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The Shape and Shaping of Emotion

Recent discussions in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and neurobiology highlight how emotions are vital components of the moral life.1 Indeed, many argue that emotions are richly cognitive phenomena—forms of intelligence and discernment—that are closely connected with the way one perceives and interprets the world. Into this lively conversation steps Schlimm, who ponders what the Bible has to say about the relationship between faith and emotion. He rightly emphasizes that the Bible presents complex and often-conflicting claims about emotions and, with broad brushstrokes, offers several important observations about the emotional life of believers. He also describes aptly some assumptions about emotions in American culture (the presumed “we”), though it is important to keep in mind the variety of ways different social groups express and interpret temperaments. Grateful for his initiation of this discussion, I focus my comments here on three matters, namely, the definition of emotion, the formation of emotions, and the relationship between emotion and desire.

First, Schlimm frequently defines emotions and their corresponding assessments as either “positive” or “negative” and raises the question of whether believers should feel more of the former than the latter. In the category of “negative” emotions Schlimm includes worry, anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness, and anger. He observes that such dispositions can overtake people, result in certain negative assessments about the future, and persist despite faith, though faith makes a way amid the tumult for rejoicing in God. One might thus conclude that “negative” emotions, while unavoidable and perhaps occasionally necessary, are inherently problematic. This is most evident when Schlimm comments that because even Jesus found reason to lament, and Abraham and Moses experienced anger and grief, “we should not expect to do better than they”—implying that “to do better”, to appease or be rid of such emotion, is clearly preferable.
But what makes these emotions “negative”? What makes other emotions “positive” or good? Are they so by definition? Is it a matter of their intensity or duration and/or consequences? To briefly consider this complicated issue, I find philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s observations of how emotions relate to human judgment helpful. She argues that:

(1) Emotions “are about something”; they have objects, such as people, things, symbols, ideas,
situations, the natural world;
(2) That “aboutness” is internal and embodies a person’s way of seeing and interpreting the            object. Emotions, that is, are forms of perception;
(3) Emotions embody not only ways of seeing, but a person’s beliefs (which are often quite           complex) about the object;
(4) Emotions see their object as invested with value, as significant for some role it plays in the
person’s life. Emotions thus appear to be concerned with a person’s flourishing.2

In my view, many biblical texts speak about emotions not as innately “positive” or “negative”, but as faithful or foolhardy depending on their objects. Proverbs, for example, sketches persons of serious moral defect by, in part, pointing to their emotional confusion; they loathe “right” objects (e.g., “fools despise wisdom and instruction,” 1:7b) and esteem “wrong” ones (e.g., the wicked “rejoice in doing evil and delight in the crookedness of evil,” 2:14). Similarly, the psalmist observes that the wicked hate discipline (50:17), despise God (139:21), seethe when the needy receive justice and the righteous flourish (e.g., 112:10-11), and “love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth” (52:3). The prophets further frequently depict the moral deterioration of Israel in terms of misplaced affections: “everyone loves a bribe” (Isa 1:23); “you lover of pleasures” (Isa 47:8), “you who hate the good and love the evil” (Mic 3:2), “they love lewdness more than their glory” (Hos 4:18) and, most persistently of all, the charge of apostasy framed in emotional terms— “you have loved a prostitute’s pay” (Hos 9:1), and “they have loved to wander” (Jer 14:10). In each case the concern is not that the wicked or unfaithful have certain emotions, but that their emotions have such wrongheaded objects.

Conversely, the emotions of the faithful are directed to “right” objects. Proverbs describes the wise as loving wisdom and discipline (4:6; 8:17, 21; 12:1), rejoicing in their life companion (5:18-19), hating deceit, bribes, and unjust gain (14:17; 15:27; 28:16) and most notably, as Schlimm notes, “fearing the LORD”—a fear that inspires ethical conduct and promotes happiness and wellbeing (e.g., 1:7). The psalmist also celebrates the faithful for their hatred of evil and deceit (97:10), devotion to God (e.g., 116:1), and their delight in and love for God’s commandments (e.g., 119:47-48, 97). And Paul urges “let love be genuine, hate what is evil” as hallmarks of Christian life (Rom 12:9). Schlimm is right that the emotional life of the faithful at its best “is shaped in response to God’s character.” But these texts also suggest that the emotional landscape of the faithful ideally mirrors God’s pathos by perceiving and valuing objects of affections similarly.

Certainly not all emotions are morally neutral in the Bible—anger, for example, is often construed negatively. Yet these and similar biblical texts provide nuance and the possibility that so-called “positive” emotions can be perilous and “negative” emotions may at times prove important in the life of faith and the mission of God in the world. In one breath, for example, Amos couples the hatred of evil and love of good with establishment of justice (5:15); grief and gut-wrenching lament may kindle voice and agency in individuals and communities (e.g., lament psalms; Esther 4); anger at oppression and deceitful gain can motivate a vigorous defense of the poor, widow, and orphan (e.g., Isa 1:21-27); and, as Schlimm notes, appropriate guilt may prompt us to repent and turn aside from complacency and wrongdoing. In sum, such emotions, when directed rightly, may inspire and enable acts of courage, justice, and solidarity.

This brings me then to the question of how emotions are formed or changed. How do we learn to direct our emotions “rightly”? Schlimm offers two insights in this regard. First, he emphasizes that, far from an act of willpower, change often results “organically” from spending time in the community of faith. Assumed is the idea that emotions are, to a significant extent, taught or socially constructed over time.3 That is, we learn our emotions in much the same way we learn our beliefs, namely, through interactions with others—predominantly with parents or other caregivers in the beginning, and then later with a wider community. Arguably then, our dispositions may be modified even as adults by changes in environment, relationships, or thought. The resulting emotional geography, though never completely settled, is the means by which we map the world (i.e., perceive what is of value, what is not, and where both are in relation to oneself) and map ourselves in the world (e.g., by setting boundaries, defining relationships, and so on).4

Schlimm then observes that the community of faith typically forms emotions through profound acts of imagination. He points to several biblical texts that “invite readers into an alternate way of viewing reality” and “kindle readers’ imaginations” so that they learn to perceive God’s reality. I agree wholeheartedly, but think it important to add that many of these texts interweave the alternate vision with instructions or stories that teach particular acts and/or dispositions consistent with it. Formation of the faithful certainly requires stirring the imagination. But it also requires training the body and the emotions—the mind-body link Schlimm identifies early. Said differently, it is not enough to proclaim but not evoke, to teach but not enable affective participation, to appeal to the intellect and not care for the body—a claim, I expect, that is not new to pastors, educators, and caregivers everywhere. So, woven into Second Isaiah’s stunning, larger-than-life portrait of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Holy One are the imperatives “go out from Babylon” (48:20), “shake yourself from the dust, rise up…loose the bonds from your neck” (52:2), and “depart, depart, go out from there!” (52:11). Entwined with the Exodus narrative are instructions for Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread by which the community will remember every year the experience of slavery in Egypt and God’s radical act of liberation (Exodus 12-13). Woven into Daniel are stories of how he ate, prayed and worshiped, and survived, even thrived, by living faithfully in the context of empire. And Jesus’ teachings did more than invite people to “imagine things in new ways,” as important as that is; Jesus called people to concrete practices of hospitality, justice, and testimony to bear witness to God’s love for and transformational work in the world. Prophets, priests, and storytellers alike know that the cultivation of faith requires a holistic understanding of the human—teaching to and for the whole person, resisting easy distinctions between the rational and the emotional, and modeling the embodiment of faith.

Finally, in my own work I am curious about the relationship between emotions, desires, and the pursuit of wisdom which, for ancient sages, was synonymous with the search for God. While Schlimm does not discuss desire directly or distinguish desire from emotion, he hints at their ready connection. He observes a cultural assumption that “emotions can interfere with getting what you really want”. And he refers to Peter Stearns’ observation that, as a result of the rise of consumerism, corporate management, and the service sector in twentieth-century America, the middle class increasingly valued dispassion: emotional displays might interfere with market success, after all. The irony of that, of course, is that the aim of the marketplace is to shape consumer passions for profit. Indeed, as Vincent Miller observes, advanced capitalist societies like America have “the most sophisticated systems for forming and inciting desire that the world has ever seen.”5

My hunch is that while many Christians may find the relationship between emotions and faith perplexing, we are even more confounded by how to talk about desire—despite the fact that so many biblical texts evoke desire as a potent metaphor for how one comes to know the world, others, oneself, and God. Consider the exquisite poetry and passion of Song of Songs, the sages urging to long for wisdom as for a desirable bride (e.g., Prov 4:5-9), Job’s relentless desire to argue his case with God (Job 13:3), the psalmist’s longing for God (42:1), manifold cautions about misplaced or dangerous desires (e.g., Ps 112:10; Prov 6:25; Col 3:5; 1 Tim 6:9), and depictions of God’s own desiring (e.g., Pss 51:6; 132:13; Hos 6:6; Matt 9:13). In contrast, when many churches speak publicly about desire—if and when we do—we focus largely on controlling sexual desires and condemning certain sexual behaviors. Perhaps Schlimm’s welcome invitation to reconsider the emotional life of the faithful may also inspire much-needed fresh reflection on the shape and shaping of our passions.


1See especially, A. R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Avon, 1994); idem, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (San Diego: Harcourt, 1999); R. C. Roberts, Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); idem, “Emotions Among the Virtues of the Christian Life,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 20 (1992): 37-68; R. C. Solomon, ed., Thinking About Feeling: Contemporary Philosophers on Emotions (Series in Affective Science; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); P. Goldie, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); R. Bondi, “The Elements of Character,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 12 (1984): 201-18.
2See M. C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 19-88.
3See Roberts, Emotions, 351; M. C. Nussbaum, “Narrative Emotions: Beckett’s Genealogy of Love,” Ethics 1 (1988): 234-35; Upheavals of Thought, esp. 139-237. There may, of course, also be evolutionary origins for emotions.
4Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 206-7.
5Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2003), 107.