On Orthopathy: Part 5, A Battle for the Heart

This whole series has been a slow walk to get to a point I want to make here in this final post.

I spend a lot of time with churches and church leaders. I lead workshops for churches and speak at retreats for pastors. I teach seminary classes for DMin students. And in all those conversations I've frequently encountered a shyness, suspicion, hesitancy and ambivalence about the role of emotions in spiritual formation. 

I'm pretty convinced this is a product of seminary education. Only seminary could twist you into a pretzel like this. 

It's not news to anyone that seminaries have, for many generations, trained pastors to be scholars rather than ministers. Of course, many schools have been, for many years, pushing hard against this history. But as anyone who has ever been to seminary knows, the experience is very academic and very scholarly. Classes in biblical languages, textual studies, exegesis, church history, and theology. And in the rarefied scholarly air of academia emotions tend to get marginalized. Intellect, knowledge and critical ability tend to take center stage. You want and need to be smart.  

Along with this pursuit of smartness is a common seminary tendency to point at and make fun of churches that function as case studies where emotions have led a faith community astray. Emotions make us vulnerable to bad theology, pentecostal excess, charismatic leaders, and entertainment culture. We mock how worship services have become like rock concerts. 

We should also name here one of the unspoken secrets of seminary education: it can hurt your faith. It's not hard to see why. Scholarship tends toward critical analysis, which is vital, necessary and good. But a steady diet of critical analysis can be corrosive. Due to this corrosion, many pastors can lose their faith during seminary. Or at least get started on a course that culminates, years later, in a loss of faith. To be sure, again, many seminaries recognize this as a problem and take steps to create a more healthy and balanced spiritual life for their students. Worship and spiritual practices have to come alongside classes in textual criticism. Still, in many seminaries true devotion and piety is often cause for embarrassment. You don't want to show too much enthusiasm for Jesus. You don't want to look like you might, you know, believe any of this stuff. Such passions make you look naive, uncritical, and unsophisticated. Like a fundamentalist or a holy roller. Best to practice critical and ironic detachment. No enthusiasms or hand raising allowed. 

And so, emotions get marginalized. Because of seminary education and a legitimate worry that emotions can lead us astray. But even worse, emotions are perceived as manipulative

For example, I once complemented a pastor at the end of a worship service. In the final moments of the service the praise team had come back up on stage and had begun to play some poignant backing music as the pastor concluded his sermon with a moving benediction. The service ended, in word and music, on a very powerful note, emotionally speaking. We were moved. Our hearts swelled. It was a moment. You felt it. 

So I complemented the pastor about how the service concluded. About how emotional it was for me, and how impactful. And guess what happened? The pastor expressed a worry, a fear that because strong emotions were being evoked that the moment had been manipulative. 

Here's the thing. I get that worry. I really do. We do see examples of emotions leading churches astray. It's a problem. But here's what I said to the pastor that day: "I understand the worry. But [and here I pointed beyond the church to the outside world as people were leaving the building] we're getting our asses kicked out there. The world has no qualms about appealing to our emotions. Every ad on TV and social media. Every show. And all the outrage. All these emotions, but all of it misdirected and self-destructive. Emotion is the most powerful force in the world. We can't leave our greatest weapon on the shelf. We can't fight with one arm tied behind our back. The world is using emotions. We aren't. And the world is winning."

I wanted to do this series to share with you this conversation I had with that pastor. I was making a point about orthopathy and spiritual formation. Truly, emotions are the most powerful force in our lives. James Smith is right, we are emotional, affective creatures. And Smith is also right that what he calls the "cultural liturgies" of the world--from marketing to entertainment culture to displays of patriotism--are directly targeting and shaping our emotions. But many churches, for the reasons I've shared above, have ceded the game. To appeal to our emotions is deemed too manipulative and too risky. 

The point about orthopathy is this: We cannot afford to avoid emotions. But the issue isn't about emotion, but about right emotion. Yes, there are plenty of examples of wrong and misplaced emotions. But that's not an excuse to avoid emotion. We avoid emotion at our peril. Because something in the world will appeal to our emotions if churches won't. The call here is, rather, for orthopathy, the directing of emotions toward their proper goal and the shaping of virtue.

In fact, when we see Christians behaving badly I'd argue this is due less to bad beliefs than bad emotions, fears and loves being misdirected. When Christians go wrong this is less about a suite of bad ideas than about paranoid fears and inordinate loves. These distorted and twisted emotions need proper direction and formation. 

Orthopathy is the challenge before us. In some churches, as I recount in the story above, emotions are being anxiously avoided, creating an affective vacuum that is being filled by the culture. In other churches, fears and misplaced loves are leading the church astray. Either way, this is a battle for the heart.

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