Tag Archive for feelings

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.