Conserving Ordinate Affection – 5

To conserve ordinate affection, we must understand how the affections are shaped. The affections are not under our direct control. We cannot will to be happy, as much as some songs and preachers tell us we can. We cannot switch reverence on and off with an internal switch. However, we can attend to the circumstances which encourage the growth of one affection and not the other. We might not be able to cause a plant to grow ourselves, but we can water it and give it sunlight. We can work on the circumstances that shape our affections. Three of these circumstances deserve special attention: example, exposure, and imagination.

Our affections are shaped by example. To a large degree, we learn to love what we love and hate what we hate from our parents. We follow our elders in the formation of our loves. Children may learn the multiplication table from a discursive lesson, but they learn matters of judgement, taste and manners by example. Children learn how to address their elders, sit at table, use courteous speech, host people graciously, eat politely, dress modestly, enjoy certain music, disdain certain foods, or desire certain modes of life by observing the behaviour of their parents.

The affections are so fundamental to us, that before one can explain them, they must be learned in the milieu of life. One could say that the affections are caught, more than taught.

This also places a huge weight of responsibility on church leaders. The gathered church of God is the primary place where the affections appropriate for worshipping God are taught. People may claim to have learned their doctrine privately, but the truth is, they learn their piety from the believers they associate with. It is with other believers that people learn whether prayer should be casual or serious, whether music in worship should be rowdy or reverent, and whether preaching should be amusing or weighty. You do not learn piety in a vacuum. You learn things like humility, reverence, awe, gratitude, sobriety, joy, contrition, and reflection from other Christians. We learn these affections by example.

Herein lies the unacknowledged (by Christians, at least) power of culture. Culture is the very mental and affective atmosphere that shapes the affections of the big and (especially) small humans in it. You learn what to love and how to love it from dinnertime conversations, from playing with your friends in the sandpit, from watching ads, from sitting in the waiting room, from watching your father address your mother, from hearing a symphony, from seeing a mall, from going to a sports game, from hearing pop music, from going to a braai, from spending hours in front of the idiot box. Culture is determinative; culture is instructive; culture is formative.

Churches have cultures. The cultures of churches can variously produce legalists, amusement-mad narcissists, consumerists, sentimentalists, dramatists, enthusiasts, zealots, academics, pharisees, or worshippers.

What do we do if our current Christian culture is bankrupt, facile and unhelpful to true Christian affections? We then have to connect to a Christian culture previous to ours, the doing of which will be the subject of the next series of posts.

Second, we shape the affections by exposure. We speak frequently of ‘acquired tastes’. We do so because of a common experience: not all loves are love at first sight, sound, taste, touch, or scent. Think of the foods and drinks you could not stand at first – coffee, certain fish, horse-radish, certain chillies and peppers. You came to enjoy these things only because you gradually got used to them, and found a liking for them growing. The same can be said for certain music, books, poems, scenery or even company.

Some things are not easily grasped. They are not easily accessible. Very often, this is true of the things most beneficial to us. Some tastes are subtle, some music is intricate and ornate, some poetry is wordy and obscure, some hymnody is weighty and profound, some architecture is elevated and symbolic, some paintings are analogical and metaphorical, some literature is dauntingly complex. There is difficulty in ‘getting them’. But how do we ever come to appreciate them, and thereby develop ordinate affections? Our only hope is exposure to things we may not understand fully or enjoy as much as others.

Is the answer here to discipline ourselves to experience what we don’t like? Not really. Forced exposure to things we currently dislike or have no interest in can create hatred for those things. Nevertheless, a kind of balance between discipline and desire must happen here. We must try to cultivate the good desires and discourage the bad ones, insofar as we know which ones are good and bad. We cannot really grow our desires faster than they naturally do, nor can we expect our desires to have grown beyond where they are. We must rather try to strengthen what we know to be good, and push out from there, not so far that it becomes unpleasant, but not so near that no growth is occurring. If we keep pushing outward from where our affections currently are, we find our affections are broadening, maturing and learning to love what God loves in increasingly ordinate ways.

That’s one of the delights of good hymnody. A good hymn not only says things to God in a better way than you ever could, it also introduces you to ways of feeling about God you did not know existed. By exposure to people more advanced in piety than you are, you are awakened to affections you were wholly ignorant of until then.

Finally, the affections are shaped by imagination. Our moral imaginations are our mental visions of reality. It is these images of unseen realities that truly move us in our affections. Discursive, abstract statements of absolutes seldom move people to joy, horror, awe or sorrow. Mental images, analogies of the unseen through the seen are what produce these affections. Thus, to imagine God, the world and ourselves wrongly, is to be moved wrongly, which is to have inordinate affection. Nothing is more important than that our moral imaginations be shaped by Scripture and the most ennobling influences, because out of its images will flow our religious affections. We will return to the moral imagination in a future post.

The affections are shaped by example, exposure and imagination. To conserve ordinate affection, we must give attention to each one.


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