Information Age Education
   Issue Number 192
August, 2016   

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Joy in the Vision: The Joyful Knowledge
in Religious Learning

Norman Metzler
Emeritus Professor of Theology
Concordia University Portland

This series on “Joy in Learning” has already explored various aspects of joyful or positive experiences associated with “learning.” Caine and Caine (January, 2016) define “learning” as making sense of experience and developing capacities to act. Other articles have explored the bioneurological components of joy in learning or motivational and achievement aspects associated with joy in learning. The unique role of this article within the series will be to survey briefly the perspectives of various religions on joy in learning, and to propose some relationships between the insights of the earlier articles in the series and religious dimensions of joy in learning.

The concept of “joy” or happiness is prominent in religious learning and experiential contexts. This can be thought of as a type of intrinsic motivation. The religious sense of “joy” is not just “enjoyment” of a momentary activity, but a larger sense of joy as well in persisting through obstacles on the way toward the goal. Joy in learning within the religious context is associated with “big picture” joy, a deeper and more profound joy, an overarching personal investment in and commitment to moving toward an autonomously-chosen higher goal.

Joy in Eastern Religions

A general sense of “joy”—happiness, blessedness, well-being—is associated with religious experience and learning that may be found across the religious spectrum. The character of this “joy” does take on different nuances in the various religious traditions. In the major world religions of the East, “joy” is generally associated with learning to interpret and transcend this present material world of illusion and pain. Hinduism holds that the activities of our human senses cause attachment to material things, resulting in anger, delusion, and suffering. The purpose of spiritual activity is to turn our mind inwardly from sensory objects, so that our mind/ego can be dissolved in an endless state of bliss. This state of bliss or deep spiritual joy arrived at through inward focus and insight is called “ananda” (see http://hinduwebsite.com/).

Buddhism holds that “mudita” or “empathetic joy” is that attitude of selfless rejoicing in the happiness of another. As one reflects on what has happened and the happiness resulting from it, one can apply that knowledge gained through reflection to one’s own actions. This is the most difficult to practice of the four “immeasurables” or sublime attitudes in Buddhism, the practice that enables one to experience past and future in an enlightened manner that avoids suffering and encourages peace and happiness in the present. The practice of these meditative “immeasurables” likens one’s mind to that of the loving gods.

The general approach of these major Eastern religions is to overcome the material world and individual attachments through enlightened thought and practice. A deep joy and sense of tranquility can be found (using Hindu imagery) in ultimately transcending individual physical being through the “atman” (individual soul or self) to become one with the “Brahman” (the all-embracing soul or self).

Joy in Western Religions

In the Western Abrahamic traditions, joy/happiness/pleasure correlate with a sense of fellowship with God and obedience to his commands.

Judaism, the earliest of the Western religious traditions, associates spiritual happiness with knowing and keeping the covenant will of God.

The Hebrew term “baruch,” usually translated “blessed,” has the sense in English of “happy,” “joyful,” “blissful,” “fulfilled.” Psalm 1 from the Old Testament (KJV), for example, declares: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” The joyful blessedness of learning God’s law and living one’s life in the light of that law is the central theme of the Jewish faith.

The Western religious tradition of Islam reflects the influence of both Judaism and Christianity. It teaches that humans were created for lasting joy, happiness, and eternal bliss. Suffering is the result of a lack of conscious awareness, while unhappiness is non-alignment with the will and purpose of Allah. According to this tradition, spiritual happiness correlates with being in conscious control of one’s life. As one awakens to willful submission to the will of Allah, one realizes true, deep, lasting joy and happiness.

“Joy” is also a very prominent concept in Christianity. It shares with other religious traditions the understanding of joy/happiness/fulfillment as a deeper, lasting reality, rather than just a momentary emotion. Christianity and other religions look forward to an ultimate end-time or transcendent reality of perfect, fulfilling joy, whether that be Brahman, Nirvana, Paradise, or Heaven. The unique element in Christianity is that this deeper, lasting joy or happiness is revealed by God through the teachings of Jesus, and comes to be known in his “Gospel,” which is the vision of eternal life with God in his heavenly Kingdom as a pure gift of divine grace.

This teaching of Jesus is in the first instance an objective, public proclamation available to all. However, as the Spirit of God works on the heart and mind of an individual in and through this Gospel message, the learner internalizes this message and makes it his/her own. This internalization of the Christian vision is what Christianity calls “faith,” where faith means trusting God for the gift and acting according to that internalized vision. The deep “joy” that one finds in learning of this vision and living by it is much more profound than a momentary “enjoyment” of a particular experience, and it persists through the vagaries and obstacles of daily life. Spiritually speaking, it is the joy of knowing an intimate connection with one’s ultimate destiny.

The Relationship to Cognitive Neuroscience

Martha Kaufeldt (March, 2016) utilizes the research of Jaak Panksepp (Panksepp and Biven, 2012) in suggesting that teachers might “Increase student engagement by activating the brain’s SEEKING System.” Panksepp’s work explains that the human brain has a natural “SEEKING System” which at a primary emotional processing level “prompts us to eagerly anticipate…the things we need for basic survival…” More than this, however, the SEEKING System “plays a key role in learning and making connections as it helps to create anticipatory eagerness—including a thirst for knowledge.”

Dopamine was earlier thought to produce the pleasurable feelings of “reward” for achieving a goal or outcome, but this “reward” phase is now associated with opioids and the release of endorphins. Quoting Kaufeldt (March, 2016):

According to Pecina and Berridge (2013) the dopamine system is the “wanting” and the opioid system is the “liking.” The wanting system gets us into action and the liking system makes us feel satisfied and to temporarily stop seeking.

In short, anticipation of a hoped-for successful outcome is the motivator for present seeking and learning activities, and such anticipation is related in broad terms to feelings of joy, excitement, and eagerness.

The fascinating and promising connection between this recent neurological research and Christianity is that the Christian faith has long understood daily life to be motivated by a hope that envisions and anticipates a big-picture outcome, namely eternal life with God in his heavenly Kingdom. One lives life in the present hopefully, joyfully, eagerly, as one anticipates that final goal and outcome of one’s faith. Jesus taught that one’s top priority in life should be to “seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness” (NIV, Matthew 6:33). This means that one should anticipate in the present those attitudes and actions that correlate with the ultimate state of affairs in God’s coming Kingdom: loving, forgiving, healing, reconciling —in short, all aspects of God’s righteousness or goodness.

We may thus conclude that these recent insights into brain functioning and the SEEKING System can be seen to corroborate the religious understanding of the fundamental dynamic operating in human life and history, namely that our attitudes and actions are driven by what we envision and anticipate as a desired outcome. A deep sense of abiding joy, blessedness and fulfillment accompany one’s learning about and being motivated by that desired outcome, which in the Christian faith is our ultimate goal and destiny with God in his Kingdom. Commitment to the ultimate outcome enables one to persist in living anticipatorily and eagerly in the face of obstacles experienced along life’s way. Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed [joyful, happy] are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NIV, Matthew 5:10). And St. Paul writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory [joy, blessedness, happiness] that is about to be revealed to us…” (NIV, Romans 8:18).

From the religious perspective, a profound joy, peace and sense of fulfillment comes with learning of God’s ultimate purpose and destiny for our lives, which includes and transcends all the penultimate joys of learning and life. This leaves us with the following issue: Might religious beliefs and cognitive neuroscience discoveries finally be converging to explain something as central to human life as “joy?”

References

Caine, G., & Caine, R. (January, 2016). IAE Newsletter. The problem with defining learning. Retrieved 6/3/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2016-178.html.

Kaufeldt, M. (March, 2016). Increase student engagement by activating the brain’s SEEKING system. Retrieved 6/3/2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmavihara.

KJV & NIV (n.d.). The Holy Bible. King James Version and New International Version.

Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: W.W. Norton.

Pecina, S., & Berridge, K. (2013). Dopamine or opioid stimulation of nucleus accumbens similarly amplify cue-triggered “wanting” for reward. European Journal of Neuroscience.

Smith, H. (1991). The world’s religions. New York: Harper & Row.

Wikipedia (n.d.). Brahmaviharas. Retrieved 6/3/2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmavihara.

Author

Norman Metzler is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Concordia University, Portland, Oregon. He received his Master of Divinity at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, his Master of Theology at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, and completed his doctorate in theology with Prof. Dr. Wolfhart Pannenberg at Ludwig-Maximillian’s University, Munich, Germany. He has taught for many years in theology, philosophy, and ethics, and did his doctoral thesis on the relationship of ethics and eschatology (the Christian doctrine of the last things). A practicing Lutheran Pastor, Metzler resides in Vancouver, Washington, with his wife, Mary, a retired nurse. They have two grown sons.

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