The Christian Mind and the Ordering of the Affections

Gordon Smith Ambrose University President
The Christian Mind: In this blog series, President Gordon T. Smith explores the topic of the Christian Mind - Thinking Christianly. Dr. Smith offers insights and personal reflections on what vital place of the mind to the Christian faith calls us to a thoughtful and intentionally Christian approach to life and work. This series is published bi-monthly, on the 1st and 15th.

The Christian Mind and the Ordering of the Affections

As I noted in a previous blog posting, the genius of the Christian intellectual tradition is that it seeks the integration of head and heart – intellect and affect, understanding and the emotional contours of our interior lives. We are not sentimentalists, dismissive of the intellectual life; we are not rationalists, discounting personal subjective experience. Rather, and instead, the Christian spiritual and intellectual tradition affirms that the life of the mind matters and that we engage the truth with open hearts. We do not buy the “four spiritual laws” notion “that the train only needs facts and that feelings only follow faith and obedience . . . and that the train can run without the caboose.” Really? Actually, this flies in the face of the biblical witness. 

To the contrary, Paul noted that the Thessalonian believers received the Word with joy. The book of Acts speaks of the conversion of Lydia, in Philippi, and references how she opened her heart to Paul and Silas – her heart and her home. The book of James urges readers to be slow to anger, for anger does not produce righteousness, but to instead receive the Word with meekness. In other words, we cannot receive the word – we cannot have faith that engages truth except come with open hearts, even, we could say, that we come with joy: a willingness to learn, to be open, to be vulnerable – to delight in what we are seeing and learning.

The Christian spiritual tradition – from Athanasius to Augustine to Bernard of Clairveaux, to Ignatius Loyola to Frances de Sales to John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards – has always recognized that there is no learning, no engagement with the truth, no growth in understanding that is not equally matched and what is happening to us emotionally. It is a completely false notion to suggest that “feelings” come later – after a thoughtful engagement with “facts”. And yet, there is an element of truth here – perhaps we can speak of it as the proverbial half-truth, which does not make it partially true but does nevertheless call something to our attention: that when the ancient spiritual writers of the church speak of the ordering of the affections, the refinement of desire, and thus the capacity for joy and delight in the good and with all of this, the movement of the heart, there was an assumption: that what we feel is congruent with the truth. And more, that if there is depth of emotion, including delight and joy, that this is informed – it is infused with understanding, knowledge and growth in wisdom.  

Several years ago I was invited to speak at a gathering and those who invited me stressed that they wanted “inspiration, not information”. I was a little nonplussed. This is, of course, a false polarity; it is an attempt at a feel good experience that is not connected with what is actually happening or has happened. Without information, without data, without truth and the facts, we are left with vacuous sentimentality.

The genius of all great preachers is their capacity to engage head and heart; the master teacher in the classroom – same thing. Whether they are teaching 2nd grade elementary children or graduate theology students, they refuse to manipulate emotion. That is, to merely use stories or illustrations that are “moving” in order to create a supposed ambience of teaching or learning – but they know that illustrations, metaphors, spiritual experience will all inform any genuine depth of engagement with knowledge that leads to understanding that leads to wisdom.

Nowhere is this more powerfully evident for the Christian community than in the Old Testament Psalms. Each Psalm is an engagement with truth – a revelation of the nature and character of God who is the Creator and Redeemer of all things – but in such a way that our hearts are informed and infused with a vision of God as God. But also, a thorough reading of the Psalms captures the breadth of human experience and thus emotion – from anger to lament to uncertainty and foreboding . . . through till deep comfort, joy and delight. But in each and every case, the feeling or emotion in question arises from – precisely from – the revelation of the truth. But more, the Psalms illustrate the principle that we come to the truth with an honesty about what is happening to us emotionally; we cannot park or discount or suppress emotion in our engagement with God’s revelation. Thus, the Psalms integrate heart and mind and therefore there is a deep logic that the Psalms would be standard fare in our worship – a Psalm every Sunday, read or sung – as a basic ingredient of the Christian liturgy.

And we would be grateful for those hymn and song writers who in the tradition of Charles Wesley know what it means to be both theologians and lyricists, such that what we sing informs both heart and mind. We grow in understanding as we sing; our hearts and affections are ordered as we sing.