“How are you feeling?” asks the friend of a sunburn victim. “Far too much,” is the reply.

And so, it seems, are we all, in practically every segment of contemporary life, including education and religion. Emotional intensity (preferably coupled with verbosity) and subjective judgment are increasingly valued more highly than facts and logic to authenticate personal opinion, and truth is more often imagined to be spontaneously generated by passion than patiently discovered by reason. One need not look for evidence only at the more obvious arenas of mass group-gropes—at rock concerts, among shaven-headed groups hypnotically chanting “om,” or in the “consciousness raising” courses of the “open” universities. The cult of feeling (or “sensibility,” to give it its eighteenth-century term) has invaded the most unbrageous center of the groves of academe, and the innermost court of the temple of religion.

As to the former, there was recently offered (not on my own campus) a seminar in Shakespeare in which the teacher (the new term is “facilitator,” or “change agent”) repeatedly asked: “But how do you feel?” about this or that. One student, thus exhorted to lay down the burden of thinking, opined that, for him, subjectively, King Lear is a comedy, and the blinding of Gloucester hilarious. The slight impediment to this as a critical judgment—namely, that it is wrong—was not permitted to stanch the flow of gabble. Rather, the student was commended for the “freshness of his personal vision.” The implication, of course, is that nothing that can be said about King Lear is, objectively, either right or wrong, but only either deeply felt (valid) or merely rationally demonstrable (irrelevant).

For obvious reasons, the cult of sensibility has made few inroads into the teaching of mathematics and the hard sciences, though its form is often unmistakably visible beneath the disguising garments of technical (or pseudo-technical) language when scientists express social, philosophical, or religious opinions.

The fact that neither “feeling” nor “reason” can be satisfactorily defined, nor can “subjective” and “objective” be precisely separated, poses something of a problem to one wishing to discuss them. Not an insuperable one, however. We all have a working understanding of the difference between emotion and intellect, just as we do of the difference between life and death, though neither philosopher nor physician has ever satisfactorily defined those terms, either at the fetal beginning or at the moribund end of human existence. Added to the problem of fuzzy definitions is the hazard of seeming to over-emphasize one or the other part of an already over-simplified dichotomy between emotion and reason. Without the interplay of both, man is less than human, and the fallibility of unaided human reason is as apparent in the disappearance of the Encyclopedists into the desert as is the inadequacy of the emotions in the vanishing of the Romantics into the blue.

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In the Christian view, of course, the entire volitional, intellectual, and emotional apparatus was marred in the Fall, as was the body. And the spirit (that third element in man’s triune nature, that which “sits in the middle and knows,” to use Frost’s phrase—though I am not sure he was talking about the same thing) died in trespasses and sins. Only through the quickening power of the Holy Spirit can the “new creature” in triune completeness be born, capable of experiencing in some measure true spiritual love (agape). Such love is not, it may be noted, an “emotion” in the ordinary sense, but is one of the attributes of God imparted by his grace to those conformed to the image of his Son.

Returning to the natural realm, it seems clear that though both reason and emotion are susceptible to error, there is a clear hierarchical relation between them, and that reason must be assigned the higher seat. Paul probably spent a great deal more time reasoning with his hearers in the classroom of Tyrannus in Ephesus than in feeling with them, and Isaiah issued his call to come and reason, not feel, together. Emotions normally derive from thoughts, circumstances, and conditions. We do not “authenticate” God by feeling emotional about him; rather, we feel the emotion because he exists and has revealed himself to us. “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23). We are not sinners because we happen occasionally to feel guilt; nor are we virtuous because we sometimes feel complacent about not being so bad as some we could name. God’s existence and our moral condition are objective facts, like the chemical composition of salt.

Natural man would much like to have it otherwise, and to believe that his consciousness, not God, creates reality. This, of course, is the ultimate rebellion, the essence of pride. Milton, with his usual rightness when important things are involved, puts this issue at the center of Satan’s debate with Abdiel, when the latter bursts out in horror at Satan’s officially announced program of rebellion. “Shalt thou,” asks Abdiel, “give Law to God, shalt thou dispute/ With him the points of libertie, who made/ Thee what thou art, and form’d the Pow’rs of heav’n/ Such as he pleas’d …?” And Satan, with the awed eyes of his minions upon him, replies: “That we were form’d then saist thou? and the work/ Of secondarie hands, by task transfer’d/ From Father to Son? strange point and new!/ Doctrine which we would know whence learnt …” (Paradise Lost, V, 822–25 and 853–56). The rebellious angels do not feel created, Satan suggests; rather they feel themselves to be “self-begot, self-rais’d/By our own quickening power.… Our puissance is our own …” (861–2, 864). Satan, of course, was the first Romantic—and Rousseau his latter-day prophet.

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Easily following an emotional belief in self-generation is a belief in natural innocence at least, and natural goodness at best. And for some reason—perhaps because it is less burdensome to feel feelings than to think thoughts—it seems natural to imagine the emotions to be the most positively virtuous of man’s capabilities. The dogma of the natural goodness of the emotions (served by its submissive handmaiden, Primitivism) has myriad devotees today, and its doxology is usually some variant of Swinburne’s “Glory to man in the highest!” Its worship services may be as deficient in rationality as Israel’s orgy about the golden calf, its emotions as intense—its noise, thanks to electronic magnification, is even louder. And if old Reason (like Keats’s bald-pated philosopher in Lamia) interferes, clout him with drugs and you will soon see him skipping about on his thin shanks with the best of them. “My great religion,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, “is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.”

Among the benefits of the cult of sensibility is its ability to accept as “true” two or more beliefs that, to reason, seem mutually contradictory. To one a portion of Scripture may “feel” like God’s word; to another it does not; and both estimates are accepted as true, with no need for the tiring quest for objective reality. Morality by feel (sometimes called “situational”) may at different times call an act either bad or good, depending on one’s “vibes.” (“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness, that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”—Isa. 5:20.) For the materialistic existentialist it is the work of but a moment to declare that any act, whether of supreme beneficence or of abominable atrocity, is equally “good” if it intensifies the feeling of angst that enhances one’s “isness.” For reason (as Bergson said) is radically incapable of understanding life.

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But the major benefit of the cult of sensibility is that it authorizes natural man to concentrate his attention where he wants to anyway, namely, on himself. “We ought to look at ourselves,” again wrote D. H. Lawrence, “and say, ‘My God, I am myself.’ ” Communication, therefore, becomes not a shared search of the truth beyond ourselves but a mere description of our feelings. Each talks about himself, to himself. “Myself alone!” cries Rousseau. “I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” And of his growing up, he says, “I had conceived nothing, but felt everything.… How could I become wicked …?” (Confessions, Part I, Book I). And so James Joyce (literary genius though he was) arrogantly requires (as he said to Max Eastman) that we devote our lives to the study of him, tracing every tiny tendril of his feelings. And so, too—though hackles will be raised here—do some in the Christian charismatic movement require us to listen interminably to how they feel about being saved, not about the objective reality of a cross and an empty tomb. Some even go so far as to assert that unless one has the right feelings (the more intense the better) he is not truly Christian at all, or at least not of the elite class.

This is not, of course, meant to depreciate the emotional consequences of the objective fact of salvation—chiefly the feeling of joy—but only to stress that the feelings are secondary and are lacking in instructional and hortatory value. John does not say that he wrote in order that we may feel saved, but that we may know that we are (1 John 5:13). Nor is it asserted here that emotions do not have a symptomatic value, when they are appropriate responses to reality. Fear is an appropriate emotion of natural man, and is symptomatic of his plight: “Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men” (Ps. 9:20); and joy is an appropriate emotion of the redeemed: “Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). But emotions not derived from reality are unreliable and disobedient servants; they may be falsified, and they may be induced, chemically by drugs or psychologically by self-delusion. They cannot themselves be evidence of objective reality, but only of the reaction (possibly perverse) of an individual to it. To judge by the emotions felt by the kings and princes of Israel when they cut up and burned the roll containing Jeremiah’s warning words from the Lord, there was no offense, for “they were not afraid, nor rent their garments” (Jer. 36:24). But their complacency was a symptom of their disbelief, not evidence of the innocence of their actions. As T. S. Eliot writes in a different context: “It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is any way remarkable or interesting” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”).

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Among the unique glories of the Gospel are its historicity, its objective reality, its revelation of what God has done (not what men feel about what he has done), and its emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the irresistibility of his will. There is doubtless a place in evangelism for a description of one’s emotional response to these things; but compared to our duty to give the reason (logos) for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15), it is a mighty small one.

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