Friday, June 14, 2013

A Short Rant about Our Obsession with Feelings

The slogan of contemporary America could be “if it feels right, do it.” Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain the final arbiter of truth and decision-making for our culture. And sadly that is true for those inside the church as well where I often hear distrust of “head knowledge” and an emphasis on the interior life, which in this case, usually means our emotions. I read this the other day: faith is “much deeper than intellectual agreement” with facts in that it “affects the desires of one’s heart.” With the way most of us define “heart” as a place where we feel emotion, that sounds a lot like feelings ought to reign supreme.
"Burning in the bosom"?
Certainly, it is the nature of American revivalism that we tend to want a “burning in the bosom” and the feeling of conversion. Too much of Christian spirituality implores us to introspect and see how “the Lord is working,” and “see whether you feel God’s joy.” There are some historical roots: early Puritans, who were anxious about whether God had elected them or not, worried about signs of salvation, about whether they felt God’s concerns, although this was never what John Calvin wanted with the doctrine of predestination. Or Martin Luther, who blurted out, “Say your prayers and know you’re elected.” Later, in our history, revivalism looked to the “warming of the heart” as signs of salvation—which are certainly elements of Christian belief—but often excluded rationality and obedience.  Contemporarily, our obsession with feeling good has us wandering around for giddiness.
      So this focus on feelings is not new to the Christian faith, and even as this country has become less Christianized, we are still obsessed with feelings. But we should know better. C. S. Lewis certainly did. He was convinced that our feelings often deceive, and true life begins when the rush of feelings lets off. As he wrote in a letter from 1950, 
Obedience is the key to all doors: feelings come (or don’t come) and go as God pleases. We can’t produce them at will and mustn’t try.
To be sure (and as the book I'm working on, CS Lewis in Crisis argues), Lewis was not given over simply to intellectual abstraction either. He believed that what we learn must affect our lives. In this way, he mirrors the biblical emphasis on the “heart” not as the arbiter of emotions, but as the center of action. So it’s neither feelings nor abstract cognition that matters. Eugene Peterson, when he paraphrases the Bible in The Messages gets it exactly right in his rendering of Galatians, 
Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives” (Galatians 5:25, italics are mine). 
Or as Lewis put in the mouth of the senior devil Screwtape in how to prevent spiritual growth:
The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance.  Let the little brute wallow in it.  Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it… Let him do anything but act.
All this has struck me as profoundly wise. Although I was struck by the rationality, as well as the imagination and emotion, in Lewis when I first read him as a teenager, these certainly weren’t the only element of his work that sustained me. In fact, as I’ve learned from him over the past thirty years, and as I’ve seen him work in the lives of my congregations, his wisdom has played a major role. Because wisdom speaks to the center of our lives--biblically speaking (not culturally speaking) "the heart"--wisdom leads to proper action. Being an eighteen year old, I needed a little wisdom, whether I felt like I needed it or not. (I’m thankful now that today, this age is deemed “emerging young adulthood.”) Thirty years later they still speak to me and to those I’ve nurtured, taught, and counseled as their pastor. Lewis’ wisdom helped me grasp the crisis inherent in the tyranny of feelings.

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