Feelings, Facts, and Pharisees

“Feelings are not facts,” we hear a lot these days. In a host of intellectual and even pastoral debates, this binary is popular. There are those who care about the real stubborn world of inflexible facts, and those who want to force the world to conform to the shape of their feelings. There are those, analogously, who stick to the plain teaching of the Bible, and those who try to retrofit the Bible into the shape of their sentiments. 

One might be tempted to conflate this newer aphorism with a more ancient variant—the contrast between government by reason and government by the passions. But there are at least three potential pitfalls in this equation.

First, there is a history in the development of these terms, and we must be careful not to reduce the modern notion of “emotions” to the ancient notion of “passions.” Long before the so-called postmoderns, theologians and philosophers frequently reflected on the guiding role that sanctified values play in orienting the soul and in reading the world well. Moreover, the Bible frequently unites the human’s capacity to understand the world and the integrity of one’s character. I’ll take a stab at partially describing how these are related below.

Second, the priority of reason to emotion is not the same as the priority of the objective to the subjective. There are some technical reasons for this that many philosophers debate, but I think we can actually see the matter quite clearly just by taking an honest glance at any life. In no case, not even in the case of the virtuous, do humans ever just walk around trumping their emotions with the surrounding facts. Every act of communication, every understanding of our surroundings, every engagement with the world, involves interpreting things. That interpretation is largely tacit and unconscious, and the parts of it that are conscious are (in no person) based solely on our reasoning faculties (see below). And this is further made plain by staring at ordinary life. Every day, we communicate with others in circumstances that are full of ethical charge, but where we simply do not and cannot know all of the relevant facts (i.e. the thoughts and intentions of others, precisely what they think they mean when they say x, etc). And this means, irreducibly, that we have to interpret them (hopefully well). And interpretation is at least partially subjective. The will, the imagination, emotions, the faculty of reason, embodied perceptions, and even unconscious gut readings, all play into how we interpret things. And note the irony here. This is a more or less objective statement about how human beings work, and the objective reality is that humans do not operate in a purely objective manner, even when they are virtuous. And so the priority of reason to the emotions is best not framed as a priority of the objective to the subjective.

A third error is to imagine that the priority of reason to the emotions is to be seen as implying that the first gestures of our more analytical minds are innately more “reality catching” than the first gestures of our more affective faculties. An obvious example here would involve the Bible’s teaching about submission in marriage. In one sense, we can just grab Webster’s to define submit. But that’s not really what anyone does. Each of us has an instinct about precisely what submission looks like, and when we encourage anyone to submit—or crucially, when we trip up over the word—we are encouraging or excoriating a perceived set of real-world connotations. Theological dispute would be significantly more fruitful if this were better understood. In any case, it is (again) just ordinary life that makes it clear that we never simply trump our sensitivities by our analysis. And any right formula of the above must account for this.

How might we say it, then? Can we get more precisely at the underlying reality toward which these three mistakes might nevertheless gesture? I think so. Let’s say, first, how reason and the emotions just are related in everyday life. Second, let us consider precisely where the priority of reason to the emotions is warranted. And third, let us briefly suggest what that means about our reading of God, and therefore our reading of everything else.

First, reason and the emotions ordinarily work in a sort of dialogical fashion. In a passive way, they work together to sort of “catch” reality for us and help us to interpret the world around us. Part of the way in which we perceive good and evil is aesthetic. What is repulsive, we naturally think of as evil. What is beautiful, we naturally think of as good. Now, it is of course the case that we can be and are misguided in our readings here. Or said better, we’re fallen and sinful. But this does not change the fact that reason and emotions work together dialogically in us. Rather, comprehensive as is the corruption wrought by the fall, they are both broken in us. For this reason, redemption does not take the form of one trumping the other, but rather of the co-restoration of our broken faculties. Seeing this helps us take a more precise glance at how these faculties ordinarily operate. There are times, for instance, when emotions actually help us perceive the facts right. Take submission again. To the extent that we understand it, we understand a set of real-world possibilities. But that set of possibilities is neither generated nor interpreted entirely by reason. If we hear the word and begin to imagine giving credence to a set of behaviors that we’d otherwise judge to be quite ugly, it is true that we’ve likely both been led astray by an emotional resonance, but also that our emotional faculties are signaling to our analytical faculties that they are perhaps missing something. The feeling of revulsion is often picked up by our analytical brain and we figure that we may very well be misunderstanding what the term really means in its real world implications. This is an ordinary feedback loop for humans. It’s how everyone actually works, whatever their theories are. For instance, advocates of an absolutely free market—at least the most rightly oriented souls among them—feel quite a burden to explain how their policies help poverty. And advocates of thick government oversight feel the burden to explain how their policies do not infringe upon essential human freedoms. Most feel the urge to unite clinical and comely. 

What is going on here is that the human faculties were born to be united, always entangled in a world-discovering dance. The whole person is always involved in a unified dialogue with the world. And the fall does not simply distort those faculties in their collective, but also in their individuality. That is, it is not just that our reasoning and our emotions work together against our good, but that they also work against one another. They don’t “fire” in sync. And human beings cannot endure this. We were born for integration, and to be dis-integrated is unendurable. It is largely for this reason that humans are complicated enough to warrant a discipline like psychology. In order to “unite” our analytical with our affective faculties, we concoct a labyrinthine negotiation of our dizzying reality-signals in order to feel like an integrated person. Of course, for many, that system is barely holding together and they live in a state of fragility. For others, their system of self-deceptions is powerful enough or strategically located enough to enable a lived world of felt integration. But we demand a unity of ourselves. Even people who say something like, “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I just feel…..” are unlikely to mean that whatever they’re saying actually doesn’t make sense—i.e. is actually entirely incoherent—when all of reality is understood. Rather, they are likely to mean that their feelings are in contact with reality while their process of explicit reasoning is not (which is, of course, possible). And this works the other way as well. Those who mock persons driven by over-sensitivity to people’s feelings aren’t actually likely to believe that other people’s feelings, at some point, don’t say something about reality. Most would probably agree, for instance, that if everyone in your life thinks you are a jerk—even if you sincerely don’t “see” it—the chances are that you are a jerk. At the end of the day, we demand synthesis of our faculties’ firings, and rightly so. 

Consequently, when there is a conflict in any direction, we seek to “fix” it. If the conclusion of our mind is conflicting with our sense of the good or the beautiful, we both check our sense of the good to see if it is misfiring, but we also go over the steps we took to get to that conclusion more carefully. This is ordinary. And most of the time, the tweaks involved are small. We hear submission and imagine a certain set of possibilities that conflict with what seems lovely on another register. We probably correct this by thinking more carefully about the term and its real world implications, thereby getting rid of some of the associated ugliness. But we might also truthfully need to confront the possibility that our sense of what is ugly is miscalibrated for other reasons. More likely, we need to do both. At this level, reason and the emotions, in dialogue with God through Scripture and our common world, work together to help us become more like the God whose image we are and are meant to represent. Indeed, man just is an embodied union of these faculties (a discourse) in dialogue with God through His word and the world—most especially the world of persons.

There is, however, a sense in which the above formulae have moral purchase. And that is in cases where we are not able to find an honest and good-faith resolution between what is clear to our mind and what seems good and beautiful to our affections. As suggested above, the first step (and what we ordinarily do) is to negotiate toward a synthesis. But if, after a time, we are unable to find a synthesis between our analytical mind and affective organs, it has generally been suggested that we ought to defer to the conclusions of our mind. And there are a few good reasons for this, one of which involves clarifying the relationship of the soul to the body in all its implications, interactions, and precisely where their ordered relation is normatively uneven. But I think we can get at the reason for this in an even more basic way. Very simply, our minds have a particular relationship to the truth, while our feelings measure what we (sometimes despite ourselves) value. And this means that if we cannot discover a synthesis of our reasoning and emotive faculties, we are left with a conflict between what seems true and what is of felt value to us. And while all our faculties are fallen, they are not equally liable to the same risks. The priority of reason to feeling is minimally, then, a hermeneutical priority. That is, what is manifest to our more explicit discursive faculties is intrinsically more clear than the implicit and difficult-to-pin-down content of our more affective (and more circuitously interpretive) organs. While we desire the unity of these, in a case of temporary irresolvable conflict, there is wisdom in guiding the muddled by the unmuddled, the unclear by the clear. And this is where facts do sometimes trump feelings. This is analogous to the manner in which the linguistic deliverances of Scripture are (in principle) clearer than most of the derived deeper truths of natural revelation. Moreover, even in intra-biblical interpretation itself, the typical adage is that we interpret the unclear in light of the clear. And of course, just as information from natural revelation can rightly cause us to reconsider an instinctive biblical interpretation, so it is possible that feelings will be later “translated” into intellectual knowledge that modifies the provisional settlement. But prior to this, and especially for practical purposes, this wisest move is to defer to what is discursively clear. This is not the first move we make upon noticing perceived tension, but it might be an important final move in the absence of new information or insight (after godly and good-faith negotiation).

Of course, the Bible very frequently challenges what feels good to us, but it also frequently challenges what we think. The cross is foolishness to the world, but the wisdom of God to His saints. So the point is not that we don’t frequently experience a conflict there, but rather that this conflict is not immediately one of mind and emotion or fact and feeling. Rather, the immediate engagement with God’s word and world is an engagement of the whole person seeking to have a unified relation to both. But if that unified relation cannot be achieved, even after great effort, the wise move is to defer to the mind while still seeking to attain unity (if by no other means that prayer for illumination or changed affections). 

What, finally, has any of this to do with theology and pastoral care? A great deal. Most would not put it so crassly, but what is often tacitly communicated in various theological communities is that knowing God, and extending good pastoral care, is fundamentally a question of knowing lots of facts about God on the one hand, and knowing lots of moral facts on the other. Theology is mostly about discursive mental precision, and preaching the whole counsel of God mostly about parsing out the real world moral inferences that can be inferred from divine commands. What is easily missing here is expertise in the divine character and divine wisdom, respectively.

To know God is not simply to know truths about God, but to know how those truths manifest in a concrete way and in concrete circumstances. And to know this well is to know the divine character. We could all agree upon particular definitions of divine wrath, justice, love, mercy, and sovereignty, and radically disagree about precisely how those attributes are relevant to Christians, in what circumstances they are to be invoked, and in what circumstances they are not. To know God as a personal agent is to have a sense of His being, heart, and values. And this is why the Scriptures do not just give us a manual of theological vocabulary, but a set of stories. We could easily define divine judgment, but when we look at Scripture, in which kinds of circumstances is God patient? When is He harsh? When is He merciful and long-suffering? When does He throw down the gauntlet? In which circumstances does He invoke His sovereignty? When does He simply emphasize His nearness? To know these things is to know more than a collection of attributes, but to know a concrete and living Person, a Person whose acts can be anticipated, and—what is key—imitated, precisely because we know a concrete Living One. Of course, this is largely what the Reformed are after in their study of the divine attributes, which are derived from a history of God’s activities in creation and covenant, but putting the matter this way helps to clarify what is latent therein.

Similarly, to understand the Bible’s morality is not simply to know a collection of laws from which we can infer all sorts of particulars. Rather, it is to know the laws and to know the world in such a way that their application is clear. And much popular pedantry involves a calcified reading of the former and a reductionist reading of the latter. Solomon, when presented with one baby and two mothers, had no Mosaic law to invoke. He had to read the world very precisely, and to test it in order to apply God’s law well in a concrete circumstance. Much debate over morality in our day is a function not only of misunderstanding the text of Scripture, or a function of drawing false inferences from it (though it is all of that), but a function of simply having little wisdom in reading the world itself.

What unites these? What kind of person detects God’s character in such a way that it can be imitated in real life? What kind of person reads the world with the fine-grained precision required to apply the Bible well? The answer to this is that it is a person who has both a clear mind and an embodied character that is like God’s. Or said differently, to actually interpret what God would be and do relative to a particular circumstance requires a rightly calibrated mind and heart.

The implications of this are legion. It means that we really can ordinarily dismiss ugly (supposed) orthodoxy. The Bible regularly assumes that attraction to the truth is wrapped in attraction to truth-tellers. And it is a frequent refrain of the apostlic fathers that the behavior of Christians has the capacity to be a stumbling block to the gospel. One is guilty of failing to preach the whole counsel of God not only if they fail to speak divine truth, but also if they fail to wrap that truth in divine character. Of course, we can also dismiss anything which appeals to our affective capacities but does not correspond to the facts of reality, the Scriptures, or the conclusions of the mind. This is obviously an unwise path and driven purely by will. I emphasize the former point, however, because this latter truth is clearer to most persons in conservative contexts. And if undisciplined passions indicate the sovereignty of one’s willfulness, what does its opposite reflect? The very same will, I’d claim, but in a more sinister form. For all the divine invocation against pagan passions in Scripture, nothing stoked the ire of our Lord more than ugly obedience. And there is a reason for this. Pagan revelry is at least transparent, honest about what it is, and therefore is a fitting object of both God’s warning and the healing clarity of His gospel. But ugly obedience (the stuff of Pharisaism) cannot see that it is sick. Moreover, one need not teach self-justification to live it. The compass of the Christian, then, is not only in the clarified Christian mind, but is discovered in the vantage point that comes from loving with the love of God, from imitating His beauty, and from pursuing the unity in the human self that echoes the perfect infinite life of the One God.