Thursday, November 08, 2018

On Head/Heart, Feelings/Thoughts, and the Dichotomies that Divide

Which is more important for human flourishing? Reason or emotion? (And since this was the election week, we can also ask which is more important for voting? Right now a good deal of political discourse concerns our emotions, especially our fears? Where are the ideas that guide our country?) C.S. Lewis was certainly concerned about how to relate those two key sides to human life. 

Learning from Lewis and several others, I'm worried about the dichotomies that unnecessarily divide.

It’ll take me a few steps to arrive at Lewis’s thought.
First of all, let me mention a theme I'm following through Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in my humanities class. In this book the two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, represent common sense (or “sense”) and passions (or “sensibility”) respectively, and the question Austen raises is which one works better for human life. She was writing in the early 19thcentury when the glories of the scientific revolution and the rationality and objectivity of the Enlightenment had become challenged by Romanticism’s emphasis on emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental. 

This led me to ponder an age old question: Is it more human to think or to feel? And how different are they really?

Secondly, I came across an article on moral reason by Lauren Cassini Davis, “Do Emotions and Morality Mix?” in which she interviews the Harvard psychologist and philosopher, Joshua Green. Davis summarizes the core of this post so well:
“Emotions, like our love for our friends and family, are a crucial part of what give life meaning, and ought to play a guiding role in morality. Some say absolutely not: Cold, impartial, rational thinking is the only proper way to make a decision. Emotion versus reason—it’s one of the oldest and most epic standoffs we know.”

Of course, I’m not saying that every question between emotions and reason concerns morality, but making decisions forms a key part of human life and where reason and emotion fit is certainly a conversation that runs through C. S. Lewis’s reflections on Christian spirituality. 

Finally, if I’m allowed to quote myself (with some editing)—in this case, from C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian—I’d put this in:

Contemporary American culture has a nearly universal slogan: "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 are more important than thought.

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 introspection and seeing how the Lord is working and “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 the response John Calvin wanted to the doctrine of predestination. Later in our history, revivalism, particularly following John Wesley but not restricted him, looked to the “warming of the heart” as a sign of salvation—which is certainly an element of Christian belief—but that emphasis often excluded rationality and obedience. Contemporarily, our obsession with feeling good has us wandering around in search of giddiness.

All in all, this fixation on emotions isn't nothing new for American Christianity. 
My helper with this post, Boots the cat
Surprisingly, 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 that true life often 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.” C.S Lewis
As I’ve emphasized above, Lewis was not given over simply to intellectual abstraction either. He believed that what we know 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 paraphrased the Bible in The Message, gets it exactly right in rendering Galatians 5:25: 
“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” (italics are mine). 
Mere ideas and changeable feelings do not themselves lead to action. We can brood over feelings or mull over ideas forever.Neither state transforms our soul. Or as Lewis put in the mouth of Screwtape, his nephew Wormwood 
“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.”
Lewis sided with rationality, but even more, he knew that it was action that formed our lives. I would add that, without emotion, it’s hard for us to act as human beings.

And with that, I’m almost done for this post. And so I’ll simply add this: when I reflect on what Lewis has taught me about the spiritual life and what I’ve learned from Scripture. I have discovered: 
To be fully alive means to be ruled by neither emotion nor rationality, but for all of us to be transformed by the Holy Spirit.
And that—to my mind—is life as it’s meant to be lived. I’m thankful that St. Clive taught me so much along the way.

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