Christian Faith: Feelings Not Required

Human Reason and Emotion

The gears turning within man appear driven by two distinct forces: reason and emotion. When these two forces work against one another, the stronger of the two, fed by natural or nurtured inclinations, dominates to control our actions. Oppositely, reason and emotion may on occasion act in concert, resulting in decisive action. Such internal struggle or agreement between these two forces occurs (in my conception of our will) anytime we face a decision, whether that is to buy a new car or merely whether to eat a salad over steak.

This is not a picture meant to usurp the reality of free will through a mechanistic view of human choice, but rather to express two natures of our will (i.e. the “heart” and the “mind”). Do not mistake this for some academic treatment of human psychology. Instead, I simply want to open with an introduction to actions largely derived from mind and heart (my very colloquial terms for reason and emotion).

Some decisions are won by our hearts, such as the decision to give money to the homeless man on the sidewalk. Other decisions are won by our minds, like the decision to withhold gifts of money to another homeless man, whom you recognize as a serial abuser of dangerous substances.

Also, recognize that both the heart and mind can be equally impulsive. Though the former may be more conducive to rash decisions, the latter can be impulsive given the right dilemma and human dispositions.

Picture a man accepting a new job on the spot that, on face value, far exceeds all the metrics of his current employment: better paycheck, benefits, location, upward mobility, working hours, etc. However, what the rational yet impulsive decision did not consider was the job’s higher purpose and that people also care about meaning. The old job gave this man profound joy in its mission to improve others’ lives. However, this new job offers no such thing. In fact, our protagonist finds himself depressed because his well-paying job promotes things quite detrimental to society. The rational mind (which is only as good as the information given to it) made a poor decision based on impulse.

All this is to say that both reason and emotion are not perfect, especially alone. The two, though opposite in many ways, are both important to making good decisions and thus are actually complementary. 

Let’s keep this in mind as we examine two commonly talked about aspects of the Christian life: love and faith.

Christian Love

I, by no means, am the first to assert the love is a choice, not a feeling. Despite our conceptions of “love” as learned by modern culture (just picture the “rom-coms” as a supreme example), basing such a life-long decision upon the fleeting feelings of physical (or sometimes psychological) attraction is a folly bound for disappointment. All married couples know that feeling will dissipate quickly. The honeymoon will soon be a memory.

Though the feelings can return aperiodically throughout a marriage, what remains when the initial feelings inevitably subside?

This is the genius of the Christian view on marriage. Marriage is an oath, freely given, to do everything in one’s power to lead the other towards heaven until “death do us part”, and it is even given sacramental significance within the Catholic Church. Marriage is much more than a practical but wholly necessary foundation of society-building. It is also a gift by God to aid in one’s journey through the Pearly Gates.

Marriage is thus a choice to partake in this gift from God, made not just by feelings (though it does play a part), but more importantly by our reason. It requires reason to recognize the Christian marriage as more than an earthly institution, but one divinely approved to build God’s kingdom through both children and our witness.

The important point here is that, although a marriage can survive without feelings (as it does through arguments and the like), no marriage can survive on feelings alone. The counterpart to feelings, as I laid out earlier, is our intellect.

Since love is a decision we maintain regardless of circumstance, a marriage can survive on that choice, which is a product of our reason. (Here, I am saying, perhaps not eloquently, that our reason enables the decision to love, hence a marriage could result from use of our reason alone – even if devoid of feelings.)

I am not saying a lack of feelings in a marriage is good; I’m simply stating that it is not necessary. Now, we can apply this same logic to faith and move on to the thesis of this post.

Christian Faith

“Faith”: a word beloved by Christians (and other religious) and the target of vitriol from many an atheist. To the latter group, this essay does not address you, as this is not a work of apologetics. If you’re an atheist, you may as well stop reading here, unless you merely wish to understand the Christian conception of faith as it relates to the human intellect.

Though I write this from the perspective of a Catholic convert, I believe Protestants will find my use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (a summary of Catholic belief) in describing the nature of faith quite helpful. To the best of my knowledge, most Protestant denominations will concur with the Catholic description of faith I present. Much of faith, as you will see for yourself, deals with the intellect or what I previously called our human reason.

First, faith is described quite well by scripture as documented meticulously in the catechism (note for Protestant friends, the vast majority of references are to direct Biblical passages). Faith can be understood as simply an obedience to God, as Rom. 1:5, 16:26 refer to “the obedience of faith”. Abraham earns the honor as the “father of all who believe” [Rom 4:11,18; 4:20; cf. Gen 15:5.] through his obedience to the Lord’s will.

As worded in he catechism, “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.” [Heb 11:8; cf. Gen 12:1-4.] We demonstrate our faith through our obedience to God’s commands and his will over our own.

Now, onto several excepts from the catechism demonstrating how faith requires more than our hearts (emotions) but also our minds (intellect).

143 By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God.

Dei Verbum 5

155 …”Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II,2,9; cf. Dei Filius 3:DS 3010

156 …So “that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.”[1] …. the assent of faith is “by no means a blind impulse of the mind”.[2]

[1] Dei Filius 3:DS 3009.
[2] Dei Filius 3:DS 3008-3010; Cf. Mk 16 20; Heb 2:4.

158 “Faith seeks understanding“:[1] It is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith, and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love…. In the words of St. Augustine, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.”[2]

[1] St. Anselm, Prosl. prooem.:PL 153,225A.
[2] St. Augustine, Sermo 43,7,9:PL 38,257-258.

These four passages from the catechism, bringing together scripture and the writings of many doctors of the Church, makes clear that despite what I perceive as a modern over-emphasis of the feelings associated with faith in God, the Biblical and historical view of faith throughout Christianity has not forgotten the necessity of acting through our intellect.

By 143 above, we must submit our mind to God. By 155, our establishment of faith by belief requires an intellectual act. By 156, faith as purely an impulsive (i.e. requiring no reasoned act) is rejected. And, by 158, St. Anselm and St. Augustine eloquently voice the relationship between our faith and intellect (understanding).

Hence, we find that both faith and love, commonly assumed to derive overwhelmingly from the heart, also require assent of our reason: in marriage, we must consciously and freely bind our lives to the other, and in faith, we consciously and freely give our will to God. Though both love and faith indeed be animated by our hearts and fill us with joy, neither will come about without the submission of our minds, our intellects.

Lacking Feelings in Faith

I have admittedly felt little in terms of emotion when it comes to my faith. The greatest occasion for my emotions to emerge was during my conversion to Catholicism (a story for another day). Otherwise, I have never shed a tear; I have never felt a weakness in my bones; I have never felt the level of joy others may describe by verses of the Psalms.

Many may believe this to be a discouraging plight, something to be held as a deficiency of faith. Though faith is indeed a great gift through the grace of God, the choice to believe (an act of the mind) is commended by Jesus:

“Jesus said to him, ‘You have believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.'” (John 20:29)

If you do feel the presence and joy of God every day, then surely you are immensely graced by God, and you should rejoice that such a grace has been given to you. However, I believe you are very likely the minority among Christians. Most of us may often feel a neutrality that doesn’t live up to our imaginations about the good Christian life. Do not be dismayed.

If faith were to be built solely on our feelings or emotions, how could any Christian surpass those times of doubt or confusion or grieving for some loss? These times are what many a saint have come to know as the “Dark Night of the Soul”. The catechism addresses this as well:

164 Now, however, “we walk by faith, not by sight”;[1] … Even though enlightened by him in whom it believes, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test…

[1] 2 Cor 5:7.

We will all likely experience events in life when our faith is tested, when the feelings of faith are gone. Hence, the mind must submit in faith as well, such that it may override our feelings when necessary. A mind well trained in apologetics, for example, is harder to shake from the faith than one ignorant of the reasons behind one’s faith. Particularly in today’s connected world, different viewpoints and criticisms of the Christian faith are easy to come by. 

This is not to suggest that all Christians should necessarily “become” apologists, but rather that every Christian should spend some time trying to understand the fundamentals of the Christian faith, along with some idea of our 2000 year old history.

If we are willing to study years in technical schools or colleges to prepare for a profession, should we not throughout our lives expend equal effort to prepare ourselves for Heaven? I strongly believe we should do our best to understand what we rest eternal reward upon.

A large part of the reason I began ThinkingWest was as an outlet or for my studies of the faith and other topics on western civilization and society. I find my faith strengthened when I study the topics of Christianity: it’s doctrines, histories, great literary works, traditions, Church fathers, and of course, the Bible. Perhaps not everyone will have the same response, but my quest to understand Christianity has become an ever more important part of my life: not for the sake of understanding, but rather for the journey itself.

One reason I believe I respond so positively in faith by studying the faith is my largely academic background. School was a strong point. Thus, I find myself back “in school” at the feet of Christianity’s greatest figures: Jesus first and foremost, the apostles, the Church fathers, and all the great writers and heroes since.

Faith vs. Science?

These passages (143, 155, 156, 158) put to rest the argument that religion is a substitute for reason, as they indicate Christianity’s reliance on understanding and reason is intertwined with faith itself.

Inevitably, when speaking of reason and Christianity, the topic of “faith vs science” will crop up. Our catechism has conveniently moved the conversation thus far, and it’s no surprise it addresses this as well:

159 … “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”[1] “Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”[2]

[1] Dei Filius 4:DS 3017.
[2] GS 36 § 1.

Hence, the Christian faith is is never intrinsically at odds with science. Most commonly held “contradictions” between science and religion are surprisingly easy to disentangle. (Perhaps a future post on these will be worthwhile.)

Final Thoughts

I hope I have laid out a fairly thorough treatment of how faith and love are not so different as regarding our use of intellect, mind, reason, or whatever you like to call it. Feelings will fade in and out in both love (marriage) and faith. God, in His wisdom, gave us minds to discern fact from feeling. Hence, our minds are great tools to be used toward our salvation through Christ.

A mind well-formed by Christ will not falter in doubt; rather, it will help guide us through doubt, guard the faith against the tides of secular culture, and further bring about the salvation of others through our witness. We all know how an expert in a subject is justifiably bold in his opinions and his prescriptions. Likewise, we need to be bold about our faith, unafraid to speak the truths of the Christian faith to those who most need it.

Published by Christian Bottenfield

Catholic | Father of two | Husband | Engineer | Founder of ThinkingWest blog

One thought on “Christian Faith: Feelings Not Required

  1. This is so well written! Especially about love being a decision we maintain✝️🙌💖I’m starting a Christian blog on faith and how we can trust God’s promises during this difficult time if you’d like to check it out

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: