Joy Reconsidered


by George N. Petrovich

Humanity is a joyful being. This is not a simple desire, but a very normal human condition. Joy shares one divine characteristic in that it seeks to endure and to never run out. That which defines those captured moments within is the undying sense to exist in the same way that it appears. Joy strives for eternity and tends to be connected with it. In fact, joy by its nature loses its character if it ends. Humanity feels the call to be eternally joyful.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that joy is an unsatisfied desire, which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction (Surprised by Joy). Apart from any scientific observation, many civilizations have witnessed its primacy and occasion from the very early periods of life. Smiling and laughter, two prominent features of joy, accompanied by social games, are also signs of the joyful effect on human cultures. Analyzing the positive effect of joy in later life, it is possible to observe that if it is present in the infant stages of development it tends to be associated with a sense of vigor and with feelings of strength, confidence and competency. Functionally, it is centrally involved in the creation of social bonds—is it not enough to observe an infant’s ability to smile that elicits reciprocal smiling and joy, thereby fostering the bond of attachment? Smiling, laughter, mirth or pleasure, are indeed sustaining factors, or rather, vivid outcomes of joy. By observing all the sources (or stimuli) of joy, ranging from music to sports, joy demonstrates its important function as an answer for sadness, and in some instances, even an aversion to the notion of death. The ultimate human exclamation mark before the inexorability of death is triggered by the desire to live. But, the modern notion of death is often either rejected or romanticized. However, death cannot be relativized. This responds to the condition by which death is overcome and qualitative life guaranteed in eternity.

From the foregoing, there are three main coordinates that permeate the anthropological phenomenon of joy:

(a) the first deals with the question of meaning of life endangered by death, the drive toward the eternal reality (along with the notion of purpose and ultimate human identity),

(b) the second is the encounter and communion with the resurrected Christ as an already concrete answer of human purpose and meaning and,

(c) the third defines joy as the result of that accomplishment.

(a) How can we talk about life which has been infected by death, that itself ends in death? Humanity is valued according to its main problem. Seeking a solution to its main problem, we actually realize the tow of humanity. And humanity is usually entirely consumed with its main trouble. All of its values and defects are present in its main crisis, which corrodes the body, soul, spirit and consciousness. Observing how much effort humanity puts towards defeating death, it becomes obvious then: death is such a tangling issue that it appears to be the gravest problem of humanity. Trying to find a solution, the problem is then passed over to gods, as essentially a divine problem. By conditioning and evaluating gods, humanity realizes the decisive responsibility to choose a god who can outsmart death and convert it into joy. That is why any aspiration of Christianity to merge, or to forge a Gleischschaltung, with the spirit of the time, with the transitory movements of various historical periods, and even with the political parties or regimes, actually reduces Christianity to mere humanism.

 (b) The choice for the right god, viz. Christ, and consequently the communion with Christ, is also the undisguised progress toward true life, because true progress lies only in that which conquers death. Accordingly, anything else which does not reassure immortality to the human person, Justin Popović (+1979) argued, is nothing more than a fatal regress. The specific value of Christian religion in the world is actually the Divine-human communion experienced in the Eucharist. Without communion, and hence unity, with the resurrected Christ, the human odyssey is defined as горковест[1]—the bitter (bad) news, along with the failure of the ridiculous attempt to liberate itself by means of frigid science. The choice for Christ is the reestablishment of humanity as the movement from non-being to the Ultimate-Being, ό έσχατος Αδάμ. This choice is of an ontological rather than an ethical character of true progress and true human desire: to overcome non-being by likening humanity (ομοιοΰσθαι Θεώ) after Christ, that is communion with Christ.

(c) Joy as the Eucharistic result rather affirms life as being into elation. In Christ, humanity is not only eternally alive, but eternally one in qualitative life with God. In these days of fasting, the Church invites all believers and the whole of creation to recognize a true progress in the God-man Christ, who brought the wealth of the co-incarnation so that we may all co-resurrect with Him.

[1] Popović is the author of neologisms in the theological dictionary. Gorkovest as opposed to the Gospel means the bitter word, bad news. Among others, the following represent one of the most frequent in the text and are relevant for the main topic: воцерковление-inchurching, охристовљење-in Christ-ing, utrojicenje- in Trinity-ing, etc.

George N. Petrovich is an independent scholar of Orthodox theology.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.