Orthodox Alexithymia and Unorthodox Sentimentalism

The issue of ‘orthodox alexithymia’ has resurfaced in a number of contexts online over the last few days. Richard Beck describes what he means by this term:

What I’m describing here might be captured by the tag “orthodox alexithymia.” By “orthodox” I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by “alexithymia” I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.

(Alexithymia—etymologically “without words for emotions”—is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others’ emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.)

I think that Beck is naming something real here. There are ‘sociopathic’ forms of religion, forms of religion that are completely disconnected from any sense of feeling, forms of religion that only engage the head, but never the heart. There is a sort of logical theology that can exist apart from any deep existential and emotional engagement and embeddedness on the part of its practitioners in the realities of which they speak.

However, while agreeing with Beck in his identification of a problem, I am less convinced by the solutions that have been advanced by some. The following are a few rough thoughts on the subject, some of which are culled from comments beneath Beck’s original post (Andrew Fulford has posted one of my comments in full here).

1.

When talking about the relationship between reason and emotion, we need to proceed with clarity. Emotion is primarily a state of consciousness and is related to a faculty of feeling. Reason, however, comprehends more than just our faculty of thinking, but generally includes the critical, external, and objective norms to which this faculty is ordered. Our minds are made subject and conformed to reason and to truth. Our minds must also submit to and be formed by communal practices of deliberation, debate, discourse, and disputation. An irrational mind, a mind preoccupied purely with its own fancies, or a mind untrained by the disciplines of public or communal discourse is of little use to anyone, least of all its owner.

In saying that reason is privileged over emotion, what many people are actually objecting to is the fact that a trained, disciplined, focused, and formed faculty is privileged over one that is untrained, unformed, unfocused, and undisciplined. For many, emotion and desire are treated in terms of entitlement: instant entitlement to attention and immunity from challenge, criticism, or disagreement. Emotion (and the oft-demanded ‘empathy’) can be used to blackmail communities, shut down challenging conversation, render people or positions immune to criticism or disagreement, and halt any process of discipline. Any suggestion that emotion and desire ought to be conformed to an external truth, reality, or norms, or that one person’s emotions may be more valid, significant, or appropriate than another person’s emotions is greeted with horror.

When it comes to emotion and desire, for some people ‘self-expression’ and ‘authenticity’ are the only norms recognized. While our emotions should always be our own, and we should not have an alien set of emotions and desires forced upon us unnaturally, or all emotion and desire stifled and crushed within us, we do need to develop and submit our selves and emotions to a process of formation that would mould them into more godly forms.

2.

This is one of the purposes of true worship. Good liturgy and ritual guides and shapes our emotions into fitting responses to God’s self-revelation. An approach to worship focused on undisciplined spontaneity and individual self-expression can be problematic on this front, as the emotions can become feral. One of the benefits of singing and praying lots of psalms is that they are full of spiritually formed emotion. As we bring our emotion to them, our emotions are shaped by them. Our emotions are not crushed, but are house-trained. Such training is especially valuable for a society that can often be emotionally incontinent.

The real problem that many in this generation are facing is that Christian traditions have generally valued passions too highly to leave them uncultivated, unformed, undisciplined, immune to criticism, and subject to no external constraints or communal practices. Like reason, formed passions are immensely valuable. However, the means whereby true and valuable passions are formed involves the learning of healthy emotional processes, the invalidation of certain emotional expressions, the loss of emotional entitlement, and the subjection of our emotions and desires to processes of communal discernment, criticism, formation, expression, and judgment. This process of emotional growth and discipline, though painful, creates deep, rich, and powerful passions. Unsurprisingly this rankles with many.

3.

All of the above is to suggest that there is such a thing as ‘emotional orthodoxy’ (or perhaps, ‘psychological orthodoxy’). The heart must be engaged by our faith, by the heart is also submitted to a process of formation by our faith. The solution to orthodox alexithymia is not mere empathy or compassion per se, but a rich depth and breadth of feeling that has been shaped by the fullness of God’s revelation.

With the neglect of the full breadth of the psalter and an overreliance on upbeat and frothy worship songs, much of the contemporary Church is utterly unprepared for ‘weighty’ and difficult emotions. It should not surprise us that such a Church will often struggle to reconcile itself with the judgment of God and with the fierce jealousy of God’s love, as coming to emotional terms with such truths requires a much deeper emotional engagement with divine truth than such sentimental brands of Christianity can muster.

4.

There is a huge danger of confusing sentimentalism with true passion. Sentimentalism is all surface and no depth. Sentimentalism is feeling for the sake of feeling. It is narcissistic and self-absorbed. It is what happens when feeling becomes a self-justifying end in itself. Sentimentalism is the love of being in love. Sentimentalism loves to display itself, in extreme empathy, in teary sorrow, in ecstatic joy, in passionate outrage. However, sentimentalism is little more than display: it manifests these emotions but does not pay their cost. There is no long term commitment of action accompanying them, no difficult devotion, no deep and lasting passion beneath the ephemeral expressions of emotion. Sentimentalism can flit lightly from one emotion to another without the deep and painful transitions.

Perhaps one of the greatest distinguishing features of sentimentalism is its lack of a profound commitment to its supposed object, or of devotion to the reality to which it claims to be responding. For sentimentalism, the supposed object is merely a pretext for self-absorbed emotion, for the individual’s love of feeling something. The sentimentalist will speak with gushing emotion about the latest charity cause and forget about it entirely within a month. The sentimentalist will be in tears at the news of a celebrity’s death, without ever having had or sought any meaningful connection with them while they lived. The sentimentalist will speak with extreme outrage concerning some atrocity, but will never bother to commit themselves to some long term action that might change it.

Sentimentalism produces self-indulgent art, art designed primarily to give us the titillation of feeling, without ever really having to feel. Sentimental works of art tickle but never deeply challenge our emotions. The characters of sentimental literature are limpid pools in which we are to see our reflection. As Roger Scruton observes, such works are vague, ‘schematic, stereotyped, smoothed over by the wash of sentiment, deprived of the concrete reality that would show the cost of really feeling things.’

Being easy emotion detached from its object, sentimentalism is particularly drawn to distant objects, to general principles, vague causes, to strangers, to passing events, to the sorts of things that will disappear from the radar soon. Sentimentalism is decidedly unattracted by the sorts of causes that would require long term commitment from it, especially the sort of commitment that cannot easily be displayed or that would not whip up gushy feelings. The supposed object of sentimental feeling is always replaceable.

5.

There is such a thing as sentimentalist morality. This is the morality characteristic of much ‘bleeding heart liberalism’, for instance [or also of much nostalgic conservatism, for that matter]. Sentimentalist morality is preoccupied with itself and its own feelings of morality. Sentimentalist morality is obsessed with being ‘nice’. Sentimentalist morality is detached from reality and seeks to retain a measure of detachment. Too much reality makes sentimentalist morality squeamish. The sentimentalist doesn’t care so much what actually happens, provided that the ugliness of reality is not something that he has to be exposed to for any length of time. He can often fairly happily live with evil, provided that it takes a sanitized form and doesn’t offend him by taking too visible a character.

The sentimentalist will not commit himself to long term painful and demanding action on behalf of those in need. Sentimentalist attitudes towards the poor, for instance, all too typically involve moral outrage that someone else isn’t doing something, usually the government. The sentimentalist would prefer not to have too much direct contact with the poor himself. It is also much easier to feel nice feelings towards the poor as a vague sentimental abstraction than it is to the actual poor person who comes across your path.

The sentimentalist longs for a world where we are all nice to each other in a way that realizes the narcissistic dream, where we are no longer confronted with the uncomfortable reality of the other’s existence and of a reality that resists us, but can all bask in the warm feeling of being compassionate and accepting. This world is one of ‘tolerance’, of niceness that does make the sort of discriminations and take the sort of committed action that love does.

Sentimentalist morality lacks nerve. Sentimentalist morality is indiscriminately nice, because within its airbrushed ersatz rendering of reality there are no sharp moral lines, nor is there any responsibility to pursue any common good or the good of any neighbour that may firmly oppose their will. Sentimentalist morality is all about empathy. Sentimentalist morality hates the way that another person’s discomfort makes it feel, irrespective of whether this discomfort is merited or not, or whether this discomfort will cause the person good in the long term. The sentimentalist is like the parent who cannot bear to see their child cry, allowing them to be easily manipulated by them. The sentimentalist doesn’t really care about the other person, or they would take painful and unsentimental action to seek their good. The only deep concern here is the sentimentalist’s own narcissistic feelings. Such sentimentalism lacks both conviction and conscience.

In response to the identification of the evil of orthodox alexithymia, all too often it is such sentimentalist morality and theology they are presented as if they were the solution.

6.

By contrast, true worship is designed to produce the sort of deeply rooted passion that is fixed upon and committed to God. This sort of committed love is manifested primarily in action rather than in sentiment. A person who truly loves will manifest a commitment to the object of that love over many years in the ways that they act towards and concerning it. This love will generally be extremely understated by comparison to sentimentalism, which is pure surface and display.

This passion is not just in love with the general feeling of loving or being in love – and how good this makes us feel about ourselves. It is absolutely committed to a particular object of love. As it is not in love with the feeling of love, it is able to act in a devoted way to its object that will produce feelings that are not so pleasant. Sentimentalism only simulates the sort of feelings that others admire and feelings that we can feel good about ‘feeling’. Sentimentalism cannot easily produce the deep jealousy of love or other difficult feelings characteristic of true attachment.

God, as the object of true Christian devotion, is not sentimentally drawn. The god of sentimental worship is the sort of god who can serve as a suitable canvas for our projections of value and feeling. The god of sentimental worship is a convenient reflection of or projection of the worshipper’s own values, whose worship redounds to the worshipper himself. The god of sentimental worship is a god who could never do anything that truly troubled, disturbed, or upset us. The worship of sentimentalism is no more emotionally engaged with reality than the sociopathic worship of orthodox alexithymia.

Quite unlike the god of sentimentalism, the God of Scripture reveals himself in ways that shock, surprise, and even appal us. God is very, very far from being nice. He instructs his people to kill other people. He wreaks judgment and destruction on the earth. He chooses some people and doesn’t choose others. One can love this God or one can hate him: one cannot sentimentalize him.

7.

One of the great characteristics of sentimentalist Christianity is the glorification of things such as ‘love’. However, the love of sentimentalist Christianity is an indiscriminate love, largely because its object was never really an external one to begin with. The love of sentimentalist Christianity is one that is ‘nice’, one which makes us feel good about ourselves. The love of true Christian worship is one that orients itself towards all other objects in terms of their relationship to the primary object of its love and commitment. The love of true Christian worship is defined by its object, not by its ‘feelings’ of love. Actually loving is something that completely eclipses the mere feeling of love and our love for that feeling.

8.

As the love of God is defined by its object, it is discriminate and focused. It is a love that can involve God hating other things. It is a love that is characterized by an unrelenting practical commitment to its object, the sort of commitment that will involve the judgment of anything that would continue without repentance to oppose and seek to destroy its object. God’s love is not a general toothless benevolence, but a dreadful (in an older sense of the word) devotion to its object.

Sentimentalist Christianity’s ignorance of a love defined by and committed to its object and celebration of an undirected and indiscriminate feeling in its place needs to be answered by a recognition of the ‘grammar’ of the divine love. As we better understand the ‘grammar’ of God’s love, so we will begin to discover a love that transcends mere feeling.

God loves his Son first and foremost. God loves those within his Son with a love that is grounded in his love for his Son. God also loves the world more generally, for the sake of his Son, into whom he desires all creation and all persons to be drawn. This includes a love for or goodness towards those who are the enemies of his people. God’s love and goodness towards the wicked is shown with the end that they repent (Romans 2:4).

God’s love is not directed to each person in the same way. The word ‘love’ is not used univocally to speak of all of these relationships. God does not love his enemies in the way that he loves his people. Understanding the ‘grammar’ will help us to understand how this works.

God’s love is long-suffering, giving enemies time to turn and to bring them to repentance. However, God’s love is also a jealous love, with a jealousy ‘as cruel as the grave’ (Song of Songs 8:6). God’s terrible commitment to his people in his Son is not something that one can lightly oppose. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a God who loves this strongly. God’s love for his Church means that he will avenge it and finally destroy those who seek to oppose it and continue to reject his loving and long-suffering appeals for repentance.

God’s love for his enemies is different in character from his love for his Son and his people. It is the latter that is primary and it is in loving God and his people that we directly love the Son. We don’t love Christ in our enemy (in the way that we love our Christian brothers and sisters), but we love our enemy for the sake of and like Christ, with the end of their repentance.

9.

Both in Beck’s original piece and in a number of the pieces that have followed on from him, attention has been drawn to the emotionally discomforting teachings of Scripture, to such things as sanguinary judgment, hell, curses in the Psalms and elsewhere, and to the killing of the Canaanites. An emotionally engaged Christian will not find such teachings easy. However, the more that we engage with Scripture, the more that we will see that a love that is not just a sentimental feeling, but is something passionately, actively, and unremittingly devoted to its object, will entail such things as hatred, anger, and even, on extreme occasions, cursing.

This is one of the things that a psychology informed by regular singing through the psalter will give us. The psalter does not merely contain the feelings and expressions that appeal to the sentimentalist. As well as being a place of rejoicing, love, thanksgiving, and blessing, it is also a place of deep sorrow, depression, anger, and imprecation. Within it we are taught, for instance, that there are appropriate occasions to seek God’s curse and judgment upon people and that the downfall and destruction of the wicked is a cause for thanksgiving.

The New Testament makes very clear that cursing and calling for judgment is not the Church’s standard policy – we bless and don’t curse – calling for a greater degree of love for and longsuffering with our enemies than that present in the Old Testament. However, we still find curses on the mouths of the apostles and even on Jesus’ mouth, as in cursing the fig tree he symbolically curses Israel to its destruction in AD70. We are also told that the saints call for God to avenge their blood (Revelation 6:10).

Love with a clear object, unlike vague sentimentalism, is a complicated thing and works itself out in complicated ways. While the love of Christ for his faithful people led him to curse Israel, which was filled with the blood of the saints and prophets, that same love led him to weep over the impenitent city and its coming destruction. The love of David for God, his people, and his covenant led him to show mercy, forgiveness, and goodness, time and again to Saul, who continued to seek his life, while praying for God’s judgment upon Saul and his supporters in the psalms.

As John Day puts it, ‘in circumstances of sustained injustice, hardened enmity, and gross oppression, it has always been appropriate for a believer to utter imprecations against enemies or to appeal for the onslaught of divine vengeance.’ This is only applied in the most severe of situations and takes the form of a petition that God would either convert or destroy the most bitter and brutal enemies of his Church (cf. Psalm 83:16b) and that in overcoming his enemies, his name would be recognized by all.

Sentimentalist Christianity cannot handle such things. Sentimentalism is detached both from reality and from objects of love. The sentimentalist shies away from the actual reality of suffering and persecution. Suffering and persecution can force us to attach ourselves to objects of love. When one is suffering and being persecuted for one’s faith one cannot easily detach oneself from the proper object of Christian love. The focusing and clarifying of love that can occur in such contexts is alien to the sentimentalist. The world of the sentimentalist is viewed through a soft focus lens, with all sharp edges blurred: the idea that love for Christ would entail such fearful opposition to something else is not understandable to it.

10.

One does not solve orthodox alexithymia with unorthodox sentimentalism, a narcissistic form of faith obsessed with the dimensions of Christian faith that feel ‘nice’. The only answer is to become people with a deep love for Christ, a love that surpasses all sentimentalism, a love that takes hold of us and won’t let us go, a love that drives us to live committed and unwavering lives of service. This love is not nice, nor is it vague, nor is it indiscriminate, nor is it sentimental. This love is directed towards One who confronts us, who disturbs and unsettles us, who forms us into the sort of people who will have enemies. This love is a love that is revealed in Christ’s profoundly unsentimental death on the cross. The reward of such love is immense: instead of a projected idol of self, it presents us with God himself.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Society, Theological, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Orthodox Alexithymia and Unorthodox Sentimentalism

  1. This is excellent – and describes well the false polarity in modern Christianity.

    In understanding the nature of God, as you describe it, I struck me how what seems confusing to us used to be easily understandable in terms of the behaviour of a good Father: one who wants the best for his children.

    But on the one hand, the nature of Fatherhood has been confused and denied – while on the other hand ‘best’ has become redefined in secular terms (e.g. fame and fortune).

    It shows how astute were the forces of darkness in focusing effort on promoting the sexual revolution; since one result has been to make the Christian concept of God seem like something ultra-complex and incomprehensible, or simply incredible.

  2. Jim says:

    Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    Some important thoughts here.

  3. Caned Crusader says:

    ALastair,

    Have you seen Rachel Held Evans’ recent post on this topic? She reacts with extreme emotional outrage to several statements of (primarily) Reformed theologians on the sovereignty of GOd and the OT holy wars in particular. She claims that she must abandon any theology that cannot deal with these problems in the way she does for her own emotional integrity. i found this extremely puzzling, primarily because it is Reformed theologians who I have seen doing some of the best work in cultivating a truly passionate doctrinal theology. (One could hardly describe John Piper’s brand of CHristian hedonism as ‘all head’, which she seems to think is the case.) I found the entire engagement over there troubling. Particularly as someone who holds Reformed convictions on the sovereignty of God and having to work that out in relation to disability, I find the suggestion that holding these views automatically leads to a lack of emotional understanding ludicrous. Certainly many of the ‘new Calvinists’ comments can seem, and often are, psatorally unhelpful. But a completely uncritical dismissal of them (which seems to be completely udifferentiated from the larger evangelical Reformed tradition) with no seeming awareness of how reformed types actually have grappled with the emotional outworkings of their system is frustrating, especially from someone as obviously erudite as I know Evans can be.

    • Yes, that was one of a few posts that sparked my thoughts here. I have more than a few differences of my own with Piper, but to imply that his theology doesn’t really engage the heart would be a very strange accusation to make. That said, on the issue of divine sovereignty and the appropriateness of God taking life, I don’t find Piper’s statement of his position at all satisfying and can quite understand why someone would react to it and think it heartless.

      I don’t think that Piper has truly married the heart of his faith with his theology at this point, but I believe that his attempt to do justice to Scripture, especially at the point where it makes us feel most uncomfortable (and we should remember that Piper writes as someone with a very deep heart), is a very telling indication of where his greatest priorities lie.

      • Caned Crusader says:

        I am inclined to agree with you about his statements regarding God’s sovereignty, particularly when ripped from a generally Reformed context (in which a lot of background assumptions are in play.) More troubling, however, is her seeming ambivalence to the very idea of a sovereign God God who might do things like order human killing. It’s understandable why this would be hard to work through–and the Book of Job makes it fairly clear just how beyond us God is in this area. I think what it gets down to is that Evans has a different practical idea of what faith means than I do. Faith, as best I can understand it, is clinging to Christ and his promises *in spite of* the myriad questions that we don’t have answers to. in this way, faith can certainly “amke room for” questions; but she seems to want to put the questions themselves front and center. Perhaps I am being unfair, but this is the idea I get from a lot of her recent writing.

      • For me the difference is between cutting God down to the size of our doubts and a God to whom we respond: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!’ We can find ourselves wrestling with God in the darkness, much as Jacob and Job did. Like them, we must absolutely refuse to let go.

    • Caned Crusader says:

      It’s interesting that everyone seems to use that analogy. For us, it means wrestling by faith. But I have seen Evans employ the very same idea to promote a kind of “wrestling by doubt”–in which our doubts are allowed to eclipse things that Scripture makes emminently clear: the centrality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for our theological orientation. (Incidentally, I could write a whole post on this line of thinking, coupled iwth a kind of winking trendiness for using the word “heretic.” But I won’t, because that would be getting a little far afield.

    • charityjill says:

      I don’t think that anyone is saying the Reformed aren’t passionate about their theology! I think that the issue at hand is about how do we, as Christians who elevate “love” as our highest ideal, understand this ideal (intellectually, even)? There truly is a cognitive disconnect, it seems to me and many others, between the generally Christian notion that “God is love,” and the new Reformed version of God’s sovereignty. It isn’t that other people are too dopey about “love” to understand the theology behind the new Reformed beliefs; it is that others just don’t find the arguments convincing in light of what we know about God revealed in Jesus.

      • Thanks for the comment, Charity. I can quite understand many people’s problems with certain predestinarian articulations of divine sovereignty. I have deep problems with many such positions myself. I didn’t write this post to defend Piper, as I strongly disagree with him in this area, but to take issue with what has been proposed as the alternative.

        ‘Love’ per se is not our highest ideal. Love for God and true love for neighbour are the two greatest commandments. While the sentimentalist approach might focus upon love per se, which is where it goes wrong, Christian love is about a steadfast and unwavering commitment and devotion to a particular reality. Love for God is defined by its object. As we love God, we will start to relate to everything else differently. As we love God, we will begin to hate sin. As we love God, we will begin to love his people. As we love God, we will begin to be jealous for his glory and firmly oppose all that would detract from it. As we love God, we will make enemies of those who hate him.

        Love for neighbour is also not just some vague and unfocused feeling, but a steadfast commitment that shapes action in terms of a reality beyond itself. In loving our neighbour we humbly seek what is best for him, even if that causes us to cross his will or to become his enemy. In loving our neighbour, we commit ourselves to his genuine good, not merely to the establishing of pleasant feelings between us.

        It is the objective standard, particular commitment, and specific object of love that sentimentalism lacks. As I suggested in my post, sentimental love is like the ‘love’ of the parent who will never discipline their children because they hate to see the child cry. This isn’t love at all, but only a parody. True love is unsentimental and is even prepared to hurt the person who is loved for their good. True love is also prepared to execute judgment upon those who would seek to destroy the loved one. The fact that God is love does not refer to a vague benevolence but to an unwavering commitment to act favourably towards its particular object.

      • AndrewF says:

        The idea of God’s ultimate revelation of himself being in Christ Jesus (and the totality of scripture which attests to him) is central to reformed theology too. Indeed, one of the reasons I hold to certain aspects of reformed theology regarding regeneration is because of Jesus’ teaching in John chapter 3.

        What do you mean by the ‘new Reformed’ version of God’s sovereignty? What is new about it? (indeed, given the varying views, can we call them an ‘it’ to begin with? I don’t agree with everything people like Piper might think on the issue.)

        What I find quite interesting is how Calvinism is often dismissed as being a product of logic – though at the same time, rejected because of apparent logical disjunctions with assumptions of things like ‘love’ and ‘freedom’ etc. rather than from exegetical discourse. It seems to me that it is the Arminian position which is supported by logic rather than exegesis (but I’m prepared to allow disagreement and not treat those who disagree as if they are heretics. Both frameworks are well within the bounds of orthodoxy, despite how the neo-reformed are sometimes scorned). In fact, why are post-evos allowed to hold tensions, but reformed theology not allowed to have any tensions?

  4. Harris says:

    It is, of course, possible to construct false emotional narratives of all sorts, left and right. There is a sentimentalism of the right, as well, perhaps seen most visibly in the sort of heated political rhetoric that ends up demonizing its enemy. That is, we get caught up in our emotional truths that we abstract the objects of our concerns.

    Adding further, I would suggest that our thinking in clichés is part of the fuel for this sentimentality. The cliche substitutes a forumula, a set-piece for the confrontation with actual spiritual realities. And let’s face it, we all do this from time. Here, the turn to the Psalms is, as you suggest, a good path to keeping oneself emotionally and spiritually grounded.

    • It really is. The airbrushed nostalgias of conservatism are a good example. That said, I think that the right is especially drawn to the ‘orthodox alexithymia’ – the logical heartlessness – that the sentimentalism is reacting against. On the other hand, these two things can be profoundly reinforcing. A sentimentalist portrait of our nations in the past can lead us to treat the immigrant who arrives at our borders with great heartlessness. This can be facilitated by the sentimentalist art of someone such as Kinkade, his world in which a conservative imagination can shut itself off from a world of the needy poor, radical evil, social injustice, or people of other races. The cheap emotion of the sentimentalist in one quarter can justify its absence in another.

      As you say, the banal and the cliché are fairly essential to sentimentalism.

  5. hbcstoke says:

    An excellent and insightful post Alastair. Once I got past the terrifying guard set at the gate of the piece (that is the title) and drew up sufficient courage to enter in, it was highly rewarding – you must work on your titles by maybe placing an alternative for lesser mortals!

    I recall three years ago preparing for a series on the psalms which led me to conclude some of the same points; not least the idea of the psalms as God’s training ground for our emotions. I made the point that we should not just sing the psalms that are appropriate for our mood at the time, but learn to go through the whole psalter training ourselves to handle and express emotions that we may experience at other times, even rarely. In other words, we don’t wait for example until we are depressed to sing psalms that start from that point. This training and application of the psalms appears in James 5:13, where it appears the singing of psalms is commended as an appropriate way to express our cheerfulness.

    The psalms also teach us to see our emotions transformed, beginning as many do with one state and closing on a totally different one. The psalms train us to move from lamentation to praise. They move us from the view of our problem to the view of the God who hears and can answer and deliver.

    One writer I consulted observed the failure of many modern hymn compilations to be that few hymns contain a ‘story’ and thus do not accomplish this transformation or training. This is besides the fact that few modern compilations are balanced with hymns that speak of trouble and sorrow etc.

    Joni Eareckson Tada states: “The psalms show the heart not only how to speak but to listen. If emotions are the language of the soul, then the book of psalms gives us the grammar and syntax, teaching us how to wrestle, inviting us to question, and vent anger in such a way as to move up and out of despair. The psalms wrap nouns and verbs around our pain better than any other book.”

    • Thank you! Those comments on the psalms are extremely helpful. The way that the psalms help us to navigate a passage and transformation of emotions is a thought worthy of further reflection.

    • Kae Carte says:

      I agree with the difficulty of the title. It was a deterrent for me at first but I had the time so I figured I would at least open it up and skim through it. I’m so glad I did. I read it all, once I got over the hurdle of the title.

  6. charityjill says:

    I highly doubt that any of the folks who are talking about “orthodox alexithymia” during the recent past are of the impassioned, charismatic variety that you describe: “uncultivated, unformed, undisciplined, immune to criticism, and subject to no external constraints or communal practices.” To say that Rachael Held Evans is a sentimentalist is certainly a stretch. I’d say that she is highly critical of a lot of things! You set up a picture of a recklessly abandoned, theologically wishy-washy romantic, who is “in love with love” — I guess I’m having a really hard time believing you that this kind of person exists. Anyone with the faculties to grasp the meaning of “orthodox alexithymia” and move on to analyze it and write about it — I think that this person deserves respect for their discipline of mind, not criticism.

    • Thank you for the comment, Charity. A few points in response.

      First, while Rachel Held Evans was the person who revived this particular discussion, hers has not been the only voice participating within it. This issue has been discussed on Twitter and elsewhere by people who are coming from a range of positions, many of them rather different from Rachel’s. My post wasn’t directed at one person in the debate in particular, which is why Beck was the only person explicitly mentioned in the post itself. The fact that some of the claims within the post don’t fit Rachel specifically is to be expected. While I argue for a position that is very critical of Rachel’s, hers isn’t the only approach that it is challenging. Besides, if you look at my comments beneath Richard Beck’s post, you will see that the statements that you quote were culled from there, and were written long before Rachel wrote her post: they weren’t about her. That said, I believe that, with a clearer understanding of their sense, it should become clear that they do apply to her to a considerable extent.

      Second, I wonder whether you aren’t confusing sentimentalism and emotionalism. They aren’t the same thing. Sentimentalism is not just an excessive and irrational reliance upon the feelings of the moment. Sentimentalism can be highly rational and actually need not appear emotional at all. In fact, some of the most intelligent and rational people who have ever lived have been sentimentalists. One could even argue that academics have a peculiar vulnerability to sentimentalism, as sentimentalism typically operates from a position of detachment, abstraction, and supposed refined sensibility. So this isn’t about reason versus emotions.

      Sentimentalism is rather about a particular way of feeling about reality that is more about the feeling than it is about a genuine and costly commitment to that reality. This ‘feeling’ need not take the form of gushing, whipped up emotion, although it often can. Sometimes this feeling is little more than the sense that we are compassionate and refined people. Sentimentalism often displays excessive sensitivity and empathy. However, this excessive sensitivity and empathy ends up being more preoccupied with the way that we feel about things than about the things themselves. There are a lot of things that will not feel ‘nice’ to us, but are an essential part of being committed to something or someone. However, sentimentalists, who are overly considered with feeling ‘nice’, can lack a clear commitment to the realities as a result, as this commitment will often lead us to support courses of action that are far from ‘nice’.

      • charityjill says:

        Maybe I shouldn’t have responded without knowing to which posts you were responding — didn’t see any links, though, so I figured I would take your post at face value.
        And I think I’m understanding you — I meant “romantic” in CS Lewis’s sense of the word, “desire for desire” that is an end in itself, which you call “sentimentalism.” When this desire sets it’s sights on something other than God — nice feelings, some perfect vision of Christian community, fame, knowledge, and whatnot — it is for naught, and leads to despair. You are right. But as Lewis concludes in “A Pilgrim’s Regress,” we must come to understand that this sentimentalism, this desire, finds its appropriate object in God. It is our “God shaped hole,” and it will have no satisfaction until we are made one in Christ.
        I struggle with your argument because it seems like the the same old, “People don’t get our beliefs about God’s sovereignty because they are caught up in ‘the flesh'” (or in your words, ‘feeling nice.’) It is easy for the neoReformed to cast their opponents as those who are too caught up in their own selfishness to be able to have meaningful insight into God’s nature — but this response dismisses the argument instead of engaging it.
        I don’t think it takes a whole lot of sentimentality to believe that God is revealed perfectly in Christ. It seems Biblically sound to me. I don’t want a vaguely benevolent God, because Jesus was not vaguely benevolent. No. He was actually, disturbingly, sacrificially benevolent. It is to this vision of God’s nature that the people you describe are committed — not just in an abstract way, but in a way that requires discipline, action, sacrifice, and dedication to Scripture. You characterize those who are quite dedicated to seeking God and learning about His nature as self-obsessed and obtuse, and that doesn’t seem honest or fair. It seems very dismissive.

      • Thanks for the response, Charity. Romanticism is a form of sentimentalism (I gave several examples of the forms that it can take), but it definitely isn’t the only form that it can take. I would also be rather wary of saying that our sentimentalism ‘finds its proper object in God.’ In some ways that would rather akin to saying that ‘idolatry finds its proper object in God.’ The relationship between sentimentalism and desire is also something that needs to be approached carefully, as sentimentalism is primarily a matter of feeling, with perhaps an implicit logic of desire underlying it.

        As for beliefs about God’s sovereignty, I should make very clear that I am not defending John Piper (whom Rachel referenced) and others who hold that sort of understanding of God’s sovereignty here. On this point, although I don’t think that Piper has been very fairly represented, I think that there are genuine problems. I also, if you notice, began my post by acknowledging that orthodox alexithymia does exist. I have written against this sort of understanding of divine sovereignty before. My point here is to challenge the supposed alternatives to ‘orthodox alexithymia’ that have been presented by Rachel and several others, not to defend the sort of ‘sociopathic faith’ that Beck was tackling.

        I could not agree more that God is revealed perfectly in Christ. However, I have deep problems with the way that this truth is typically approached.

        First, we cannot procrusteanize the Old Testament witness to fit a particular image of Christ. The Old Testament witness retains its own integrity. If our image of Christ contradicts an explicit witness of divine action or character in the Old Testament, we obviously have something wrong somewhere. Pitting one testament against the other and picking and choosing is not an option. God’s character hasn’t changed, something to which Christ himself testifies. For instance, Christ explicitly relates what he will one day do to Israel with the judgment of the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

        Second, the New Testament witness to the person, work, and ministry of Jesus is not limited to selected passages of the Sermon on the Mount, healing and exorcism accounts, certain parables, and the crucifixion and resurrection account. It is also found in judgment parables, in his symbolic curse upon the fig tree (which, from the context and from the larger Scriptures, is clearly a symbolic curse upon Israel and her temple, connected with the gruesome and bloody destruction wreaked upon the city and its people in AD70), in his empowering of his apostles to curse unrelenting opponents of the gospel, or to deliver members of the Church who are sinning with a high hand to Satan for the destruction of their flesh, in causing people to suffer illness or die for treating the Eucharist in an unworthy manner, in sending his angel to kill Herod, in putting Ananias and Sapphira to death for lying to the Spirit, in his use of imprecatory psalms, or in teaching his disciples to pray for God to avenge them.

        But far more pertinently, however, the person and work of Christ are also seen in his revelation from heaven with his angels ‘dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus’ (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). The person and work of Christ is seen in his treading of the blood of the enemies of his people, in sending people to eternal judgment, in striking the rebellious nations and putting all of his enemies under his feet (just read the book of Revelation). The person and work of Christ is seen in his avenging the blood of his servants upon the wicked. The person and work of Jesus is seen in his extensive teaching on hell and judgment.

        Now, don’t get me wrong: all of this teaching must be read in terms of the love of Christ and his revelation of God’s character in his death on the cross, in terms of the positive dimensions of God’s love that are far more heavily accented. None of this is pitted against the other biblical teaching about the character of Christ. All of this teaching must be related to God’s dreadful and unrelenting devotion to his people, the same devotion that we see in Christ’s fixing of his eyes towards Jerusalem and his coming death.

        However, the importance of this broader biblical picture lies in its exposure of the sentimentalism of many portraits of Christ, a sentimentalism in terms of which our entire understanding of God can become utterly skewed. The presentation of Christ in the New Testament does not end with his first coming, nor with the period of grace between the comings, but speaks and gives foretastes of the terrible judgment that he will enact upon all who determine to oppose him. The same Jesus who taught about loving enemies is also the Jesus who symbolically cursed Israel or spoke about his future coming in judgment. This is not consistent with the sentimental portrait of him, but it really is a crucial dimension of the biblical witness to the character of Christ. In short, Christ isn’t ‘nice’.

        Christ’s ministry goes through stages. Christ’s first coming is one of humbling himself, lovingly effecting a freely offered salvation and forgiveness for mankind. Christ weeps for those who have set themselves against God, does not avenge himself, and prays for the forgiveness of those who crucify him. The extremely unsentimental action of going to the cross lies at the heart of this. He is exalted to God’s right hand, from where he rules until the time when his kingdom is universal, all of his enemies have been pacified and, willingly or unwillingly, all bow the knee before him and confess that he is Lord.

        Even as the one at God’s right hand, Christ is gracious and longsuffering with his enemies, lovingly calling them to repentance and delaying judgment. However, the biblical witness is that this delay of judgment and goodness towards enemies is not permanent. There comes a point when, for the sake of his love for his people and creation, judgment must be rendered and all who continue to oppose the gospel destroyed. Judgment isn’t about vindictiveness or getting revenge, but about justice and love.

        God’s love is not a disinterested love. Disinterested love is a contradiction in terms. Rather, God’s love is a jealous love for his alienated creation, a love ordered towards the end of union and fellowship in his Son, as all things are gathered together in him. The sacrifice of Christ for his enemies was a love for the Church and his people as they would be, not just an undirected, indiscriminate, and disinterested love. However, when the enemies of God completely and finally reject his long-suffering and patient goodness and love and completely reject him and his desire of reconciliation within his Church and seek to oppose and attack his people, they set themselves directly against the object of God’s jealous love. As a result, God will destroy them for the sake of his love for his people. God does not let their sin run its full natural course because he loves his people and his world too much to allow this to happen.

        I do not doubt that the people that you describe do feel very sincere and dedicated to seeking and learning about God. However, our sense of sincerity and dedication, like our other feelings, is fairly worthless apart from a proper relationship to an external object. Our dedication is measured by the objective standard of how committed we actually are to God’s revelation, not by the subjective standard of how dedicated or sincere we feel to it. There is rather too much talk about ‘sincerity’, ‘honesty’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘bravery’ today in contexts where there is no clear commitment to an external truth that exposes our unbelief, but rather just a consistent tendency to knock down God to the size of our believing, privileging our doubts over God’s revelation. This, too, is sentimentalism. How we feel about our relationship to God as the object of seeking counts for little unless we are actually devoted enough to his self-revelation to allow our appealing ‘nice’ but false images of him to be called into question and rejected for the sake of a portrait that, although less initially appealing, is true.

      • To clarify my point in my final paragraph: I am not saying that such people are not dedicated to seeking God. What I am saying is that the measure of such dedication must be an objective one, measured relative to what God has revealed about himself and the places where he gives himself to be found. It doesn’t matter how sincere or dedicated we might think ourselves to be: if that revelation is not the measure of our faith then we are not truly dedicated to seeking God at all.

  7. Kae Carte says:

    Clear explanations and analysis. Helpful information. Looked at Psalm 13 this week and the English Standard Version (ESV) shows that it is a Psalm “To the Choirmaster,” which means it is meant to be a worship song to be sung corporately. Most interestingly, it is full of very unpleasant emotion. It is safe to say that the Psalmist was not being sentimental in writing it.

  8. Pingback: Intellectualism and sentimentalism : Clever Dialectic

  9. Paul Baxter says:

    Perhaps you should have just saved time and linked to this Hauerwas video:
    http://vimeo.com/6852729

  10. Pingback: An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion | Alastair's Adversaria

  11. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2012-2013 | Alastair's Adversaria

  12. Pingback: Retrospective on 2013 | Alastair's Adversaria

  13. Pingback: In Defence of Argument | Alastair's Adversaria

  14. quinnjones2 says:

    Because I have a different perspective on emotions, I will comment on Open Mike Thread, rather than here🙂

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