Joy and Human Dignity

Mary Clark Moschella of Yale Divinity School recently visited campus for a series of events on joy and pastoral care. As a postlude to her visit, I want to reflect briefly on joy as one theological foundation for an understanding of human dignity.[1] Moschella links these concepts when she offers a pastoral theological description in which “joy comes down to this: to being awake and deeply alive, aware of the love and goodness of God, and mindful of the wondrous gift of life.”[2]

Any theology of joy and human dignity needs to account for the reality of human suffering. For me, human vulnerability links joy and suffering together because vulnerability brings the potential for both. Vulnerability also makes possible the experience of joy in the midst of suffering, as when the experience of grief can coincide with the joy of loving connection with others, neither side of the experience canceling the other out.

Given the linkage between joy and suffering, cruelty offers a way of thinking about joy as a foundation for dignity. Precisely because joy can be so vulnerable, cruelty often leverages joy as a means of inflicting suffering. Cruelty, that is, acknowledges human dignity by violating it in order to render the object less than human, as when people use slurs in an attempt to turn people’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and so on from part of who they are into a cause for shame.

Little wonder, then, that resistance movements often rejoice in what others have treated as shameful.[3] Consequently, however, public displays of joy that respond to the slurs frequently appear transgressive, as people doing shameful things in public. A person accustomed to the prevailing social norms is more likely to respond to such displays with fear or disgust than with joy. Attuning oneself to joy can be uncomfortable and challenging work that demands an inner transformation, an opening to something human from which we have closed ourselves off.

These dynamics of shame and joy show that joy—and human dignity—resist stabilization into reliable norms. That is, joy can’t be enforced, especially not at the expense of other emotions, like anger and hatred, that people marginalized by social norms likely experience.[4] Demanding joy can ironically become a way of keeping joy at arm’s length. Sometimes attuning oneself to joy means being willing to hear—really hear—someone’s anger.[5] En route to joy, often the only way is through.

Demanding joy can ironically become a way of keeping joy at arm’s length.

On that point, the importance of Jesus to my theological account of human dignity comes into focus. The emerging orthodoxy of Christianity’s early centuries insisted with increasing clarity that human salvation depends on Jesus having been really, truly, and fully human.[6] One potent expression of this idea comes from Gregory of Nazianzus, who wrote in the fourth century that “what has not been assumed cannot be healed.”[7] What Gregory means is that Jesus can only heal the parts of human experience into which he entered, so we have no hope of salvation unless he entered into all of them. So, even though it might seem blasphemous or demeaning to think of Jesus as fully immersed in the muck and blood (and joy!) of human existence, we’re in deep trouble if he wasn’t.

Rowan Williams recently gave daring and potent expression to a corollary of Gregory’s claim, arguing that if we are to understand what it means for Jesus to be fully divine, we need to probe what it means for him to be fully human.[8] Insisting on Jesus’s full humanity puts theological value on full humanity for the rest of us, as when the second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of a human being is the vision of God.”[9] Joy has everything to do with this vision: as Moschella writes, “Joy is right at the heart of what it means to be fully alive, and right at the tender heart of God.”[10]

The dynamics of dignity, shame, and joy meet in the cross, as when the Epistle to the Hebrews writes that Jesus, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb. 12:2, NRSV). Jesus’s crucifixion stands as a testament to the human capacity for responding with violence and humiliation to the dignity of a human being fully alive. But the cross is also a site of joy, in the way that Jesus responded with profoundly human care to his mother, the beloved disciple, the people crucified alongside him, and even the people who crucified him. The cross is a potent symbol for Paul precisely because of everything that the power and violence of the crucifixion could not squelch in Jesus. Paul’s thought transforms the cross from a tool of imperial violence to the image of its failure. It is not surprising that many who encountered this idea found it scandalous, a stumbling-block.[11]

The cross thus signifies the capacity of human dignity to outlast whatever slurs or violence may be hurled against it while also acknowledging the reality of that violence. Amy Hollywood gives voice to this doubleness when she argues that Christian “tradition need not rest on the assertion that loss, suffering, and death alone are real. Christianity insists that it not be, but that presence, pleasure, and life are also real, that we live in the interplay between presence and absence, suffering and pleasure, life and death, sorrow and joy.”[12] Similarly, Moschella argues that a credible theology of joy “must take seriously the ambiguity of living in a world and an age characterized by much suffering and much sorrow, oppression and violence. In choosing joy as a path toward fullness of life, we must be awake to it all—the suffering that we know and know of, as well as the beauty and goodness that appear and lure us toward greater life.”[13] As a ground for human dignity, joy does not negate or paper over suffering; rather, it enables us to name suffering as such, precisely because joy and suffering arise from the same fact of human vulnerability.

Being awake to it all means attending to human experience in its particulars and not merely as a general phenomenon. This idea puts pressure on Gregory of Nazianzen’s dictum because Jesus the first-century male Galilean Jew cannot really have assumed the experiences of people whose embodied and historical particularities differ from his. He did not, for instance, directly experience multigenerational racialized chattel slavery and its destructive aftereffects. Affirming the dignity of those who did (and do) means not rushing to make equivalencies or analogies, no matter how theologically attractive they might be, just as affirming Jesus’s human dignity (which is to say, with Williams, his divinity) requires that his particularities be theologically meaningful.

Nevertheless, plenty of people (including me) who are not first-century Galilean Jews have experienced Jesus’s faithfulness to us as we navigate experiences that could only have been alien to his historical particularity. One way of reading that faithfulness could be to argue that part of what makes Jesus fully human is his refusal to treat his own experience as normative for joy and for the account of human dignity that it underwrites. That is, not only can Jesus acknowledge the joys that don’t align exactly with his, but he is faithful to them, because that way lies the road to human flourishing for the people involved. His glory, too, is a human being fully alive, and he is attuned to the plenitude of forms that such life might take. One might say that Jesus is committed to the Body of Christ as Paul describes it. Part of being human is holding space for your joy even though it’s different from mine in ways that might make it difficult for me even to apprehend, so that “the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25, NRSV). Jesus already had to do this for people he encountered whose experience did not align with his: a Samaritan woman, various tax collectors, irascible fishermen, and so on. There is a mutuality between his full humanity and our own.

Far from grounding a stable ethics, joy and the account of human dignity it underwrites turn out to be rather slippery, but this slipperiness is a feature, not a bug. The ethical demand is not to respond to something in humans that one can readily encounter upon meeting them, although that happens often enough. Rather, the demand is to respond to something in them that one may first have to seek, and the seeking will all but inevitably involve a lot of curiosity, patience, miscommunication, and even more curiosity. It will involve trying to build trust across modes of difference that could seem insurmountable or irreconcilable. And curiosity remains crucial even in cases where someone’s dignity seems immediately apparent. Part of what Jesus has to teach us is that dignity is not just something we have (although we do), but it is something to which we have to be doggedly faithful.

To illustrate that faithfulness, I will turn to a Jewish story. Shemot Rabbah tells of Moses tending his father-in-law’s sheep when one runs away. Moses chases after it and finds it drinking. In compassion, he says, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You are so exhausted!” After Moses carries the sheep back, the Holy One speaks to him: “Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such overwhelming love—by your life, I swear you shall be the shepherd of my sheep, Israel.”[14] Moses’s faithfulness consists in his ability to see things from the sheep’s perspective in a situation where his own frustration and exhaustion might easily have prevailed. God saw that Moses could shepherd people because he could see the dignity in a sheep—the joy that the sheep found when a need that nobody else had recognized was not only met but seen at last.

On that point, let me insist that the Jewishness of the story matters. Following the train of thought I have been developing, seeing Moses as a Good Shepherd means refusing to assimilate him to the more familiar (to Christians) example of Jesus. What joys might be lost in refusing to allow the story to remain Jewish? What, crucially, would remain unseen? In what sense might the sheep remain thirsty and need to slip off for a drink?

At BYU of late, the topic of belonging arises frequently. Amidst invitations to approach this subject using what President Kimball called “gospel methodology,” I have attempted here to sketch out a concept of human dignity, grounded in joy and rooted in Jesus, that attends robustly to the breadth of human experience.[15] Within this theological framework, belonging may well be a cosmic fact arising from our identity as children of God, but insisting on that fact alone does not create the experience of belonging. Much like Jesus’s divinity became manifest in his humanity, belonging is something that has to be bodied out through faithfulness to human dignity that often needs to be sought, much like a sheep that is part of the flock but not yet gathered into the fold. Belonging isn’t an answer, but a question: the question of what it would take to be faithful to the joy that is the very purpose of your existence, especially when your joys and mine differ. The question is how we can come to glory with God in other people fully alive and come in the process to be fully alive ourselves. With Jesus as our companion, this is the journey.

This blog post was written by Jason A. Kerr, Associate Professor of English, Brigham Young University. 

[1] My thinking on this point has been shaped by Miroslav Volf and Justin E. Crisp, eds., Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015). Dignity is a hotly contested philosophical and theological topic; see, e.g., Christopher McCrudden, ed. Understanding Human Dignity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), which examines the topic through Catholic theology and social teaching.

[2] Mary Clark Moschella, “Calling and Compassion: Elements of Joy in Lived Practices of Care,” in Volf and Crisp, Joy and Human Flourishing, 101.

[3] See Mary Clark Moschella, Caring for Joy: Narrative, Theology, and Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2016), ch. 8; Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017); and Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[4] See the discussion of hate in Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon, 1996 [1949]), ch. 4.

[5] On anger and joy, see the discussion of Pauli Murray in Moschella, Caring for Joy, ch. 6.

[6] For a good overview, see Brian E. Daley, SJ, God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[7] Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 158. (The text is his first letter to Cledonius the Presbyter.)

[8] Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), xii-xiii and passim.

[9] Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, 4.20.7. Latin: “Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei.” My trans. Quoted from the Brepols Library of Latin Texts,

[10] Moschella, “Calling and Compassion,” 126.

[11] Paul uses the Greek word skandalon (meaning a stumbling block) to describe the cross in 1 Cor. 1:23 and Gal. 5:11.

[12] Amy Hollywood, Acute Melancholia and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 63.

[13] Moschella, Caring for Joy, 10.

[14] Shemot Rabbah 2:2, Sefaria community translation.

[15] Spencer W. Kimball, “The Second Century of BYU,” 10 October 1975.

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