Can we find joy in our world? It's hard enough to find genuine, death-defying joy in the wake of the failure of the modern utopian project, the expectation that human reason and technology and political revolution might save us all. Overlay the malaise of modernity with this dumb pandemic, and the prospects for joy seem bleak. But for N.T. Wright, joy doesn't depend on the whims of circumstance or the proper function of the world. He speaks of the hardy resilience of joy, even in the midst of tragic, terrible, and untimely death. He speaks of the groanings of the Spirit, laboring and working in us even and especially when we can't find the words to explain the circumstances away. Today we're sharing Miroslav Volf's 2014 interview with the New Testament scholar, theologian, and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright. He's the former Bishop of Durham, he's Emeritus Professor University of St Andrews, and is Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
NOTE: For the Life of the World is running highlights, readings, lectures, and other best-of features until May 1, 2022, when we'll be back with new conversations.
N.T. Wright is a New Testament scholar, theologian, and Anglican bishop. He's the former Bishop of Durham, he's Emeritus Professor University of St Andrews, and is Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He's the author of many books, including Surprised by Hope, Paul: A Biography, God and the Pandemic, Simply Christian, The World the New Testament, and many more.
- The connection between joy and God's deliverance and rescue
- Joy at what God has done
- Resurrection joy
- Navigating "the now and the not yet"
- What happens to joy in "the now and the not yet"
- Waiting, suffering, and joy
- Acts 12: James is killed by Herod's men, and Peter gets out of jail free
- Differentiating types of suffering
- Romans 8: The whole creation groaning as a woman in childbirth
- 2 Corinthians 2:1-7 (NRSV) / So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. 2For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? 3And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. 4For I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. 5 But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. 6This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; 7so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
- "Yet behold: Here I am"
- I have no idea what's going on, but I believe.
- N.T. Wright on the presiding over his father's funeral
- The death of a child: there is no
- Early church love is "agape"—holistic love
- The emotive dimensions of joy
- What kind of seeing is involved in rejoicing?
- "All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me."
- "It's a matter of thinking into the world in which divine authority is constituted by self-giving love."
- Jesus on a donkey vs. Pontius Pilate on a war horse—the redefinition of power and authority
- "Religion is what you do to keep the fabric of society together."
- Treating Christianity as a private matter
- Is there any joy in the world today?
- The confused world that comes from believing the utopian lie of modernity
- This podcast featured New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright and theologian Miroslav Volf
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Production Assistance by Martin Chan
- A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
- Support For the Life of the World podcast by giving to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture: https://faith.yale.edu/give
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center For Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
N.T. Wright: Precisely in the meaninglessness, the apparent meaninglessness of suffering, the prayer, which can't even come into words - Paul says, "the Spirit grows within us with inarticulate groanings," and I think that's the Job thing, that we don't even know what to say. There is no logical explanation for what's going on anymore, but we have to trust that then the Spirit is groaning within us. The redefinition of authority, which is around the suffering and death of Jesus, that's how the victory of love is won over the world. And so, it's a matter of then thinking into that world in which the divine authority over the world is constituted by self-giving love, and realizing that actually, I can live in that world. And the Holy Spirit is enabling me to live in that world, and it goes in fits and starts and I'll get it wrong, and I'll make mistakes, and it doesn't mean that I'm perfect from day one, but it's like learning a new language or learning a new musical instrument or something, and discovering that actually, it is possible to play this stuff, and it's working, it's making sense.
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 and Culture. Can we find joy in our world? It's hard enough to find genuine, death-defying, joy in the wake of the failure of the modern utopian project. The expectation that human reason, and technology, and political revolution might save us all, and overlay the malaise of modernity with this dumb pandemic. And the prospects for joy seem bleak. But for N.T. Wright, joy doesn't depend on the whims of circumstance or the proper function of the world. He speaks of the hardy resilience of joy, even in the midst of tragic, terrible, and untimely death. He speaks of the groanings of the Spirit, laboring and working in us even, and especially, when we can't find the words, when everything seems like vanity, chasing after the wind, when there's nothing to explain the circumstances away. Today we're sharing Miroslav Volf's 2014 interview with the New Testament scholar, theologian, and Anglican bishop, N. T. Wright. He's the former Bishop of Durham, he's an Emeritus Professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He's the author of many books, including Paul, a Biography, The New Testament and Its World, Surprised by Hope, and many more. Thanks for listening today.
Miroslav Volf: You were saying earlier that Christian joy has everything to do with God rescuing God's people with change of circumstances, with there being a new king around, ruling, that there is, in a sense, well, the political significance to joy. So what's the connection between joy and God's deliverance?
N.T. Wright: Yeah, I think, in the Jewish tradition, going back into the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, joy, again and again, is what happens when God finally does something that people have been waiting for. The obvious examples, being the Exodus, and then the return from exile. And then people celebrate because it's a new day. Something new has happened. We've been in a mess, something's happened, everything's changed, and wow, this is fantastic, or we're going home, or the temple is built, or whatever it is. And that sense of joy, because of something that God has done, continues on through and is given quite a, sort of a, new birth in early Christianity, because the first Christians believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that this wasn't just a kind of a bizarre miracle because God happened to like Jesus, so He let Him off death, or something silly like that. This was about Jesus somehow carrying on his shoulders the fate of the whole world, and bringing it through death, and out the other side. So this is the beginning of new creation, and it doesn't look like what we'd expected.
Miroslav Volf: So, we are no longer waiting?
N.T. Wright: Well, then, of course, what happens is, that all the other Christians were Jews who, as far as we can tell, would have been most likely, in some rather vague way, been waiting for the new age to dawn. But mostly, that looks like the old age is going on, and then the new age will start, and everything will be totally different. Whereas in fact, what they then experienced was that the two ages sort of overlap so that yeah, the new has begun, but the old is sort of going on as well, people are still dying and people are persecuting us, and so on, so that they have to navigate this quite unprecedented sense of watching the trade we tend to call "the now and the not yet," you know, that something has, and it's, the joy is caused by the now, and the joy generates a new shape to the hope for what is still to come.
Miroslav Volf: And very often, not yet, seems like far away, at least in my experience. What happens to joy?
N.T. Wright: Yeah. Well that's a question which, it's interesting because in the scholarship of the last two generations, people have said, oh, the other Christians were so worried because Jesus hadn't come back after a generation and so on. I regard that as mostly a projection of the failure of European hopes in the middle of the 20th century. And you can see this in philosophical, cultural writings, people like Walter Benjamin, and so on. Then that works its way through into New Testament scholarship and people say, "oh yeah, it was like that in the early church as well. The hopes were dashed and they didn't know what to do next. I'm looking at the text and apart from one little flicker in Second Peter, actually, they're not saying, oh dear, what's gone wrong. They're saying yeah, he'll come back, he will make absolutely everything new, but in the meantime, we have the spirit, we have God's presence with us, we are celebrating God's Kingdom as a now as well as a not yet, and so let's get on and do it, and see where we're going next.
Miroslav Volf: But, as, folks are about celebrating, the presence of God's Kingdom as they're waiting also, many of them, are suffering. So what's the relationship between joy and suffering?
N.T. Wright: Yeah, it's a, it's a tough one. And you see it in the acts of the apostles. One of my favorite sort of examples of this is in Acts, chapter 12, which begins with James being killed, summarily, by Herod's men and we think, oh dear, that's terrible. And then later on in the chapter, Peter is about to be killed, and the church is praying for him, as presumably they had been for James as well. And Peter gets out of jail free, and you look at the chapter and say, if I was James' mother I wouldn't be terribly happy about this, you know, because you can celebrate Peter getting out of jail, but what about James? And that's typical of the now and the not yet, but the early Church quickly learned to see that as a sign, the suffering was a sign, that they were actually at the leading edge of the kingdom and that they interpreted the suffering, not just as miscellaneous, oh dear it's all gone wrong, but rather, well, we are now the representatives of Jesus, who is the Lord, against the principalities and powers. It's no surprise that the principalities and powers recognized that and they're coming to get us. So it means, it means, we really all the servants of the king, the suffering is, is a badge of the fact that we are sharing the messianic sufferings of Jesus.
Miroslav Volf: So, the kind of suffering that one sees, say, in the Book of Job, somebody who had roughly everything, we might have the Warren Buffet of his time, or something of that sort, reputation, money, everything else. And then suddenly everything is gone, wiped out. Are you saying that such suffering might not be even possible given the conditions of change?
N.T. Wright: No, no, I mean, the whole category of suffering, it may be that we need to differentiate several different types of suffering and I've not sort of thought through that typology. But the early Christians see their very specific suffering, and Paul says this again and again, and Jesus in the farewell discourses, and John says it again and again, "don't be surprised if the world hates you because we are now swimming against the tide." Now, if in the course of that, all sorts of other Job-like things happen, which they do, then I think, that's the sort of moment when the New Testament just holds on to this painfully in the presence of God. And that's when I go personally to Romans, chapter Eight, which speaks about the whole creation groaning like a woman about to give birth. And the point of that is that the world doesn't know what's going on, it's just in pain and turmoil. And then the Church is in the midst of the world, but also groaning because it's still waiting. And then Paul says, when that happens, the Spirit is within the Church groaning, and this is God's spirit and God, the Father, the searcher of hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit. And that's very powerful. That means that precisely in the meaninglessness, the apparent meaninglessness of suffering, then the prayer, which can't even come into words - Paul says, "the Spirit groans within us with inarticulate groanings," and I think that's the Job thing, that we don't even know what to say. There is no logical explanation for what's going on anymore, but we have to trust that then the Spirit is groaning within us.
Miroslav Volf: So suffering is hopeful?
N.T. Wright: Suffering is hopeful, not necessarily at the time and not necessarily in itself. When Paul talks about suffering, in Two Corinthians, chapters four, five, and six, he talks about, "As dying and behold, we live, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing," there's this to and fro the whole time. And he says, "It felt as though I had received the sentence of death, but this was to make me rely on the God who raises the dead." And it seems as though these are not absolutely at the same moment. These are, this is the narrative that the normal Christian life involves, because at the time it felt as though one was being crushed, as though one was being completely destroyed. And it's certainly with hindsight, that one looks back and says yet, here I am. And I think Paul, for Paul, the mature knowledge that that is the nature of the narrative means that then the next time it happens, you can just begin to say to yourself, I have no idea what's going on or why, but I believe that actually, this too will turn out in the right way.
Miroslav Volf: So that's what happens when the child dies, when the father dies, your particular case, over whose funeral you presided?
N.T. Wright: Well, every case is different. In my father's case, he was 91. He'd had a good, long life. He had been a prisoner of war for five years and had come through that with integrity and with faith and with hope and lived the rest of his long life bringing up his children, working hard, doing what a good father should do and being a wonderful friend to us. You know, in his retirement years he was terrific. It's still incredibly painful. I mean, you don't know how painful a bereavement is going to be to that happens, but at least with a parent, there is a sense of, a parent at that age, there's a sense of completeness. There's a sense of thanking God for a life well lived, and commending that person, and their faith and hope and love to God. And that for me, taking my father's funeral was an extraordinary experience. It was like, as a Bishop, this is one of the most important things that you get to do. It was just a huge privilege to be able to commend him publicly to God and to thank God for him. And to pray with joy that in the Resurrection, he, and we will share in God's new world, you know, that's the Christian hope.
Miroslav Volf: There's a sense it's a good death, right? A death after a well lived life that has been completed rather than cut off early on.
N.T. Wright: Exactly, but I contrast that with a funeral idea, maybe 20 years ago now, when I was working in campus ministry, a graduate couple in the college where I was working, had their first child and the child was born with a heart defect, but lived long enough for them to come very quickly to love that child. And then the child died. And that funeral was just incredibly hard because the whole graduate community kind of, many of them, young parents themselves, sharing this suffering, this meaning, this why, this "what's that all about?" And to give an easy answer at that point, I think is just very bad news, to try to say, oh, well, it's all right, because. There's no, all right because, it's just, this is part of the groaning of creation. And all we can do is groan and weep and somehow hope and pray that God the Spirit is groaning within us, and we'll through that groaning bring God's new world to birth.
Miroslav Volf: So maybe a kind of a quiet flame, deep down, of joy in the view of hope that is coming?
N.T. Wright: Yes, I'm not sure I would even put it like that. I think the joy is in the larger narrative. And I think, to try to say in the middle of that funeral, that actually I've got this flame inside, so it's not so bad. I think that's actually denying something because it is bad. It tears us apart. And there are many things in life which, which one just has to say "this is terrible."
Miroslav Volf: At the same time you talk about joy is not simply emotive response to a situation. You talk about it as a virtue of Apostle Paul commands, so maybe emotions can be commanded, but there's something more involved in joy than just simply...
N.T. Wright: You're right. And the analogy there would be with love, when Paul tells the Thessalonians that he knows that they love each other anyway, but he wants them to do some more and more. He doesn't mean, I know you have warm fluffy feelings about each other, I want you to have even warmer and fluffier feelings. In the early Church, love, agape, is something you do practically, and looking after people, and it involves money and food and shelter and those sorts of things. And in the same way, but of course, if you are doing that love with a surly look and, oh, well, I've got to do this, but I don't want to, then that's not love at all. In the same way, Paul can command joy, which I think is to celebrate. And so, even in a funeral, you are celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus and His victory over death. And so, to that extent, yes, you may begin to feel that. But you can't control your feelings, the objective celebration of what is true, then your feelings just have to catch up as best they can.
Miroslav Volf: And what if you don't understand joy as, simply as, feelings, as it has a kind of emotive dimension, obviously, but it's also a way of looking at the world, a way of perceiving. And that would tie into what you said at the very beginning. I mean the whole world has changed with the coming of Jesus Christ and therefore you see the world in a different way. What kind of seeing is involved in rejoice?
N.T. Wright: Yeah, I think, there it's a matter of seeing, and of hearing and understanding, of learning to live within a narrative, which doesn't appear to people around to be true. Are you of the narrative that Jesus really is Lord already, you know, at the end of Matthew's gospel, the reason Jesus says, "all authority in Heaven on Earth has been given to me," and most Christians find that hard to believe today, because the world doesn't look like that. But actually, when you read Matthew's gospel, you see the redefinition of authority, which is around the suffering and death of Jesus. That that's how the victory of love is won over the world. And so, it's a matter of then thinking in, and this is where the virtue thing comes, it's a matter of thinking into that world in which the divine or authority over the world is constituted by self-giving love, and realizing that actually, I can live in that world. And the Holy Spirit is enabling me live in that world. And it goes in fits and starts and I'll get it wrong and I'll make mistakes and it doesn't mean I'm perfect from day one. But, it's like learning a new language or learning a new musical instrument or something, and discovering that actually it is possible to play this stuff and it's working and it's making sense.
Miroslav Volf: At the time, when Christianity merged at the time of Jesus and the apostles, the public celebrations of Caesar as, as the Lord and the newer comments you have encouraged something analogous to take place, a kind of public rejoicing that you mentioned, even perhaps as a kind of protest against, what's reigning today. Can you say more about that?
N.T. Wright: It's interesting, some people have speculated that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, that he had timed this so that he was coming in on the donkey from one end of the city at the same time that Pontious Pilot, who normally resided in Caesaria, would be arriving for Passover on his war horse, with his soldiers, the other side of the city, I mean, we don't know that.
Miroslav Volf: I love that idea.
N.T. Wright: It's a great idea. But even if that wasn't in fact timed to coincide, it's still making a statement. This is how we do power. I mean, okay, it's an echo of the book of Zachariah, but it's also a statement about the redefinition of power and authority. And my sense is that in Philippians, where Paul talks more about joy than he does anywhere else, he's also writing to a Roman colony, and some of the people he's writing to will be Roman citizens, probably not all, but in fact probably rather few of them, but some would, and on the street, week by week, month by month, they will have these great, classic, civic festivities, which everybody's supposed to join in with, and see the, the early Christians wouldn't join in. And that's why they would lose jobs, they would lose customers for their shops or whatever, or they'd be beaten up because they're not joining in. And in ancient religion, religion is what you do to keep the fabric of society together. And if people aren't joining in, that's deeply antisocial in quite a strong, strict sense. And so, but Paul is saying, I think not only must you not join in the pagan celebrations and all that goes on with it, but there's lots of things in the society you can rejoice, everything that's noble and true and right and good and pure. You must celebrate that, but also celebrate in the Lord Jesus. And I think he doesn't just want them to have the festive meals behind closed doors. They'll do that as well, no doubt. But I think he may well say that when it's Easter or when it's one of these great festivals, why shouldn't you have your parade down the streets as well? As long as everybody knows you're doing it in the right way and the right motives, let all people know your forbearance, this is not an excuse to go wild and behave like they do. Nevertheless, this is the way in which, we in my hometown growing up, the churches would do things around Easter, which would be in public and on the street. That's rather died down a bit in the UK now, I don't know about other parts of, of Europe or America, but maybe we haven't done enough of that. We've treated Christianity as a private thing, a celebration in our hearts, or our homes at most. And then is it any surprise that people don't take the Easter message seriously?
Miroslav Volf: Some people think that there's not much joy in the world today. There's maybe fun. There is maybe certain forms of happiness, emotional, kind of, satisfaction, but not, kind of, real joy.
N.T. Wright: I think that may well be true. You'd have to do a major sort of sociological analysis of what you meant by it, and then examine different societies. And the trouble is when you ask people questions, you raise something to their consciousness, which might not actually be there normally. And I think, yes, having worked as a pastor in many different communities in the UK particularly, I think there is a serious lack of joy. I think you do see it on great, festive, events. We in Britain still, with a strong sense of irony, but we still celebrate, for instance, the Queen's diamond jubilee, whatever it was, a year or two ago, then there's a great sense of, yeah, let's have a party, that's good. We like our queen, that's been a good 60 years, well done mam, and that's, that's fantastic. And you know, the Olympics, and all of that. I think that did bring real joy, but then there's always a morning after, there's always a what now? Which follows on. But for the most part, I think we live in a confused world because people have believed the lie of modernity, which says that now that we have the electric light and modern medicine and Western style democracy, utopia is about to break out. And if I only we elect the right person next time, then we really have utopia, and we keep on electing people and it keeps on not happening. And in fact, things get worse. So I think the failure of the modernist dream, which then drives obviously the post-modern deconstruction, has led to a world in which people would like to have a bit of joy, but they gravit it with music, or with sport, or with sex or whatever it is. And then it slips through their fingers. And I think that's, that's a sign that people know there is something for which they are made, and they're not quite getting there. And that was of course, the point that C.S. Lewis was making in his book, Surprised by Joy.
Miroslav Volf: Well, C.S. Lewis did it in a very personal way, you've developed it in a almost political way. Thank you for your politics of joy. Thank you very much. Thank you.
Evan Rosa: For the life of the world is a production of the Yale Center For Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright and theologian, Miroslav Volf. Production assistance by Martin Chan. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edit and produce the show. For more information, visit us online at faith dot Yale dot EDU. New episodes drop every Saturday, sometimes midweek. If you're new to the show, welcome friend. Hit subscribe in your favorite podcast listening app, and we'd love your feedback. Ratings and reviews and apple podcasts are particularly helpful, but we're just as happy to hear from you by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. We read each comment and do our best to respond and improve the show, bringing you the people and topics that you want hear. And if you're a regular listener, it's a huge honor that you stick with us from week to week. So I'll ask you to step up and join us, help us share the show. Behind those three dots in your podcast app, there's an option to share this episode by text or email or social media. If you took a brief moment to send your favorite episode to a friend or share with the world, not only would you be supporting the show, you'd be sparking up a great conversation around stuff that matters with people that matter. Thanks for listening today, friends, we'll be back with more this coming week.