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The Joy of Religion: Exploring the nature of pleasure in spiritual life, by Ariel Glucklich

22 May 2020

This sceptic asks what religions offer, says Martin Warner

THIS is an interesting time in which to read about joy and pleasure. We are living through a pandemic that is likely to remain etched in global history as a phenomenon that compares to a world war or to the consequences of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake in driving the European Enlightenment.

Having things taken away that are the source of our joy and pleasure is a serious challenge to our contemporary culture. Consumerism has most to lose in the deprivation of unprecedented levels of choice in clothing, electronic devices, food, and drink. Denial of access to tourism and the freedom to travel follow close behind. So, what constitutes joy and pleasure in an extended period of social distancing?

Without shopping, travel, drinking, and dining out, the consumerist promise of repeated, novel, and immediate gratification is difficult to replicate in the limits of a routine bounded by government hygiene regulations. Doing so in the context of disease and death will set demanding standards for what constitutes lasting joy and pleasure.

The filmmaker Derek Jarman, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, was a person of irrepressible joy, and an informed seeker and giver of pleasure at a number of levels. He was not constrained by inherited patterns of belief and practice, no matter what their origin. So, in his witty letters to God, Jarman asks: “Please send me to hell, yours sincerely, Derek Jarman”.

Here is a bold assertion of our own definition of pleasure in the realm of spiritual values. It is an echo of Satan’s bravura rebellion in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Evil, be thou my good.” This is the intelligent, bold, and fascinating assessment of the true rebel.

Ariel Glucklich is this sort of rebel. By his own admission, as a Jew he lacks faith in any metaphysical realities. But his interests in the phenomenon of faith are wide-ranging, historically and geographically. Christianity features as a marginal contributor, in the Anabaptist Bruderhof group, for example: a somewhat some specialist example in comparison with Roman Catholicism or Pentecostalism.

Glucklich is also a consumer. He is intellectually and academically fascinated by religion as a purveyor and regulator of pleasure. He is also completely disengaged, approaching his subject with the objective interest that might similarly be found in a history and analysis of torture.

Chapters unfold on the variety and nature of pleasure, on the mastery of pleasure in Greek civilisation, on magic, on sects that often don’t care for pleasure, and on ritual, where the instincts for dance and music are a welcome feature.

The concluding chapter, on the Jewish shabbat, has more human warmth to it. This is where Glucklich admits that he writes as a sceptic and a cynic trying to make sense of a surprisingly pleasant experience.

In the end, I fear, he has missed the point. The joy and pleasure of the spiritual life, the ensigns of an unseen reality and destiny — these are only truly understood by the devout beholder.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester

The Joy of Religion: Exploring the nature of pleasure in spiritual life 
Ariel Glucklich 
Cambridge University Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

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