Superspreaders of Joy

Ross Douthat in a recent op-ed The Secularization of America noted the latest Gallup poll showing that for the first time in its decades of polling, fewer than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. The fall has been swift: From 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

Of course, there is no single explanation for this phenomenon. Generational shift – with many millennials and those following rejecting the value system espoused in the Christianity of their parents. The post boomer generations have come to associate Christianity with the Southern Baptist -Evangelical kind of Christianity which they see as simply a religious handmaid for a paranoid, nationalist, political agenda. The polarizing language of them and us that accompanies this paranoid worldview – repels more spiritual seekers than it attracts. One might argue that this may be a case of tossing the evangelical baby out with the otherwise Christian bathwater. However, such argument is neither here-nor-there when we consider that non-Evangelical Christianity is now seen as only so much bathwater.

Douthat notes that the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The members of this section of the population – to which you and I actually belong, do not take kindly to any external judgements being made on the virtues or not of individual choice – delivered from on high by some remote authority. Like the rich young man in Mark’s gospel we seek the answer of salvation only in as much as it does not challenge our own moral self-sufficiency.

Two influences transformed the experience of the followers of Jesus. The first was pneumatic inflation with the Holy Spirit. According to John’s account, Jesus puffed the Holy Spirit into the band of dispirited followers in the upper room, banishing their fear with his peace. The second was material need. A members of a community of relatively poor individuals, living in a hostile religious and political environment, they realized that a radical sharing of resources was the only way they could survive. They clearly found this approach to a common life supported by their memory of Jesus’ command to love and serve one another.

Both these influences led to the transformation of the followers of Jesus from a disconsolate, grieving band into a dynamic and confident community. Their radical approach to living in a new and inspirited way equipped them to use their limited resources to avoid the pitfalls of what usually happens in situations of scarcity – the tendency to division into haves and have-nots. Willie James Jennings, the current professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale, sums this all up: We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people. Jennings here articulates the heart of the millennial critique of privatized – capitalist inspired – religion.

Luke also records the post resurrection encounters between Jesus and his disciples. The settings and incidental details change but the essential reports of the kind of experience between Jesus and his disciples remain consistent. Yet, Luke hints at a third aspect of the early Christian transformative experience. He tells us that they were overtaken by joy while still in the midst of doubting and questioning.

Shouldn’t joy expel any doubts and questions? It seems that whatever joy is it is not a panacea for doubt.

So, what is joy? In our society we are dedicated  to the pursuit and achievement – if we can – of happiness. After all, doesn’t the constitution guarantee us Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?

In common parlance joy and happiness are used interchangeably. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as: a state of well-being and contentment: joy. It’s my contention that this near universal conflation of happiness and joy causes us endless emotional and spiritual confusion.

Happiness is an emotion – a transitory emotional state – often no sooner felt then lost. Happiness is the fruit of an experience of fortuitous events – something goes well, and we feel happy in response. When the wheel of good fortune turns, happiness is replaced by a multiplicity of opposites: despondency, disaffection, sadness, even depression.

Despite the dictionary definitions – joy is not an emotion or transitory emotional state like happiness. Joy is a spiritual virtue – a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart. Joy is also motivational – propelling – compelling us to choices we might otherwise not risk taking. Joy – persists in the face of the chances and changes – old Prayerbook language for the ups and downs of this mortal life. Joy persists despite the ups and downs in life – because – it’s not a transitory emotional state. Once it enters our lives, along with the companion spiritual virtues of hope and love – joy motivates our future direction of travel.

In trying to tie joy down all I can do is point to an experience of the persistence of joy in my life. Looking back I can trace joy not in the feelings I felt but in the choices I felt compelled to make. It is joy that has sustained someone like me – always doubting, second guessing, questioning – in the Christian faith. But if I can point to one single instance – On the feast of the Falling Asleep of Blessed Mary, the Mother of Jesus, August 15th, 2005 our granddaughter Claire Elise was born. This event became a central organizing experience of joy in the middle years of my life.

All grandparents will know what I am talking about here -parents too – but the joy of grandparenthood far surpasses the joys of parental responsibility. I can only say that Claire’s birth marked a serious invasion of joy that in my experience has little comparison.

Claire’s birth set a chain of events in motion -the end result being a major life change. After 30 years of productive professional and fulfilling personal life in London, joy compelled Al and I to risk a major relocation from the UK to the US at a midpoint in our lives. Joy – a spiritual orientation of the heart – a longing for the connections of love in the life of our granddaughter compelled us to leave the familiar and secure and journey into the unknown of a future with no fixed certainties. Joy – the orientation of the heart became the compass setting – pointing towards the future.

The process of migration – a complex process of leaving, arriving, and the ups and downs of settling involved many emotional and material challenges. Al and I came without jobs and few assurances for the future. The risk for me also included the uncertainties of immigrant status. Moments of happiness came – and – just as quickly went.

I believe that the essence of joy’s persistence lies in its nature as an irresistible motivational compulsion that carries us through whatever challenges we might face – the doubts and the questions.

Douthat laments: My anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis is in some senses comparable to the changes facing the early Christian community. Both situations involve a challenge of transformation. How will joy motivate – propel – compel us to be the active agents in the changes we want to see in the world around us? I think this is a question that lies at the heart of the persistence of joy among us.  In this moment of time new directions open up before us – new opportunities which hitherto we considered unrealistic become imaginable possibilities. However, as with hope and love, joy motivates but also compels us to take a risk.

The presence of joy in Christian communities – the source of which lies in the continued presence of the power of the risen Christ among us – makes us magnetic. To be magnetic is to be a community of attraction. I’m not sure many in the 1st-century flocked to the fledgling Christian communities for rational, worldly sensible reasons. I think they were attracted by the joy manifested by these communities.

We face some enormous challenges concerning the future of Christian communities in an ever-secularizing society. As we face the urgent imperative for renewal, we have to stop asking where is our renewal to come from? The source of renewal lies within us – in our ability to show how the faith within us makes a difference in our lives.

The early Church grew by leaps and bounds because people wanted what the first Christians seemed to have had. In a joyless world they became compelled by joy to join risk-taking communities. No one explained joy to them, they just became infected by it.

Douthat notes it is a mistake to focus too much on overt obstacles to people finding what they desperately seek in the Church. There are many barriers for them to overcome first – an important one being the way the Church currently is. Many barriers to active participation in organized communities of faith could as Douthat notes – be partially removed, rolled back a little way. But the rub is something else will still be needed – which he articulates as the impulse, the push, that makes people seek and knock and ask.

What’s required today as the church faces increasingly rapid institutional decline? I’m convinced that the answers – whatever they may be – lie within us as communities inflated with the Holy Spirit and motivated by joy – continually moving beyond happiness into joy – moving through sadness into joy – joy a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart – a motivational – propelling – compelling force that enables us to persist in taking risks despite our endless doubts and fears. How attractive – how infectious might that be for a world hungry for belonging?

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