hero default image

Reflections on Emotion and Faith: A Response to Matthew Richard Schlimm

George Stroup
JB Green Professor of Theology
Columbia Theological Seminary

How are emotions related to faith? Matthew Richard Schlimm asks an important question, and one that is not easily answered. It is certainly not a new question, for it is deeply embedded in the Bible. At the center of Jewish and Christian faith is the conviction that “the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” and that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Interestingly, the writers of Deuteronomy seem more interested in the heart, soul, and will than they are the mind. The commandment is not to know God, but to love God and to do so completely and “mightily.”

According to the Apostle Paul even greater than speaking in tongues or possessing prophetic powers or having knowledge about mysteries is loving. Hence, “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13: 1-3, 13), For Paul, faith, hope, and love are not primarily doctrines, not simply intellectual convictions. They involve more than just the mind.

Christian theologians have long recognized that biblical texts such as these (and countless others) claim that Christian faith is more than holding a set of intellectual beliefs; faith involves the whole person. In the sixteenth century John Calvin famously began his Institutes of the Christian Religion by arguing that true and sound wisdom includes both knowledge of God and knowledge of self, but by “knowledge” Calvin meant something more than an exercise of the mind or intellect. “Indeed,” Calvin wrote, “we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is properly known where there is no religion or piety.”1 And by “piety” Calvin meant “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”2 For Calvin, therefore, as for the writers of Deuteronomy and for Paul, faith is inextricably related to love and involves the heart at least as much as the intellect.

Similarly, in The Christian Faith Friedrich Schleiermacher, writing in the midst of European Romanticism at the beginning of the nineteenth century, argued that piety, “the basis of all ecclesiastical communions,” is “neither a knowing nor a doing, but a modification of feeling, or of immediate self-consciousness.”3 Schleiermacher insisted that while knowing and doing are related to piety, “neither of these constitutes the essence of piety.”4 Piety, he argued, is “essentially a state of feeling.”5 This was a critical issue for Schleiermacher because he considered the very essence of piety to be “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent,” or, which is the same thing, “of being in relation with God.”6 Schlimm, therefore, is in good company—depending on what you think about Calvin and Schleiermacher—in his examination of the relationship between emotions and faith.” In its better moments Christian theology, especially theology in the Reformed tradition, has recognized that a “biblical faith” understands faith to be something that involves the whole person, not just the intellectual and the volitional dimensions of human being but also the affective ones. However, the relation between knowing, willing, and feeling is not easy to untangle. The question of what precisely one means by “emotion” and “faith” and how they are related to one another is difficult terrain, as Schlimm discovers.

Just what is an emotion? Perhaps it is like pornography; we all know what an emotion is as soon as we see it, or, in this case, feel it. But that’s just the problem. Is an emotion a feeling?

Repeatedly Schlimm uses the word as though it is synonymous with feeling. “Stoics believed that while individuals cannot control the initial feelings that arise . . . They tried to prevent emotions from erupting and taking over” (p. 4). Or, “We go to therapists and counselors . . . to express emotions. Hopefully they help us understand our feelings and ourselves a little better” (p. 4). On the other hand, Schlimm insists that emotions “are not merely feelings” (p. 3). It would then seem to follow if feelings are closely related to but not the same thing as emotions that it would be important to clarify what precisely each is and how one differs from the other. Schlimm never quite does this. Emotions are not the same thing as feelings because “they do not reside solely in our hearts” (p. 3). Does that suggest that feelings reside solely in our hearts and emotions only partially so or not at all? How would Schlimm respond to those neurologists who consider emotions to be chemical events in the brain?

Schlimm is less than clear about the relation between feelings and emotions. On p. 2 he tells us that our feelings “stem from judgments we make about the world around us.” Two sentences later he writes that “emotions involve assessments, typically regarding things that matter deeply to us and things we cannot fully control.” If feelings come from judgments we make about the world around us,” and “emotions involve assessments” of things that matter deeply to us, then what is the relation between these judgments and assessments?

Schlimm asks us to consider a chart on p. 2 that describes how “our emotions are caught up in positive and negative assessments we make about the past, present, and future.” Unfortunately he does not tell us what he means by ”caught up.” Positive assessments of the past or present are happiness, joy, and relief. Positive assessments of the future are excitement and hope. Negative assessments of the past or present are guilt, sadness, and anger. Negative assessments of the future are worry, anxiety, and fear. But what are happiness, joy, and relief, or excitement and hope? Are these feelings? Or are these emotions? He has told us that feelings stem from judgments while emotions involve assessments, but what is the difference between a judgment and an assessment? At the top of p. 3 he claims that guilt arises “when people judge that they have done something wrong.” But if feelings stem from judgments is guilt then a feeling, or is it an emotion?

To make matters worse Schlimm also tries to distinguish between positive and negative emotions. His chart on p. 2 lists guilt, sadness, and anger and worry, anxiety, and fear as “negative.” But negative what? Are the emotions themselves negative or do they give rise to negative assessments? Schlimm seems to recognize the problem once he turns to the Bible. In some cases the Bible describes negatively (as in “Do not be afraid”) but in others it is described positively (as in “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”). So is fear a “negative emotion” (Schlimm uses the expression three times on p. 4), or is fear neither positive nor negative but simply an emotion that can affect us either positively or negatively? Schlimm wisely concludes that in the Bible “human experience can be quite diverse” (p. 5). But if so, what are we to make of Schlimm’s chart on p. 2 and his list of position and negative emotions?

Schlimm’s discussion of faith is no less confusing than his discussion of feelings and emotions. The last seven pages of his essay discuss the relation between emotions and “the life of faith,” But what is faith? Christians have understood it in various ways. Is faith synonymous with belief? Does to “have faith” mean to hold certain beliefs? Or is faith a broader category than belief? Is faith more like trust? In English faith is a noun and never a verb. We do not speak of someone “faithing.” When we describe what faith does (or what it means to “live” faith) we reduce it to “belief.” People don’t “faith; they “believe.” But “bad faith” or what the Bible refers to as “idolatry” is not so much a matter of “believing” the wrong things as it is “trusting” (with all of one’s being, or, as A Brief Statement of Faithputs it, trusting in life and in death) in that which is not God and cannot fulfill one’s trust.

Although he never defines what he means by faith, Schlimm does say that to be adopted into the household of faith means “that Israel’s story has become our story” and that when that happens “we no longer see the past, present, and future the same way as the world” (p. 6, italics mine). There is quite a bit of “seeing,” viewing,” “envisioning.” and “imagining” in Schlimm’s discussion of “the life of faith.” One might guess that for him faith has to do with how one sees or imagines reality. Faith, then, would be a form of “seeing as”—seeing the world from the perspective of the narrative world of the Bible (if there is only one narrative world in Scripture) and in so doing experiencing an “alternative way of viewing reality, one defined less by fear in what rulers may do and more by God’s final triumphant victory” (p. 7).

What, then, does faith have to do with emotions? Schlimm believes that when our personal stories become fused with the biblical story “we see miracles unfold before our eyes” and we “find reason to be happy” (p. 7). We experience changes in our emotional life “as a result of spending time in the community of faith.” We will never be rid of “negative emotions” (p. 8), but we will be able “to imagine things in new ways.” If faith, then, is a way of seeing and imagining, what does seeing differently mean for our emotional life? Is Schlimm proposing that imagining differently modifies how we experience emotions?

At the beginning of his discussion of the life of faith, Schlimm asks whether Christians should “experience emotions differently than those outside the faith.” That is, should they feel negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear less and positive emotions such as happiness, joy, tranquility, and hope more (pp. 4-5)? He never gives us a clear answer to those questions, except to tell us that “nearly every emotion can be honestly expressed to God in prayer” (p. 8) and that the Christian emotional life (if there is such a thing) “is shaped in response to God’s character” (p. 12). That is reassuring, but we are still left uncertain just what the differences are between emotions and feelings and how both are related to faith.


1John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 39 (I, 2,1 ).
2Ibid., p. 41 (I, 2, 1).
3Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith. Eds. H. R. Macintosh and J.S. Stewart. (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1928), p. 7.
4Ibid., p. 10.
5Ibid., p. 11.
6Ibid., p. 12.