Tag Archives: emotions

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part 2)

 In Part 1, we reflected on our restless search for something that can make us supremely happy. We concluded that since our capacity for good things is virtually infinite only an infinite and eternal Good can satisfy our longing and bring unsurpassable happiness to us. Today I want to reflect with you on the concept of happiness and how happiness is related to the life of faith to which we are called by the gospel.

Let’s begin with another thought from Augustine: “For if I put the question to anyone whether he prefers to find joy in the truth or in falsehood, he does not hesitate to say that he prefers the truth, just as he does not hesitate to say that he wants to be happy. The happy life is joy based on truth” (10.23; trans. Chadwick, p. 199). In these densely packed sentences Augustine connects happiness with truth. Because it runs against the modern subjective understanding of happiness (E.g., “Ignorance is bliss!” “Happiness is just a state of mind.”), this connection alone could occupy our minds for weeks! I see four possible combinations here. One can find happiness in truth or in falsehood. Or one can find unhappiness in truth or in falsehood:

1. Happiness/Truth

2. Happiness/Falsehood

3. Unhappiness/Truth

4. Unhappiness/Falsehood.

No one wants to be unhappy, so the last two (3 and 4) are undesirable for that reason alone. Hence Augustine’s discussion focuses on the first two possibilities. But a happiness based on falsehood will sooner or later be revealed as a false happiness. For the light of truth will ultimately dispel falsehood and the happiness based on it. Only happiness based on truth will last. To grasp what Augustine says we need to think about two aspects of happiness, the one subjective and the other objective.

In ordinary usage happiness refers to a positive mental state. Happiness keeps company with such words as pleasant, comfortable, content, peaceful, joy, cheerful, blessedness, felicity and delight. We are inclined to think of happiness as a subjective state of mind in which the dominant feeling is a sense of well being. We don’t usually include in its definition the external conditions and goods that promote happiness; nevertheless it does not follow that the existence and quality happiness are unrelated to objective reality.

Ancient Stoic philosophers classified the passions of the soul into four categories: desire, fear, delight and distress. Desire relates to an object as a possible good whereas fear relates to an object as a possible source of harm. Delight experiences an object as good. But distress experiences an object as harmful. (The Stoics considered all four of these states as negative and strove to achieve a state of mind beyond passion, but we will ignore this fact.) As we can see, the Stoics understood the four basic emotional states as involving rational judgments about an object’s goodness or badness.

I believe the Stoics are correct that the passions exist in relation to an object, or more precisely, a mental representation of an object; a passion’s relation to its object is not completely irrational or totally mechanical. And because their existence and qualities rely on rational judgments, passions can be well founded or misguided. It is easy to see that we may judge something to be good when it is bad or bad when it is good. We may find something delightful in the moment but harmful in the end or distressful in the moment but helpful in the end. Happiness, considered as a subjective state, can be well founded or misguided, true or false.

Now let’s return to Augustine’s definition of happiness: “The happy life is joy based on truth.” Augustine wants us to seek true happiness, happiness of the highest quality and of the longest duration. This quality of happiness can be found only in union with God, the perfect and eternal source of all finite goods. In this life, we do not yet experience irrevocable and imperturbable union with God. While God possesses us in perfect knowledge and presence, we possess God only in faith and hope. In so far as it can be experienced in this life, true happiness is joy based on the apprehension of faith and the anticipation of hope.

But how does this work in the conditions of life? To be continued…

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Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 2)

The most effective natural ways of stirring people’s emotions directly are stories, images and music. (We could also add other sensuous experiences, such as smells and movements of the body like dancing. Some religions even use drugs to induce the experience.) A story paints a mental picture that doesn’t need explaining. Hearing a good story affects the emotions directly, and different stories move us in different ways. Images can also move us directly and almost instantaneously. Images can excite humor, horror, sadness, wonder and other feelings. But music is the primary way “experience churches” do this today. Perhaps more than any other means used in churches music can bypass the mind and will and affect the emotions directly. I don’t know how it works, but we all know it does.

By music I mean a system of sounds of different qualities, frequencies, durations and order that can be represented by musical notation exclusive of words. Music without words is often called “absolute” music. Music can be joined to words to make a song or it can be played without words. When music and words are combined each affects the other. Words are cognitive, directed to the understanding, so in a song words can guide the emotions stirred by the music toward a particular end, good or ill, secular or religious.

However, if in the “performance” of the song the words are overpowered by the music, the words lose their cognitive and directive power and simply become another aspect of the music; that is, they convey no more conceptual content than la, la, la. On paper or spoken in a common voice, a well-phrased series of words directs the mind to think in a certain way about something, but in a song designed and performed primarily to create a certain feeling in the participants these words can no longer do this. When this happens, a song (music and words) functionally becomes absolute music, music without words.

There is something very appealing about absolute music. Stirring or tender music without words moves our emotions but leaves our minds free to attach those emotions to whatever object or activity we wish. But words exercise a directive force that we may resent or resist. A musical composition that evokes in me memories of my beloved father may remind you of your dog or someone else of a recent romantic moment. Absolute music makes fewer demands of its listeners and allows each member of a large audience to enjoy a private experience. The unity we feel with the audience—which is undeniable—is not created by believing or thinking or willing the same thing but by feeling in general and endures only as long as the performance endures. We enjoy absolute music’s power to get us in touch with our emotions “on demand” in a way that allows us freedom to channel those emotions in any direction we choose.

Here is my concern with experience-oriented churches: if we employ means—stories, images but especially music—to move people’s emotions directly, it is very tempting, even intuitive and natural, to allow the music to dominate the words. This can be done by making the music louder or more elaborate than the words. Or it can be done by limiting the range of ideas expressed in the words. If every song the church sings expresses the greatness of God simply by saying over and over again “God is great,” it won’t take very long for us to forget who and what God is and what it means to praise God.

Unless we continually explain who God and repeat the full story of God’s work in Christ we will begin to hear “la, la, la” instead of “praise God, praise God, praise God.” Hence “experience churches” may unintentionally neglect the church’s mission to direct its members’ emotions and actions to the right ends and their minds to full truth. Such churches run the risk of making emotional experiences ends in themselves, unrelated to the truth of faith or an authentic vision of the Christian life. Unless the church teaches the whole range of the faith even in its music (music and words), each person will be left to substitute their own content—their own version of God, Christ, Spirit, moral life—into the experience of religious emotion. Such an approach to church life may also undermine genuine community. Authentic Christian community is created and held together by the “one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…” (Eph 4:4); and these principles of unity must be taught. The church cannot be held in unity by a common feeling of transcendence or awe or celebration alone. It also requires common belief, commitment and practice.

Is your church a “teaching” or an “experiencing” church? Think about it. I hope your church will resist the current trend toward making experience the prime goal of its assemblies. Instead, I hope it will renew its teaching mission and trust the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to move people to faith, love, hope and good works…and, yes, to vibrant experience of the power and presence of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 1)

Does the Christian church gather to be taught and reminded of its faith or to experience the presence and power of God? Perhaps most Christians would reject the dichotomy posed in this question. And I agree that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Most churches combine the two in some way. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to consider the alternatives just to clarify the concepts. Out of this exercise may arise deeper insight into the relationship between the two goals and the best means of keeping them in proper balance.

I might as well place my cards on the table. I admit that there are churches that are so focused on teaching (or doctrine) that they are cold, rigid, intolerant of deviation and exclusive of emotions other than jealousy for doctrinal conformity and righteous indignation against error and sin. I know these churches exist. But I don’t see the majority of contemporary believers rushing to adopt this extreme model. I see the dominant movement in the opposite direction, away from the “teaching church” to the “experiencing church” model. What concerns me is that I don’t see this movement headed toward a proper balance between the two but to a near exclusive focus on experience.

Here is my view of the appropriate relationship between teaching and experience: In working toward a balance between these two factors, the church should give priority to teaching and reminding itself of its faith; that is, its main goal should be to speak, live and enact the Word of faith. It should also expect the Word and the Holy Spirit to work together to drive the message home to the heart so that hearers of the message believe, feel and act consistently with the truth of faith. Christianly understood, religious experience should arise from hearing the Word and the work of the Spirit. But this means that Christian religious experience, as vital and necessary as it is, is secondary to teaching and the accompanying action of the Spirit.

Here is what I see happening among churches today: when experience becomes the primary goal of a church it becomes possible to think of religious experience as relatively independent of the knowledge of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. The gathering of the church will be designed to evoke experience, and the means of evoking experience will include elements other than the truth of faith and the working of Spirit. Simply put, “experience churches” choose means that can provoke the desired feelings directly, completely bypassing, or spending very little time addressing, the mind and will. In effect, this model of church replaces the mysterious and free working of the Spirit and the inherent power of the Word with natural methods of moving the emotions. Continued in Part 2.

Note: I posted part 2 of this essay simultaneously with part 1. It’s ready to read.