Joy – and Its Limitations

I recently read Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudium evangelii (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and was struck by the fact that it is just as much about joy as it is about the Gospel. If you ask Microsoft Word about the number of times “joy” appears in the text, it comes to 110.

This somewhat artificial mathematical tabulation jibes perfectly, however, with Francis’ persona. As the media happily report, he seems to be always exuding joy, like someone who gets up in the morning and can’t wait to go out there and fulfill all those papal duties.

Frankly, this makes me feel inadequate. The pope warns evangelizers not to look like they “just came back from a funeral.” I don’t think I am that type. I have been “surprised by joy” – to use C.S Lewis’ phrase. But I know persons who are like clones of Francis; and I am not like them.

There is an element of temperament in all this. Temperament is something we are born with. Aristotle, referring to Hippocrates’ classification of the “four temperaments,” says that the melancholic temperament is most naturally oriented to philosophy (my profession), and the melancholic person might find his happiness (?) in becoming a philosopher.

“Sanguine” and “phlegmatic” temperaments lack the motivation to go into deeper analysis of ideas and values. “Choleric” temperaments are more practical and action-oriented, making them good leaders or activists, but probably not strong thinkers.

A more recent theory by Harvard psychologist, William Sheldon, connects temperament with the three layers of the embryonic egg – endoplasm, mesoplasma, and ectoplasma – resulting in three body types and three temperaments – viscerotonic, somatotonic, and cerebrotonic, respectively.

The third of these temperaments converges somewhat with Hippocrates’ “melancholic,” and is said by Sheldon to be naturally oriented to introspection, scholarly and artistic pursuits – but is in stark contrast with the viscerotonic, who is naturally sanguine, outgoing, cheerful. I strongly suspect a viscerotonic person may have an easier time being Francis’ joyful extraverted missionary.

Of course, as we get beyond natural endowments into the realm of grace, the experience of joy becomes more nuanced. The “joyful mysteries” of the Rosary are also full of sadness. After the Annunciation, Mary – newly betrothed to Joseph – must have felt agony while waiting until the angel informed Joseph about the mystery of the Incarnation.

Or at the Nativity, does not the Bethlehem scene unfold in the context of innkeepers who could make no accommodation for a wife close to labor, and a world unready to welcome the King of the Jews?

The joy of the Presentation is thoroughly offset by Simeon’s prophecy that Mary’s soul will be pierced with grief. In the aftermath of the Presentation, the flight into Egypt to avoid assassination of the infant Jesus involved years of bare survival amid foreign people, language, and customs.

Our evangelical pope
Our evangelical pope

And can we imagine the grief and self-doubt felt by Joseph and Mary before they discovered the missing Jesus in the temple?

Still, Pope Francis has a point. Think of the Apostles and disciples, in the aftermath of the Resurrection, spreading out around the world to preach the Good News. They could, mutatis mutandis, be compared to reporters for news organizations, who have just come upon the most incredible “scoop,” and can’t wait to write it up, go on talk shows, give interviews, and continue spreading the message, going ever deeper into its details and ramifications.

The message of the Apostles and disciples, of course, was about forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eventual resurrection. Many of their “audiences” were ready for this news – disillusioned by pagan gods who were deaf and dumb, enjoying their bliss in Olympia unconcerned about earthly goings-on. Some among the Greeks were seeking the “unknown god” who always seemed so hidden and inaccessible. Some Jews were eager to welcome the long-expected Messiah.

Unfortunately, the audiences that contemporary evangelists have to deal with are often of a very different nature, especially in the “Western” world: Very busy, often very nice, but tuned completely to secular life.

Some, maybe, value family and relationships, but are not interested in God or religion. They simply have no time for religious practices, or for messages about a God-man who appeared on earth two millennia ago. They certainly don’t feel they are in need of “salvation.”

Or they may be “post-Christians” and “New-Agers” who think everyone will go to heaven – at least those who follow the “flow of the spirit,” and are nice to everyone. In any case, everyone will get there because God is so super-understanding and accepting, isn’t He?

So how do such persons respond to Christians who come to them full of Christian joy? They may be tolerant, but in so many cases the joy of the message turns out to be less than infectious. The material world, with its cares and pleasures, weighs down the spirit, and desensitizes it, and makes thoughts of transcendence and of life-everlasting seem unscientific fantasies.

If we look for the audience most oriented towards influence from the Gospel, it may be in the Middle and Far East. In my book The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct, I discuss the extraordinary and often miraculous development of “house churches” in China. And a recent book by David Garrrison, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is drawing Muslims around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ documents the underground and necessarily secret conversions to Christianity of hundreds of thousands of Muslims throughout the Middle East, in spite of ostracism and persecution and constant threats of execution.

But what about all the secularists, New Agers, atheists, and post-Christians? What “scoop” would get their attention? It’s hard to say. If the prophet Elias re-appeared joyfully announcing the Second Coming, it would universally be thought a case of mental instability. Can anyone imagine it would it make the front page of the New York Times?

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.