“How Do You Feel About That?”–understanding the world through feelings and emotions

This is the fifth part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois

Feelings are perhaps the most direct, immediate, visceral of all the ways we interact with the world. Everything else we’ve talked about—imagination, senses, reason—evoke emotional responses in us. Emotions (love, passion, anger, fear, despair, excitement, longing) are inherently responsive to stimulus/experience. They also often consist of oppostions—love/hate; fear/courage, despair/hope, etc.

“Zits” (c) Scott & Borman

Why do we have emotions? I think they help us understand there is more to being human than just the material, natural, physical. They may be the part of us that most reflects – or distorts—the imago dei. They are also a primary facility through which we are drawn to God. Three important theologians from church history offer us some specific insights into the importance of feelings/emotions.

“Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”

The Early Father Augustine wrote, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” He talks about the ordo amoris (right ordering of our loves). Material pleasures and relationship with other people are good gifts, but they were not designed to provide our lives with ultimate meaning. Our capacity to enjoy these things properly actually rests on whether or not God is central in our affections.

Medieval Scholastic Aquinas asserted: “The more man’s affection is withdrawn from temporal things, the more in perfection will his mind be drawn towards the love of God.” We here on earth are able to relate to things outside of ourselves–including God and others. Relationship is most perfected when we give ourselves to others and to God.

And from Protestant Reformer Martin Luther: “This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content.” God is to be loved in suffering as well as in blessing. God is hidden within the reality of the human condition, so that his goodness is seen in relationships and everyday life. We are best equipped to love God when we have experienced his love and mercy.

As we’ve already learned, Enlightenment Rationalism (18th C.) emphasized the “thinking individual” and his/her place in society over traditional structures of authority.  “Faith” was placed less in the reality of a loving God and more in the inevitability of human progress. The expectation became that man would ultimately understand and explain all things through the exercise of reason and scientific methodology.

Modern Romanticism emerged in the 19th C. as a cultural reaction to Enlightenment Rationalism. Romantics revived the place of the imagination, giving primacy to the “feeling self” as the sole interpreter of transcendental truth.  “Creative genius” was celebrated and the Arts were elevated as an alternative to religious experience.  Some characteristics of Romanticism include:

  • Concern that reason, science, and industry were aspects of social elites’ determination to control all aspects of life
  • Ideas spread from Germany to inspire British writers (Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth) and American Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman)
  • Looks inward for universal truth, beauty, ultimate meaning; values freedom to interpret life on one’s own terms
  • Seeks a “universal truth” for the “human story” (but without the exterior forms & “dogmatic” expectations of Christianity)

Eileen Gregory, discussing Romantic poets in Invitation to the Classics, identified what she called “two central elements of a romantic ‘credo’:  a belief in an immanent spirit within nature [and] in the power of the imagination to apprehend it.”  Two things happened in the 18th-19th century that brought a turn toward a Romantic sensibility in Christian faith itself.

German Pietism emphasized personal devotion (scripture reading, prayer) in believers’ daily life. Anglo-American Revivalism raised expectations of an emotional response in conversion and worship. Each of these contributed to the 19th C. Holiness movement (sanctification and a “second blessing” experience) and from there into Pentecostalism (“baptism” in the Holy Spirit, exercise of spiritual gifts, healing). Second and Third Wave “Charasmatic” movements extended the emphasis on emotional response into the broader church world and through new evangelical movements.

For Christians, emotional response is understandably rooted in one’s love for God. But does that mean that emotions, particularly love, are meant to be the “ultimate” way of “knowing” God and His Creation? In 1963 C. S. Lewis published a book called The Four Loves, in which he identified four ways in which human beings express and experience love. (He used Greek words, but we’ll stick with English here)

  • Familial Affection is found particularly between family members, but also in very close shared relational experiences. It is naturally present as a kind of “built-in” aspect of the human condition and exits regardless of the perceived “value” of the object of one’s love
  • Fraternal Friendship forms around shared experiences, interests, or activities. It is the least “natural” of the loves because it requires something for friendship to “be about.” It is worthy because it focuses not on the loved, but on the “about,” for its value.
  • Erotic Love involves an emotional “giving of oneself over” to someone or something. It finds physical expression through sexual activity, but involves a spiritual dynamic that transcends mere “animal lust.” Any appetite can gain godlike status through idolatry.
  • Agape Charity is a love directed toward others which does not depend on any “loveable” qualities of either the object or circumstances of the love process. Lewis considers this the greatest of the loves, and he sees it as a specifically Christian virtue. All other loves must be subordinated to God’s agape love and expressed with Christian charity.

The idea of a proper “ordering of our loves” goes back to St. Augustine. In The City of God, Augustine makes a direct connection between Christian virtue and the proper ordering of our loves: virtu est ordo amoris (virtue is the “ordering of our loves”). To disregard this, he writes, leads to moral self-destruction. He offers a prayer to God that should be a daily prayer for us all: “Lord, set love in order within me”

Lewis expounds a bit on all this in his book, The Abolition of Man

“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.”

Simply put, we are to love the right things in the right way for the right reasons . . .

  • We must recognize God as the true source and giver of our “loves” (and, by extention, all emotions)
  • We must allow God to lead us in the proper “ordering” of our loves (and in discerning what to give love to)
  • Only God can awaken and enliven in us the emotions that “lead us home” and “gives us rest.”

And of course, scripture gives us a wealth of direction on the place love plays in our relationships with God, with others, and with the world. Here are just a few passages to consider:

  • 2 Corinthians 13:14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
  • Ephesians 5:1-3 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
  • 1 John 5 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his children as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.
  • 2 Timothy 3 But know this: Difficult times will come in the last days. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people!

Without a doubt, feelings and emotions play an important part in shaping our worldview, but as with all other aspects of our complex “selves” (imagination, senses, reason) it is not the exclusive (or even best) way to navigate the complexities of life. As the song goes, the world will know we are Christians by our love—but we are called to love God (and his world) with the fullness of ourselves (heart, soul, mind, strength)!

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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