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Feelings and Reason

A few years ago, at conferences and seminars, Christian speakers used to urge us to make recourse to our feelings – for (it was argued) living in a world dominated, as we do, by rationalism, religious people are out of touch with their inner selves, unable to relate to themselves or one another at a meaningful level. I didn’t greatly disagree with any of this; but I did somewhat have the feeling that the advice, and the alleged dominant mood of the time, were a bit out of sync, and misunderstood..

The dominance of reason, and the rationalist philosophies that led from it, is often seen as a product of the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the ‘Age of Reason’, culminating in the official religion of Reason, promoted in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In the century before, various groups and nations had fought bitterly over questions of religious allegiance and power, but the eighteenth ended under the increasing influence of atheistic philosophies and efforts to base knowledge, learning, and human understanding, upon materialist foundations.

Despite the reaction of the Romantic Movement, and the pervasive sentimentalism of the Victorian era, I fancy it was actually the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth, which became inextricably wedded to an understanding of reason and rationalism that saw the total domination of the materialist understanding of reality, and its sovereignty in the governing and ruling of our society.

Between 1960 and 1980, however, there was a bit of a sea-change. No, materialism had no been totally rejected in a return of Medieval Christian piety, but the unquestioning belief in the omnipotence of science and human (materialist) Progress had begun to be questioned.

Too much rationalism had inevitably produced a reaction which took the form of large numbers of people searching for what was called the “spiritual” – but sadly, many of them looked in the wrong place, and embraced something which we might call New Ageism, which (I believe) is simply the opposite side of the materialist coin, and not truly spiritual at all; but this reaction, though it perhaps led few to Truth, is a very significant feature of modern times, its importance not to be underestimated.

One of its emphases was on the need to “look within” (a process perhaps not often defined), and we might consider this to be a desire to “get in touch with your feelings”, or, as the ancient Greek injunction had it, to “know thyself”.The influence of New Age religions has been very great, not least on the Christian church, which has taken many of its methods, means, and philosophies on board, sometimes without even knowing it, and very often uncritically; one, was a constant emphasis on people being very conscious of, and even guided by, their feelings.

Hence, we heard so much about this at Christian gatherings in the late-1980s/90s (and hence I don’t think it is the case that now (or then) we live in a world totally dominated by rationalism, though surely there is plenty of it still around).

As is so often the case, the Christian church has got onto the bandwagon just as that erratic, unreliable vehicle is juddering to a halt; the urge to take note of our feelings came at a time when “spiritual” people seemed awash with feelings and emotion-centred thinking, and reason had, by some, been all-but jettisoned.

Too much attention to feelings, I would argue, is not good for us, not in its eventual effect. There are four reasons for this. Firstly, it plays into the hands of those materialist rationalists who seek to dismiss Christians, and other religious believers, as people who need to escape into a cosy, irrational world which is very comfortable, governed by no particular rules, and in which anything can be as you wish it to be, God being some kind of prop for the weak-minded (none of this ever being true, in my forty-odd years’ experience of Christianity).

Secondly, rejection of reason and argument (too easily accomplished by those who are quick to warn of the danger of trying to “tie God down” by excessive definition, and reasoned proposition) also plays into the hands of the anti-theist’s claims that Christianity can not be rationally defined, explained, and defended, that religion is the realm merely of what people choose, for themselves, to believe in (relativism is very useful to materialists, when it suits them to use it).

People for whom woolly-ness is a virtue (it saves them risking the personal disadvantages of decision and commitment) find it easy to dismiss the Church’s creeds as the inevitable product of human weakness – rather than the gift of a loving, divine founder. But using thought, reason, and argument keeps these threats – of the complete loss of authentically-Christian ideas into some fog of it-means-what-you-want – at bay.

Thirdly, too much attention to one’s own feelings can make us become excessively self-centred, religion can become something about me – what I like, what (I perceive) does me good, Something Nice For Me – causing me so easily to forget that real religion is firstly about worship of God, and next about our love and service for his other children, and only finally, oneself.

Fourthly, we all know too well that feelings are slippery, unreliable, dangerous things. They are influenced by everything in the world around us – people, weather and climate, chance and accident – and also by our own physiology and the ebb and flow of physical processes; and feelings can so easily be manipulated by a host of forces and influences whose motives are in no way good.

If we only take account of our feelings, chaos could easily ensue, despair; on a cold, wet Monday morning, with only the endless struggle of daily life in front of me, it is my reason alone – my sure knowledge of God’s love for me, of my promised-glorious destiny – which keeps me going. Of course, any religion which consisted of reason and argument alone would hardly be a true faith; it could not include trust, joy, love, commitment, and hope, and a wealth of other very-human emotions. As usual – as I have argued before – we have to hold these two in balance, for to lose reason or feeling inevitably pitches us into something which soon becomes sub-Christian, a hideous parody of it; sadly, one sees this kind of thing more often than one would like.