I Feel, Therefore I Am: The Value of Emotions

When we talk about emotions, Western culture (and probably Eastern too) tend toward the Stoic position, thinking and arguing that emotion has little or no place in the virtuous or good life. Though classic Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle accepted that emotions had a positive role in human life, were adamant that they must stay under the control of reason if they were to serve their ordained purposes rather than becoming destructive.

We easily recall the French philosopher, Rene Descartes (17th C) with his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” Cognition then became the favored or more respected trait. Rationalists could deal with seemingly obvious dimensions of thought processes while emotions were a complex phenomenon that made definitive or scientific study difficult, if not impossible.

Many philosophers today and the public in general (particularly men!) are suspicious and fearful that emotions can have a distorting influence on the process of reasoning. Some argue the need for it to be neutralized or completely annihilated! Others even contend that life only has meaning in as far as we disown our emotions. They thus respond to life with a good measure of aloofness or detachment and apathy where emotions are concerned.

With such Stoic tendencies, the church seems to play into these conclusions, communicating that “Christians shouldn’t be emotional.” Emotions are not valued, seen as useful, or able to change a situation, and thus are discouraged. The common perception then is that the Christian tradition frowns on emotions, at least the so-called negative emotions like anger.

Pastoral theologians James Whitehead and his wife, Evelyn (a developmental psychologist) studied the influence of theological ideas and identified two opposing views: (1) Emotions are unruly instincts erupting with blind and selfish force. This is the dominant view which paints emotions as dangerous to a life of faith (2) Recognizes the volatility and danger of emotions but accepts them as potential partners in our search for holiness and health. Instead of fighting them off, this positive approach seeks to embrace, tame and harness their significant energy and potential. This perspective also believes that body and soul are not opposed to one another but potential partners that connect us with the Creator.

The Bible is filled with stories that fully attend to the emotional aspects of people’s lives. While concerned with how emotions are expressed, and critical of the destructive behaviors motivated by emotion, it does not question the existence or reality that emotion is part of human nature. Further, it cannot be interpreted to suggest that capacity for emotion is contradictory to God’s intentional creation, or that godly people should strive to be emotionless.

Biblical narratives assume that human emotions are part of created order. The stories in both the Old and New Testament are filled with the emotions of the characters at hand in respond to their circumstances – the anger and jealousy of Cain and Joseph’s brothers; the guilt and shame experienced by Peter and Judas; the grief of sorrow and pain experienced by numerous people like Naomi and Ruth, Job and Jeremiah, King David and Mary, the mother of Jesus. I could list a lot more, but I reckon the best example is Jesus.

When we take a close look at the Gospels, they provide us a picture of a fully human Jesus, a real person who was tested and tempted in every way that we are (Hebrews 4:15f). The writers are clear that Jesus experienced and expressed the full range of emotions: sorrow as he overlooked city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), fear in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37-44), grief at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35), joy in welcoming the children (Mark 10:16), disappointment in denial of Peter (Luke 22:61), and anger on numerous occasions – with Peter, with the Pharisees, and in the Temple.

Let’s take a closer look at one of Jesus’ emotions: In the Garden of Gethsemane, fear seems to be present in his request to God the Father, to “take this cup from me.” The anxiety here is clearly described, together with grief and being distressed. In fact, the anguish was so severe that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” Descriptions like these show that Jesus was going through an intense emotional experience. He was fully human and took part in every aspect of finite life, including feeling anguish and anxiety in face of potential loss, suffering and life-threatening circumstance.

Today, many social scientists, psychologists and philosophers are reconsidering the significance of emotion for human well-being and agree that no aspect of our existence (thinking, feeling, willing) can be left out of our understanding of a particular situation or event.

Research in neurosciences along with postmodern philosophies and social science perspectives, establish that emotions have developed in biological history of humans to serve a positive purpose. They acknowledge that emotions enable us to establish and maintain our connections to the world around us and that an emotion signifies the totality of relationships of the human reality to the world. Without emotions there could be no love, nor would joy or suffering be possible. We could not be in meaningful relationships with others, our environment, or even with God.

Philosopher Robert Solomon states: “It is our passions and passions alone, that provide our lives with meaning,” and that emotion, combine with cognitive process, “provides the motivation for acting on our ideas and values, providing the evidence that emotions are crucial for meaning-making.” Another philosopher, Roberto Unger notes the significance of emotions in “the entire quest for freedom, being at home in the world, for full human life, establishing identity, comprehending our existential experience and motivating our action.”

One reason for postmodern recovery of emotions is their obvious importance for living a full, vital life. As neuroscientist Daniel Goleman says, “Every feeling has its value and significance. A life without passion would be a dull wasteland of neutrality, cut off and isolated from the richness of life itself.” Philosopher of religion, James Gilman says: “Emotions are constituted by forces of great power that vitalize and revitalize the lives we live … without emotions, life would be flat, lived out in a perpetual state of robotic numbness.”

Given all the potential for good that exists in our capacity for emotionality, one can argue that emotions are a gift present in creation and necessary for physical, mental and spiritual wholeness. Though they can be problematic, their existence is meant to be positive, to promote life, not its destruction. James and Evelyn Whitehead suggest: “Emotions may come as a gift instead of an affliction, sources of grace rather than disgrace. A theology that argues for “fixing” humans, so they won’t feel emotions is not defendable scientifically or biblically. We have the privilege and responsibility to claim this gift of emotion and to muster the courage to direct it through ethical behaviors.”

Psychological research has concluded that humans who can’t or won’t access their emotions are in some way compromised in their ability to become fully human. Generations of psychotherapists have argued that emotions are necessary to well-being of people, confirming theological position that emotions are part of God’s intentional creation. Interestingly, psychoanalyst, Carl Jung notes: “Feelings are gracious, life-enhancing sources of interconnection with others, the world and God.