Finding a Place for Emotions

by Gregory S. Clapper

Dr. Clapper is assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Westmar College in Le Mars, Iowa.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 29, 1987, pp. 409-411. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The theologian must see that the emotions have definite implications for the Christian life and that the Christian story has important implications for the affectional life.

Pastoral counselors’ bookshelves are filled with works that promise to translate Christianity into mental health terminology. Approaching theology and emotion from a psychological viewpoint, these writers focus on particular problems of the emotional life (e.g., inappropriate guilt, uncontrollable anger) and perceive Christianity to be the solution to such distress. They depict Christianity as only consoling, never challenging, and do not consider emotions an integral part of faith.

However, the tradition begun by John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards offers a perspective on emotions and theology that predates the psychological approach. These theologians’ explorations of religious affections have inspired new efforts to understand the place of emotions in Christianity. Such thinkers steer clear of the platitudes which are rampant in some of the popular literature on emotion while also avoiding the deep ruts that the existentialists left in this territory.

Wesley’s investigation of emotions and Christianity was an expression of his interest in perpetuating genuine Christian experience, a concern he shared with Edwards. He abridged and published five of Edwards’s works, showing that even the major disagreements between these men regarding humanity’s free will and predestination did not outweigh this common interest. The last of these five abridgments was the Treatise on Religious Affections, Edwards’s most widely read book. This work impressed Wesley with its twofold attempt to show that the "heart" and its affections play a central role in Christian life, and that this role is limited. Ironically, these two men are often caricatured as promoting a religion of wild emotional excess, when in fact they took pains to insist that a life of love and joy does not rule out reasoned reflection or active social involvement.

The United Methodist Church is continuing to examine Wesley’s work in this area. At a theological consultation held recently at Emory University to celebrate the church’s bicentennial, a group studying "Religious Affections and the Knowledge of God" explored the implications of the historical Methodist emphasis on the religion of the heart. The group’s chairman, Don E. Saliers, professor of theology at Emory, has for many years investigated the philosophical as well as theological nature of emotional experience; many of his views on the topic appear in his book The Soul in Paraphrase: Prayer and the Religious Affections (Seabury, 1980).

Saliers is quick to acknowledge his indebtedness to Edwards’s Treatise on Religious Affections. Both recognize the various cultural and theological biases against emotion. In some circles, people talk of emotion in a theological context in terms of a dichotomy between emotion and "reason" or "doctrine," or some other "objective" force. But both Saliers and Edwards maintain that such dichotomies do not withstand close scrutiny.

Relying on both Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, Saliers asserts that emotions have a grammar or logic. This logic inextricably links emotions to judgments and beliefs. The specifically religious emotions (Edwards’s "affections") are considered conceptually dependent on beliefs (religious and otherwise) and the capacity to judge oneself in light of particular stories and descriptions of the world. For instance, the Christian’s sorrow in repentance is conceptually related to stories about God and human sin. Thus, Saliers doesn’t sharply distinguish between reason and emotion, but allows only the relative judgment that some emotions are more or less reasonable, depending on the history and circumstances of the individual embodying the emotion. Saliers is not interested in reasonable emotions in general, but wants to clarify the logic of the specifically Christian affections.

Saliers focuses on four basic Christian affections: gratitude, which is not obsequiousness but a willing and happy dependence upon another; holy fear and repentance, which is not terror, but respect and humility, and grief over one’s sins; joy, which exists even in the midst of suffering; and love, from which spring all the Christian affections. These emotions or affections are not merely feeling states but also function as dispositions to treat our neighbor as ourselves and God as our creator and redeemer.

These specific affections relate to specific objects. Therefore, Christian affections are not generic emotions; their distinction comes from the objects they take. Believers give thanks for and take joy in what God has done for us through Christ; they are called to love not in some vague and general way, but to love God and their neighbor. Both the objects it takes and the character it engenders determine whether or not an affection is truly Christian.

Relating this understanding to the nature of prayer, Saliers calls prayer the rule-keeping activity of the language of the heart. Prayer ensures that the religious affections’ grammar is followed and not violated. It keeps certain religious emotions in place in the believer’s life. The affections arise and develop through disciplined assimilation of the Christian story, and Christians remember and express that story primarily through the liturgical act of worship. The believing community both engenders and expresses its deepest emotions through prayer.

In a later work, Worship and Spirituality (Westminster, 1984), Saliers describes how worship develops the affections:

Think of the baptized life as one in which Paul can command certain deep emotions: ‘Rejoice in the lord always’; ‘Give thanks in all circumstances’; ‘Remember your baptism and be thankful.’ Here the focus is upon emotions that characterize a life received from God.... There are specific times of intense feeling and particular points of repentance, release from guilt, sudden and overwhelming assurance, convicting sense of God’s presence. At the same time, living out our baptism into Christ means the manifestation of long-term passions for God and neighbor. Our love for God may have its ups and downs, fits and starts. But God’s love for us is not dependent upon the ups and downs and fits and starts of human interiority. One of the ironies of pietist traditions may be not that we have stressed experience too much but that we have not stressed the deeper meaning of experience enough! [p. 69].

But Saliers’s concept of "religious affections" is not strictly a Methodist phenomenon. Paul Holmer, a Lutheran, has worked with Saliers and contributed much to this discussion. His book Making Christian Sense (Westminster, 1984) contains his most specific published treatment of the relations between emotion and Christianity. One of his earlier works, The Grammar of Faith (Harper & Row, 1978), had in its background a concern with emotion, but focused mainly on how the nature of theology has been misunderstood. In Making Christian Sense, Holmer proposes that "making sense in a Christian way can be done by fashioning distinctive Christian emotions, by considering new virtues, by finding a new power and shape for the will, and also by making a kind of sense in thought and belief with the new mind available to us in Christ Jesus" (pp. 20-21). Holmer’s understanding of the emotions gives them a certain integrity in themselves while closely relating them to thought and action. He sees the emotions not as mere appendages of the person, but as pictures of the human personality. "Emotions are not acts, not episodes, but ways that people learn to respond to a very complex and puzzling world" (p. 48).

Focusing on hope and despair, Holmer indicates how a Christian can and must make theological, not only psychological, judgments about emotion. Emotions are linked to belief and doctrine, Holmer states. Therefore, Christians are not entitled to despair, for "how can we despair if we remember that God made us and loves us?" (pp. 58-59). The Christian is not merely condemned to accept and learn to live with painful emotions like despair. If Christians understand and embody hope, then despair will no longer reign. Where despair does reign, the grammar or logic of Christian hope has been violated and needs to be corrected.

Understanding that emotions take objects and are dependent on beliefs allows us to see that we can to a large extent pattern and form our emotional lives, and that we can—and should—choose between those emotions which the world encourages and those to which the Holy Spirit leads us. Holmer and Saliers discuss the concepts of formation, development, nurture and training while describing how emotions are generated. Christian affections are not part of our inherent nature or received wholesale in a onetime conversion experience; we need to grow into them.

Robert Roberts, a Presbyterian theologian, also emphasizes the need for discipline in the Christian’s emotional life. Roberts begins his book Spirituality and Human Emotion (Eerdmans, 1982) by stating baldly:

Whatever else Christianity may be, it is a set of emotions. It is love of God and neighbor, grief about one’s own waywardness, joy in the merciful salvation of our God, gratitude, hope and peace. So if I don’t love God and my neighbor, abhor my sins, and rejoice in my redemption, if I am not grateful, hopeful and at peace with God and myself, then it follows that I am alienated from Christianity, though I was born and bred in the bosom of the Presbyterian church, am baptized and confirmed and willing in good conscience to affirm the articles of the Creed [pp. 1-2].

Consistent with Saliers and Holmer, Roberts defines emotion as a construal of one’s circumstances (p. 15). All three see emotions not just as feelings but as something linked logically to belief or appraisal. The "doctrines and stories of the Christian tradition" form the Christian emotions.

Unlike those who offer psychological studies of religion and feelings, these thinkers do not focus primarily on particular problems of the emotional life, but instead provide a broader theoretical understanding of emotion and a positive vision for the role of doctrine in the emotional life. In Christianity they find not just an ointment for our wounds, but also a call to enter into suffering, to pattern our emotions and motivations to favor the cross and shun glory, honor and comfort. The Christian life has emotional consolations, but they are not what the world might expect.

George Lindbeck’s recent analysis of religion and theology provides another way of appreciating the important and distinctive contributions of these theologians of the affections. In his book The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster, 1984), Lindbeck lists three ways of defining a religion. First of all, one can differentiate among religions by comparing their cognitive assertions and belief systems, and by defining absolute religious truth in propositional statements. One could also judge religions on the basis of how well they express a presumed single religious impulse of humanity, assuming that there is one universal experience which is expressed in a variety of ways. Lindbeck’s third method defines religion as a set of linguistic and behavioral practices. This option takes seriously the real differences between religious communities.

At first glance, one might tend to classify the religious-affections scholars into Lindbeck’s second category, in which he places the existentialists who speak about a universal "depth-dimension" uncovered in certain experiences of "authenticity." But the affection-centered views of Saliers et al. are best placed in Lindbeck’s third category, the cultural-linguistic. They see Christianity not as the welling up of an instinct, but as a disciplined form of life distinguished by a certain pattern of affections. Unless belief engenders a specific set of affections, and leads to certain kinds of behavior, these theologians would say, the gospel has been misunderstood. Opposing both rationalism (assent to correct beliefs) and pietism (Christianity as a matter of felt experience), these thinkers aim to show that theological integrity and a rich emotional life are connected.

This is not to say that the writers would defend excessive emotionalism in Christianity. They would commend our seeking control, comprehension and insight amid the chaos of modern life. But they also recognize that because Jesus commanded us to love, because Paul called joy a fruit of the Spirit, we therefore need to take seriously the role which these "affections" are to play in our lives. As Augustine made his "heart" a dramatis persona in his Confessions, so must we consider the soul’s motions, say these thinkers, if we are truly to embody the faith. In this way these theologians are taking up the challenge which Wesley and Edwards faced: to show the centrality of the affections in the Christian life while also making clear the linkages among emotion, belief and action.

James Fowler has said that Holmer’s and Saliers’s work on Christian virtues and affections, especially its refreshing freedom from dependence on modern psychology, is sorely needed today (Practical 7heology [Harper & Row, 1983], pp. 160-161). They believe that affectivity does not easily fit into the university’s artificial structures, but should not be left exclusively to psychologists and counselors. The theologian must see that the emotions have definite implications for the Christian life and that the Christian story has important implications for the affectional life. These authors demonstrate that a concern for emotional reality is neither merely a dispensable feature of hothouse revivalism nor just a regrettable artifact of the "me" generation. The emotional life is one of the essential bases of Christianity.