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Reexamining Emotions: Further Thoughts on Faith and Feelings


I am deeply thankful for each of the responses. It is a wonderful thing when thinking individuals come together for a fruitful exchange of ideas. The respondents enhanced what I had to say, adding clarity, depth, and insight. Skip Johnson brilliantly integrated insights from a wide variety of fields, bringing us to the important arena of pastoral care. Christine Roy Yoder added great clarity and depth to my discussion, elaborating on what emotions are and the emphasis that the Bible places on how our emotions are directed. George Stroup added to our conversation by asking for greater clarity on different matters.

One matter that he and Yoder questioned me about concerns my calling certain emotions positive and certain emotions negative. By “positive” and “negative,” I refer to the type of judgments we make about reality while experiencing emotions. When we judge something positive to come our way, we typically feel happy, content, joyful, excited, or hopeful. However, when we see something negative in our past, present, or future, we feel tend to feel guilty, sad, angry, or fearful.

My sense is that most people think of emotions along these “positive” and “negative” lines. By providing the rubric I did, I wanted to help readers understand the everyday language that often surrounds emotions.

However, after reflecting on the responses, I realized that for much of our culture, emotions like happiness are positive not only in the limited sense I intended (that is, perceiving something positive in the world). They are also positive in a normative sense (that is, what we should experience most frequently).1 I disagree with this normative judgment, which is why I stressed that faith does not entail the removal of emotions like sadness from the Christian life.

To clarify, then, emotions that entail a positive judgment about the surrounding world are not always the right ones for Christians to have. Sometimes, our judgment about what is positive becomes confused. As Yoder points out, what we desire and the objects of our emotions are important things to consider. We can desire sinful things. When that happens, we may feel a level of happiness in the act of sinning. That does not mean such happiness is a good thing. As Johnson observes so well, “Having something ‘feel’ right does not always make it so on an ethical plane.”

Similarly, emotions that entail a negative judgment about the surrounding world are not always the wrong ones for Christians to have. Sound theology teaches that much is negative, both in the world around us and in our own lives. Therefore, we can appropriately feel a measure of guilt over our sins. It is natural to experience anger over injustice. Sadness and grief are good responses to loss.

Stroup asked for more clarity about the difference that faith makes for emotions. In light of the above comments, I would reiterate that our faith does not necessarily mean we experience more emotions like happiness and fewer emotions like sadness. Rather, our faith allows us to rejoice in things worth rejoicing about, like the fellowship of believers, rather than in futile and empty things, like the brand of soft drink we consume. Our faith gives us the freedom to experience sadness even in a society that habitually denies grief. As Yoder thoughtfully indicates, our faith is not especially concerned with avoiding particular emotions while embracing others. Instead, as she so insightfully observes, biblical faith focuses on directing emotions toward the right ends.

Stroup also asked for clarity about the relationship between feelings and emotions. I understand feeling as one component of an emotion. Simply put, feelings are the part of emotions that we feel. In particular, a feeling is the physiological response we experience that occurs alongside judgments about our surrounding world. In everyday speech, this physiological response is associated with our hearts, in part because it can involve a tightening or lifting in the chest.2 However, like almost everything our bodies do, there are neurological causes.

So, emotions typically have two primary components that are fused together: [1] a judgment, perception, or assessment (I use these terms synonymously) about the world around us,3 and [2] a physiological response occurring alongside that judgment (i.e., the feeling component). While I thus see a difference between emotions and feelings, I did use synecdoches in my essay. A synecdoche is a literary device where one component of the whole (such as “feeling”) is used to evoke the entirety (such as “emotion”), or vice versa.

For those wanting to learn more about my thinking on emotions, I invite them to read my forthcoming book, From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis, which Eisenbrauns plans to publish by the end of the calendar year. It draws on the field of cognitive linguistics, particularly prototype theory, to explain what emotions are. Unfortunately, the space constraints of this essay did not allow me to elaborate on this fascinating field and its relevance for how we speak and think.

In addition to that book (which I have finished writing), I am currently working on a book with Baker Academic tentatively entitled A Stranger in the Night: Wrestling with the Old Testament. One of its chapters seeks to reclaim the importance of religious rituals, feasts, and laments in faith communities today. It resonates with points made by Yoder and Johnson, particularly regarding the importance of embodied practice in the shaping of emotions.

Again, I would like to thank the respondents for giving attention to various matters I could not fully cover in my own essay. It is wonderful to be part of this conversation that relates emotion to faith. It has enriched my own thinking about this important topic.

I would like to end with a question for reflection. As I consider the creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27), I wonder if emotions are one aspect of the image of God. The Bible repeatedly ascribes all sorts of emotion to God.4 Is it possible that most of our emotions, instead of being irrational expressions, are actually one of many ways that we share a likeness with the divine? While God’s ways are always higher than our own, we may be most like our creator when we rejoice over prodigals finding their ways home, or when we are deeply moved and weep alongside those who loved Lazarus and the many others no longer with us.

1For example, see the discussion of Peter Stearns’ work in my essay and the responses by Yoder and Johnson.
2The Hebrew Bible does not make the same heart-mind distinction that is common in Western discourse. Rather, the Hebrew word for “heart” (leb[ab]) refers to both the affective and the cognitive center of the person (see H.-J. Fabry, “leb; lebab,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament[Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995] 7:399-437, esp. 419). So, the commandment to love God with all one’s heart is not a command to love God with just one’s emotional life. It pertains to one’s cognitive life as well. There are problems therefore with Stroup’s contention that “the writers of Deuteronomy seem more interested in the heart, soul, and will than they are the mind.” Their word for “heart” would include what in English is both the “heart” and the “mind.” Much can be lost in translation.
3Robert C. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 31, suggests that we understand emotions as “concerned-based construals,” rather than “judgments,” as Martha Nussbaum proposes. He understands emotions to operate more passively, involving less assent than the term “judgment” might imply. While I agree that emotions can operate more passively than Nussbaum’s definition suggests, I am not sure a “construal” (i.e., an interpretation) necessarily involves less assent than a “judgment.” Perhaps a semantic gap exists in the English language making it difficult to characterize how our emotions perceive the world. My use of various terms like “judgment,” “perception,” and “assessment” is an attempt to work around that gap.
4Fear and shame are two of the few emotions that the Bible tends not to use to characterize God.