Faith, Reason, and Emotion

When I see Mike Huckabee speak about his faith, something doesn’t quite sit right. Something feels a little off, and it makes me more than a little uncomfortable. This has nothing to do with him being a Republican or his policy positions; I’m talking simply about how he talks about his faith. And it is not specific to Huckabee either, as I feel the same qualms when I hear any American public figure (of any party, but nearly always Protestant) talk about their faith in public. My problem is this: for them, faith is detached from reason. It is inherently subjective and individualistic, ultimately based on emotion– faith as a “warm fuzzy feeling”, something that makes them feel good about themselves.

That is not what faith is. For a start (and this point is lost on most Protestants), “faith”, in St. Paul’s usage, is shorthand for the “obedience of faith”. And there is nothing subjective or emotional about that. As the conciliar document Dei Verbum puts it, “The obedience of faithis to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him.” There is nothing wishy-washy, emotional, or cloying about that definition!

Ironically, it is actually even clearer in the infamous Anti-Modernist oath (prescribed in the motu proprio, Sacrorum Antistitum by St. Pope Pius X in 1910):

“I maintain in all certainty and sincerely profess that faith is not a blind feeling or religion welling up from the recesses of the subconscious, by the pressure of the heart and of the inclination of the morally educated will, but a real assent of the intellect to the truth received from outside through the ear, whereby we believe that the things said, testified, and revealed by the personal God, or creator and lord, are true, on account of the authority of God, who is supremely truthful.”

I know we post-conciliar types are supposed to hold items like the Anti-Modernist Oath as relics of a calcified past. And to be sure, the reforms of Vatican II were urgently needed. Still, sometimes the scholastic style and bluntness of writing in those days is a breath of fresh air to our ears, accustomed as they are to all kinds of relativism and postmodernism. For this is the most direct criticism of the American evangelical approach to faith I have seen. And, for obvious reasons, it is extremely pertinent on our day. FOr it can be dangerous.

If faith is divorced from reason, then God too can be disconnected from reason. This can lead to voluntarism, whereby God is be conceived as pure will, not pure reason and intellect. As Pope Benedict pointed out last year, the notion that God is not subject to reason “might … lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.” This becomes a license to ignore the laws of science and nature, and– even worse– to support a politics based on power and the “will” of God.

And then there is the oldest heresy of all, Gnosticism. If faith is detached from reason, then it comes from within, as believers draw the object of faith from themselves, no longer aligning themselves with the broader community and with historically revealed truth. Why this approach to faith appeals to Protestants is patently obvious. But the snare of Gnocticism comes through the ego, and individualism can morph quickly into narcissism. Salvation comes from within, and is only available to a select few. This can easily lead to the breakdown in community, the primacy of the individual, the repudiation of the notion of society ordered to the common good, and instill a “them versus us” attitude. Sound familiar?

I’m not saying that people like Huckabee are guilty of these errors. What I am saying is that their form of emotional theology opens the door to such problems.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • JH

    I am not at all clear that an aEvangelcial faith is divorced from reason. In fact interaction with my mainly Evangelical friends that went ot seminary as well as living my mostly evanglical and Baptist family shows me that is not the case

  • I’ve heard Huckabee talk only a few times… any specific quotes you’re referring to that backs this argument? YouTube link or something?

  • JH

    LEt me add one thing. It would be very interesting if Catholic Revert and former “evangelical” philosopher Francis Beckwith at Baylor University would comment on this. Needless to say even when was a Evangleical he was a leading light in bringing forth reason and faith together. He still teaches at Baylor Univeristy which is one of the leading Baptist Universities in the nation. I suspect he would say that this is not the case.

  • Jason

    Good comments MM. My memory may be a bit hazy here, but I believe I recall a recent papal appeal for all of us to stive to sainthood. And while we may not all be blessed with a special revelation like Saints Paul or Francis, we need to be open to God speaking to us personally. While the Catechism calls the conscience the primordal vicar of Christ, it also calls for an informed conscience. I think that what we need to work on is keeping a healthy tension between faith and reason. However, based on my experience, I think we err too often on the side of looking for “truth recieved outside through the ear” by means of complete acceptance of what some may call a paternalistic Church on the part of world-weary people who are at wit’s end from a lifetime of wading through relativistic options. I believe the degree to which someone that looks for truth from “outside through the ear” may not have teh fully formed conscience that the Catechism calls for. Such reliance on the institution of the Church to pull us along to salvation may get in the way of regular communion/communication with “the personal God” that wants to draw us to him. God may speak to us in our heart, but the Church, as a mediator, speaks to us through our ears.

  • It’s a cultural thing. Huckabee is a Southerner, and Southerners allow faith to pervade every aspect of their lives. If you were to move to the city where I live, the first question a person will ask you when you meet is: ‘Where do you go to Church?” They ask, not to be judgmental, but because they believe, rightly, that going to Church is extremely important.

    The way Huck talks about his faith resonates with Southerners because we talk about our faith in the same way he does: out in the open, for all to see.

    And yes, there is some emotion at play, But I fail to see how being emotional about one’s faith somehow means that it is detached from reason. What about Mary crying at the feet of our savior, while Martha was being a busy body?

  • I agree with MM’s points about faith and reason and Protestantism, but we cannot combine them all into a single group, because it is a rather complex “phenomenon.”

    I’m lost about how MM’s points relate to Huckabee, because I haven’t heard him much talk about his faith and that is why I’m asking for a video link or something. I could perhaps agree with Alexham, but again, I need to know what you guys are talking about with regard to how Huckabee talks about his faith 🙂

  • MM,

    I typically like your posts. I have come to enjoy their convinction and wonkishness. However, your shots at evangelicals are consistently off the mark and often a little offensive. They have ‘Catholics worship statues’ feel to them. I have many family and friends who are ardent evangelicals. I myself am a former evangelical. Your charactarizations don’t fit. And, in the case of this post, you might want to back up your claim with I little more than “something feels alittle off when criticizing somebody basing their convictions on emotion.

  • TeutonicTim

    OK Everyone, mark this one down in history. I AGREE WITH MM!

  • Br. Matthew: it’s not meant to come across as a critcism of evangelicals, but a warning about the implications of a flawed theology. Many of my secular liberal friends are wonderful people, too, and they don’t recognizes themselves in the caricatures I paint relating to moral relativism, but it’s still important to question flawed philosophical underpinnings.

    Tim– Hmm, now I’m thinking I must be wrong! 🙂

  • TeutonicTim

    Nah, you’re right… 🙂

  • radicalcatholicmom

    MM: I wrote a post on my own blog recently saying the same thing & I don’t know why I feel the way I do. I just don’t like it. Why? Maybe I am so sick and tired of Bush’s version of Christianity I am suspicious of any politician claiming they are called by God.

  • One of my former pastors would often make fun of a Christianity which sought to cultivate and get by on what he called “the warm fuzzies.”

    But then, he was Reformed as well — and since my reception into the Church I have found myself in many a modern Catholic parish which could scarcely be distinguished from their Protestant ‘warm fuzzy’ neighbors.

  • Donald R. McClarey

    I like Huckabee’s talking about his faith. It is his policy positions outside of the social issue realm that I find troubling. When Protestants talk about faith, it can sound as strange to Catholic ears as it does to Protestant ears when Catholics are explaining the role of Mary. It is a big country and none of this bothers me.

  • SMB

    The ‘feelings’ that MM, CM and others are talking about are worth analyzing. They could be based on a kind of prejudice, as some have suggested. But they could also be based on a concern that sentiment will continue to trump reason in politics, and that religious sentiment is a particularly dangerous brand.

    The issue is complicated by the fact that most of us have rejected the idea of a religiously neutral political discourse. So the question then becomes, when do public professions of FAITH become politically dangerous SENTIMENT?

  • …when do public professions of FAITH become politically dangerous SENTIMENT?

    Whenever they are contrary to truth: that is, whenever they are contrary to the Deposit of the Faith.

  • SMB

    ‘Whenever they are contrary to truth: that is, whenever they are contrary to the Deposit of the Faith.’

    Well, shoot–that pretty much eliminates the current field of candidates!

  • Daniel H. Conway

    When Mr. Huckabee talks about his faith, I just find the discussion unattractive, not because its about faith (and good Southerners knowhow Godless the left in the North can be). And as such, its just unattractive-not my brand of religion, like Fr. Neuhaus’s commentary on his lack of attraction to Mormonism (its a little too “smiley face”-something with which I also resonate).

    I do not find it false, or fake, just different, and wrong, in the theological sense.