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Devra Torres

Giving Joy a Bad Name

Jan. 6 at 9:34pm

Joy is no simple thing, it turns out.  Pope Francis invites us to experience the “Joy of the Gospel” and immediately the misconceptions spring up like—let’s see--like bundled-up children on a snow day in Michigan.

Here are two misreadings I’ve run into:

  • All this emphasis on joy betrays the sort of sentimental affective relativism I thought we'd left behind in the ‘70s--a call to scrap all concern for moral demands and “follow your heart.”

  • All this encouragement to experience joy amounts to compulsory cheeriness: it places suffering or depressed people under suspicion of spiritual inferiority for failure to keep up appearances. And it places everyone else under the obligation to mimic the most annoying kind of shallow, sanguine extrovert.

Sentimentality and shallowness have one thing in common: a manifest indifference to the truth. And many people figure that’s an inevitable by-product of “feelings.”  They regard the human heart as something irrational, something inevitably yoked to the body and its unaccountable ups and downs.  

Dietrich Von Hildebrand addresses this kind of reductionism at length in one of his books.  

He introduces the distinction between what we might call "free-floating" feelings--the ones based on illusion, or on fleeting bodily states--and affective responses that are rooted in, and justified by,reality.

The true affective experience implies that one is convinced of its objective validity. An affective experience which is not justified by reality has no validity for the truly affective man. As soon as such a man realizes that his joy, his happiness, his enthusiasm, or his sorrow is based on an illusion the experience collapses.

Thus what matters primarily is not the question; "Do we feel happiness?" but rather, "Is this objective situations such that we have reason to be happy?" 

Feelings, then, need not be cut off from truth.  They aren't reflexively disregarded by reasonable people.

Something else that can give the heart a bad name is the way people let it usurp the roles of intellect or will:

If, for example, a man who wants to ascertain a fact does not consult his intellect, but instead claims that his heart tells him what the fact is, he has opened the door to all kinds of illusions.

In such a case, instead of letting his intellect decide whether a deed is morally wrong, he relies on his "feeling guilty" or "feeling not guilty." He supposes the affective experience of feeling to be a univocal criterion for an objective fact.This is a key point for a spiritual person to be aware of when dealing with difficult moral issues. Am I letting my heart take the place of my intellect or indeed vice versa?

So what kind of joy is Francis talking about?

Well, clearly he has no intention of letting us settle for complacency masquerading as happiness. 

And he’s been warning us for months against being "self-referential": breathing in the stale air of our stagnant assumptions about God and other people, cut off from truth (the “things in themselves” I learned about in grad school under Josef Seifert).  Being trapped in our own little sealed-up compartments:that’s what cuts us off from joy.

If he’s nagging us to be joyful, we can be sure it’s not the pleasures of escapism or the contentment of indifference, either.

Here he is in Evangelii Gaudium:

Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.

This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life.

This isn't just a warning against self-centeredness--it's a caution against sealing yourself off from objective truth, from the reality of God and everybody else.  

The joy he's encouraging--okay, practically demanding--isn't the pleasure of hedonism, it's true.  It's not an escapist's pleasure, the kind you get by disregarding the truth, or the reality of other people's suffering.

But it's not just a rarified gratification of the will and intellect, either.  It doesn't leave the heart out in the cold.

So is Francis looking to drag us all back to the 1970s in all their vapid glory?

No. 

He just wants to help us acquire a taste for the delicacies of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.


 

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