As Real As I Feel

An assumption of a generation intoxicated with authenticity is the notion that feelings don’t lie. Given their spontaneous and often uncontrollable nature, emotions are seen as the inevitable and unstoppable eruptions of the heart. Breaking through the surface layer of ‘masks’, ‘forms’, or some other supposed act of evading one’s inner truth, emotions represent pure, authentic, sincerity. You’ll find this all over modern culture, and sadly, modern Christianity.

Witness the pop songs about ‘admitting how we feel about each other’, ‘surrender to what our hearts want’, ‘these feelings don’t lie’. A whole generation has been catechised by pop music to understand their emotions as truth, and repression of these feelings as both unhealthy and a form of deception.

Pop psychology has championed the cause of ‘listen to your heart’. Anger management classes include verbalising your anger to a present or absent object of your anger, venting one’s wrath through shouting, or even physical rage. I once sat bewildered in a “pastor’s” fraternal, where one pastor told the group that a suicide in his church had made him angry with God, and he felt it was healthy and healing to speak openly about his anger with God. The nodding and smiling heads around the table made me realise I was alone in my narrow theology of the book of Job.

Rare is the person today who doesn’t see value in telling a group all his heart, in “admitting how you feel”. Carl Roger’s encounter groups have taken on myriad forms, from group therapy, to market research focus groups, to church cell groups. Indeed, churches which don’t give people the chance to “express themselves” must be repressive, authoritarian institutions where the male leadership is too insecure to allow the healthy emotional expressions of its members’ spiritual struggles. Emotional catharsis is taken to be some of the healthiest purgation available: let it all out.

Christian worship has been almost completely colonised by this approach. Because worship is rightly to be an act of sincere love for God, the Christian brought up in this culture begins to think that unless he has a strong sensation of his own feelings during worship, he must be less than sincere, perhaps falling into ‘mere ritual’. So he pursues an intensity of feeling, closing his eyes to concentrate (usually scrunching up his face, too) hoping for the most emotive music, and longing for a preacher who can pull on the heartstrings. Many Christians go looking for churches that have perfected the emotive approach, and enough churches see the market in creating a form of worship where everyone can feel his feelings. Of course, they won’t call it “feeling your feelings”; they’ll call it it “connecting”, “creating a worshipful atmosphere”, “being authentic in our worship-expressions”. But it amounts to using music, lights, and atmospherics, to give a generation whose primary art form is the movie an experience of escapist-like sensations during worship.

Actually, this is a fairly old idea which keeps getting a fresh coat of paint each year. French philosopher Rousseau taught that man in his natural state is at his best. The noble savage, uncorrupted by pretentious European civilisation, is man at his most honest. So, too, is the man who does not manage and chasten his emotions, but lets them come out, raw and unfiltered. He is the sincere, authentic, Man of Passion.

Old-fashioned Romanticism, and its step-child sentimentalism, live upon these old lies. Feelings, like unrehearsed responses, represent our honest side; while feelings controlled and shaped represent inauthentic, phony people who just can’t “be themselves”.

Consider a contrasting view, by Roger Scruton:

In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse…[He was] right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject matter and the mere cultivation of effect…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, and deliberately placing some distance between us and what we are contemplating. By doing so, it avoids evoking impulsive and visceral reactions, and trains us, if we are patient with the process, to feel more carefully, and more circumspectly about the object portrayed.

Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfillment of desires, substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification.

To put it another way, art that lies takes shortcuts, shows us a mirror, and leads us to believe that hyped-up passions are evidence of how sincere and passionate we are, that our most superficial and immediate responses are the truest kinds. In reality, we are actually feeling less, like the hyper-emotional person who perpetually finds crisis and alarm in every situation. We don’t envy such a person; we pity her, because we know that her intoxication with her own feelings blinds her to feel more deeply or carefully about the world. She is self-consciously hyper-emotional, and so she uses her drama as a perpetual shield from patiently thinking and feeling as she should.

Try telling the average person that he needs to have his emotions and sentiments properly trained, and he will think you are from outer space. Tell a man that his first and immediate emotional responses will usually be wrong, malformed or inappropriate, and he will think you represent some Organisation for the Suppression of Human Happiness. But the Christian understands the strange propensity of the human heart to deceive itself, and realises his feelings are some of his least reliable members.

  5 comments for “As Real As I Feel

  1. Jay Sax
    August 30, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    David – I should probably just write you this privately but I am not aware of an easy way to do that, so I’ll risk seeming sycophantic (or a paid shill) –

    The topic is timely and in need of a reasoned, thorough response. Thank you so much for assaying to do this, even if you do say “AUG-us-teen” rather than the US-accept “au-GUS-tun”(!).

    In all seriousness, if these posts don’t end up as a book, I will be sorely disappointed. If there is a way one such as I might help, please do tell.

    • David
      August 30, 2017 at 6:31 pm

      Appropriately timed comment, Jay, as we come to the end of AUGust, not AugUST. Thanks for writing, and perhaps these posts have a future in book form. If that book comes out, I’ll definitely pay you to write a flattering review 🙂

  2. Kevin T. Bauder
    September 5, 2017 at 5:58 am

    And yet, AugUSTus Hopkins Strong? An AugUST statesman? And no Caesar was name AUGustus, n’est-ce pas?

    As for AugUSTine as an American pronunciation, we’re the country that named a whole city Saint AUGustine.

    • David
      September 5, 2017 at 10:30 am

      You say tomato…

      But that raises some ponderers. How do seminary professors in that fair city of Florida pronounce the name of the Bishop of Hippo? Does it create severe perplexity and self-doubt for them in the classroom? Do student bodies there divide into AugUSTists debating AUGustinians? Has it become an issue of separation in their circles?

    • Jay Sax
      September 5, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      Brilliant. Thank you. Expanding current scholarship with a wider review of the field, delivered in multiple languages as befits one in your position – in the nick of time, as it were – in this heretofore incomplete albeit light-hearted exchange. You’ve put another smile on my face this morning and delight in my day and I am obliged to you!

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