Tag Archive for emotions

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.

 

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.