a family and a loved one who's passing on, but there are rituals of remembrance going on, grief processes being begun, and in the midst of that, incredible joy—joy connected to sorrow. As you can probably tell, now I don't spend much time in barbershops anymore, but back in the day when I used to spend time in barbershops—barbershops and beauty shops are really interesting, especially in black communities, because they can be in ways that are, as I like to say, profound realities of indirection and they can be spaces of incredible joy. Stories are told, jokes are told, people walk in, comments are made, and without you being spoken to directly, you've been spoken to. And at the end of the day, once you got your hair cut, you leave thinking and things are going to be better.
Miroslav Volf: Thank you very much, Professor Jennings.
Willie Jennings: My pleasure.
Miroslav Volf: Things are going to be better. Absolutely that.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologians, Willie Jennings and Miroslav Volf. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce new episode every Saturday, and you can subscribe through any podcast app.
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