Sed Contra: More Than a Mood

Deal W. Hudson
July 1, 2002

In our recent “Christianity From the Outside” symposium (May 2002), Emmy Chang remarked that she is tempted by faith when she feels expansive emotions—the sight of a dearly loved friend makes her ready to believe that God exists. Yet she worries about a faith that is undermined by subjectivity and “conclusions that are arrived at emotionally.” She has a point.

If the 18th century is described in textbooks as the “age of reason,” the 20th century may one day be described as the age of sentimentality. Emotions have usurped the place of ideas to such an extent that many of us have reacted by trusting emotions less and less.

But just as many of us, including nonbelievers, find ourselves considering the possibility that God exists when we are face-to-face with what we love most. When human desire starts rolling, it doesn’t want to stop with partial satisfaction—it naturally seeks completion in perfect love.

Take the risk of love, for anybody or anything, and you risk following wherever love takes you.

It is difficult to base an “argument” for God on the experience of love because emotions appear to lack an “objective” ground. And let’s face it: Most displays of religious enthusiasm don’t exactly bolster one’s confidence in what believers profess to believe. On the contrary: Hyperemotionalism suggests insecurity, a lack of reasoning, and the need for self-validation.

People commonly, and regrettably, describe faith as a “feeling,” and many seem to believe it is nothing more. If we polled Catholics on this issue, I would guess that nine out of ten would describe faith as some kind of emotional state. The confusion is rampant.

Faith is an “exercise of thought” (Fides et Ratio); its content is both personal and propositional, beginning with the person of Jesus Christ and spreading out through the creed and the entire “sacred deposit.”

Of course, once you consider certain truths to be absolute and a certain person to be the Son of God, how could emotions not play a role in the dynamics of your faith? Faith is not cold-blooded.

When Sinead O’Connor tore up a photograph of the Holy Father on Saturday Night Live, millions of Catholics were predictably outraged. I myself was livid at an unwarranted public attack on the head of my Church. Conversely, when the teaching of the Church is unexpectedly supported in the public square—whether by our president or in a Hollywood film—I, like all Catholics, am delighted.

In this sense, emotions are signposts: They can signal when we are on course or when we make a wrong turn. They also indicate, though not perfectly, what we care about and what we don’t.

But the meaning of emotion cannot be reduced to that which we already know, a reflection of our personal status quo. Emotions can play a role in recommending a purpose beyond what we already have consciously in mind. If emotions were purely self-referential there would be no surprises in life—no “falling in love,” for example.

Though they are not themselves concepts or propositions, emotions can help to convey a concept by forcing it to our attention. The philosopher Jacques Maritain struggled to describe this phenomenon in his Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry with the idea of “intuitive pulsions.” These pulsions, he argued, are emotions used by intuitive reason; through them, our very nature speaks.

Heightened emotion may open someone to consider a notion—such as, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”—in a fresh way. Intensity and passion provide no certainty of truth. But in putting up our guard against the culture of sentimentality, we might make the opposite mistake of aspiring to a state of pure, disembodied, intellectuality.

The poet Wordsworth offered good advice in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” when he argued that the best poetry was based on emotion “recollected in tranquility.” I think that most converts, including myself, find that emotion does often incite recollection, the result being not a poem but a new life.

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