Monday, June 23, 2008

Since feeling is first...

I've just finished reading Feel by Matthew Elliott, the second of 4 books I'm reviewing for Jan Edmiston's friend, and I'm happy to say that for what it's worth I thoroughly, happily, and enthusiastically endorse this book.

The basic gist of the book is the following: Western Christians have been taught, in line with some of the basic assumptions of Western philosophy and science, that reason and the emotions are two separate things, in faith as well as in the rest of life... maybe particularly in faith. However, this is not supported by the way the Bible teaches or talks about emotion, and it is a point of view that is being eroded by brain research, psychology and sociological studies that show how emotions are crucial in how we make decisions and in our ability to function socially.

Matthew Elliott did his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from the University of Aberdeen on the topic of the role of emotion in religion, so homeboy knows what he's talking about. He demonstrates in the book a grasp not only of scripture, but of a wide variety of literature on emotions from sociology, literature and cognitive psychology, to name a few areas. He manages to do this without turning the book into a textbook, and he includes quotes at the end from folks who have responded on the blog for the book, which makes reading the book feel more like a discussion group. I think the quotes are a little distracting, but they also make you feel more comfortable with your own reactions, since there are a variety of perspectives represented.

I should probably say that once I realized what the book was about, I decided a) I would like it and b) I probably didn't have much to learn from it, since I've known for a very long time that I was in the Pro-Emotion camp. I was right about a) (although I was a little surprised by how dry the writing style was at times... this adds credence to Matthew Elliott's assertion that he is still very much learning about expressing his emotions), but I think I was wrong about b). In particular, I think I've forgotten how much of my anger and isolation from the church is about exactly this.

Elliott begins with a chapter where he quotes some of the more famous Western philosophers who taught a clear divide between emotions and reason, and assigned the former a subordinate role. He starts with Plato and moves quickly through Descartes, Hume, Darwin, William James and Freud, all of whom believed the emotions were more or less the product of physical states and should be dealt with accordingly. He points out that the beliefs of these philosophers are very much in line with what he has been taught --as a child AND an adult-- by pastors and religious authorities, despite the fact that most of the philosophers that espoused this point of view also treated religion as a product of baser, less evolved instincts.

I remember being struck by this same point when reading A Question of God by Armand Nicholi, the Princeton (I think) philosophy professor who compared the ideas of Sigmund Freud with those of C.S. Lewis. I was shocked by how thoroughly integrated Freud's ideas were into my own view of the world and my faith, despite the fact that his ideas came from a totally godless worldview, and reflected the humanism/materialism of that perspective.

Matthew Elliott goes on to cite some of the countless numbers of Biblical texts he found that speak favorably of emotion and link it directly with the experience of faith. He then lists the philosophers and theologians who taught that emotions were good, God-given, and essential for the Christian life --Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Aquinas, even Calvin and Augustine. In reading through scriptures, he is struck repeatedly by how often the experience of faith is stated as a verb, and how it is so often equated with emotions:

"It occurred to me that our spirituality is all about how we are feeling-- whether we are feeling life or are numb to it. If we are not feeling as we should, something is really wrong with our relationship with God."

He goes on to demonstrate throughout the book how central emotions are to the experience of faith, and how shutting down or shutting off the emotions affects people cognitively, socially, developmentally, as well as effectively killing their faith. It also destroys the ability of Christians to live as Christ did, exhibiting a faith that is compassionate, passionate, joyful, alive. During a chapter on the power that God gives us through our emotions, he says that people who are on the outside of a rational Christianity look at it and

"see is a life that is all mental, all rational --simply a set of beliefs that, like an array of plates spinning atop poles, are constantly, manually refreshed, spun, and kept going. So our lives are not really about feeling joy, but about keeping the idea of joy afloat in our minds. So we do not allow ourselves to really feel hope, but we constantly spin the hope concept in our heads to keep it going. And we don't really open ourselves to genuine, passionate love, but we do "love-like" deeds and other to-dos in daily life, which keeps the idea of love spinning...
after we've lived that way for years, what do other people see in us? Do they feel our love during a difficult hardship; do they see real joy? Or do they develop a sense that we're "just doing the right thing," that they're on our mental checklists, that we're tired and weary and don't feel much of anything?
Here's what others see: the futility of a bunch of spinning plates."

When I read this I got a chill. I made a side comment several posts back about the song "Like Spinning Plates" by Radiohead. Here's the version I've listened to a zillion times... it's from a brilliant 2002 bootleg of Thom Yorke playing solo. I have no clue if Matthew Elliott is a fan of this song. I've been teaching it to myself on the piano, and the words of the song have become this illustration to me of the effect of an emotionless, condescending Christianity on a recipient who is longing for something deeper, better, more representative of their authentic experience of the confusion, longing, passion and struggle in following Christ on this side of the veil. I have literally come to picture a buttoned-down pastor and a beaten-down believer:

While you make pretty speeches
I'm being cut to shreds
You feed me to the lions
A delicate balance
and this just feels like spinning plates
I'm living in Cloud Cuckoo Land*
and this just feels like spinning plates
my body's floating down the muddy river
(*The online resource I got the lyrics from says that Cloud Cuckoo Land is a reference to Aristophanes "The Birds". Cloud Cuckoo Land is a mythical place where the birds go to get away from the violent, fragmented world of humans.)

Of course, he's not recommending that we all go around in a constant froth of passionate emotion (although I think that'd be rather interesting). He describes the unmediated display of emotion as another product of unhealthy repression and neglect of the emotions. He also describes emotion and reason as two riders on a tandem bike... you can't give yourself over entirely to either. Emotion as a God-given gift is meant to be tended to and grown, not entirely neglected and not allowed to run entirely wild.

He spends the latter part of the book dividing emotions into the categories --those we should grow, those we should keep, and those we should be done with-- and devotes a whole chapter to each type, using the metaphor of a garden that should neither be controlled to the point of being unnaturally well tended, nor overrun by weeds. In the chapter on emotions we should be done with, he says

"...remember, emotions always have an object. Sometimes the object of an emotion is a good and proper thing; sometimes it's a bad thing. Anger can be justified when we are angry at something evil, but it's wrong when our anger destroys someone or kills a relationship."

It's a simple, perhaps obvious, statement but it's a solid one and worth remembering.

I remember a well-meaning PCA friend who said to me in a moment of frustration, shaking her head sadly "you're intelligent, but your heart and your head are just so connected". That friend is now a fairly unhappy missionary who sends letters to just a few of her trusted supporters (emotional me among them) asking for prayer about panic attacks, broken relationships, the dryness of her faith. If she were the only one to shake her head at me in my faith journey, maybe I wouldn't feel that this book is so important. It's written for her and the others along the way who have made me and others like me feel that we are immature Christians at best and non-Christian at worst for the way we experience the world and our faith.

(FYI: The title of this post is a reference to the only poem I've ever memorized, by ee cummings, from the collection Is 5. It's about emotion and romance and I remember feeling guilty about memorizing it in high school because it certainly wasn't Christian... but I did it anyway).


Anonymous said...

You are so good at this reviewing thing. Want some more books? Morrell is doing some kind of summer book swap.

Matthew Elliott said...

Hey Ms. Moff, thanks so much for interacting with FEEL, it was a blessing to read. And as I am more into bluegrass and Johny Cash, I had never heard the Radiohead song - thanks for the heads up. Keep writing and feeling! - Matthew Elliott

PS - it would be great if you posted all or part of this at Amazon. Thanks.