Freedom, Obedience and Joy – A Reflection

Last month St Mellitus College hosted a public conversation between Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, Professor Miroslav Volf, Founder and Director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and Bishop Graham Tomlin, President of St Mellitus College and Bishop of Kensington. Below, Revd Dr Michael Leyden writes a reflection about the evening.

What is the meaning of life? It’s not a question for the faint hearted! When it was asked as the final audience question at the recent public discussion on Freedom, Obedience, and Joy at St Mellitus College, the panel members – three esteemed theologians of international repute – chuckled warmly before taking a moment for quiet contemplation and then each offering a brief reply. It brought to an appropriate end what was a lively discussion whose unifying theme (though largely unspoken) could be summarised as reflections on the challenges and possibilities of articulating a faithful Christian vision for human flourishing that is meaningful and inviting to our contemporary culture. 

The panellists, Father Raniero Cantalamessa OFM, Roman Catholic theologian and preacher to the Papal household since 1980; Professor Miroslav Volf, Pentecostal theologian and Director for the Centre for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School, USA; and Dr Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington and President of St Mellitus College, each presented a short paper on one of the three loci and then the conversation began with the remaining two responding to the speaker’s paper. 

Father Raniero encouraged the church to dispense with sombre forms of obedience which give the impression that being a Christian is miserable and invited us instead to remember the theological foundations of human obedience to God: Christ’s own obedience to the Father, which is the heart of the gospel. Father Raniero’s contention was that a Christological account of obedience should make us happy and winsome people because as Christ’s “yes” to God elicits our own affirmative response to the same, this changes the texture of the Christian life from something that is hard-pressed and burdensome, even slavish, to something grace-filled and loving. And love, he reminded us, is much needed in our world today.

Professor Volf reflected on the meaning of joy and its distinctiveness in relation to other states of being, such as happiness. In parsing joy as an emotion rather than a feeling, Professor Volf encouraged us to think carefully about occasions when joy arises and the attitudes of thankfulness and appreciation that often accompany it. This, he argued, is why praise and worship should be joyful (but not necessarily happy…). Fundamentally, joy is relational; it is deep-seated gratitude for the presence of a particular other or group of others in our lives. And herein lies its distinctiveness from the feeling of happiness: where feelings are often responsive to our immediate context and engagement, joy precedes happiness. Emotions are more deeply rooted in the psyche, and thus induce physiological responses which help to embed powerful memories. Building on Father Raniero’s contribution, Professor Volf left us with the important idea that loving and being loved is the most potent source of joy.

Bishop Graham completed the cycle of short papers by reflecting on the contrast between contemporary secular ideas of human freedom – which often involve a kind of absolutist right to self-determination and realization – and those of the Christian tradition, where freedom is realised only in meaningful relationship. He powerfully located the issue in relation to the recent Grenfell Tower disaster, and the pressing issues of neighbourliness and community which have arisen out of it: the freedom of one person or company or group cannot ever be at the expense of the humanity of the other. In biblical terms, Bishop Graham pointed to the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ teaching that (i) we do not choose who to treat as neighbour, it is whoever God places in our paths, and (ii) we must respond by seeking the good of our neighbours. If I truly want to be free, I must have concern for those whom God has placed around me. This pursuit of good-in-relationship is the Christian meaning of human freedom, as we become free forGod and for others rather than free fromthem.  

Taken together these three – love, joy, and neighbourliness – constitute a powerful vision for the contours of the Christian life, and the characteristics of missional engagement with the contemporary world. There was very little disagreement between the speakers. Instead a developing sense of what the Church might offer to the world as a vision for the future of humanity, in the face of everything we read in the newspapers, demonstrated how serious theological reflection can benefit not only the Church’s thinking about its own internal workings but more importantly enliven our understanding of what it means to be human and to live in community with others for whom Christ died. The implications for mission and ministry were implicit but real throughout: the Church’s vision of human flourishing is witness to the God-given meaning, purpose, and direction of all human life and the common good which is realised in Jesus Christ. That this conversation was ecumenical, international, and missional was also a great source of hope, and reflective of the best kind of theological thinking happening in the Church today. 

Listen to the short talks by Fr Raniero Cantalamessa and Professor Miroslav Volf on our latest GodPod podcast here. The second podcast will be released in June.