Ten Mangled Words : “Taste”

De gustibus non est disputandum, said the ancient Romans. There is no disputing over taste, meaning that in matters of personal taste and preference, there can be no profitable dispute, and therefore there ought to be none.

There’s much truth to that. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, and have no time for fantasy, then we have no quarrel. If you’re partial to Elgar instead of Bach, then live and let live. If seafood floats your boat, and red meat turns you off, then to each his own. Jack Spratt could eat no fat, and all that.

The problem with the word taste is that it refers to more than one human experience or ability. Because we use the same word for these very different things, we run the risk of equivocation when we use the word: speaking in two voices. We may mean one thing, but seem to mean the other. We may find ourselves alternating between the two meanings in the same conversation. This not only brings confusion to discussions, it can also be manipulated by the dishonest. To heal this mangled word, we need to separate the competing or differing meanings, and find synonyms to use alongside taste.

The first meaning is the one meant in the Roman maxim. Here, taste refers to individual preference. The creation is awash in a variety of colours, tastes, fragrances, textures, sounds, shapes, words, ideas and the infinite combinations thereof. Part of the variety is the individuality of the human being, who at the earliest age begins to demonstrate preferences, likes and dislikes. Differing tastes encourage more variety, more experimentation, and more innovation. It is in this sense that the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is loosely true: individual preference finds pleasure where others do not.

Within the sphere of what is upright and pleasing to God, differing taste ought to be a source of curiosity, enjoyment and fascination. Learning what another enjoys in something I do not will either initiate me into beauties and pleasures I had not known, or at least fill me with new regard and enjoyment of another fascinating human made in God’s image. Scripture certainly encourages believers to show deference to one another’s preferences, when those preferences fall within the bounds of what is pure, true, just, upright, noble, virtuous, lovely, etc.

The second meaning was very far from the minds of the Latin creators of that maxim. Taste in this second sense was used from around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to describe a faculty of judgement. Philosophers and aestheticians of the time were grappling with the question of the subjective and variable experience of beholders and the properties of what is beheld. The question of “good taste” and “bad taste” became an important one, even to sceptical empiricists like David Hume. Here taste does not refer to preference, but to discernment. As a trained palate can distinguish subtle flavours, so a person of good taste can distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate, beautiful and gaudy, classy and tacky, art and kitsch. The mark of one who has learned and absorbed the accumulated good judgements of thousands of people who have now already died, is that he is “civilised”, “cultured”, “a man of discrimination”, “a man of good taste”. The fact that you can already hear the watchdogs against elitism barking after that last sentence tells you all you need to know about the current attitude towards these ideas.

But in fact, Scripture has just as much to say (in fact, much more) on this second meaning of taste. It does not use the term taste (just as it does not in the first meaning). It uses the terms discernment, judgement, wisdom, understanding, and conscience. It gives rather elaborate instruction on how to cultivate this kind of taste, how to use it and not abuse it. And in fact, this kind of taste can only develop through some kind of “disputing”. Comparison of judgements, disagreement, discussion and debate is how these judgements are formed, shaped, chastened and refined. To fail to compare, criticise and communicate about these judgements is to leave them in the dark, unwatered and away from sunlight.

Our study of this word will require a few steps. First, we’ll need to understand where taste as personal preference is encouraged and protected in Scripture. Second, we’ll need to become alert to how this matter of preference is applied in illicit ways in the modern church. Third, we’ll need to understand how taste as good judgement is commanded and commended in Scripture. Fourth, we’ll need to see how good judgement is developed both in the world and in the Word.

 

Votes From the Democracy of the Dead

The idea of ordinate affection is not welcome today. Narcissism has become a celebrated virtue, and is now even given the monikers transparent, authentic, and real. The two ditches of sentimentalism and brutality now take up most of the road and a slender middle path of appropriate love is known by few and trod by fewer. Amusement is now the dominant mode for transmitting and receiving knowledge, so if it doesn’t entertain me, it may not be true. A life of vicarious wish-fulfilment in popular movies and music keep us feeling our feelings, while nostalgia and familiarity in pop culture keep us feeling full, even when we’ve not been fed. A culture of despair and nihilistic boredom is anaesthetised through constant diversion.

To speak to this culture of ordinate affection, right loves, orthopathy or appropriate sentiment is to invite everything from indifferent dismissal to scorn to incensed outrage. It’s not uncommon to have the discussion of affections labelled “ideological”, “elitist”, “esoteric”,or “speculative”, even by professing Christians.

But, he who knows only his own generation remains forever a child, said Santayana. Ordinate affection is neither a novel nor an abstruse concept. Consider:

Augustine (354-430):

“When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately… So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me”.” (City of God, XV, xxii).

“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake.” (On Christian Doctrine, I, xxvii)

“He loves thee too little, who loves anything with thee which he loves not for thy sake.” (Confessions, IX, xxix)

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153):

“We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable.” (On Loving God, I)

“You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love.” (Ibid.)

The anonymous author of Theologia Germanica, (late 14th century):

“And where a creature loveth other creatures for the sake of something that they have, or loveth God, for the sake of something of her own, it is all false Love; and this Love belongeth properly to nature, for nature as nature can feel and know no other love than this; for if ye look narrowly into it, nature as nature loveth nothing beside herself. But true Love is taught and guided by the true Light and Reason, and this true, eternal and divine Light teacheth Love to love nothing but the One true and Perfect Good, and that simply for its own sake, and not for the sake of a reward, or in the hope of obtaining anything, but simply for the Love of Goodness, because it is good and hath a right to be loved.” (Theologia Germanica, XLII)

Thomas Traherne (1636–1674):

“Can you accomplish the end for which you were created, unless you be Righteous? Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours; and you were made to prize them according to their value: which is your office and duty, the end for which you were created, and the means whereby you enjoy. …For then we please God when we are most like Him. We are like Him when our minds are in frame. Our minds are in frame when our thoughts are like His. And our thoughts are then like His when we have such conceptions of all objects as God hath, and prize all things according to their value.” (Centuries of Meditations, First Century, XII)

François Fénelon (1651–1715):

“Men have a great repugnance to this truth, and consider it to be a very hard saying, because they are lovers of self from self-interest. They understand, in a general and superficial way, that they must love God more than all his creatures, but they have no conception of loving God more than themselves, and loving themselves only for Him. They can utter these great words without difficulty, because they do not enter into their meaning, but they shudder when it is explained to them, that God and his glory are to be preferred before ourselves and everything else to such a degree that we must love his glory more than our own happiness, and must refer the latter to the former, as a subordinate means to an end.” (Spiritual Progress, III)

Henry Scougal (1650–1678):

“The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man).

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

“For if we love him not for his own sake, but for something else, then our love is not terminated on him, but on something else, as its ultimate object. That is no true value for infinite worth, which implies no value for that worthiness in itself considered, but only on the account of something foreign. Our esteem of God is fundamentally defective, if it be not primarily for the excellency of his nature, which is the foundation of all that is valuable in him in any respect. If we love not God because he is what he is, but only because he is profitable to us, in truth we love him not at all.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, On Original Sin 3:144)

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963):

“The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.” (Surprised By Joy)

And to bring it into this century, with no evangelical axe to grind, here is philosopher Roger Scruton:

“for a free being, there is right feeling, right experience and right enjoyment just as much as right action. The judgement of beauty orders the emotions and desires of those who make it. It may express their leisure and their taste: but it is pleasure in what they value and taste for their true ideals.” (Beauty).

 

Affect or Effect

The difference between affections and emotions is seen in what art is used in worship.

Since worship uses art, worship leaders can use it in precisely one of these two ways: to affect us, or to create effect.

They can work with poetry, music and the spoken word to work with the imagination. There the worshipper can contemplate the invisible God for who He is, and be affected by truth. As Edwards pointed out, this “impression” is made during corporate worship:

“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart in the time of it; and the memory profits as it renews and increases that impression.”

Once corporate worship is over, the worshipper is returned to regular life with his desires and inclinations more focused on the kind of God he claims to know and love.

Conversely, worship leaders can also work with poetry, music and the spoken word to simply achieve effect. They can aim to create an experience in which the worshipper experiences  immediately–and one might say viscerally–the supposed experience of God. God is not contemplated with the understanding; the appetites and feelings are targeted directly, and the resultant experience is associated with God. The worshipper leaves corporate worship and returns to the rest of his life with the creation of an addiction: he will need more of the same next week to feel anything for God. Ironically, these descendants of the Reformers have created a kind of evangelical Mass: the presence of God is only known and felt at church. This time, the Presence is manifest not when the priest rings the bell, but when Dude strums his Fender Stratocaster.

There are almost limitless ways of creating an effect: the effect of dreamy intimacy with God achieved by a breathy worship leader narrating a quasi-romantic prayer to Jesus over softly playing chords, the effect of sympathy for the cause of Jesus by impassioned pleas for people to come forward while a sentimental hymn is played in the background, the effect of jubilation achieved by a sweaty worship leader literally jumping to the pulsating physicality of music played at volumes only possible with electronic amplification, and so on. If an effect is needed, a technique can be engineered. However, there is a simple term for this kind of approach, one that many contemporary worship proponents would bristle at: manipulation.

There is nothing accidental here. Worship leaders know what kind of art will produce what kind of result. Philosopher Roger Scruton tells us the difference between real art and manipulative art:

Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own. (Beauty)

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation. These actually help us to pursue realities, precisely because there is a distance between us and the things we contemplate. Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfilment of desires. Real art takes us out of reality, teaches us, and returns us changed: our desires are more focused on the worth of objects in reality. False art takes us out of reality, mimics it, and gives us substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification. It also returns us to reality different: our emotions dissipated through a substitute reality, and a little more dependent on or expectant of such manipulative techniques to feel anything. One kind of art actually grows our affections, the other shrivels them.

When Scruton speaks of the distance that true art creates between us and what it portrays, it reminds one of the way Yahweh has set up worship in contrast to the orgiastic worship of the pagans. In the Old Testament and the New,  God simultaneously respects the rational humanity of man and calls for a true worship of Himself grounded in the understanding. He does this by portraying Himself in serious, non-manipulative works of imaginative art: the narratives, psalms, metaphors, prophecies and commands of Scripture.

When believers have followed God’s pattern, they have written songs, poems and prayers that reach the understanding through the imagination, which slowly (painfully slowly, sometimes) move and shape the affections. For the one for whom worship has become an itch that needs to be scratched weekly, God’s approach is intolerably slow and dull. Such a man wants a clamorous appeal to his appetites, which respond automatically, sensually and ephemerally. Esau would like a bowl of soup now, please. What good do these hymns, promises and principles do for my bored & achin’ heart right now, man?

By contrast, the result of a slow and patient appeal to the imaginative understanding of regenerate man is a deeply grounded love for God that is ordinate, not a fleeting response that evaporates once the marionette strings stop tugging.

We’re told that the worship wars are over and it’s obvious which side has lost. So be it. As Eliot said, “We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”

The Toys

by Coventry Patmore

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Everything is Uh-Sim

“How’re you guys doin’ today?”

“Fine, thanks.”

Uh-sim. Will you be using a rewards card today?”

“Uh, no.”

Uh-sim. Cash back?”

“No, not today.” Swipes card, takes receipt. 

“No prob. You guys have an uh-sim day!”

***

I’m probably not being fair to the cashiers at Target, but that was certainly how their pronunciation of awesome sounded to my ears. But it’s entirely fair to say that in their usage, awesome could be substituted with the words nice, great, good, or even okay. There’s no small irony that a word that denotes trembling amazement is now a synonym for things easy, familiar, and casual.

Without being overly scrupulous about how people are using words, such usage is surely a sign that the culture no longer pays attention to the concept of awe or reverence. To speak of an awesome hamburger or an awesome hotdog is to either misunderstand hamburgers and hotdogs or to misunderstand awe. Hamburgers and hotdogs evoke pleasure, excitement, laughter, and heartburn, but not awe. In a moment of awe, a human is overwhelmed with something vastly superior to him in beauty, power, size, something possibly threatening and dangerous to him, something unfamiliar, uncontrollable, and in some ways, unknowable. Responses of awe include silence, wonder, amazement, fear, humility, gratitude, submission.

The point is, the pleasure of a hotdog and the pleasure of beholding the galaxies are fundamentally different pleasures. They are not the same thing directed at different objects. This is precisely why we mean different things by horror, terror, despair, dread, timidity, panic, trepidation, intimidation, awe, sobriety, and reverence. We use different words because the objects we encounter are different in nature and call for corresponding responses. These words for different affective responses are not interchangeable.

This is why we can speak of ordinate affection, but not of ordinate emotion. The impreciseness of the word emotion means that it partly refers to feelings. Feelings, being so much more a matter of the body and the appetites, are irrational. But when the heart understands the true nature of what it is encountering, it can choose to respond truthfully, or rationally. Such a response is our “reasonable service” (Rom 12:2). It can see the glory of God and respond with awe: this would be ordinate affection. It can see the glory of God and respond with irreverent casualness: this would be inordinate affection. Affections can be rightly ordered in the same way that doctrine can be true or false. The rational soul can respond with right desire, right love, or wrong desire and wrong love. Again, how deeply it feels these affections is not the important matter. What matters is if the heart is inclined toward an object of value with inclinations that match its value.

If everything is uh-sim, then nothing is awesome. And if nothing is awesome, worship is impossible and meaningless.

Emotional or Affected?

While C. S. Lewis encourages us to not place too much stock in our feelings, he was adamant that the whole point of education was to create right affections. Affections are not a matter of bodily sensations, but a matter of judging value and responding appropriately:

“Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt…St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.

…And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” (The Abolition of Man)

In other words, there is something else going on in the human soul that is today termed “emotion”. There are the soul’s inclinations, approvals, and desires. These are not irrational, inchoate sensations of the brain or body. They are the desires of the heart, informed by the intellect and accompanied, to a greater or lesser degree, by “feelings”.

McClymond & McDermott explain the difference in the thinking of Jonathan Edwards:

“[Many], have wrongly assumed that Edwards’s affections were the same thing as “emotions.” But emotions for Edwards were only one dimension of human experience shaped by affections, along with thinking and choosing. Edwards argued that true religious affections sometimes choose against emotional feeling, such as when Jesus chose not to yield to his feelings of fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. When “passions” overwhelm one’s better judgment, as in a fit of rage, emotions are in fact opposed to true religious affections. Furthermore, Edwards always linked affections to an object, while emotions may or may not have an object. In current English usage, the statement “I am emotional” need not imply an object of emotion. But the assertion “I am affectionate” raises the question, “Toward what or whom?” (The Theology of Jonathan Edwards).

To put it another way, affections are rational responses to something outside of our own psychology. We could try to find synonyms for affections to replace the word emotions. We might call them “strongly felt intellectual desires”. We might try “the heart’s leading inclination”. “The soul’s treasured pursuit” or the “the mind’s deepest love”. All of these lack the precision we want, and leave something out. But they contain at least the following notions that clear up the fogginess of the word “emotion”:

  1. Affections are not irrational sensations; they are the intelligent and chosen acts of the will.
  2. Affections are not mere passing preferences or intellectual observations; they move the soul to actions and choice.
  3. Affections are not only cold acts of reason; they are acts of love and desire towards an object of beauty. They are judgements of value that move the soul to action.
  4. Affections are not a separate faculty of human psychology. They are the strong desires and acts of the human will which already contains intellectual judgement.

In summary, much of the problem is the wrong-headed anthropology of “mind, will and emotions” so popular today in both secular and Christian psychology and counselling. Scripture never upholds this distinction. Instead, it speaks most often of the “heart”, which in both Hebrew and New Testament thought was the seat of intellectual judgement and volitional desire.

The immaterial part of man has a unified intellectual and volitional ability. But not all that the mind knows does the will love or choose. When what is known becomes beautiful to us, our desires and inclinations pursue it, and affections such as love, joy, hope, fear, courage accompany the choice. Sometimes we “feel” these affections more sensibly than at other times. This has more to do with the material part of man. When the feelings assist us, we can be thankful, but at times we must choose against them, and continue to pursue our heart’s chosen object of beauty.

By contrast, the “emotional” man pursues felt emotional sensation, regardless of the worth of the object, or the reasonableness of the pursuit. He is not concerned with objective value, with truth or with virtue. According to Paul, “his god is his belly” (Phil 3:19), because he is led and controlled by his bodily appetites for felt sensations. He does not need to be a drunkard or a philanderer to be so. He need only be a glutton for “happy feelings” or an addict of “amusement escape” and he falls into the category of the man controlled by passions and not affections.

Stop Feeling Your Feelings

Since emotion is a mangled and confusing word, we need to separate the different experiences it is used to refer to. As we have seen, older generations used the terms affections and passions to at least attempt to point out the differences. Some of these emotional experiences are moral desires and should be treated with the same caution and care given to any other moral command. Some of these emotional experiences are bodily whims and passing moods, and should be paid no more heed than hiccups or an itch. In other words, some are matters of the will to be obeyed, and others are matters of the body to be simply endured or ignored.

The great problem in modern evangelicalism is that it does precisely the reverse: feelings are sought, cultivated and savoured, while moral affections are casually ignored and dismissed as neutral and non-moral. In the name of an authentic and lively faith (reacting against cold and bookish Christianity), some groups grab all feelings, fondle them and give them scrunchy-faced intensity. In the name of a stable and theologically serious faith (reacting against flakey and mystical Christianity), some groups routinely snub Christian affections or send them packing to the room marked “unimportant matters of preference”.

So we end up with two camps in either ditch: the sentimentalists obsessed with feeling their feelings, and the brutalists obsessed with maintaining stoic indifference to most affections. In actual practice, the same Christian veers into either ditch at different times.

C. S. Lewis perhaps remains the very best modern theologian of the affections. He has much to say on real Christian affections, particularly in The Abolition of Man. At the same time, Lewis never tires of telling Christians to mostly ignore their feelings.

Consider:

“Don’t bother much about your feelings. When they are humble, loving, brave, give thanks for them; when they are conceited, selfish, cowardly, ask to have them altered. In neither case are they you, but only a thing that happens to you. What matters is your intentions and your behaviour”. Letters (13 June 1951)

“Obedience is the key to all doors; feelings come (or don’t come) and go as God pleases”. Letters (7 December 1950)

“Feelings come and go and when they come a good use can be made of them: they cannot be our regular diet”. The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 109.

“For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling. In feeling there is so much that is really not ours—so much that comes from weather and health or from the last book read. One thing seems certain. It is no good angling for the rich moments”. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (pp. 116-117).

“Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, his love for us does not.” Mere Christianity, bk 3, ch. 9

“Accept these sensations with thankfulness as birthday cards from God, but remember that they are only greetings, not the real gift…. The real thing is the gift of the Holy Spirit which can’t usually be—perhaps not ever—experienced as a sensation or emotion. The sensations are merely the response of your nervous system. Don’t depend on them. Otherwise when they go and you are once more emotionally flat (as you certainly will be quite soon), you might think that the real thing had gone too. But it won’t. It will be there when you can’t feel it. May even be most operative when you can feel it least”. Letters (15 May 1952)

How do we reconcile these statements with all Lewis has to say on the importance of affections? After all, he wrote a whole book on different kinds of love, The Four Loves. The answer is that in these quotes and in many other places Lewis is dealing with that aspect of the concept emotion that is truly non-moral: our bodily and neurological experiences, our moods, our liveliness, our general state of optimism or despondency, our physical sense of alertness to spiritual realities. As Lewis never tires of pointing out, these come and go. They may be given by God, or they may be withheld by God. They may come from a good lunch or the lack thereof. They cannot be willed or they lose their very nature as spontaneous accompaniment. They are pleasant or terrible companions, but they are just that: fellow-travellers that we must tolerate while we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies.

Feelings is a fairly modern term. Theologians in Jonathan Edwards’ time spoke of “animal spirits” and “animal fluids” as part of their philosophy of affections and passions. Ancient Greek theories about “choleric”, “sanguine” “phlegmatic” and “melancholic” bodily fluids humours were supposed to account for differing moods and temperaments. Theories about moods and emotions have moved on from supposed bodily humours to theories of serotonin in the brain, and in that sense, people are still accounting for certain aspects of human emotional states in the composition or function of the body itself.

When dealing with these matters, Lewis is exactly right. Bodily fluctuations sometimes work to your advantage, and when they do, give thanks. Sometimes they work against you, and in those moments you must ignore them or master them. Certainly we should never make our bodily feelings any test of how sincere we are, how devoted we are, or how authentically we are worshipping. Churches or Christian leaders that encourage a pursuit of what amounts to bodily undulations as a litmus test of faith, joy, or love have effectively imprisoned their people in the cells of their ageing and changing bodies. Even worse, when “intense feeling” becomes the measure of spirituality, the opposite always results: people begin manufacturing facades of intense feeling – which must be the ultimate insincerity. Since no one can control feeling, but no one is allowed to admit as much,  you end up with a crowd of phonies pretending that they have all inexplicably been visited by overpowering religious feelings (again) in the last week. This is the blind leading the blind into a ditch of despair. No one is feeling their feelings like the leaders claim you must, but no one wants to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. So people pretend to have intense feelings, while feeling guilty for not having them, when in reality, no guilt is necessary for the relative state of your body. The only ones not feeling guilty are the ones who actually are: those novices leading the flock into the idolatry of sentimentalism.

We don’t need to feel our feelings. We already do. We are to pursue Christian desires, wholeheartedly. We should seek to be affected by the beauty of truth. More on that next time.

Does God Have “Emotions”?

Trying to answer a badly-worded question often leads to an inferior answer. Loaded questions implicate those who even attempt to answer them. “By what authority doest thou these things?” Whether Jesus had answered “By My own” or “By My Father’s”, he would have been accused of blasphemy. Best rule of thumb: ask the questioner of a loaded question to re-phrase the question.

Does God have emotions? This question suffers from the equivocal meaning of the word “emotion”. It’s impossible to answer without sounding like you are equivocating yourself.

Afrikaans has a phrase “Ja-nee”, which is loosely translated as “Well, I suppose”  or “Perhaps”, or “Depends”. Literally translated, it is exactly “Yes-No”. That’s about how accurately you could answer the question, “Does God have emotions?”

Yes, He does, and no He does not. This shows how vapid the word emotion is. Here are three theologians explaining how God does and does not have what people today call “emotions”.

Thomas Aquinas claims that love can be either an act of the “sensitive appetite”, which makes it a passion, or an act of the “intellective appetite”, which does not. Aquinas suggests love in God is the latter. God rejoices and delights in what pleases him, without desiring out of a sense of need. This distinction would maintain God as an affective being, not a passionate one (Summa Theologica, XX, i). God has affections, but not passions.

Jonathan Edwards shows that there are bodily “passions”, but God, angels and spirits in heaven possess affections, as do embodied humans. “Feelings” in the body are unique to man, but are not the same as affections:

“But yet it is not the body, but the mind only, that is the proper seat of the affections. The body of man is no more capable of being really the subject of love or hatred, joy or sorrow, fear or hope, than the body of a tree, or than the same body of man is capable of thinking and understanding. As it is the soul only that has ideas, so it is the soul only that is pleased or displeased with its ideas. As it is the soul only that thinks, so it is the soul only that loves or hates, rejoices or is grieved at what it thinks of. Nor are these motions of the animal spirits, and fluids of the body, anything properly belonging to the nature of the affections, though they always accompany them, in the present state; but are only effects or concomitants of the affections that are entirely distinct from the affections themselves, and no way essential to them; so that an unbodied spirit may be as capable of love and hatred, joy or sorrow, hope or fear, or other affections, as one that is united to a body” (Religious Affections, 98).

Finally, C. S. Lewis demonstrates that God’s affections are not weaker or colder than what we think of as emotions, but stronger and clearer:

“When we wish to learn of the love and goodness of God by analogy—by imagining parallels to them in the realm of human relations—we turn of course to the parables of Christ. But when we try to conceive the reality as it may be in itself, we must beware lest we interpret ‘moral attributes’ in terms of mere conscientiousness or abstract benevolence. The mistake is easily made because we (correctly) deny that God has passions; and with us a love that is not passionate means a love that is something less. But the reason why God has no passions is that passions imply passivity and intermission. The passion of love is something that happens to us, as ‘getting wet’ happens to a body: and God is exempt from that ‘passion’ in the same way that water is exempt from ‘getting wet’. He cannot be affected with love, because He is love. To imagine that love as something less torrential or less sharp than our own temporary and derivative ‘passions’ is a most disastrous fantasy” (Miracles, chpt x, emphasis added).

Here we can see the problem with this mangled word emotion, and perhaps part of the reason why evangelicalism finds itself embroiled in a debate about the impassibility of God. Words matter. Misleading words mislead.

Does God have emotions? Ja-nee. Does God feel? Ja-nee.

Does God have affections? Yes. Does God have passions? No.

A Short History of “Emotion”

Some might be surprised to learn that the word emotion is perhaps only 200 years old. Thomas Dixon has documented the history of the term “emotion” in his book From Passions to Emotions. He shows that what was originally a moral category in Christian thought named affections or passions became a psychological category termed emotions. What used to refer to the inclination of the will or the presence of appetites became subsumed into an idea of passive bodily or neurological responses.

Of course, people have been discussing this topic for centuries, even though the term emotion is a newcomer. In the Christian tradition, writers distinguished between the higher, volitional part of the soul that expressed love in the form of affections and the lower part of the soul (the involuntary or irrational part) which did so in the form of appetitive passions. For Christians, affections were movements of the will in the direction of desire, not whimsical and involuntary bodily experiences.

One sees this thinking very early. For example, Augustine united desire (cupiditas), fear (timor), joy (laetitia), and sorrow (tristitia) under the single principle of love (amor). Augustine clarifies that the important matter in judging the morality of an “emotion” is its chosen and willed object. “In our ethics, we do not so much inquire whether a pious soul is angry, as why he is angry; not whether he is sad, but what is the cause of his sadness; not whether he fears, but what he fears” (City of God, IX, v). In other words, the object of desire determines the moral quality of the love. Love, according to Augustine, is a matter of inclination towards desired objects. Love is a moral response of positive inclination towards an object. Therefore, the kind of love may vary significantly when the objects desired vary significantly. Put simply, the love corresponds to its object.

Thomas Aquinas similarly saw love as the direction or inclination of the will towards an object, not as an irrational psychological feeling. In fact, Aquinas saw all “emotions” as love of some form: “Hence love is naturally the first act of the will and appetite; for which reason all the other appetite movements presuppose love, as their root and origin. For nobody desires anything nor rejoices in anything, except as a good that is loved: nor is anything an object of hate except as opposed to the object of love” (Summa Theologica, I, xx, Art. I).

For Jonathan Edwards, “affections” were movements of the will informed by the understanding, while passions were more related to appetite: “The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference; and affection is a word that in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more overpowered, and less in its own command. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:98).

In the premodern Christian tradition, love as an affection could therefore be appropriate or inappropriate, since love could be rightly or wrongly directed. The object of desire determined if it was right to desire such a thing, and necessarily dictated the moral quality of the affection.

This changed in the 1700s. In eighteenth-century Germany, a third faculty of the soul, in addition to understanding and will, was introduced—that of feeling. This was endorsed in works by Kant and Schopenhauer, who promoted the idea of irrational and involuntary feelings. British moralists of the same period began departing from a will-centred affective psychology and tacitly introduced a three-faculty psychology (understanding, will, and feelings) rather than a two-faculty one (understanding and will).

Thomas Brown (1778–1820) baptised the term emotion in his 1820 Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind. For Brown, only intellectual states were active, while emotions were mere feelings that were passively experienced. This concept would then be co-opted by influential writers such as Thomas Chalmers and later materialists such as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Alexander Bain, culminating in its use by William James in 1884, which corresponds somewhat to its use today.

Contemporary Evangelicals tend to conflate the concepts of affection and emotion. To do so is very dangerous, for at least three reasons. First, such a move conflates moral actions for which we are responsible with bodily appetites over which we often have little control. Second, it elevates what should be largely ignored (bodily moods), and ignores what should be controlled (affective responses). Third, it becomes dismissive toward the quality of our moral affections and what shapes them. These dangers are each worth investigating.