Uncategorized — February 7, 2019 at 7:20 pm

The Central Reality of Emotion in Defining Meaning: We Shy Away, Embarrassed


An Uprush of Emotion

is usually the way I (and I suspect you?) identify meaning. Good or bad. Admitting this may be both difficult and more ambiguous an admission than it appears.

An Evangelical such as John Piper might negatively (and emotionally) assign emotion/meaning linkages to his term “effeminacy,” a fascinating reality distortion in both its anti-womanist and self-blinding qualities. Richard Dawkins, purporting to be a scientist (and as one astute critic points out, he is in many important ways), reacts emotionally to religion in a way that to the observer seems Pavlovian even as he denies barking at the bell. But both these men, along with many of us raised in the modern west, tend to appeal to the intellect over emotion while exhibiting behaviors and patterns of thinking rooted in (perhaps I’m intuiting this to be true?) emotion which we ignore and even deny.

But is emotion a form of intelligence itself? I recall that wry novelist Walker Percy’s “Thanatos Syndrome,” and a vignette there involving a self-congratulatory libertine who is suddenly faced with the discovery that his own child is at risk to a pedophile ring. His visceral emotional reaction is also an awakening to his own worldview’s debits, though he may or may not ever fully realize that fact (we are left in doubt on that score).

And then there’s the role of emotion in faith itself. Ignatius encouraged his Jesuits to “imagine” God speaking to them, and through such imaginings, encounter God in intimate new ways; a sort of provoking of emotions using… fantasy? Oh dear. What will the Southern Baptists – or for that matter the unbelieving rationalists – say about that? Isn’t this the sort of subjective spirituality we’ve been warned against? It has been a long journey for me on this road… but I think not.

When I imagine, for instance, as I did yesterday a black and dred-lock Jesus walking with me down Wilson and Western Avenues, I knew it was a mental construct. Yet I experienced an emotional uprush of Christ’s nearness to me. I don’t think it likely that first century Jesus looked like a Rastafarian. But I do believe God works through the images that my own mind finds powerful, or meaningful (the latter word in all senses). The objective reality of God cannot be known by me except in the subjective. Because I myself, my consciousness, is subjectively experienced. That is what reality – the reality that “means” something – consists of. Meaning is dependent upon emotion.

Emotion is not all; but no one suggests that. Emotion is central, feeling (which we often call intuition) a form of intelligence of its own. I was recently put in my place by someone objecting to my feminism. The key line? “You’re just an emotive feminist!” (My wife had a t-shirt with that slogan printed for me. I admit I wear it proudly.) Using the alleged emotionalism of women to disempower them is an old, old trick exercised by emotion-driven men.

The great need of the human being is to be touched, held, loved, cared for, perhaps even to be allowed to touch, hold, love, care for in return. In some of us these needs are overt, intense, and self-admitted. In others they are wallpapered over. That’s sad.

I am a Christian because in Jesus Christ I find all meanings that are core meanings summed up and surpassed by his becoming / being the God/Human. And like a child, I encounter Jesus in various ways, including through and in my tiny little imagination, and am left believing that this encounter is real in all ways, subjectively first and objectively in that this Being I “know” is also the Being who died on a first century engine of execution, was buried, and rose from the dead.

But that “objective” is subjectively experienced; if I do not “see” it, “feel” it, in my emotions as well as mind, I will not get there from here. The life of the mind is a locked cage without that most imperfect, often unreliable, but absolutely necessary companion, emotion, with its tie to intuition and to belief in the unseen.


  1. Jon, not sure if you know this or have read it – Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford

    • As you know now, as we discussed it elsewhere, I haven’t yet read the book. Have read a piece of it, though, and liked it.

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