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.

THE OTHER ASPECT of joy, a theology of joy, is more a perspective than an emotional experience. It is a lived history of God made out of sorrow, suffering, and despair. Dostoevsky described this aspect of joy when he said, "It is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has come forth through the crucible of doubt."

A theology of joy requires the ability to see beyond the present moment. When the present moment is one of violence and unspeakable injustice, this is very hard to do; and perhaps impossible outside of a community of believers with a narrative history of experiences with God. Moses deals with this directly when he twice associates God with evil (Exodus 5:22-23). "O Lord, why have you done evil to this people?" The issue here is not whether God can save the Israelites but God's apparent callousness about each individual life. It's about those babies the Egyptians built into the walls of their imperial projects and those who die on the way to freedom. More deeply it is about the fundamental despair of those who are still alive; those who must live as victims of the large edicts of history; the little ones who are crushed, but not killed, in the rise and fall of empires. What has joy to do with this?

In response to Moses, God says, "I have indeed seen the affliction of my people." Moses learns that the gaze of God is complex, multilayered. Knowing that the eyes of God see not only the awful edicts of history, but also each individual life, frees these little ones from the invisibility of fate. This sense of being seen by God becomes the tipping point for a theology of joy. It reminds us that we are creative agents within the long story that God is telling.

Alice Walker's novel Possessing the Secret of Joy bears this out in its dramatic conclusion. As Tashi Johnson goes to the firing squad, punishment for fighting the edicts of history, her sisters unfurl a banner before the soldiers can stop them. "Resistance is the secret of joy," it says in huge block letters. "There is a roar as if the world cracked open and I flew inside," says Tashi upon seeing the banner. "I am no more. And [am] satisfied."

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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