Faith and Feelings
A Response to an article by Matthew Richard Schlimm
Paul “Skip” Johnson
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care
Columbia Theological Seminary
Anyone familiar with Star Trek, the immensely popular science fiction television show of almost fifty years ago will immediately recall the trio of central characters, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Doctor McCoy, who anchored the program and each of whom brought to the screen particular representations of the disparate elements of our human emotional range. Mr. Spock, the science officer, was a depiction of logic and cold calculation. Dr. Leonard McCoy, the medical officer, offered an emotional representation of empathic compassion and reactive anger. Captain James T. Kirk was the offered balance between the two, displaying elements of both and adding a bold dash of the sensual adventurer who sometimes acted impulsively and at other times showed a capacity for more measured response. On a regular basis McCoy chided Spock for lacking humanity because of an absence of emotion. Spock critiqued McCoy for being deficient in the calculus of reason. The show’s storylines presented Captain Kirk as bringing a measure of integration and harmony to the dissonance, personifying a dynamic and vital balance moving between the two extreme poles of emotional ability as the ship trekked across the universe.
As a not-so-subtle metaphor the show won a huge following, its episodes using the backdrop of the universe as a stage for imaginative writers to examine contemporary societal problems. The show’s popularity spawned multiple sequels, each one casting further cultural musings upon the place of emotions and the question of being fully human. In one sequel iteration, Star Trek, The Next Generation, a cybernetic character named Data was introduced, whose longing to have emotions in order to become fully human became an ongoing plot line of the series. The immense popularity of this character among fans reflecteda cultural awareness of the deeper question of the place of emotions in our humanity, and the common struggle found within all of us to comprehend their place. Are our emotions to be celebrated? Should they be denied and repressed? At our best as human beings, how are our emotions to be claimed?
As Schlimm demonstrates through his article, our understanding of emotions and their place in our lives as human beings before God is an ongoing exploration into perplexing questions about limit and control, about will power and surrender, about feelings and their significance. While we might debate the experience of emotions in a robotic character in a television show we don’t deny the spectrum of emotional expression in our own claims to full humanity. At times we are more likely to revel in it. Schlimm’s useful reference to Peter Stearns is a reminder of broader cultural rules that seek to govern and guide emotional expression on a corporate level for the sake of business, but the use of emotion in the world of sales and politics points to more base appeals. It is worth considering the wide range of emotional expressions sanctioned by particular cultural and ethnic landscapes around the globe. In occupied Gaza pictures of suicide bombers are used as promotional icons. In the United States sexually suggestive advertising pushes sales of virtually every item of every day life, from soap to automobiles. Within our culture, and indeed every culture, dimensions of our emotional life as human beings aremanipulated toward deeper impulses of feelings that are more reactive than reflective. During times of cultural anxiety “cool” emotionality skews “hot” and the world falls into split categories of right and wrong, good and bad that become sanctioned by how we feel about what is happening around us.
Sam Keen’s engaging book, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination1 provides powerful illustration to this phenomenon, offering numerous examples of visual and written propaganda from both Allied and Axis sources during World War II whose common denominator was the disturbance of the emotions in way that demonized and dehumanized the “other.” To escape the lure and pitfalls of such strong feelings we often idealize its perceived alternative in the operation of cold logic and rational thinking. Yet as numerous examples from the realms of legal justice and science have demonstrated in historic hindsight, even here are to be found deep threads of emotion that color decision-making and sway perception of what we consider to be unalterable “facts.” Psychoanalytically informed psychotherapists find no surprises here, as they would contend that there is a vast unconscious sea of emotionally charged memories and feelings, both personal and cultural, that act as tidal forces pushing us toward distant shores of meaning-making and action that belie rational argument. The “hard” facts of our lives are embedded within emotional casings as much as our emotions are folded origami like by the hands of experience and circumstance. The two cannot be easily separated if at all.
There is also the difficulty that comes with how to judge the “truth” of our emotions. While much heralded as a way of decision-making, common sense dictums that call upon us to “trust our gut” can lead us into tragic consequences. Having something “feel” right does not always make it so on an ethical plane. There are ample examples of bad outcomes that came about because it “felt” like the correct thing to do at the time. Country music is full of such tales. Hence our emotions, no less than our logic, can lead us astray and bring about consequences later regretted (another emotional reaction!).
I very much appreciate Schlimm’s recognition that emotions, at their core, involve assessments. On par with our senses and our logic, we learn of the world through our emotions. They provide us with “affective information” about our everyday experience and impart an emotional valence to mark the moments and relationships of our lives. Recent hemispheric studies suggest this affective meaning making is strongly lodged in cerebral areas of the brain that are separate and distinct from the more logic-centeredprocesses. Damage to these particular emotional locations of the brain can result in personality change and can drastically skew our perceptions of the world around us. Without our emotions we are no longer “we” since the scaffolding of the self is constructed with materials composed of these assessments of multifaceted experience. Without a viable emotional contribution, the basic building blocks of the self lack necessary components and we are rendered deficient in apprehending the full measure of life’s abundance.
Schlimm’s contention that our faith makes a difference with regard to the world of emotions is a sound one with pastoral theological implications. There is a formative element in the following of a system of religious belief so that its followers are changed in how their emotions process the experience of the world. I am thinking here of the cultural linguistic category found in George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Christian Doctrine.2 Religion serves as the “comprehensive interpretive scheme” through which experience receives meaning. In the New Testament book of Phillipians we are told to “take on the mind of Christ.” As we come to understand how neurological pathways are shaped and formed within the human brain, we begin to imagine how new, previously unimagined connections might be created that actually bring us to experience the world, our emotions and the relationships of our lives in different ways. God’s statement in Isaiah 43 that a “new thing” is about to be initiated can be heard as a profound announcement of new creation that is continuously inbreaking.
Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis recollected the saying of a favorite Byzantine mystic. “Since I cannot change reality, I must change the eyes that see reality.”3 This process of “changing one’s eyes” (and also our emotional assessments) might be identified as a description of spiritual formation as we allow ourselves to encounter the power of God’s Spirit and to be realigned in the direction of the Holy. Certainly the experiences and practices of prayer, contemplative meditation on scripture, regular worship amidst the life of a faithful congregation, disciplined listening for God’s word in the midst of life, all of these and more can be recognized as altering the experience of life. The argument here would be that the changes being brought about are not simply due to insight, but that these practices adjust and tune one’s emotional affections. Some emotional experiences will become heightened, others will be lessened. Indeed, new and more discerning arrays of emotional apprehension may be added to the bank of cerebral neural pathways that interpret and give meaning to the basic information of the senses. Through Christ we truly become new creatures sensitive to the world in new ways. We are changed as we take on the mind of Christ.
Within the world of pastoral care as informed by systems theory, this “change” is referred to as “differentiation” as we learn to separate modes of action from modes of reflection and become less anxious emotional receivers of the world of experience. Pastoral counselor Ronald Richardson lifts up the goal of differentiation, becoming a distinct, individual self, as a God-planted aim of the developmental process.4 Richardson contends that we are divinely hardwired within our biological and psychological makeup to journey into full humanity. He uses the biblical term “wisdom”to capture a disposition of being in the world that remains committed, connected, compassionate, and empathic to the needs of others but yet which remains calm and not controlled by the emotional template of circumstances or others. This is the essence of the classic dictum of pastoral care to remain a “non-anxious” presence. Richardson sees such wisdom as a requirement of maturity and as a fruit of the life of the Spirit. The “image of God” that is planted within men and women is realized as persons grow into a capacityfor intimate and mutual caring relationships with others and with the larger world while also reserving the ability to separate out as individual selves able to determineparticular directions of action and will in response to God’s call and revelation.
I am most appreciative of Schlimm’s stress on the importance of the act of imagination in the transformation of one’s emotional life. As a pastoral counselor I find this resonates with my work and supervision in the realm of care and counseling. The boundaries of the counseling experience are meant to create a safe container allowing hurts to be expressed and unchosen paths to be explored. The caring pastor or counselor brings the possibility for an imaginative encounter with new ways of thinking, feeling and being in the world. The counselor will abide with them, able to hold the other’s struggle without judgment and without a need to control or direct. They sit with them in the “in-between” place awaiting the movement of a greater Spirit that will move the stone away and bring new life and new creation. The pastors’ own formation and their own imaginations allow them to accomplish this encounter without being overwhelmed by the anxieties of another.
Commenting on the mystic’s quote offered earlier, Nikos Kazantzakis acknowledged that the changing of his eyes was a difficult accomplishment, one that he was able to do easily as a child, but now one he was best able to achieve only in the most creative times of his life. Among the emotional array of feelings that bless our humanity are ones such as “wonder” and “awe.” These are readily recognized in children. Certainly Jesus welcomed them to Himself in acknowledgement of that innate ability. Over time, as we experience the inevitable disappointments of living in this broken creation, this capacity is sullied and damaged. Our emotional eyes develop scales, cataracts that distort their facility to discern aspects of joy, grace and wonder. Since emotional seeing is an assessment, an imaginative operation of the mind that constructs rather than simply registers, it stands to reason that there are ranges of experience whose registers are dulled or of which we may be rendered blind. Schlimm referenced the story of the prodigal son as an example of experiencing an emotion such as guilt in a new and liberating manner. We must remember also that there is a second brother, just as prodigal, who is standing in a field with his father at the story’s end. He has not yet come home. He cannot envision a way to get home. We don’t know whether the imaginative act of emotional reconstitution comes to him or not. Perhaps the story ends here to remind us of the work that is still before us.
1Sam Keen. Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (HarperCollins, 1991).
2George A. Lindbeck. The Nature of Christian Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age(Westminster John Knox Press, 1984.)
3Kazantzakis, Nikos Kazantzakis. Report to Greco (Touchstone, 1975), p. 45.
4Ronald W. Richardson Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1996).