What Do I Do with Feelings?

When I was growing up in church, the faith passed on to me was one that was clear and reliable. It left very little to the imagination, speculation, or intuition. I can recall a Campus Crusade tract that described how theology and spirituality related to one another. The image was of a train. The locomotive of the train was labelled “Fact.” The rail car hitched to the locomotive was labelled “Faith.” The caboose, connected at the end of the train, was labelled “Feelings.”

The lesson to be learned was a simple one. The certainty upon which one’s faith rested was a certainty built on the facts that comprised the truth of revelation, and the theology that appealed to this revelation. Theology was seen as an articulation of what was unassailably true. The only real mystery was that some people could receive the facts and not believe.

That feelings formed the tail end of the spiritual train was seen as a reflection of the reality that feelings are intrinsically unreliable, unsuitable as a foundation for faith. As a test of theology, they were seen as patently untrustworthy, and any theological framework that relied on them was fatally flawed.

Although much of the substance of my faith remains, time, life, and reflection on much study have helped me better understand the basis for the faith that I continue to have. I won’t take the time to talk about why I am not so presumptuous as to insist that my faith is placed on fact. I have already written about the difference between truth and fact. You can find it here. I am more interested in the significance of feelings — or better, intuition — in theological reflection. Strictly speaking, they are not the same thing, but I will use the terms fairly interchangeably because what I believe is intuition is commonly referred to as feelings.

It is not an understatement to say that feelings, far from being minimized, have become the litmus test for discerning what is real and valid. Thirty years ago, Donald Bloesch described the theological landscape this way: “In a time when theology is being reduced to reflection upon human experience, we should heed Martin Buber’s prescient warning to Protestants of “a conceptual letting go of God.” The disquieting reality today is that the object of faith is being emptied of its conceptual or rational content, and theology is left without any indicators or criteria to gauge the truthfulness of its assertions.”1

What Bloesch saw then was that a great many Christians are evaluating their lives, thoughts, and what they hear in terms of their intuitive — e.g., pre-rational, often emotional — responses to what they are told is true. In terms of what they glean from Scripture, how they feel about what they read is often more significant than what it means (or what someone says it means). The weight of personal intuition and experience is equal to that of traditional authorities in the church, and that no amount of bible reading, or even biblical hermeneutics, can address.

I have sometimes wondered how it is that I have retained a faith that I consider to be dogmatic in all of the best sense of the term, whereas many of my friends have lost their faith — or parts of it — to disillusionment and skepticism. I don’t think I am naive. My personality is far too contrarian to allow for that. Maybe I am fortunate to have been raised in a context in which the key influencers in my life were consistently authentic in relation to what they said they believed. But then again, I have known others who were unfaithful in one fashion or another. I can’t give a definitive explanation.

But I will offer a brief proposal about how I believe religious feelings function in faithful discipleship. I am aware enough of my own experience, and my own subjectivity, to acknowledge that intuition plays an important role in faith formation and theological reflection. I think that the experiential dimension of human existence is essential for faith and theological work. That is why I am an ethicist, because I am not interested in doctrine devoid of incarnational expression. And I believe that this expression is observed contextually and narratively, and apprehended subjectively even before it is understood cognitively (or even when it is not).

But I do not trust my intuitions to be the sole arbiter of truth, whether it is truth I think I observe or truth I want to believe internally. I certainly do not trust my self-perceptions (at least not completely) apart from the confirmation of others. Why not? Because what I do know about myself inclines me to harbour a healthy skepticism regarding my feelings. I lie. I lie to myself, in a myriad of small ways. Every human rationalizes one’s own behaviour. It is human nature.

My passions attempt to sway me in a variety of ways. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing, such as when I feel the euphoria of spending time with my wife. My feelings resonate with the values I hold dear, and they are precious. At other times, however, what I feel clashes with my conscience, informed as it is by my upbringing, my reflection, and other elements of my formation. Then, I need to examine my feelings, and process them differently. They are not in charge. I cannot change what I feel, but I can change what I do about it.

Sometimes the dissonance between what I feel and what I believe is painful, but even then I am convinced that the difficulty serves a divine purpose. Nowhere in Scripture is there record of a divine promise of happiness or security or freedom from pain. Far from it. What is promised is that the conflicts and pain and dissonance and turmoil can give way to joy and hope. But this will happen only when we allow our feelings to serve their rightful purpose, as indicators of our humanity — reminders that we are alive — and then surrender them to the Creator.

  1. Donald G. Bloesch, A Theology of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 11.

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