Theology and Affect

People who have been abused sometimes spend enormous amounts of energy not-feeling. It is not easy to not-feel. It takes a lot of energy. Sometimes other people reinforce this instinct to not-feel. The feelings may seem too intense, too unreliable, too private, too intrusive, too unspeakable, too socially inappropriate, too whatever. I was struck recently by the way some dictionaries define forgive as “to cease to feel resentment”–as if the cessation of feelings were a step in the right direction and there were no need to first feel resentment before you can stop feeling it. There may, of course, be a time to not-feel. Or more likely, a time to feel-differently. A time to feel more-accurately. More wisely. More grace-full-ly. But that time does not come at the beginning of the recovery process. There is a lot of difficult work to be done to learn how to feel first. And that hard work will be even more difficult if you think that there is something fundamentally bad about feelings. Unfortunately, the notion that feelings are bad or unreliable or dangerous is fairly common in some Christian traditions. It is therefore quite important to have a firm grasp on the theological significance of emotional experience.

1. Theology from the Neck Up: The Neglect of Emotions in Theology

There are a variety of reasons for the relative inattention to emotions in theological discourse. Consider for example, Thomas Oden’s suggestions about ‘feelings’:

“Christian teaching is not primarily focused upon an analysis of human feelings. How ever important our emotional responses may be to us, they are not essentially or finally the subject matter of Christian theology, which is a logos , a series of reasonings not about one’s private feelings but about nothing less than theos as known in the faith of the Christian community. . . .Understandably, our dialogue with this incomparable One powerfully affects our feelings. . ., but Christian teaching is less focused on the aftereffects than on the One who elicits and grounds these effects (Calvin, Inst. 1:13; 3:20). The empirical inquiry into religious feelings and the emotive life that proceeds from religious experience is a quite different subject area called psychology of religion (an important study, but it is not theology), the study of affective experience that emerges when persons are psychologically and interpersonally impacted by God or by religious symbols and communities (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience)”1

In contrast to this view consider this from Wolfhart Pannenberg:

“Christian thinkers could not accept the Stoic condemnation of the affects for the simple reason that Scripture repeatedly speaks of the sorrows and joys of the devout. Referring to Paul, Augustine explained that even the good could experience sadness. The Gospel reports that even the Lord himself became angry, felt joy, wept over Lazarus, ‘desired’ to celebrate the Passover with his disciples and was troubled in the face of his own death. The question therefore is not so much whether the devout mind can feel anger, but rather why it feels anger; not whether it grows sad, but at what it feels sadness; not whether but why it is afraid. The impassiveness (apathia) which is part of the Stoic ideal of the sage may be good and desirable in itself (provided it does not degenerate into insensibility of spirit, stupor), but not in this present life which is ensnared in sin. . .According to Augustine, on our journey to God the affects are the feet that either lead us closer to God or carry us farther from him; but without them we cannot travel the way at all.”2

The word used in classical Christian spirituality that is closest to “depression” or “melancholy” is “acedia.”3 While it is used in a variety of ways there is commonly a sense of ‘lack of affect’ to acedia — it is the ‘feeling’ we have when when we can not ‘feel’ anything at all. Lack of affect is not construed to be a positive thing. Here, for example, is how Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 A.D.) describes it:

Of all the vices acedia is the worst. I can chastise my pride, replace my avarice with generosity; even quiet my concupiscence with the thought of my true desire for God. But acedia sucks my soul dry and leaves me no strength to fight back. This is the dark night of the soul. I know only this: when I endure it some depth is hollowed out in my soul that will later be filled by God.”

Note that while not-feeling-anything is clearly construed to be a problem, the painful feeling that we feel when we are not-feeling-anything is itself a sign that God is at work in us.

2. Street-Level Theology Concerning Emotions

It’s fine for theologians to disagree about things like this, but what does the neglect of emotions look like down at the street-level? Well, it’s not very pretty. Probably the most common way in which emotions are discounted comes wrapped in a common slogan: fact, faith feelings. There is even a nice little graphic for this:


The idea is that we should put facts first, then we reinforce the facts with our faith and then we let our feelings tag along behind. Some people learned an alternative version of this called ‘faith-fact-feelings.’ Doesn’t really matter. The important thing apparently is to put feelings last. They’ll just tag along eventually. Not that important.

Another way in which you can feel the discounting of affect is in the way many people approach the biblical text. The priority is often given to a very dispassionate hermeneutic. First find out what the text says. That asks what it means. And lastly, ask how it applies to me. This would be a fine hermeneutic if you were reading an encyclopedia. Find the facts. Ask what they mean. And don’t muddy the waters with how to apply it or connect it with your subjective experience until you have done all your dispassionate analysis. But, while this is a perfectly appropriate strategy for approaching the text of an encyclopedia or an auto repair manual, it is not obvious that it is an appropriate and respectful way to approach other texts. Consider a simple example. Suppose someone writes you a short letter. Is says only this: “I love you.” If the first thing you do is parse that verb, collect the facts of the letter. . .you may never really understand what the text is trying to communicate. But that’s what happens when you neglect the affective content of texts. The more intensely affective a text is, the more likely that you will miss the point when you neglect it’s affective content. In biblical studies this can have a pronounced effect since the biblical text is full of affect. It is not dispassionate. God is not presented as the ‘unmoved mover’ but as the ‘most moved of all.’

Finally, just a brief comment on how the neglect of affect in theology reinforces the dynamics of dysfunctional families. ‘Don’t feel’ is one of the central rules in most dysfunctional families. Theological perspectives which neglect or devalue affective experience run the risk of being part of the problem.

3. The Ethical Status of Feelings and Emotional Experiences
Many people think that emotions have no ethical content. If you are angry, that is a mere fact, a piece of information. Ethical considerations don’t begin until you behave in angry ways. In my view this exclusion of affect from the ethical domain can have extremely negative consequences. Eventually things which have no ethical significance are just not that important. Here is some background info on this issue:

  • Are some emotions bad? (Are there obligations concerning emotions?) Following Kant, the modern world has largely reserved ethical considerations for ‘actions’ and ‘things volitional.’ As Kant put it:

    “Love is a matter of sensation, not of willing, and I cannot love because I would, still less because I should. . .Hence a duty to love is nonexistent. But benevolence, as a mode of action, can be subject to a law of duty”4

    The biblical text is, however, rich with references which seem to suggest that there is an inner-history to unethical behavior and that this inner history has moral significance. Evil behavior is ‘birthed’. James put it this way:

    “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desires, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full-grown gives birth to death”5

  • The eclipse of the ‘will’ and the ascendancy of the ‘unconscious’ as explanatory principle

    “The unconscious is heir to the prestige of will. As one’s fate formerly was determined by will, now it is determined by the repressed mental life. . .As will has been devalued, so has courage, for courage can exist only in the service of will. . .in our understanding of human nature we have gained determinism but lost determination “
    A Whellis (quoted by Rollo May in Love and Will (W.W.Norton, 1969 p 181)

  • The recovery of ethical standing for emotions

    “Hauerwas seems to be claiming that what gives me my character, my distinctiveness and individuality as a self, is my basic way of orienting myself to reality: my beliefs, convictions, loyalties, and ways of seeing the world. He also argues that I am in some decisive measure responsible for choosing the basic beliefs, convictions and ways of seeing which I shall permit to perform this shaping role. The Christian is one who grants this role to Christian affirmations and Christian ways of seeing the world”6

  • The practical effects of assigning moral value to non-volitional experiences.

4. The Impassibility/Pathos of God
Discussion of the doctrine of the impassibility of God begins with the suggestion that God is incapable of suffering. Three main theological arguments are typically made in support of this doctrine. The first is an argument related to the transcendence of God. As Mozley put it:

“The dominant element in Hebrew thought as concerning God’s relation to the world [divine transcendence] finds an ally in one powerful current of Greek thought, where the contrast between the One and the Many works itself out into a conception of God as aloof from the world, and possessing a life of His own which has no points of contact in respect either of purpose or of feeling with the life of the world”
The Impassibility of God, J. K. Mozley (Cambridge Univ Press, 1926) p 173

The second argument has to do with a particular conception of divinity as ‘perfect.’ Again quoting Mozley:

“[a belief in God’s impassibility] arises out of the conviction that the life of God is a blessed life, and, as such, happy with the perfection of happiness. The idea that elements in the life of the world, in particular, the sufferings and the sins of men, could impair that blessedness of God, which seemed to arise out of the perfection of His own nature, would have been interpreted as allowing to the world a power to affect God’s life, wholly incompatible with the belief in God’s real independence of the world and [belief] in the bliss possessed by God in virtue of the eternal relationships of the divine Persons within the Godhead.”

In brief, God is happy as a clam without us and would be imperfect if this were not so. A final argument is a practical one: that the doctrine of God’s impassibility guards against the dangers of anthropomorphism. The Greeks were expert at inventing gods with the qualities of humans. Again, Mozley:

“Even though not all Christian theologians might have followed Novatian and Arnobius in their view of the passions as corrupting the substance of him who gives way to them, they could not be easy with any interpretation of language concerning the emotional life of God which seemed to involve Him in the flow of changing and often irrational human passions.”

The doctrine of God’s impassibility has never been, in my view, an entirely comfortable fit in the Christian context. It was obviously most difficult to explain in the context of the Incarnation. Consider, for example, Irenaeus, who wrote:

“[in the incarnation] the invisible was made visible, and the incomprehensible comprehensible, and the impassible passible.”
(Cont. haer. III, 17.6)

Finding ways to maintain the divinity of Christ and also the impassibility of God can lead to a very complicated Christology.

In contrast to the tradition which emphasizes the impassibility of God, there is a parallel tradition which emphasizes the pathos of God. This tradition sees ‘impassibility’ as hopelessly abstract and “Greek”. The Hebrew understanding of God is understood, by contrast, to be experiential and relational. Heschel points to this aspect of God when he says:

“God does not reveal himself as an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment. He reacts in an intimate and subjective manner, and thus determines the value of events. Quite obviously in the biblical view, man’s deeds may move Him, affect Him, grieve Him or, on the other hand, gladden and please Him. . . Pathos denotes, not an idea of goodness, but a living care; not an immutable example, but an outgoing challenge, a dynamic relation between God and man; not mere feeling or passive affection, but an act or attitude composed of various spiritual elements; no mere contemplative survey of the world, but a passionate summons.”
Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, Vol II, 1962, p.4

The frequent references to the wrath or anger of God, for example, must be understood within the aspect of the pathos of God.

“The anger of God must not be treated in isolation, but as an aspect of the divine pathos, as one of the modes of God’s responsiveness to man. It shares the features that are characteristic of the pathos as a whole: it is conditioned by God’s will; it is aroused by man’s sins. It is an instrument rather than a force, transitive rather than spontaneous. It is a secondary emotion, never the ruling passion, disclosing only a part of God’s way with man. . .For all the terror that the wrath of God may bring upon man, the prophet is not crushed or shaken in his understanding and trust. What is divine is never weird. This is the greatness of the prophet: he is able to convert terror into a song. For when the Lord smites the Egyptians, he is both “smiting and healing (Isa 18:22)”
(Heschel, 1962, p63)

“The divine pathos, whether mercy or anger, was never thought of as an impulsive act, arising automatically within the divine Being as the reaction to man’s behavior and as something due to peculiarity of temperament or propensity. It is neither irrational nor irresistible. Pathos results from a decision, from an act of will. It comes about in the light of moral judgment rather than in the darkness of passion.” (p. 78)

Humans, created in the image of God, relate to each other and to God through pathos (emotion) which is the root of true knowledge and the source of intention and action.

“Far from insisting upon their effacement, the biblical writers frequently regard some emotions or passions as having been inspired, as reflections of a higher power. There is no disparagement of emotion, no celebration of apathy. Pathos, emotional involvement, passionate participation, is a part of religious experience. The utterances of the psalmist are charged with emotion, are outpourings of emotion. Reading the prophets, we are stirred by their passion and enlivened imagination. Their primary aim is to move the soul, to engage the attention by bold and striking images, and therefore it is to the imagination and the passions that the prophets speak, rather than aiming at the cold approbation of the mind (p 38)

Matthew A. Elliott, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Kregel, 2006)

Karl Allen Kuhn, The Heart of Biblical Narrative: Rediscovering Biblical Appeal to the Emotions (Fortress Press, 2009)

  1. Thomas Oden, 1987, The Living God: Systematic Theology, Vol 1, Harper and Row 

  2. Wolfhart Pannenberg, 1985, Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Westminster Press) “Identity and Nonidentity as a Theme of the Affective Life” pp 243-265 


  4. I. Kant, The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, tr. J. Ellington (1964). 

  5. James 1:14-15 

  6. T. W. Ogletree in Rel. Stud. Rev. 6 25 (1980)  

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