Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Thought of the day: Does God care about our feelings?
Only after the 20th Century and the rise of psychology, psychiatry, and Oprah could we ask such a question. Imagine going up to Jonathan Edwards, watching him wipe his brow after roasting his congregation with "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (will the actually versatile Edwards be forever remembered as a one-sermon man?) and meekly uttering, "Um, pastor, I'm just going through a hard time right now and I'm wondering if you could ask God just to be there for me." Not that that's a wholly bad prayer. I just can't imagine Edwards being too fond of it.

But now, in a self-help age in which churches can seem more interested in consumers than disciples, God-talk is increasingly emotional. My wife and I were talking yesterday about Bible studies we went to in high school and college, and both regretted how vague and sentimental they tended to be, filled with saccharine statements about "going through a really hard time" and "I just felt God's presence" that were seldom fleshed out meaningfully for the gathered group. I have the same reaction to the "Footprints" poem, which furthers the model of Christ as Shoulder To Cry On--which again, is not incorrect but does seem incomplete when we're talking about the sovereign of all creation and culture. Is our faith, and our vision of God, not smaller when we see him too much as a coffee break companion and too little King of creation? (Historians say the imagery of Christ changed dramatically in the late 19th Century from angry parent to meek shepherd, when male church attendance went down and pastors thought they had to please the ladies.)

I hate myself for snootily questioning the substance (though not the authenticity) of those people who felt so in touch with their faith, and I know that my wife and I are, to our peril, practicalists in our faith, favoring our heads at the expense of our hearts. And surely, emotions are a segment of faith without which faith would wither. So my question is: what role do our personal emotional narratives--when we're feeling up and when we're feeling down--play in our faith? How legit, or at least useful, is it to pray: "Lord, I'm feeling down, help me to feel closer to you"? This was roughly the unspoken prayer that spilled from me as I sat down in church on Sunday, distraught by a fight with my wife--but doesn't that make my faith sound fickle, and isn't that awfully individualistic when you're supposed to be joining the body of believers in a common voice of worship? I'm not saying you leave your sorrows at the door, I'm saying in this society we see faith and worship as a pick-me-up.

I quoted theologian Robert M. Price is this Chimes piece about feel-good faith. He says that if you listen to evangelicals long enough, you start to think that “God sent his only begotten Son, the second person of the Trinity, to earth to be crucified and resurrected just so the pietist can become a nicer guy … the reality of Christ is effectively limited to a source for individual sanctification, even for spiritual coziness.” Andrew Sullivan puts it this way in this online debate about the existence of God: "Belief in God is not a question of filling a need. God is not the utilitarian answer to human anxiety. If he were, he would be outclassed in many ways."

So how legit is emotion as a barometer of faith, and what does it mean that faith feels stronger when we're in a good mood and weaker when we're depressed? Faith does play an emotional function: it contributes to an emotional sense that things are right in the world, it gives us contextual order. But when is this the Spirit, and when is it seratonin?

Previous Thought
Earlier Thought: Change the world? Footnote: My question was how necessary or helpful it would be for everyone (or most) to agree on how to change the world. It may not be possible, but is that because people can't agree on how to see the problem (i.e. the rich calling poor nations under-industrious or even blessed, the poor seeing the rich as hoarding) or because they have practical differences about proposed solutions? While I stew, here are a couple more globalization links:

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