Pictured, left to right: Front row: Yonatan Brafman, Miroslav Volf, Ismail Fajrie Alatas, Drew Collins; Back row: Roxanne Rashedi, Jeffrey Hopkins, Matthew Croasmun, Katarzyna de Lazari, Anantanand Rambachan, Robert Emmons, Janna Gonwa, Richard Tail Kim, Alan Mittleman, Philip J. Ivanhoe, Anthony Pinn, Jongbok Yi
A recent Yale Center for Faith and Culture symposium, Joy and the Good Life Across Traditions, brought together scholars from diverse traditions to discuss the nature of joy and the good life. This symposium served as one component of a larger project seeking to understand and distill some of the most prominent answers to what makes a life worth living. From February 14-16, scholars from wide-ranging backgrounds convened to discuss the nature of meaning and joy. Having drafted chapters of a forthcoming collaborative book for the project, the scholars honed their ideas through discourse and feedback from their colleagues across traditions. The traditions represented in the project include Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Humanism, positive psychology, and utilitarianism.
The Yale Center for Faith and Culture has a longstanding commitment to interfaith dialogue. The Center’s prior interfaith engagement includes A Common Word, a global interfaith conversation precipitated by a 2007 letter from Muslims to Christians. The letter was authored by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, who participated in the symposium last month, and signed by over one hundred Islamic clerics. Shortly thereafter, Miroslav Volf coordinated a Christian response, published in the New York Times, that led to a series of summits between Muslims and Christians. The summits highlighted the two religions’ shared commitments to love for God and neighbor, and remain some of the most significant developments in interfaith dialogue in the 21st century.
The symposium on Joy and the Good Life, however, innovates further on standard interfaith dialogue, reaching beyond religion to explore secular answers to the shared question of the good life. “The question of the good life is the most pressing question of our day, made only more pressing by the fact that we live in a world where different answers to this question, informed by different traditions, encounter and contend with one another on a daily basis,” said Miroslav Volf, Founding Director of the Center.
“We have to be in dialogue with answers that are coming from other traditions,” adds Matthew Croasmun, Associate Research Scholar at the Center. “The question of the good life is a fundamentally shared project that we have as a society.”
The symposium marked an important benchmark in the Center’s Theology of Joy and the Good Life project, funded largely by a $4.2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, along with support from the McDonald Agape Foundation, the Yale Youth Ministry Institute, the Yale Divinity School, and Yale Center for Faith and Culture donors. The inter-tradition collaboration will ultimately generate a book with side-by-side accounts of the good life, laying out the varying traditions’ perspectives in a manner accessible to readers with no background knowledge of the traditions.
After writing first drafts of their chapters, the scholars came together for two and a half days of communal discussion and community building. All participants convened for one hour per paper, asking questions and sharing their own interpretations of fundamental texts. Along with the scholarly discussion, they also shared meals and informal conversation. Robert Emmons, expert on positive psychology and founding editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, noted the power of these moments. “I benefited most from informal discussion at the meals and other casual interactional opportunities,” Emmons said.
Listening charitably to experts from different traditions was a signature feature of the symposium. “I was surprisingly enlightened by perspectives put forth by some traditions that I did not expect to resonate with in advance,” said Emmons.
Yonatan Brafman, assistant professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at Jewish Theological Seminary, noted his pleasant surprise at how the participants were able to challenge each other. “People were willing to probe and challenge in a respectful way,” Brafman said.
Croasmun agreed, reflecting, “I think we heard one another, and took one another seriously enough to disagree.”
Another point of appreciation for Brafman was the final night of the symposium, when Volf and Croasmun opened up the structure of the project for critique. The project’s framework for examining the good life is threefold: first, what does it mean for a life to be led well? Second, what does it mean for a life to go well in terms of circumstances? And finally, what does it mean for life to feel as it should? According to Croasmun, the Center aimed to be self-reflective and ask, “Have we embedded Christian values into what we think is a neutral structure?”
The symposium was one step toward completion of the book, the primary outcome of inter-tradition collaboration. But many of the scholars will be in dialogue again before the project is complete, returning to the Yale Center for Faith and Culture in late July for their next conference: The Future of Joy and the Good Life.