The Emotional Impact of Good Thinking

There is a long practice (or prejudice) in Christian history that separates “head” and “heart.”  It comes to us most strongly, perhaps, from the Pietist movement that began in Germany in the 17th century.  People who identify themselves as “evangelical” know this terrain very well.  We pietist evangelicals use this kind of language commonly to describe inauthentic religion (“mere” head knowledge) and authentic religion (heart knowledge).  I don’t like this trade-off and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.  The head-heart trade-off is a false dichotomy.

It turns out that good thinking involves having the right kind of feelings, a point to which Christians need to pay close attention.  We need, therefore, to quit talking about “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge.”

I rather feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but let me try out this idea anyway.  Let’s try to notice the difference between between two aspects of learning.  “Learning” can mean something like cognitive mastery – I “get” (i.e. understand and can manipulate) an idea and can make use of it in other ideas.  I’m afraid that, usually when we talk about learning doctrine, we put it in this framework.  But (by itself) it isn’t learning.  It is reductionistic and looks much like the “head knowledge” we decry.

If we follow the usual path, at this point we switch to “heart knowledge” for the corrective, but it is precisely here that we start going wrong.  We go wrong because with “heart knowledge,” sound doctrine (good thinking) tends to get downplayed.  Oh, yes, we know that believing the right things matters, but really it matters mostly to prove our orthodoxy, our being on the “right side” of a controversy.  For spirituality, by contrast, what  really matters is how one feels and what one does.  Does one feel love for Jesus?  Does one do what Christians are supposed to do (go to church, tithe, feed the poor, etc.)?

If we want to work on “heart knowledge” we tend to look to the spiritual disciplines to help us.  So, we read books on prayer and mysticism, or fasting, or some other practice.  We tend not to read books on theology, partly because “theology” has become so technical that only professional academics can use the lingo.

So we pietist evangelicals fall off the log the other direction and reduce the Christian faith to “heart knowledge.”   In truth – and it’s critically important that we “get” this point –  “learning” something means doing the hard cognitive work for understanding and being taken by, possessed by, the truth of God’s revelation.  It is still mental and conceptual, but it is more than mere mastery of concepts.  The ideas become personal – the will has yielded and “made it personal” in a more-than-merely-cognitive way.  In learning, I’m not merely manipulating an idea.  That idea permeates my whole being.   Clearly, this sort of learning affects our emotional tone and we become, over time, different, renewed, transformed people.

If my chain of thought is sound, it means we Christians need to spend a lot more time with doctrine/theology: reflectively, ponderingly, persistently, leisurely, slowly, prayerfully.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Brandon Cunningham says:

    Great post, you certainly live this out. You’ve taught me to see what I think about Jesus, to see that good theology should be beautiful, and to learn how to cry about what were once mere ‘ideas’. Learning well has helped me love well. I trust that you’re teaching Texas to cry now; tougher crowd 🙂

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