Orthodox Alexithymia

In 2012 I wrote a post describing something I called "orthodox alexithymia." Some recent conversations I've had about the role of emotion in theological reflection brought that post back to mind:

David Hume once famously argued that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." What is interesting about that claim is that, particularly in the area of virtue and morality, modern psychological science has proven Hume to be right. And I wonder, what are the implications for theology?

To be sure, Hume stated his case too strongly. Reason isn't necessarily the slave of the passions. And we don't think it ought to be all of the time. But modern research has shown that cognition and emotion are interwoven systems, with emotion often taking the lead in helping us think correctly and virtuously.

This is a bit different from how the Greeks viewed the situation. For the Greeks emotion was error-prone and wild. Consequently, the wise person would use reason to subdue, tame, and guide the emotions. Thus the vision of the detached, cool, and cerebral philosopher.

We now know that the Greeks got this wrong. When emotion is decoupled from reason we have something that looks like sociopathy. At the very least reason needs emotion to do its work properly. I'm thinking here of work done with persons with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. People with damage to this area of the brain have trouble connecting emotion to how they make decisions or plans. Because of this these individuals can make long pro versus con lists but never reach a final decision. Cognitively these individuals have the ability to plan, and in great detail. But without emotion the cognitive system doesn't care about one outcome over others. And this caring, this emotional attachment, seems to be what breaks the rational stalemate and terminates the chain of calculation. In this reason is functioning as the servant, if not the slave, of the passions. It's as if Reason is saying to the Emotions, "Hey, I'll do all the calculation and accounting, but at the end of the day you're going to have to tell me what we really care about."

It is as Hume once provocatively argued. He said, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." There is nothing unreasonable or illogical in preferring scratching your finger over preventing the destruction of the whole world. Yes, such a choice is monstrous and evil, but it's not illogical. The monstrosity goes to the issue of caring and emotion. What is broken in preferring scratching your finger over preventing the destruction of the world isn't reason, but emotion.

What does this have to do with theology?

Simply this. When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous. A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman.

What I'm describing here might be captured by the tag "orthodox alexithymia." By "orthodox" I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by "alexithymia" I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.

(Alexithymia--etymologically "without words for emotions"--is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others' emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.)

Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not "contrary to reason." But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing.

(In my opinion, hard-core, double-predestination Calvinism looks just like this. An icy, monstrous and alexithymic theology.)

In their defense, the orthodox alexithymics will emphasize the view of the Greeks: reason must tame the passions. We cannot discern the will of God if we allow our feelings to get in the way. Emotions are temptations. Therefore we must make our feelings submit to reason. Reason leads you toward God. Emotion leads you away from God. So put your feelings to the side. If a chain of theological reasoning starts to horrify you then you must repress those feelings. Stuff that horror, swallow it.

But in light of what we now know about the relationship between cognition and emotion this Greek-inspired defense is sounding more and more hollow. And dangerous. A theology that is repressing the emotions, we suspect, just like in other spheres of life, is more rather than less likely to lead us astray.

Theology, as an activity of reason, might not want to be a slave of the passions, but it might want to partner with emotion much more closely.

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9 thoughts on “Orthodox Alexithymia”

  1. So, if you could provide the love and help necessary to redeem one person's life or know with clarity the deepest truth about human life, which would it be? Doesn't Christianity say that to choose the latter would be to learn that the former is that very truth?

  2. This is one of those posts that I found myself jumping back and forth, agreeing here, disagreeing there; however, your last line summed it up well.

    But what keeps me a bit leery of the tilt toward emotion is that there are Christians whose lack of compassion for the poor, for others, stem from not "feeling the love". They are angry at the poor, the minorities, the different, for being what they call a "drain" on society. This is what they feel, rather than taking the time to look, to think.

    Abraham J. Heschel wrote, "Prayer is not so much an emotion as it is an insight". And life is prayer. Indeed, insight does affect the passions. But from what I witness today, much of the bitterness from Christians toward the changes that are taking place in society is a surface emotion that is broken through only when someone or some happening makes them stop long enough to think. Then, the passions are shaped and formed well.

  3. I'm probably treading on thin ice here, but I'll ask anyway and hope the Beckian community is understanding.

    Is it possible that Orthodox Alexithymia is at least in part a result of centuries of male-dominated Christianity?

  4. I would argue that proper orthodoxy is all about the *regulation* of the emotions, ie rightly ordered desire - and that this is what the 'cure of souls' is all about, with the deadly sins all being forms of disordered emotional attachment. I've just taken delivery of Paul Kolbet's 'Augustine and the Cure of Souls' which is all about this. I think it is the prime feature of the Christian pastoral tradition, and the church's blindness to our own inheritance is a tragedy - we've sold it for a mess of pottage, also known as simply handing over our responsibilities to therapists and pharmaceutical companies. Sorry if that's a rant!

  5. You paint well the dangers of reason apart from emotion. I, like some others, am leery of leaving it at that, because indeed emotion can be as distorted and deceptive as reason can be. The two need to be always in conversation, with gentle wise mind listening to both and then deciding. One thing I have been finding interesting is exploring the differences and intersections of values, intentions, desires, and emotions... there are likely similar differences among types of thought. I also wonder if some of us feel our thoughts and think our feelings, so that there is hardly a difference.

  6. Some people argue that gay sex is wrong just on the basis that is clearly repulsive to their gut emotions. Well, should we agree with them then? Emotions may tell what you care about, but can they tell you what you should care about? Spiritual live is in a great part to train the emotions to be in align to what God cares, to be willing to touch the leper. Anyway, these re my two cent.

  7. Regarding this topic you might consider The Master and his Emissary...The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist

  8. I feel this is intensely wise--as a writer and a person of faith, both my body and my emotions (especially since they're often seen as connected) were pushed away as "lesser" than reason in terms of living well, of morality, of spirituality. I feel I will likely spend a lot of my life recovering them.

  9. For what it's worth, it's possible to get to very much the same position as those with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex by being extremely deeply clinically depressed; I know, I've been there, for upwards of seven years, which happily came to an end in 2013. In addition, every experience of the divine I've had (and some have been peak unitive mystical experiences) has involved emotion. A lot of emotion. But then, I think that's what we see in scripture, as opposed to philosophical theology.

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