Dallas Willard on the Nature of Feelings

Dallas Willard wisely instructs his readers on the nature of feelings:

Much of the great power of feelings over life derives not just from the fact that they touch us, move us, but from the fact that they creep over into other areas of our life; they pervade, they change the overall tone of our life and our world. They spread like an unstable dye or a viral form or a yeast. They may take over all else in us, even that to which they have no relevance. Things and people around us then look different, take on a distinctive tone or meaning. And that can even determine the tendency and outcome of our life as a whole.

This explains why it is so hard to reason with some people. Their very mind has been taken over by one or more feelings and is made to defend and serve those feelings at all costs. It is a fearful condition from which some people never escape. We have noted how thoughts generate feelings. If we allow certain negative thoughts to obsess us, then their associate feelings can enslave and blind us—that is, take over our ability to think and perceive. …

Beyond the individual level, poisonous emotions and sensations often take over entire social groups, blinding them and impelling them on terrible courses of destruction. This is nearly always what has happened in cases where repression of ethnic groups or genocide occurs. Thus, to the onlooker the participants (the Nazis, and so on) seem to be deaf, blind, and insane – which, in a sense, they are. They, too, are imprisoned.

Feelings can be successfully “reasoned with,” can be corrected by reality, only in those (whether oneself or others) who have the habit and are given the grace of listening to reason when they are expressing violent feelings or are in the grip of them. A feeling of sufficient strength may blot out all else and will invariably do so in one who has not trained himself or herself, or been trained, to identify, to be critical of, and to have some distance from his or her own feelings. Combined with a sense of righteousness, strong feeling becomes impervious to fact and reason. …

Abandonment to feeling, allowing oneself to be “carried away” by feeling, is actually sought by many, and on a regular basis. That is a testimony to our epidemic deadness of soul. People want to feel, and to feel strongly, and in the very nature of life they need to do so

The opposite of peace is really not war, but deadness. The “dead soul” is one waiting to explode or fall apart, and one that will seek out trouble for reasons it cannot understand. In its desolate life away from God, there is no drama to provide constructive feeling tones that would keep life from being a burden. Such persons really have no hope. This is the key to those “lives of quiet desperation” Thoreau attributed to “most men.” Feeling will then be sought for its own sake, and satisfaction in feeling alone always in turn demands stronger feeling. It cannot limit itself. [Renovation of the Heart, 124-125]



Cold weather, more links:

American religion, whatever its formal sectarian designation, tends to be decidedly Protestant.” Kwame Anthony Appiah gives an very interesting talk on rights and culture in a cosmopolitan age.

A secular parent wishes his children knew some Bible stories.

Once again, faux Christian outrage rears its head. Please read this, everyone.

I don’t know if any of our readers are map geeks, but just in case: what if US state boundaries conformed to watersheds?

Born Under Tyranny

Kim Jong Il

I was watching some old videos of Christopher Hitchens debate various Christians (I’m sure Ian approves) and something struck me about one of his arguments about religion. Hitchens makes the claim that those who believe in God must believe that everyone is born under a sort of tyranny where everyone has to obey this divine ruler and the various capricious laws set down by the ruler. It occurred to me though that there is no way in which we cannot look at our lives as anything but being under some kind of totalitarian dictatorship. I cringe at echoing sulking teenagers everywhere, but they do have something right, they did not ask to be born, none of us did. We are brought here against our will to serve out our time. It’s hard to isolate this sentiment from the angry, emotional teenager, but I think we can say the same thing with a sort of stoic shrug. All manner of forces are governing our lives, from the base-level physical, chemical, biological to the social, political, historical forces that are all there whether or not there is something that we might call God behind them or karma or an impersonal material universe. Conversely I have seen both theists and atheists suggest that life is a gift (and both argue that as such it somehow bolsters their respective claims). That life may seem like an imposition does not require a God either.

A final note: I think might invite less scorn in the comment section if I point out that I am not saying that my life or life in general is- or should feel- this way, only that we can argue that we are under a celestial dictatorship either way. We are still here not so much against our will but rather without any consideration of it – for who among us wills ourselves into living –  for our appointed time, until death.

Magic, Atheism, and Free Will

In an older post, Edward Feser describes different perspectives on how the world can be intelligible, whether in itself, or with respect to our knowledge of it. Two options he discusses at length are: (a) the view that the world is wholly intelligible in itself, but only partly intelligible to us, and (b) the view that the world is only partly intelligible both in itself and to us. Feser argues that the second position is ultimately incoherent. It is represented by philosophers like Bertrand Russell who want to argue that science gives us real explanations, but that there is no ultimate explanation for the universe. Feser argues:

Suppose I told you that the fact that a certain book has not fallen to the ground is explained by the fact that it is resting on a certain shelf, but that the fact that the shelf itself has not fallen to the ground has no explanation at all but is an unintelligible brute fact. Have I really explained the position of the book? It is hard to see how. For the shelf has in itself no tendency to stay aloft – it is, by hypothesis, just a brute fact that it does so. But if it has no such tendency, it cannot impart such a tendency to the book. The “explanation” the shelf provides in such a case would be completely illusory. (Nor would it help to impute to the book some such tendency after all, if the having of the tendency is itself just an unintelligible brute fact. The illusion will just have been relocated, not eliminated.)

By the same token, it is no good to say “The operation of law of nature C is explained by the operation of law of nature B, and the operation of B by the operation of law of nature A, but the operation of A has no explanation whatsoever and is just an unintelligible brute fact.” The appearance of having “explained” C and B is completely illusory if A is a brute fact, because if there is neither anything about A itself that can explain A’s own operation nor anything beyond A that can explain it, then A has nothing to impart to B or C that could possibly explain their operation. As the Scholastics would say, a cause cannot give what it does not itself have in the first place. A series of ever more fundamental “laws of nature” is in this regard like a series of instrumental causes ordered per se. The notion of “an explanatory nomological regress terminating in a brute fact” is, when carefully examined, as incoherent the notion of “a causal series ordered per se in which every cause is purely instrumental.” And thus Mackie’s and Russell’s position is itself ultimately incoherent.

This seems a persuasive argument to me. But I think it has application beyond discussions between atheists and theists. It seems to me this point has implications for the debate between determinists and indeterminists. (more…)

The Minor Polytheism

Mumford & Sons, Doug Phillips, and Martin Luther all share some things in common. But beyond the superficial banalities, I want to note two in particular. Firstly, they are all examples of popular Christians. Perhaps not popular with everybody (who is?), but at least Christians who are known to be Christian and have a “following” of some kind (in the case of Mumford & Sons, “fans” would probably be better, though that’s a short form for “fanatics”).

Yet they also have something else in common. They have very public failings. Mumford & Sons was recently ejected from a burlesque establishment. Not only were they present, but they did something bad enough to get kicked out. Doug Phillips has just confessed to having a long term non-physical but “inappropriately emotional and affectionate” relationship with a woman who was not his wife. (It’s worth noting that his apology seems sincere.) Finally, Martin Luther wrote copious amounts of venomous anti-Semitic literature.

Now, as spectators, we could easily sit back at this point and condemn them from a vantage point of moral superiority. And, let’s be honest, it’s probably likely many of us would be morally superior to these individuals in specific ways. But that would miss the deeper lesson here.

Perhaps not ironically, it was Martin Luther who memorably taught us this lesson in recent history. One way of understanding his singular insight is as a recognition that the “inner” and “outer” of the human world can fail to match up. The believing poor are saved, while the unbelieving and proud rich and powerful are damned. The believer is united to Christ by faith in his heart, and yet continues to sin in his body. Furthermore, he recognized the imperfectability of human beings in the time before the consummation of the kingdom.

Or, in other words, we can never expect things to be just as they seem, and we can expect even the people on the highest pedestals to have real flaws. We should not identify the kingdom of God with any visible institution, since God does not work so infallibly through any such thing as to be identifiable with it. And this means we ought to kill in ourselves what some Muslims call the “minor polytheism”: the worship of man. All people, even Christians, are tempted to this sin, since human beings are often glorious in many ways. But when we fail to remember that these are just created beings, and that their glory derives from an uncreated Glory, we can begin to put our hope in those creatures. And this step will always be a catastrophic one to take, for human beings will always let us down.

Sketches Of Belief

NYC Skyline

Who really believes what today?

There is so much that is complicated about that sort of a question. Here is a sketch that might help describe the problem:

The popular TV show Mythbusters set out to test a myth that a penny dropped from a tall structure like the Empire State Building would kill a pedestrian walking on the streets below (watch an abridged version here). Turns out the penny would likely settle on a ledge lower on the building due to the air currents around the Empire State Building and even if it didn’t, the terminal velocity achieved by a penny wouldn’t break skin let alone shatter anyone’s skull. One of the things that seemed to empirically disprove this though was the collection of pennies on the lower tiers of the Empire State Building. Evidently people had been testing this myth without the safeguards employed by the Mythbusters. Did these penny throwers believe this myth? They must have known about it? But were they then cold-blooded killers, no different than someone firing bullets from the top of a city skyscraper? Some Calvinist types wanting to push the total-depravity angle of human nature, might think so, but I doubt that very many people would be in that category. Maybe one or two really thought that they’d kill someone in this fashion, but I suspect that for most of those casting pennies were not out to commit random murders. So they didn’t believe the myth. But then why did they throw the pennies. Did they disbelieve their own belief? (Cf: Mark 9:24?) Were they divided? Were they thinking that this was really a risky, deadly thing they were doing, but denying that it could be so. Are there things that we perform because we *say* we believe them but that our actions suggest that we most likely do not? Thoughts?

It’s Brunch O’Clock Somewhere – And G.K. Doesn’t Mind


Andrew Sullivan posted a snippet of this essay by G.K. Chesterton on the merits of sleeping in. Money quote:

“The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality. If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.”

I should like to post this here as a way to remind myself that this is pretty much all that needs to be said the next time someone decides to produce another MacArthurian rant about this or that habit or cultural development being a danger in the church. Of course there is much fair discussion that can be had on what comprises “major” and “minor” morals. But there are enough topics where our attitude can safely be something like, “give me break, no one cares” – and we can safely place things like craft beer, fancy coffee, skinny jeans, cycling, cigar smoking, glasses of all sorts, buying loft conversions in the “minor morals” category. Just like Christians in earlier decades gave up on critiquing rock music, rap, baggy jeans, baseball caps, grunge-inspired plaid, men with hair longer than a drill sergeant and so on, I think we can do the same thing with our momentary trends.

The protest will go something like this: “Don’t you see, all these things are connected? People who engage in these minor distractions and enthusiasms are on a sort of downward spiral into vanity/drunkenness/idolatry/sin!” If people develop a major moral deficiency of one type or another, we may of course have to deal with such a thing as it arises. The error here of those who develop a moral panic about this or that minor habit is that they don’t realize that a narrow road has to be narrow on both sides. One might be concerned over someone styling their “hipster hair” (in MacArthur’s lexicon) but one can also clearly pick up on MacArthur’s pride about the fact that he wears a suit to worship God. Pride. Avoid one side of the road and you might very well fall off the other side, and attacking things that we might regard as bad habits is a sure way to ensure that we veer to close to the other side, that of pride.

Is Cessationism Responsible for David Hume?

There are, of course, many positions on modern charismatic gifts in the church. In my previous post, I quoted Robert Mullin who listed four possible kinds of approaches. One of the most popular in the history of Protestantism has been cessationism, which argues that miraculous gifts were limited to the age of the apostles. However, this general approach has contained within it several strategies, rather than just one. More concretely, when the cessationist position came up against claims of contemporary miracles, as in the Roman Catholic apologists, it had at least two possible responses (though in reality, there was at least one other, which I think they overlooked): they could claim the miracles were demonically inspired, or they could question the veracity of the miracle claims.

Earlier on Protestants like Increase Mather opted for the first approach in their response to Catholics; later on, though, the latter approach gained more popularity, with writers like John Locke and Conyers Middleton arguing against the reliability of modern miracle claims. This was useful for Protestants in the dawning age of the Enlightenment, but it’s worth asking if, in retrospect, it might have been a devil’s bargain.

Robert Mullin notes the effects of this position:

The idea of a radically limited age of miracles, and the marriage of a Protestantism and the Enlightenment that it reflected rested, however, on a precarious base, namely the willingness to distinguish between the plausibility of biblical events and that of nonbiblical events. It was precisely this point that David Hume challenged in his famous discussion of miracles in his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). As is well known, Hume’s essay has two parts. In the first he argues against miracles from probability. Because miracles were violations of a law of nature established by the “uniform experience” of humanity, he explained, no testimony is ever sufficient to establish a miracle “unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” It is his second argument, however, that is more important for our purposes. In order to illustrate his assertion about the improbability of miracles, Hume proceeded to put the Protestant argument for a limited age of miracles on its head. He offered three postbiblical miracle stories: healings associated with the Roman emperor Vespasian, the regeneration of the leg of the doorkeeper of the cathedral of Sargossa (Spain), and healings associated with the tomb of the Jansenist Abbé Pâris in early-eighteenth-century France. Middleton had also appealed to the case of Abbé Pâris, for it was widely discussed in eighteenth-century England; but he had used it to discredit the claims of postbiblical miracles. Hume, however, argued that the “evidences and authority” of the accounts of the French miracles surpassed that of any biblical miracle. The evidence was particularly impressive because it included testimony from some Jesuit authorities who were the arch enemies of the Jansenists. Hume’s implication was clear: if the better attested postbiblical miracles were to be rejected, then the biblical ones should be jettisoned. 1

To put a point on it: is cessationism responsible for David Hume?

Smash Your Own Idols


Stop me if you’ve heard this before: an evangelical writer with Reformed leanings heaps together a whole bunch of things about younger people that he finds distasteful and encourages that Christians scorn them. Sounds like something that Carl Trueman could have written when in one of his grumpy old man-moods, or this Charles Bronson parody:

These sorts of posts tend to bother me for their consistent confluence of two things that need not be tied together. On the one hand there is a derision of people who wearing clothes that might be described as “hipster” and bundled in with this there is a derision of anything that might be considered, for lack of a better descriptor, some kind of social cause. The villain in this post dresses in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses and rides a fixed-gear bike while drinking organic craft beer and denouncing child labour. This is of course the conservative evangelical’s version of the “Commie-Nazis.” This is what I find so noxious about this characterization, there are plenty of people who care about this or that social issue and who are terrible dressers who have no idea what is cool. (And this is from a thirty-something dad, so you know, if I think they can’t dress themselves…) The inverse is even worse, because even though I know a few people who might outwardly be identified as “hipsters” I don’t know anyone at all who would self-identify as such. In fact there is a joke that goes like this:

Q: How do you know if someone’s a hipster?

A: Ask them if they’re a hipster and if they reply “F*** no!” then you can be assured that they are.

So there’s the problem that this critique can be heard by almost everyone and be presumed to be about someone else, “those hipsters over there, yeah, they need to get things right!” So what we have is a sort of meaningless swipe at anyone who is perceived (by someone else again) to be a little to current in their dress and cuisine as well as someone who is clearly a political conservative taking a swipe at causes that he associates with those to the left of him, even if those who dress cool don’t really care about any of those causes. (I thought that caring wasn’t cool, so how the coolest people would also support the most worthy causes is beyond me, but I digress.) Now if the heart is, as Calvin said, an idol factory, I could take this sort of post a lot more seriously if the writer expressed concerned about his own idols. Your sweater-vests and Republican Party membership cards and assorted Reformed ephemera won’t save you, oh I’m sure they’re well-intentioned, but I’d take you more seriously if you junked all those things. See what I did there?

Miracles in Western Culture

Robert Bruce Mullin’s book Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination leads the reader through a fascinating tour of recent history, narrating the ways Western culture has wrestled with the idea of miracles. Here are two quotes from the beginning and end of the book that merit reflection:

Third (and most tentatively), this study suggests that this debate over the miraculous may be one of the principle divisions in religious thought since the mid 1850s, replacing the traditional Protestant-Catholic tension. Many students of late-nineteenth-century religion have noted that something important transpired during these years that altered the religious landscape in a profound way. Within the study of American Protestantism, a split between conservative and liberal–often defined by differences over the authority and inspiration of scripture–usually has been assumed. Indeed when I began this study I took for granted the conservative-liberal model. But I have become convinced that the debate over the miraculous and the spectrum of attitudes outlined in chapter 7 were far more important in transforming religious life than the issue of scripture per se. Finally, as I suggest in the epilogue, this pattern of responses may also help us to make sense of the religious discussion of the late twentieth century, where the issue of the miraculous has reappeared. 3

Second, not only has the debate over the miraculous emerged, but the four views of the interrelationship of biblical signs and wonders and modern signs and wonders… have also resurfaced. As one recalls, these four positions were (1) that the concept of miracle should be abandoned, (2) that miracles occurred during a “limited age,” (3) that “miracles” are important and occur in all ages, and one must use the understanding of the modern spiritual wonders to properly interpret the nature of biblical miracles, and (4) that miracles are common to both biblical times and the present day but one must use the biblical miracles to understand the modern wonders. Over the last few decades each position has found its supporters. Once again “progressive” clergy are calling for an abandonment of the category of the miraculous and are reinterpreting the great gospel miracles, whereas some conservative Protestants continue to maintain the cessationist position. But what seems to characterize the present religious world is the tremendous growth in popularity of positions three and four. Most modern advocates of miracles can be seen as dividing along these two positions. Thus whereas advocates of New Age healing attempt to interpret the healings of Jesus in light of their distinctive metaphysic, individuals like John Wimber and other advocates of sign ministry continue to emphasize the relevancy of biblical categories for the present. 264-265