Tag Archive for passions

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.

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.