(To read my other posts leading up to this one, go to the side bar and click on The Role of Emotions under Categories.)
When I was a kid, adults in my church used the metaphor of a train to explain faith. Maybe you’ve heard it, too. The engine is what you believe in your head, or the intellectual component of faith. The caboose is the emotional part of faith and a result of correct belief. There was tremendous danger, my teachers told me, if you put the caboose first and allowed your emotions to lead your faith. This danger, in my young and active imagination, was nothing short of total derailment leaving horrific carnage everywhere. And I knew that I wouldn’t be one of those people who jeopardized the train or multiple lives by allowing her emotions to rule the day.
So I went through my childhood, youth, and early adulthood determined to ignore any emotions that stemmed from my faith. I was convinced that I could will myself into a strong and perfectly correct faith. And I did an admirable job. I was the kid every youth leader dreams about – never in trouble, always serious about learning scripture, lapping up the teachings of youth sponsors and camp speakers. With the exception of a year in college when I occasionally attended a charismatic church, I pretty well kept my faith emotions in check until sometime in my thirties. Sure, there were times when I would allow myself to feel incensed about “incorrect” belief or a sense of gratitude toward God, but these emotions were the caboose coupled to the back of the Faith Train powered by the engine of my intellectual beliefs. Even though in adulthood I was capable of expanding my faith metaphors, I continued to allow myself to be held captive by this metaphor of my childhood and believed in intellect at all cost.
The problem with the train metaphor became apparent after many years. I was emotionally stunted and spiritually disconnected from myself. When emotion finally came surging, roaring, and flooding into my spiritual life, I was swept away and no longer knew whether my faith would hold. It seemed that after so many years of denying the emotions that related to my beliefs and questions about God, they flooded me so powerfully that I nearly drowned in them. I thought about ditching my faith because it was simply too much effort and too painful to continue to feel the things related to my faith. But in the end, I grabbed onto a tree root at the edge of the river and managed to get to shore somehow.
It was somewhere in the middle of these surging waters that I began to think that perhaps my ideas about the roles of intellect and emotion in faith had lead me, at least in part, to the swirling chaos I was experiencing. Perhaps the train metaphor had contributed to my inability to understand that emotions are inextricably linked to personhood, and thus, to faith.
The Hebrews of old did not view themselves as body and soul. They believed that they were a unified whole and seemed nearly incapable of thinking of this kind of division as the Greeks did. This is why the psalmists became so emotional when something happened to their bodies or why their bodies were affected when they suffered emotionally from such things as slander. There were no divisions, and the whole of their person was affected by the bad things that happened to them.
I began to think of this wholeness in terms of emotion and intellect – that they were not the separate compartments that I had always believed them to be. Certainly, as someone trained in various theories of counseling and psychology, I knew this to be true on the level of life outside the spiritual. But the more I thought about it, the less it made sense to create a dividing line between emotion and intellect within faith. If cognition encompasses emotion and emotional knowing is a form of knowledge, why would it not also be true for faith? Why should faith be an entirely separate part of me that requires only the use of the intellectual portion of my cognition?
While it is true that emotions can deceive in any situation, it is also true that they help me to know something in a different way than I can with only my intellect. They help me understand what God must feel about me because I understand how I feel about my own children. They help me understand how God wants me to treat others because I know how it feels to be treated as a priceless person and because I know the pain of being treated with scorn and contempt. My emotions are the very thing that caused me to want to follow Christ initially, and they keep me pursuing God even when my intellect discovers questions to which there appear to be no satisfactory answers. It is my emotions that tell me at times that God must indeed be good and powerful with much evidence to the contrary, but it is also true that at times my emotions and intellect reverse roles when it comes to God’s omnipotence and love. Always, it is my emotions that cause me to ask and pursue the answers to questions that produce a more full and mature faith.
But perhaps the most important thing my emotions do for my faith is help me pursue and maintain relationships with God and people in my faith community. Emotions are crucial for relationships, and as I referred to in a previous post (see Emotions in Morality), our desire to do right by others and God is directly dependent upon this emotional attachment. Without emotional attachment, I will not act consistently to nurture these relationships and treat God and others honorably. Similarly, stunted emotions will hinder my intellect and produce a stunted faith.
Now when I think about the way emotions are connected to faith, I think not of a train but of a mini blind. (Not a very romantic illustration, but helpful nonetheless.) The cord that pulls open the blind is not a single cord; it is two or more strands that open the blind evenly. If the cords separate and only one is pulled, the blind comes up on one side at an odd angle while the other side remains down obstructing the view. It only permits a partial vision of things beyond the window. Intellect minus emotion does the same thing. It allows for a faith with only a fractured view. As for me, I have come to appreciate the vista with the blind all the way up.