You are cooler than you thought.

10 01 2010

Many people nowadays see our beliefs as the center of who we are: They talk as if having correct beliefs will cause everything else about our lives – our feelings and actions – to fall in line.

If you could draw a “map” of the self according to the typical, beliefs-oriented view that I’ve been describing, it would look like this:

In this view, your beliefs are the core of who you are.  The primary way that we become more Christ-like is by changing our beliefs.  We don’t need to focus on our emotions, since they’re just the “skin” that surrounds our beliefs.  We just have to be careful not to let our feelings influence our beliefs (“You cannot live life by your feelings!!!!!”) because “the heart is deceitful”.

According to this view, as we change our beliefs, our emotions begin to fall in line, and our actions follow.  (You may notice that this is similar to the “fact-faith-feelings train” that I talked about recently.)

I would argue that a “better” map of the self (according to my recent posts) looks something like this:

In this view, there are three aspects to who we are: beliefs, feelings, and actions. All three are equally important parts of who we are, and the borders between the three are very fuzzy.

Also, all three are constantly influencing one another.  Not only is it impossible to prevent our beliefs and actions from being influenced by our emotions: It is not even wise to attempt to do so.  The same can be said for the way all of these things influence one another: our beliefs influence what we do and feel; our feelings influence what we believe and do; our actions influence what we believe and feel.

As theologian Richard Pratt says, these three things “form webs of multiple reciprocities.”

Instead of trying to prevent these things from influencing one another, we should, rather, seek to grow in all three areas, becoming mature in our ability to think rightly (“orthodoxy”), feel rightly (“orthopathos”), and behave rightly (“orthopraxy”).  Again, Richard Pratt teaches convincingly that the goal of studying God is not just to change our thinking, but to develop in ourselves all three of these “orthos”.

This would be a sad way to live.

The bible calls us not just to THINK.  But to DO and FEEL!  Only by doing all three can we live as God intended.

Isn’t that exciting?!?  I love that God doesn’t just think of us as computers in which he wants to program all the right information so that we will live the way he wants.  Life is much more beautiful and complicated than that.

Coming up: I’ll be posting more about emotions.  I’ll write some about why God gave us emotions.  And down the road a little, I’ll get down to practicals: How do we actually learn to be “expert feelers” so we don’t have to live in fear of our emotions, constantly warning ourselves about how they’ll just lead us astray?

All of this and more coming up on… Snapshots of Glory!

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3 responses

16 01 2010

Hi Tim! I really enjoyed this post. I think I vaguely shared your doubts about the beliefs-oriented view but mine certainly never coalesced into a coherent alternative. I really like that your model include includes feelings and actions as equally important. In fact if I had to pick one of the three (beliefs, feelings and actions) that I thought was most important I would probably choose action over belief. But also, my own uncertainties about the beliefs-oriented view have frequently circled around another factor that I think often strongly influences one’s beliefs (in addition to feelings and actions) and that is individual experiences, or life circumstances–I’m not sure the best thing to call it. I am curious, how do you think those might fit in “the more beautiful and complicated” picture of life that you are developing?

To elaborate what I mean by taking the extreme examples, there are millions of people who have endured unimaginably horrifying circumstances–famine, slavery, abuse, the Holocaust, or most recently the Haiti earthquake, where thousands were buried alive under rubble and many have been slowly dying alone and in pain over the course of the past few days as rescuers have been unable to reach them in time. How could such evils not influence one’s beliefs? Because we all have our own unique temperament, background, feelings, such terrible experiences affect us differently–for some their relationship with God is strengthened, and find deep comfort and meaning in religious beliefs/feelings, but others react: “After experiencing such horrors, I cannot believe in God.” For me, my reaction is often: “If I had experienced what they experienced, I might not believe in God either.” Or as Mark Twain put it in his humorous extract from Adam’s diary, “I find that principles have no real force unless one is well fed.”

Of course when life becomes challenging we must all continue to try to think (believe), feel and act rightly, but I do think the extreme variety of human experience–from those who have never had to lift a finger for their daily bread to those who have never known a day free from pain–cannot help but some enter into those “mutiple webs of reciprocities” to affect beliefs, feelings and actions about the world and about God. I don’t know what to make of such inexplicable mysteries as earthquakes devastating the poorest country in the western hemisphere while I sit here with a comfortable roof over my head and decide to donate some money online before going back to eating my nice warm dinner. I feel like my rational, active, and emotional selves all fail pathetically in such cases: my brain can’t make sense of it, my individual actions seem absurdly measly and certainly can’t prevent the immediate deaths and anguish, and my sorrow cannot comprehend the vast suffering. (I should confess that my sorrow quickly turns to another emotion, anger bordering on fury, when I contemplate the stupid preventable deaths or hear a Christian minister decree that the deaths of children in a natural disaster are due to some supposed pact with the devil somebody made 200 years ago.) Even though I personally did not experience the earthquake, I find it touching my actions, feelings and beliefs, so I can only imagine its effect on the Haitian people.

Being incompetent to fully deal with such realities of life, and as somebody who has never known true hunger, grew up in a loving home, and so on–I can only think that to those to whom much has been given much is expected. And further, judge not lest ye be judged. That I have walked through so few dark valleys in this life truly humbles me. It doesn’t make me think that my beliefs, actions and feelings are inherently naive, but certainly that I must exercise deep compassion and love toward all to the best of my ability. I think that is why I have always felt uncomfortable with the common evangelical approach of preaching a very particular set of beliefs as the only way to avoiding eternal damnation, and of the simplistic belief model where the core of a human being is defined by a particular credo. It doesn’t seem to capture the complexity and mystery of reality, and it seems to implicitly judge where only God can judge.

19 01 2010
Tim Courtois

Hey Kathleen!

Very well said, and thank you for putting such thought into your comments.

I definitely think our experiences could fit into a “map” of the self. It seems very true to me that every experience we have in this life leaves some kind of indelible mark on our souls that we carry with us, I think, for eternity.

Not sure exactly *how* that would fit into a diagram, but I think that’s ok. My goal here wasn’t to say, “this is what the soul looks like, this is what God sees when he looks at a person”. It’s more an attempt to say, I think some (i.e., me) have overvalued rationality and undervalued emotions, and I hope this is a picture that corrects that view a little bit.

It’s kind of like Galileo and other astronomers in the middle ages: They would come up with models for understanding how the heavenly bodies move and would say, “I’m not saying this is necessarily what the solar system ACTUALLY looks like; I’m just saying this model works for helping us to understand how these bodies behave. Same, for that matter, as an atom. I say the word “atom” and you get a picture in your mind that isn’t what an atom actually looks like, but it helps you to understand something about it.

Anyhow, what I like about your inclusion of experiences, Kathleen, is that it reflects how intimately linked we are to the world around us. Who we are is not just about what’s contained in our skin, but also about all the things that we encounter. We’re so vulnerable! We’re being shaped and “created” moment by moment by every person we encounter. (Maybe experiences are other circles that crash into our own personal diagrams and change their shape?)

25 01 2010

Thanks, Tim. 🙂 How right you are that these are only models! But I really like your image of experiences crashing into our personal diagrams and changing our shape. I have no idea what God sees when he looks at a person, but because circumstances beyond our control so profoundly affect us, I like to imagine that he sees those (and probably lots of other things we don’t even know about) as a part of who we are.
I’m reading your other posts on emotions now and they are very lovely and thought-provoking. Thanks!

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