Part 2: “And the WORD ‘Felt’ Among Us”: Is It Reasonable to Be Emotional? (Spencer)

Part 2: “And the WORD ‘Felt’ Among Us”: Is It Reasonable to Be Emotional? (Spencer) May 21, 2021

We continue our guest writer series by Dr. F. Scott Spencer, “And the WORD ‘Felt’ Among Us’. Part (1) was about the debate amongst theologians regarding whether or not God can have emotions. Here in Part (2), Spencer moves the discussion forward by engaging the relationship between reason and emotion. Check it out, and also check out Spencer’s excellent new book, Passions of the Christ: The Emotional Life of Jesus (Baker Academic).

Is It “Reasonable” to Be Emotional?

Dr. F. Scott Spencer

Western theology and philosophy have long driven a sharp wedge between good Reason and bad Emotion, between Lord Logos and Peasant Pathos. Descartes’ famous dictum set the tone for the Enlightenment: “I think”—not “I feel”—“therefore I am,” although he wrote a thoughtful work on The Passions of the Soul! Descartes was heir to the early Greek and Roman Stoics who prized reason over emotion, largely viewing passions as irrational disruptions of self-control and peace of mind. In short, pathos easily leads to pathology.

But not so much in the Jewish Scriptures. Though lacking a distinct word for “emotion,” the Bible has a lot of “heart,” perceived as the seat of volition (will) and cognition (thought) as well as emotion (feelings), dynamically integrated together: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” and, likewise, “Love your neighbor as yourself  (Deut 6:4; Lev 19:18). Jesus affirms these as the two greatest commandments in the Bible, the lodestars for his own life as much as for others’ (adding “with all your mind” to the love list in Matt 22: 37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).

Support for this “reasonable” perspective on emotions is also found in another strand of Greek philosophy. Aristotle takes a more moderate position on the “passion” (pathos) of anger, for example, counseling that we should assess the “state of mind when people are angry and against whom are they usually angry and for what sort of reasons” (On Rhetoric 1.1.8–9). In other words, one may profitably examine attitudinal, relational, and motivational factors that influence anger. While Aristotle acknowledges that some anger erupts for no good reason, he asserts there are proper times, types, and targets of anger: when, how, and at whom anger ought to be expressed (2.2.1­­­–2).

There is thus an “intelligence of emotions,” as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it. Emotions can be volatile, but they serve a useful purpose as “upheavals of thought,” pushing, prodding, provoking us to multilevel, considered reflection about what matters most. We feel, therefore we care—about particular people and projects for particular reasons. Passions reveal our inner thoughts—often before we’re conscious of having them—and propel us to critical evaluation of our life goals.

So what about Jesus’s anger toward a leper (Mark 1:40–45) or some Pharisees in a synagogue (3:5–6) or a poor fig tree and temple functionaries (11:12–21) or Mary of Bethany and friends at Lazarus’s gravesite (John 11:33–38)? Simply to slap a “righteous” label on these anger cases doesn’t do them justice, without investigating who/what sparks Jesus’s anger to what ends? What was he thinking in these tense situations? Or at occasions of tearful grief near Lazarus’s tomb (again) (John 11:35) or on the outskirts of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41)? In Louise Erdrich’s award-winning novel, The Round House, the narrator comments, “I stood there . . . thinking with my tears. Yes, tears can be thoughts, why not?” No reason at all! To ignore emotions like anger and anguish—along with disgust, surprise, love, and joy—in the Gospels’ characterizations of Jesus risks missing the force of what matters most to him, which among other things, is an indomitable will to life, as I call it, a passionate commitment to make everyone and everything whole.

Passions of the Christ

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