Thursday, January 31, 2008

Are feelings bad?

In a comment on my previous post Sara asked:

"Is the answer to ignore emotions completely, turn them off? Something in me says 'no.' So what are feeling good for? How were they intended to be used by the One who created them in us?"

I would not dispute for one moment that our feelings, our affectivity, is part and parcel of being human, part of what we are made to be by God, our loving Father. Therefore, our emotions do have a positive role to play in our engagement with reality. As with all aspects of our personality, our emotions must be integrated. Besides, it is impossible to ignore emotions completely. Completely ignoring our feelings would reduce us to something less than human. A good analogy is human love, which we have reduced almost completely to emotion. Hence, love is not a choice, an act of the will, but a feeling. Do you think Jesus endured His suffering and death because it felt good, was personally affirming, or even what he really wanted (""My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26,39)? Now, all of this is not to say that affectivity has no role in a loving relationship, it is one dimension of a multi-dimensional reality, but it is far from the most the important one.

So, we do not live by emotion alone. Emotions are tricky, highly subjective and unpredictable. I can feel great one minute and lousy the next. Feelings can be and often are irrational and contrary to reality. To put it in the context of my initial post: Does God only love me when I feel loved? Am I forgiven only when I feel forgiven, especially after I have expressed true contrition? You get the idea. In living out our Christian lives we must not forget the fact of Christ' becoming man for us, living, teaching, suffering, dying, and being resurrected- for us. When it comes to our faith, we must not reduce it to feeling, to mere sentiment. Christ and our encounter with Him is not only real, but constitutive of reality.

Feelings can be good for us only when they are subject to reason, which, especially when broadened by reason, is the way we engage reality, and not be allowed to run amok. I am always reminded, when addressing this question, of Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue. He masterfully diagnoses what happens when morality is reduced emotion, or sentiment. He goes so far as to say that we live in an "emotivist" society. Just as faith cannot be reduced to sentiment, or to emotion, Christian faith cannot be reduced to morality.

When morality is reduced to emotion, that is, not subject to reason, we lose the objectivity of morality. If it feels this good, how can it be wrong? and other such things become the basis of morality. This reduces us, just as we are reduced when we fail to realize the fact of our being loved by God so much that He gave us His only begotten Son and only believe it when we feel loved and become self-pitying when we feel otherwise. This love, which constitutes the very life of the Mystery (Father, Son, and Spirit) and is the very reason for creation, is the source of our deep joy because it is what is really real- the reason all things exist and are held in existence. Our lives must be illumined by this fact, not by how we feel about it. I may be pissed off about gravity when the apple hits my head, but that changes nothing, except maybe my determination to be more alert, especially when walking under fruit-laden trees.

1 comment:

  1. The Ironic CatholicFebruary 1, 2008 at 12:23 PM

    Scott, I'm pretty fried by this week (speaking of emotions). But if you can stand more reading...William Spohn's *Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics* has a great chapter on emotion and the Christian life, on how images and practices school the emotions. He is much more "up" on emotions than the average moral theologian, but recognizes that they are mixed blessings. The whole book is very strong, but that chapter speaks to the whole "are emotions good or bad or something else"?


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