Pursuing the Secret of Joy | Sojourners

Pursuing the Secret of Joy

Comparing Hasidic and Christian spirituality, a rabbi once said, "There is no joy in Christianity." Recently when I asked a well-respected Christian theologian if I could interview him on the subject of joy, he replied, "I tried doing a piece on joy once and it didn't work too well. I find being told that I ought to be joyous depresses me." Is it true that Christians are joyless? What is joy when it's not promiscuously tied to happiness, Hallmark, or hedonism?

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, is credited with returning joy to Judaism. He raised Eastern European Jews up out of the ashes of despair into disciplines for cultivating joy such as ecstatic singing, dancing, and storytelling. One cannot serve God with joy, he said, if one doesn't daily experience that unbounded spirit of joy within oneself.

Through the ages Christian mystics have also pursued joy through ascetic, rather than ecstatic, disciplines. St. John Climacus' ascetic practices included living in caves, deep study, and regular exposure to the elements. But such practices are not an end in themselves, he said; rather they are "like rungs on the ladder leading us to the Kingdom of God."

Neurologists are now able to track religious emotions to certain parts of the brain. Joy and awe are linked to the middle temporal lobe. Feelings of transcendence are related to a quieting of the parietal lobe, which regulates our sense of orientation in space. While it's critical to note that spiritual experience is not the same as doing the will of God, for joyless Christians this research reinforces what we already know—spiritual disciplines, whether ecstatic or ascetic, are an integral part of our experience of religious joy. For us to be joyful in the world, we must regularly access these parts of our brain.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2002
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