The Immanence of Joy: A Response to James KA Smith

There is much about which to be cynical. Or, maybe, it’s just easier to be cynical. Most days I choose what is easier, and so do most people walking the same path as I am.

Maybe that’s why cynicism seems so pervasive – it’s how the community responds with its body to our collective disappointment. Maybe we’re training in cynicism, and we don’t even know it’s happening. Maybe that’s why we’re so good at it.

Increasingly apparent is the reality that I am part of a generation that is systematically under-tooled for following God in the thickness of life. We have been led along like hungry consumers – devouring our way from one experience to another – trained to avoid the tension that emerges when our appetites are no longer fed by the next big thing. Our confusion leads to frantic searching for something else – hyperventilation of the soul – which manifests itself in hurried, destructive habits and speaks in the tongue of cynicism.

While cynicism is not in short supply, at least among those who are near to me, joy is. I know this is true because practicing joy sometimes feels scandalous and wrong – like being the one who unintentionally introduces the faux pas topic during conversation at the dinner table. The record scratches, music stops, eyes glare, crickets chirp – all because joy doesn’t fit the groove of being. While cynicism is not in short supply, at least among those who are near to me, joy is. Click To Tweet

To be joyful rather than cynical threatens something at the core of how and who we’ve learned to be. At some point we’ve all tacitly agreed not to challenge the status quo because we really need to have the thing we’re clutching to be okay.


Recently, James KA Smith, the astute cultural expositor he is, used the “state of joy” as a barometer for measuring the health of late modern, market driven society. (You can find his piece here)

Smith makes the case that joy has to do with gratitude and contentment, which come from receiving from and depending on a Giver distinct from creation. The state of joy, therefore, is unsurprisingly weak in our society, which is marked by autonomy, independence and disenchantment: “there is no joy to be found in self-assertion.”

The deficit of joy is apparent chiefly in the pervasiveness of restlessness, Smith rightly insists. Riffing off Augustine, restlessness for Smith is the symptom of a gaze too fixated on the stuff of life, which he calls “immanent frame.” The problem, for Augustine via Smith, is that creation cannot bear the burden of returning love only the Creator can give: “nothing within the immanent frame can adequately sustain such dependence.”

The point Smith is making is that people are restless, rather than joyful, because they look in the wrong places – down here, not up there. We are self-conscious rather than Other-conscious. What we need is somewhere else, beyond what is here.

Yes. I tend to agree. But, then there’s the Psalmist who proclaims, “the earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love – teach me your statutes” (Ps. 119:64).

I wonder, in contrast, if God has actually given us everything we need in the immanent frame to speak to our restlessness. I wonder if the immanent frame is actually the arena of grace in all its particularities – the zone where we are trained to feast on the abundance of God’s self-gift in Christ instead groping for and hyperventilating over what has already been given.

If joy is the fruit of submission to the Creator – losing oneself and being released from self-consciousness by being “caught up to something bigger, something beyond” – then Smith fails to articulate what it looks like to submit to a God who is beyond. But maybe I misunderstand him.

Yes, it’s true, immanent sources in themselves are ultimately disappointing, and Smith is right to name that giving ourselves to those sources in themselves hinders joy. But, I wonder if any person has ever given herself to something other than immanence? In other words, is it not true that creatures can only give themselves to transcendence to the degree that Transcendence has become immanent?

What and how does the Giver give – if not of himself through immanence? Is this not the salvation story – the condescending of the transcendent Giver – making himself known in the flesh so that creaturely reception of the gift is possible? Isn’t receptivity and dependence possible only because of radical immanence? Does this not imply a certain type of relationship with creation – albeit a sacramental one?

The immanence of hesed, God’s steadfast love, does not imply that the world itself is the ultimate fulfillment of our longing, but that, in Christ, it is enough for our well-being. And, in Christ, creation – that is, the stuff of life – can once again become the very means through which we encounter and enjoy God’s life. God is not found somewhere else except right where we are in the grit of immanence.

Is the embrace of this reality not the first step out of restlessness and into joy? Isn’t cynicism a choice to ignore the thumping beat of God’s grace in Christ pulsating just beneath suffering and malaise?

If joy is found, not in self-assertion, but in submission (as Smith insists), I’m learning that submission happens more in embodied normal-ness (that is, in the immanence of life) than it does ecstatically (that is, in the “something bigger” of life). I’m learning that when I submit, I’m saying “yes”  to the immanence of God’s grace and love – agreeing with my body that God’s redeeming presence and promise is truer and nearer than the narrative that nothing more is possibly going on here in this mess.

In fact, we may be missing the space for the cultivation of joy, not because we’re looking too “low” per se, but rather because we often desperately, neurotically pursue ecstatic/transcendent experiences that remove and distract us from disappointment and restlessness in the earthy frame. We’ve lost the ability to squirm.

But joy comes in the midst of the squirm as we keep our gaze turned toward all the ways our ordinary world is bursting with God’s grace in Christ, trusting that it will eventually birth endurance and wisdom in us (see James 1), and that those things probably cannot be birthed in us in any other way. This posture of trust becomes the way we train ourselves out of cynicism and into joy. The Immanence of Joy: A Response to James KA Smith Click To Tweet

And Smith is correct; embodying joy in this way is contagious. But don’t be surprised if joy first scandalizes before it attracts. You might just have to be “that guy” who walks away from the table – crickets still chirping – the only one in the room grinning – trusting in your deep that you’re okay today, flourishing is possible, because the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. [Photo by Brian Tomlinson, CC via Flickr]

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