Orthodox Emotion

 

Much has been said everywhere about the decline of religious belief; not so much notice has been taken of the decline of religious sensibility. The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did. A belief in which you no longer believe is something which to some extent you can still understand; but when religious feeling disappears, the words in which men have struggled to express it becomes meaningless.

– T.S. Eliot

A common view amongst Christians today is that our emotions and feelings are secondary to the information we receive.

In fact, the Bible, many secular philosophers, and Christians throughout history have seen it in reverse: Your affections shape your reasoning. I suppose we need only think of the man in a fit of road rage. He is not ‘unreasonable’, as we would say; he is actually reasoning – his violent rage, though, is shaping his reasoning.

Put simply, the affections and passions shape, guide and provide an atmosphere for our reason, and, by implication, they direct the knowledge we receive. If your affections are inordinate, expect your reason to follow in a perverse fashion. It was the evil desires of pagans that led them to reject the light of God’s revelation (Romans 1:18-32). Their affections drove their decisions. Those, in turn, further warped their affections.

Today, the problem is a misguided view of human nature, even amongst Christians. The thinking seems to be that if we are under sound preaching, that good affections will automatically follow. While ordinate affection certainly won’t come apart from sound doctrine, there is more to it. As Eliot pointed out, when we no longer feel the way we ought to, the knowledge itself can become quite vacuous.

Paul instructed us to make sure our entire thought life is based on truth, beauty and goodness (Phil 4:8). While the Word of God is the primary avenue for renewing the mind, we all know that our world is filled with things that shape our thoughts – the imaginations of our hearts. Music, poetry, literature, sculpture, painting, theatre (TV & film), the Internet, magazines, architecture, nature, and other cultural phenomena are present to shape the affections, for good or ill.

It is a strange myopia in modern Christianity that refuses to see the potential of these things to shape the affections, and thereby twist the very biblical knowledge we receive. Many will object that such a notion is an attack on the authority of Scripture, a denigration of Sola Scriptura.

In response, I think we have all had the experience of being in a church where the sermon was a sound exposition of God’s Word, but the raucous noisemaking for the first half of the service seemed to neutralise or even contradict the message. This phenomenon proves the point. If clear exposition by itself shaped the affections, the believers in such a church would throw that music out after a few sermons. Instead, their affections acclimatise to such strange fire until their reason receives the revelation of God through a lens now comfortable with cheap, trivial, clichéd music. (In fact, they are already acclimatised to such music via pop culture.) Soon, they see no contradiction, and heatedly contest any notion of certain music being inappropriate for worship. All the reasoning in the world will not avail you; their affections have been changed, and their reason follows.

It is true the Spirit can illuminate whenever and whomever He wants to. However, as beings made in His image, we are shaped by whatever has meaning. That is His design, not ours. To be dismissive of the actual meaning of cultural phenomena because we claim to believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word is disguised sloth. And God will not wink at sloth.

 

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