My Preacher and I: Strong vs. Weak Volitionists and Is Love a Choice? (With New Addendum!)

My preacher at the Highland Church of Christ is Mike Cope. Mike is a great friend and an amazing minister. Jana and I came to Highland and remain at Highland largely because of Mike and the direction he has pointed the Highland community.

Mike and I disagree sometimes about the psychological models undergirding ministry and theology. Mike, if I can create a label for him, is a "strong volitionist." A "strong volitionist" is someone who creates ministerial and theological models upon the supositon of "free will."

Well, if you read my blog I'm what I'll call a "weak volitionist." I believe in a "will" that is contextual and contingent.

As I said in a prior post, we are living in a post-Cartesian world and ministers will need to adapt to this new theological landscape. I think "strong volitionists" will need to move toward "weak volitionist" models to be taken seriously in the future.

All this could be seen as an academic debate. But I think there are real-world consequences at stake. I was reminded of this in a recent exchange I had with Mike on his blog (a blog a million times more popular than my own). I've pulled our comments to post here to contrast our models and approaches for your consideration:

In Mike's post of November 9 he asks this question:
Is it possible to have love without freedom?

The comments follow:

About love. Just to take a different kind of cut at your question. The parent-child bond is the strongest form of love we know. Yet, the “decisional love model” so often spoken of by preachers fails to capture this love. True, a form of “love” can be the product of a choice, and that truth needs to be spoken. But love is more instinctive. I doubt you choose, of your own free will, to love Diane, I didn’t choose to love Jana. In many ways, love chooses us and restricts our freedom. Love compels.

Lots of following comments from people which basically say:
You have to have a free choice to have love.

Me again:
Again, let me say that no one chooses to love. We don’t choose to love God. You can choose to OBEY God, but that is different from loving Him. So, God doesn’t present us with love ultimatums: Make a choice! Love me! Rather, God is like a lover. He tries to woo us, to capture our hearts. And, once your heart is captured, it’s not a choice you made. Falling in love occurs deeper, below the machinery of choice. You just find, over time, that you love God. Passionately. Again, you didn’t choose love. It chose you.

Richard, I think I disagree with you. Have you read C. S. Lewis’s book on The Four Loves? Our limitation in English is that we work with one word: love. But the Greek language had more options available. And the greatest concept, the cross-shaped description of Christian living, is agape. And it is, in face, commanded. Often. Even love for enemies.

Can romantic feelings be commanded? No. You hardly choose them. But we choose daily whether or not we will walk in agape love. When preachers make this point (despite your distaste for it), they’re making a very important point: that God made this world with freedom because wanted a world of love. Love as we have ultimately seen it in Jesus. He creates, he seeks, he woos. But he doesn’t overwhelm. We still choose whether our response will be love or — what? — apathy.

Mike, there’s a lot to talk about here. Let’s set aside issues of freedom for now (a growingly untenable assumption in a post-Cartesian world). I think the simple “volitional love model” (C.S. Lewis was not the best psychologist) has a grain of truth in it which makes it both rhetorically simple and effective (it’s a good sound bite). But that model is just killing the church. Two quick examples:

1. Political Example: When we emphasize volition like we do, rich Christians look at poor people and simply see laziness, a lack of will. We need to replace this volitional model with a more contextualized and causal notion of will. Only then will Christians see that “will” and “choice” are often a product of circumstance. Strong notions of “free will” undercut calls to social justice.

2. Spiritual Formation Example: A “volitional” view of virtue means that the church must rely on “trying” to effect change. However, if we see virtue (e.g., loving my neighbor) as affective rather than volitional we need new routes to spiritual formation. Rather than “choice” we try to create “empathy” and “compassion.” Again, you don’t choose empathy. It happens to you. And this model moves churches away from pedagogy and rhetoric toward spiritual formation efforts aimed at changing hearts.

I think we can find middle ground with the notion of “acting as if.” We choose to act in a loving way and find, someday down the road, that my emotions have been changed. What was before volitional and behavioral is now emotional and spontaneous. In short, choice and affect are interrelated. I’m just trying to do my part to offer a more nuanced vision of will, character, and virtue because there is great opportunity here. Impoverished views of humans affect the church as much as impoverished views of God.

I think Mike has a good point. A true point. I just don't think it is as strong a point as he thinks it is. What I mean is that when we say "Love is a choice" it seems that we are saying something hefty, profound, and strong. We are not. We are actually saying something very anemic, superficial, and weak.

The trouble is when we set up the following distinction: "Love is a choice" versus "Love as mere feelings."

The rhetorical point here is that we can't be truly loving people if we follow our (mere) feelings. Something more needs to sustain difficult relationships than "mere feelings." Because once infatuation and idealization wears off, we need something bedrock to sustain us. And that bedrock is "choice."

How many times have you heard this formulation in church? Lots I bet. But the whole conversation is just muddled and confused.

To prevent this muddle, I think preachers and theologians should engage the work of psychologists and neuroscientists (how self serving is this recommendation?). For example, when we read the work of Antonio Damasio, arguably the mort influential neuroscientist alive today, we find that this separation between "volition" and "feelings" is an ancient Platonic and Cartesian confusion (see Damasio's book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain). Damasio's work points to the fact that feelings are critical in anchoring "choice." The "mere feelings" model is a straw man. Feelings a primary, deep, and foundational. Which means if you don't attempt to affect change at that level; appeals to "choice" are doomed to futility.

What really gets pitting against each other in church pulpits and classes, if you scratch beneath a little, is a contrast between the following: "Love is a choice" versus "Love is infatuation" (or "Love as a superficial 'feel good' emotion"). And when you examine this formulation it is truly obvious that love must be more than infatuation or feel good emotions. But who in the world is making that claim? What is the "Love is a choice" model really saying other than the obvious claim that love is not a superficial feeling?

See the Platonism at work here? The notion that "feelings" are wimpy and insubstantial (a formulation Plato gave in his Republic)? But psychologists now know that it is "volition" and "free will" that are the wimpy, insubstantial notions. Emotions are the hefty, substantial entities.

Let me be clear. Let's say the infatuation wears off in the marriage. And more, the marriage grows distressed. Okay, what will keep the marriage going? What will maintain the covenant?


Well, it's emotion. For choice will not swing into action unless, at some very deep level, the person still CARES. Feelings are primary and volition follows those deep, often inexpressible emotional commitments (again, see Damasio's work for the scientific evidence). In sum, the conclusion is this:

Agape is not a choice.

Agape is a feeling. But it is not a "mere" feeling. It is a foundational feeling. An identity-marking feeling, A feeling that goes beyond all words. Deeper than poetry. Deeper than choice.

For you do not choose love. One only discovers one is in love (even with an enemy). Choice is just a way to inform the world (and yourself) what you truly and deeply care about...and love.

And Mike Cope, I love you. I feel it inside.

After the comments I've gotten here and at church today, I'd like to offer some clarifications (and a little more argumentation). A lesson we take away from Damasio's work is that emotion is critical to choice. Damasio describes his patients whose emotional centers of the brain (in the limbic system) have become decoupled from the decision making apparatus of the brain (in the frontal cortex). What we find in these patients is that they can list the options for choice in great detail but they cannot "weight" the choices. Without emotional anchors the choices before these patients are equally attractive. Should I go to the store? Or finish grading papers? Without emotions both options are equally attractive. Thus, these patients simply cycle back and forth. In short, what they lack, without emotions, is a sense of CARING. And, as I've been arguing, this caring isn't chosen. It's in the background of choice, it supports choice. Without this caring, choice is derailed.

Here's an example. When we hear sermons in church about marriage what we tend to hear are volitional models supporting covenant-keeping. That is, "keeping promises" is considered to be critical to sustaining Christian marriages. And keeping promises appears to be all about choice and not about emotion. Again, this assumption is superficial as it sets up choice against the straw man of "mere feelings." But with Damasio's work in hand we now see how foundatonal emotions are to choice.

Let's say I want to walk away from my marriage. And you make an appeal to me to "keep my promise" as a Christian husband. How will this appeal reach me? Well, it will only reach me if I CARE about covenant-keeping. If I don't care about covenant-keeping then an appeal to choice isn't going to do a whit of good. If you don't CARE about covenant-keeping rhetorical appeals to "choice" just aren't going to cut it. Like Damasio's patents, the choice of covenant-keeping just has no emotional Ooph behind it.

The irony is that when we preach or teach about covenant-keeping we think we are making an appeal to CHOICE. As in, "covenant-keeping is a choice, a commitment we make." This is true, but superficial. For the deeper mechanism is CARING, the emotional Ooph. Thus, when preachers preach about covenant-keeping they are not really appealing to choice. They are, rather, trying to get you to CARE. Specifically, to care about keeping promises. For, if they can get you to care about covenant-keeping, then, when hard choices are to be made in a marriage, covenant-keeping has some Ooph behind it. It's a fundamental priority. In short, when preachers preach about covenant they are really not trying to affect choice. They are trying to affect CARING.

So this is why I say below in the comments to this post that choice is a distal effect on agape and that emotion is the proximal effect. In the moment emotion/caring is going to make the call. Caring will prioritize your choices and the thing you most care about will be chosen. Caring is the proximal cause. But, to get to a point of CARING ABOUT GOD'S THINGS, action/choices will need to be taken today, far away from the moment of choice. Consequently, we choose to submit to certain experiences (like listening to sermons on covenant-keeping) with the goal to make me care about the right things. But mind you, choice doesn't produce the caring, the experiences we undergo produces in the caring. Neither does choice produce the final agape outcome.

Choice is prophylactic.]

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11 thoughts on “My Preacher and I: Strong vs. Weak Volitionists and Is Love a Choice? (With New Addendum!)”

  1. Richard-
    Have you read Willard's Renovation of the Heart? It includes a very thorough analysis of some ideas that are closely related to this issue.

    In short: Willard thinks that our "choice" relates to what we focus our attention toward. Focus our attention toward the right things (God and his nature), and the rest will follow.

  2. Actually, there's more to it than that - but the last post summarized what I thought was most germane to this discussion.

  3. In general I´m with you, we have to acknowledge that our will is always contextual, shaped by culture, circumstances and habits. But that does not mean we don´t have choices. Quite the contrary: We have to have choices - all the time. But these choices are not simply free, they are guided (by habits, culture, circumstances); which make some options more likely than others. And for sure: Most of these choices, we don´t are neither conscious nor purely rational (Damasios and other are showing the influence of emotions), but that on the other side doesn´t mean that we are determined in our actions...So I wouldn´t say, agape is not a choice. It is a choice, we have to excercise, to shape a good habit and with this the circumstances of our choices...We are already redeemed, but still have to learn to live as redeemers...That´s my decent thoughts...

  4. Matt & Tobik,
    I basically agree with you, and Mike as well. I'm stating my side of this strongly, perhaps hyperbolically. My intent is to broaden and deepen the discussion. To get the church to snap out of its Platonic/Cartesian mold of prioritizing "will" over "mere feelings."

    As a psychologist I know that "will" is extraordinarily fragile and strongly influenced by situations. Thus, "Love is a choice" formulations will also be fragile and situational. The church isn't very loving at times and I think a part of this due to the fact that we don't do more to actually instill love in our faith communities. We think calls to "choice" are pretty powerful.

    You both are correct that love is is hard work. My point is that this work is generally aimed at the emotions. It is true that "turning the other cheek" is a choice, but to get to that point, spiritually speaking, is a long emotional process.

    In short, I do believe you are finding the middle ground. We choose to submit to this process of spiritual formation.

    Other cut at this is the move in ethics from volitional models toward virtue ethics. And virtue is known to be less cognitive/volitional than more affective, immediate, and instinctive (again, below the machinery of choice). The goal, as you point out, is to submit to experiences to create those dispositions within you.

    So, how about this:

    Agape is both choice and feeling. And I would formulate it thus:

    Choice is the distal cause and emotion the proximate cause.

    To wit: If I have not done the prior work to shape my character, I'll be very unlikely to "turn the other cheek" in the heat of the moment. But if I've made choices in the past to mold my character (the distal part) then in the moment my instincts will be honed and flow immediately and unreflectively (the proximate part).

  5. Dr. Beck,

    Greetings from a former student. A quick comment re: using Damasio's formulations to inform the "love as a choice debate." As you well known, the Iowa groups findings are based in large part on the reification of a gambling task. More recent work in this area pokes holes in the somatic marker hypothesis (popularized in the APA Monitor but the source articles give a more full explanation). I believe this research may better inform the question at hand. The model you propose is that "emotion is the proximal effect." I would argue that instead we are constantly creating a schema, informed by learning, affect, repetition, and experience. Violations of this schema elicit negative emotion, acting in concordance with this schema elicits positive emotions. In other words, past experience informs our choices, and subsequently influences our emotional reactions. In other words, the snowball of love gets started from an early precipitant (talk, experience, etc.) and subsequent experiences fit into this snowball in an emotionally congruous or incongruous manner. In any one moment, emotion may be the precipitant to adding another layer, but that does not explain the underlying schema which must be developed through the dynamic interplay of cognition (perhaps a proxy for volition) and emotion. I enjoy the blog.


  6. Jared,
    Hey, good to hear from you! Thanks for taking time to poke holes in former professor's thoughts! Where's the love? The respect? :-)

    Seriously, thanks for the comment. I did not know about the qualifying research. I'm eager to check it out.

    Hope you've been well and keep in touch!

  7. Having read your comment, I DO think Willard's perspective on this is pretty much in line with yours.

    God, he would say, wants to turn us into the kind of people who would naturally do the things he commands us to do. The hard work of spiritual formation is geared toward that end.

  8. This is a great discussion! I was struggling to see the "real-world" significance until this statement--

    "If I have not done the prior work to shape my character, I'll be very unlikely to "turn the other cheek" in the heat of the moment. But if I've made choices in the past to mold my character (the distal part) then in the moment my instincts will be honed and flow immediately and unreflectively (the proximate part)."

    I found Jared's comment to be helpful also.

    Of course, it's not my discussion and it's not my blog, but may I suggest a direction from here? What practical steps could preachers, seminar leaders, congregations as a whole take if such insights were implemented?

    I am trying to work with the "submission to experience" that leads to a restructuring of one's emotional foundation. Am I wrong-headed here?

  9. Great thoughts. I like the way you put things. To keep it short and sweet we listen more to our hearts (emotions) than with our mind (choice,will)when making most decisions. If the church would tap more into the emotional aspect of things it would attract and not lose as many females along the way as it has in the past. You can logically tell us that God is love and we can choose to love God based on that, but if we can't feel it emotionally then it means nothing.

  10. Of course, the interaction between emotion and choice is a two-way street. We "feel" the way we do because we have acted the way we have, as well as the reverse... Our choices (to some extent) produce our emotions as well as our emotions driving our choices...

    Smile and feel happy ;-)

  11. Tim,
    You are right, of course. I'm pushing down heavily on one side. The main point I'm trying to get across is that we should treat "will" as a "high risk" psychological entity; you can't lean too heavily upon it; it's fickle.

    It's kind of like being at risk for something like heart disease. Your "heart" (literally and, in this example, metaphorically) is "at risk." You just can't live any way you want and think your "heart" can handle it. You have to live prophylactically, preventatively. Your lifestyle sets your weak "heart" up for success.

    Of course, this is nothing new to spiritual formation experts. But we must admit that churches haven't done amazing jobs at spiritual formation. There are lots of reasons for this. "Strong volition" assumptions might be a part, albeit a small part, of why this is so: We are overly optimistic about our "hearts."

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