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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.