It is common to hear complaints about the materialism of our modern culture. For it is certainly the case that much attention is given to “things” – whether making them, purchasing them, wearing them, or simply owning them. The modern world enjoys material wealth beyond anything ever imagined in human history. But it is a mistake to describe us as materialists. Materialism professes a certain concept of material goods. Atheist materialism, for example, holds that matter is all that exists – going so far in some cases as to think of the human mind as simply a strange artifact of the material world itself – chemicals and electrons firing across the synapses of the brain yielding the illusion of a soul.
Classical Christianity has a form of materialism, holding that the material world is created by the good God and that it has inherent value and meaning. St. Maximus (and many others) wrote in great detail about the logoi of created things, their inner meaning and reason. These are created through the Logos, the only-begotten Son of God. Such an understanding of creation views matter as something of an icon of the mind of God. The contemplation of the logoi of creation is one of the higher stages in the journey of salvation.
Our culture’s fascination with material things has almost nothing to do with a particular view of materiality. Video games can be just as satisfying as material events. What we find interesting about material things is precisely what we find interesting about all things: how they make us feel. It is our feelings and sentiments (thoughts experienced as feelings) that are the foundation of modern culture.
This phenomenon of sentiment applies to ideas (politics, sports, etc.) as well as material things. It is often a primary driving force behind the religious affiliation of modern believers. The constant barrage of polling and marketing samples that surround us are based on this phenomenon. Polls measure how people “feel” about things – not what they “think.” Thoughts are relatively stable – but feelings change with the wind.
True Christian materialism, seeing objects as possessing inherent worth and value, generally strikes modern people as “superstitious.” We prefer objects as souvenirs, reminders of what we have felt, but never as actual bearers of the holy.
Our modern disdain for the material world is especially displayed in our treatment of the human body.
Years ago, when I was a newly-ordained Episcopal deacon, I was asked to assist at a “burial” at a beach some 100 miles from the parish. Two daughters committed the ashes of their mother at a local beach they had visited together during their mother’s last months. She had told them to put her ashes there so that whenever they visited the beach they would think of her.
It was clear that the ashes themselves held no value for the women. Their mother herself was now a set of sentiments, a collection of memories. Her life was measured in their thoughts and feelings and nothing more. The committal was “beautiful,” filled with feeling. I am sure that the beach continues to be a place that holds a special memory for this family.
But this is a far remove from the Christian faith. For many modern believers, the bodies of the deceased are almost an embarrassment, a difficult and expensive inconvenience. What is valued is sentiment. The modern “celebration of life” that is increasingly replacing funerals in the US, often takes place without the remains (or “cremains”) of the departed. It is a festival of sentiment – very strongly held and deeply valued, but sentiment nonetheless.
All of this would be little more than a casual observation about a mere cultural phenomenon were it not also becoming the actual content of contemporary Christian believing. Sentiment has become a way of life to which no one living in our modern world is immune. Indeed, most are not only infected with its presence, but think it is normal and important.
To say that our culture is governed by sentiment is not at all the same thing as saying it is overly rational. There was a time when Western civilization was marked by a high degree of rationalism, but that time has long since passed. Sentiment has little, if anything, to do with rationality, or with conscious thought. Sentiment is a product of the passions.
The passions are passive and reactive in nature. They are not the result of consideration or rational process. They are more accurately described as how we “feel” about something rather than what we “think.” The fact that “think” and “feel” are today used almost interchangeably is a result of sentimentality replacing rationality.
The Christian faith cannot be acquired as a passion. That we come to have a set of feelings attached to various religious ideas or practices should not be confused with faith, nor with the process of salvation. It is little more than an expression of a temporary pleasure. It will never produce a stable spiritual life.
The nature of the passions, and of sentiment as their product, is rooted in the cycle of pain and pleasure. We run from pain and we seek pleasure. But in this distorted manner of living, we are entirely reactive and constantly driven by forces beyond ourselves. The nature of modern marketing (and thus of our entire consumer culture) works through this passion-driven model. Pain and pleasure in their varied forms have become the basis of our entire existence.
The Christian faith in its classical form sees our slavery to the passions as the mechanism of sin – it always draws us away from God and true human existence. Human life is simply not possible if it is completely given over to the passions. The need for suffering and sacrifice, for bearing pain and even embracing it in certain circumstances, is a requirement for life in this world. Were no one willing to bear pain, no child would be born, much less reach adulthood. That childbearing has come to be delayed (or rejected) is itself a testament to the power of modern sentiment.
Christ equated the way of salvation with the way of the Cross. His reference was not only to His own Cross, but to the voluntary and shared suffering of all. It is for this reason that Orthodox Christianity is always “ascetical.” Orthodox Christians learn to practice self-denial as a normative part of their lives. They fast, pray, give alms, practice hospitality, as part of the simple effort of learning to be truly and properly human. Orthodox services are often long and “boring” by some standards. But the “boredom” is a reflection of an event that is not centered on the production of human pleasure. The purpose of worship is to offer praise and thanksgiving to God. In the tradition of the Church, it also offers a measure of self-denial.
Learning to recognize sentiment for what it is and not to put it forward as a justification for our lives and actions is an essential part of Christian discipleship. How we “feel” is little more than a report on the state of dopamine in our brains. It is not without value, but it can never be the primary value. No time in human history has been as dominated by sentiment as our own age. We are thus not the wisest nor the most knowledgeable generation – we are the most gullible and the most easily manipulated. The salesmen and hucksters of our age, whether religious, political, moral or otherwise are puppet masters. And they themselves are puppets – but to a much darker and nefarious lord.
Very interesting and wonderful insight. I think, and please feel free to correct me here, that much of our sentimentality is a product of our safety. Our culture, and the various advances within it that help define it, is really a large “safety bubble” that allows for us to become lost in things that are both unreal and unhealthy. When we face a situation that threatens that safety, we tend to snap out of our doldrums.
That doesn’t mean we lose sentimentality but that it loses its primacy and takes a more appropriate place in our lives. Just my thoughts.
I found this to be a most insightful and profitable reminder of how watchful we need to be
This was fascinating on many levels, particularly the connection between souvenirs and sentiments. Too many things clutter my house, not because they are useful (though I sometimes justify myself by asserting that they will be…someday) but because they evoke memories and thus pleasant feelings. I suspect that is simply a tangible outworking of an inner disordering that also prioritizes sentiment over reality. And in my experience it really does work against any process of ascesis: “I can’t give that away because I remember when…” or else I’m too busy managing the clutter to do anything of eternal value.
As tangential question, how does the Orthodox acceptance of (post-mortem) organ donation square with the disavowal of cremation? I resonate deeply with the respect the Orthodox accord to the deceased body and the Christian hope expressed in the services and burial. I am troubled, though, by the encouragement (given by at least some Churches) to organ donation. While such donation is altruistic on a purely temporal level, it seems to potentially reduce the body to a collection of spare parts. How do these ideas fit together?
We often come across an even more distressing state of affairs lately, specifically, the ‘combo’ of atheist materialism with this ‘sentiments-subjectivism’ above described.
Many who, waiving the freedom that sobriety can impart (what the stoics valued), and desire to be slaves (of their pleasurable) subjective sentiments and wallow in that myrrh as much as possible (obviously unable to transform the inevitable painful sentiments too), yet who also fully adhere to the notions that we are “chemicals and electrons firing across the synapses of the brain yielding the illusion of a soul”, at the same time. Lord have mercy!
“As tangential question, how does the Orthodox acceptance of (post-mortem) organ donation square with the disavowal of cremation?”
Well, there has been some small awareness in the medical community of late that “consciousness” may linger much longer after what has become the standard diagnosis of “brain death”. Combine that with what my wife experienced in her medical school cadaver lab – the absolute indignity that some (not all) of her fellow students treated the deceased, and I have explained it thus to my family:
“If, after I have fallen asleep in the Lord, it is discovered that a clipping of my toenail will save 1000 school children of certain death, you are not to “donate” it.”
Exaggerated, yes. Yet the pressures are great, and one has to be clear 😉 . The last time I went to get my driver licensed renewed they asked me about organ donation. I said no (even indicating that I had a ‘religious’ objection to the practice). They had me sign a special form that indicates I rejected it (conversely, those who accept to be donors do not have any extra paper work). In the end when they handed me my license, it indicated I was an organ donor. I had to ask them to redo it, which as you most of you know is a sacrifice given the “efficiency” of the DMV…
Christopher, I too, am a firm believer in the sanctity of the body and am a little appalled that organ donation even for the most altruistic reasons is encouraged by the Church.
The fact is that the organ industry is more and more a macabre evil which does, indeed, look on the human body only as a biochemical machine ripe with spare parts which can be marketed and sold (legally or not). The primary driving force behind the industry is not to save lives (although that is what they say) but to futher the denigration of the human being. We are actually lower than the animals. It goes hand in hand with the artificial intelligence crowd who want to create the next dominant life form on the planet (cybernetic almagamations of human and computer at first ultimately giving way solely to advanced versions of HAL 9000.)
I have been called ‘extreme’ on the issue by friends of mine, fellow Orthodox, especially when I mentioned when my son was a minor, that I would not allow an organ donation for him even to save his life. Never had to face that decision, thank God.
A personal issue recently arose which presented the remote possiblity of me needing an organ transplant. I reminded my wife that I would never accept one.
Dino, one can see a clear illustration of what you mention in the TV show BONES. The interplay between the supposed postivist, Dr. Brennan and her husband the FBI agent Seely Booth (the ignorant Christian who only holds to his belief on the basis of sentiment.) Dr. Brennan is, in fact, just as much if not more of a sentimetalist than agent Booth.
I am not aware of ‘Bones’ but you reminded me that in the Matrix, “Cypher” blatantly admits to this ‘combo’…
I guess it is the inevitable result of the satanic autonomy (from God) of Humanism.
It is also the consequence of a consumer-culture world (of every possible consumer-good from babyhood) that Elder Sophrony feared would lose the capacity for ascesis.
This may go against the general premise of this blog, but that image makes me feel creeped out. Ever since I first saw it, the whole Bible page hugging somebody just seemed a bit weird and creepy.
It is not a Bible page, unless I’m mistaken. It’s just a page with feelings written on it.
I almost hesitated to include the story and thoughts viz. death, bodies, cremation, etc. They are quite germane and illustrate the point. But they provide almost guaranteed distraction from the point of the article. I tend not to go into pastoral details (such as cremation or organ donation) on the blog. I would be lost in a morass of opinion.
Very enlightening, Father. A question along the lines of feelings, not seeking to hide from pain, etc. What does the church teach about those suffering with depression?
Thanks so much for your blog. I’m wondering how you would respond to C.S. Lewis’ claim that “the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” This is from The Abolition of Man and Lewis is making the case that the problem is not that we have too much feeling but lack the proper feeling and any theory that allows for proper feeling. I’m inclined to say that what you’re saying here is not in direct conflict with Lewis, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Thanks!
Now I know why this drives me to distraction on all 3 local network news programs. They will have some inane story line, such as, “Mr. So and so was caught on cell phone camera spanking his dog with a folded newspaper. How do you feel about that? Text us and let us know. We’ll air the results on late night news.” What news? Even the early ” news” shows are all about sensation, feelings. I told my wife they should dub them, “Hollywood Excess!” Rationality is a commodity less and less seen or heard.
You’re probably right about the picture, Fr Stephen. I’m viewing it on my phone so I can’t make out the details. The first time I saw it though was on a Protestant site regarding the Bible being our go-to source for comfort, aka, feel-goodism. With that in mind, it made think how much of Christianity lacks the balance I see in Orthodoxy of repentance and consolation for those on the journey (the latter of which is for those who are living in the former).
My husband has a saying that we are no longer citizens, but consumers and I would add that most of us no longer see ourselves as souls.
Our base impulses are being expertly manipulated for profit and political power.
I highly recommend Iain Mc Gilchrist’s book “The Master and His Emmisary” The author has a deep and rich education and it is reflected in his writing. He aims to examine how the interaction (or lack of it) between the two halves of our brains has shaped our history and our present state. He uses both brain science and philosophy to do this.
also recommend ‘”The Right Brain and the Unconscious : Discovering the Stranger Within Dr. R. Joseph
and “Metaphors We Live By “Apr 15, 2003
by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
These books help explain how much enthralled we are to our unconscious minds and how easy it is to influence us through them.
Also very helpful is Charles Taylor’s “Sources of the Self” People have not always seen the world as we do.
Of course the Fathers and saints knew all about our enthrallment ,
but as Lao Tzu said:
Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.
The subject of wilfully disregarding our reactive sentiments is conducive in the spiritual life. It is a key step in trustfully centring our lives on Christ rather than our selves.
Speaking on his favorite subject of ‘watchfullness’, the Elder Aimilianos gives this example where he raises, in passing, (he does this again and again) the great significance of voluntarily ignoring our own reactive feelings and sentiments. I’ll translate the whole passage as it can be applicable & heartening:
“Say that whilst I invoke Christ by repeating ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’, I suddenly catch myself yawning uncontrollably and respond by thinking to myself, ‘what sort of prayer is this?! I am embarrassing God rather than praying to Him, it would doubtless be better if I slept…’
No. That is not the proper way to deal with this – I mustn’t heed my reactive sentiments to this – because if I possesses the awareness and knowledge that continued prayer is nothing less than an encirclement of the Lord Jesus, that at that time my endeavor itself enables me to embrace Christ, I will ‘not tire of following Him’, as Jeremiah says.
And you then, when you struggle and yet do not seem to possess God, thenceforward believe Him. Trust Him. And when your life is turbulent and your spiritual discipline offers you no joy, that is precisely the time to believe that God is right here, hidden in these ruins caused by your enemy. And in a flash, God, although invisible, will give you the greatness of His possession.”
Depression is not some much about what we feel as it is about something broken that changes and distorts how we feel. Recently, an elder on Mt. Athos offered a useful image. He used the image of a violinist and his violin. The brain is an organ through which the soul expresses itself. Like the violin, when everything works well the music can be at its best. If the violin is out of tune, or missing a string, etc., the violinist is himself not injured, but he cannot expresses himself as well. The same is true of the brain. If it is hindered or injured in some way, the soul is not able to properly express itself, though it is itself unharmed.
In depression, especially clinical depression, the brain is not able to function in its proper manner. We experience a form of pain that is not of our own creation. Like a skilled violinist, we can sometimes compensate for the problem, but only with great difficult.
This same elder said, using the same imagery, that medications and therapies aimed at relieving the problem were entirely appropriate. I strongly agree. I say this as someone who has struggled against depression, off and on, for 40 years.
Depression is a word we use to describe a wide range of things. But in general we should take care of our brain (it’s the only one we’ve got) and the rest of our body. It also helps sometimes to recognize the nature of depression, particularly when it’s brain related, and not be down on ourselves or condemning. Somedays we’re just doing the best we can. I may be playing a brilliant Mozart Concerto but instead sounding like beginner. God hears the concerto.
the above comment:
does not belong to me even though it has the same name.
Lewis, always so apt, rightly describes the problem. There is nothing wrong with feelings – they are a gift from God. But proper feelings is the key. When we are disordered and enslaved to the passions, and others are manipulating our feelings, we fail to have proper feelings. In fact, our feelings have us!
By the grace of God through proper asceticism and the life of faith, our feelings can become more properly ordered. In that, we not only think correctly, but our thoughts are accompanied by the proper feelings. Slowly, beginning and rooted in the deep heart, we become a unified whole, a true human being. A true human being is more like a god than anything we normally encounter. He/she is glorious and a wonder to behold.
Christ, of course, is the proper example. Here He always responds rightly, and he feels rightly. So we see him weeping, angry, etc., in the right way, the right measure. I have been in the presence of a whole person only a couple of times in my life. The “weight” of their presence was uncanny. It was massive, yet clothed in humility.
One problem our fallen race continually runs into is crossing the line between what we know and what we don’t. I think the Orthodox have a LOT to teach us concerning relics and the veneration of the body. On the other hand I suspect we shouldn’t go too far down the path of declaring cremation or organ donation to be anathema.
We should probably tend to discourage cremation – especially wholesale with the intention of avoiding the reality of death. On the other hand, if I altruistically want to donate my healthy liver after I die to someone else who desperately needs one – and you don’t – this shouldn’t be a matter that concerns either one of us. Even when we have the best intentions, we only see in a mirror darkly in this life, and you telling me how I’m wrong isn’t necessarily going to illuminate me on the matter. It doesn’t generally concern our salvation.
Indeed! that unforgettable experience of being in the weighty, massive, yet utterly humble presence of a “true human being – more like a god than anything we normally encounter, and glorious and a wonder to behold.” The most memorable instances of this are often completely unexpected, at those times it is near impossible, no matter how hard one tries, to remember that ‘this person in front of me is Father so and so’, as the wondrous sense that it is Christ in glory is utterly overwhelming.
These persons truly transform the world and an inspirited encounter in which this grace is permitted to pierce one’s sinful heart can have lasting repercussions that easily rival and ‘cure’ those most intense ‘lust [or love] at first sight’ encounters that often plague youngsters for years.
“if I altruistically want to donate my healthy liver after I die to someone else who desperately needs one…It doesn’t generally concern our salvation”
This is the point of the post is it not – that our attitudes and beliefs about the body does reflect our anthropology, which is a reflection or our beliefs, which does have some part to play in our salvation? Of course, there has been no council and dogmatic declaration on these matters (although if I am not mistaken the RC’s do have dogmatic declarations on modern anthropological “issues” such as birth control, “death and dying”, etc.). I am certainly unwilling to place as much of this issue into the self will as you seem to do so here (forgive me if I have misread you)…
I am simply pointing out that though it is an issue, it is not one that should separate us. This broken world tends to divide people at the drop of a hat any chance it gets. Let this not be one of those chances.
Christopher, to donate or not to receive or not are not salvific matters per se.
They are matters if conscience and piety on a personal. Love and mercy ovwrcomes .
That being said, the philosophy that governs the organ donation industry is not human. That is why I decided long before I was Orthodox not to participate. I make no judgement on the decisions anyone else makes. As Father says, those decisions are pastoral in nature and touch on some of the most intimate areas of our life.
“Speaking on his favorite subject of ‘watchfullness’, the Elder Aimilianos gives this example…”
Dino, thanks for posting this! It really ‘spoke’ to me today!!!
Drewster and Michael,
Again, I suppose I would have to disagree in at least one respect. Now, do we need to be angry, uncharitable, judgmental, etc.? Of course not – and to be these things would just indicate our pride and false confidence in our own “righteousness”.
In a profound sense, these matters are “divisive” because they are the canary in the coal mine, so to speak. Part of the dysfunction of modernity is it’s deep rejection of the image of Christ which we all stamped with in both body and soul. If there is a place where Satan does his work, surely it is in these very “anthropological issues” that are very recent and modern (e.g. homosexualism and “gay identity”, birth control, organ harvesting and donation, beginning and end of life “technology”, etc.). In this sense I commend the church of Rome for recognizing this and taking it head on (even if I suspect some of their theorizing to be wrong). One of my disappointments with Pope Francis has been his seeming retreat from clarity on these issues compared with his two predecessors.
Again, you are both right in to emphasize sensitivity and charity. I suspect there is hardly a reader of this blog who has not had family or someone close to them struggle with these issues. I know I have had to wrestle with these very questions myself, and frankly found myself unworthy. Lord have mercy and help us!!
There is no official Orthodox prohibition against organ donation. Some do it. Some don’t. Cremation on the other hand is officially discouraged. Ashes (cremains) may not be brought into the Church.
However, in Japan, only cremation is allowed, and the Orthodox Church of Japan does burials with them. There is no canonical prohibition, but a pastoral prohibition that has been continually upheld (again recently in the Greek Church).
Having said that, in practice, the Church is extremely pastoral and the priests whom I know strive to serve the appropriate needs of families. We cannot do burials from the Church with ashes, but it is certainly possible to do prayers at the grave, etc. So, it is officially to be discouraged, but it is not a cause for being kicked out of the Church or for a refusal of all pastoral care.
The Church is holding the line as it can against a wholesale abandonment of a proper materiality.
Thank you, father.
Great article, Father, but I think it could use a disclaimer. If I was new to Orthodoxy and I came across this article I might interpret it as advocating anti-emotionalism.
Question Fr. Steven,
I have been reading Met. Anthony Bloom’s “Coming Closer to Christ”. He states that as we read the Gospels we should pay attention to the points where “our hearts burn within us” so as to recognize what is good about us and what in ourselves lines up with Christ. What then is the difference between these two different approaches to feeling? Admittedly, they do seem different, but I am uncertain as to how.
Very good question. And this is quite difficult to describe in writing. I could “tease out” the difference in a conversation much better. But the “feelings” that are part of the passions are not what is being described by Met. Anthony. Our language has very little vocabulary to make the distinction.
The “heart burning” is a much more intuitive thing – not driven by the imagination. Some while back, a woman approached me by phone looking for someone to study Russian with. We visited several times on the phone as we worked to arrange this possibility. I became curious about her desire to learn Russian – she was not a student – she was not going to live there, etc. Her answer revealed only that she felt deeply drawn to it in a way that was almost embarrassing and that she was unable to put into words. She had visited Russia as a tourist.
Carefully, I pointed out to her that what she was experiencing was her heart. And that what she was drawn to was not “Russian” per se, but to Orthodoxy, which is precisely what she was encountering in her travels without knowing it. I invited her to Church. After a year or so she was received into the faith. She is also studying Russian.
This “burning of the heart” has a wordless quality, something that we cannot express (the heart generally has no words). This burning is not an emotion though it does have the quality of desire (eros). It is blatantly “irrational” not able to be justified apart from itself. But sentiment almost always disguises itself with explanations, ideas, and excuses.
C.S.Lewis describes an experience he had in childhood, reading Norse mythology. He saw the phrase “Balder the Beautiful is dead…” and it pierced him with a deep longing that made no sense in him. Strangely, in his long life-story (Surprised by Joy), he links this with his later conversion. It obviously had no rational connection. It was a connection of the heart – an encounter with a reality that was simply more than met the eye. He eventually describes this as “joy.”
I would say that when he read the phrase, “his heart burned within him.”
I hope that may point in the right direction.
Thank you Fr. Steven!
Father can you comment on ” feelings” in relation to prayer.
I am conflicted on whether I should have ” feelings” or maybe the better word is emotions during prayer. I have been told to not trust my emotions/ feelings since as you point out this is just the dopamine in my brain, but then I read that I should weep over my sins. Honestly, some days my prayers are just words.. or so it “feels” that day and other days I can barely say the words because I ” feel” too much, or am overwhelmed by some event that is happening in my daily life. If I think too much about every word ( or so i tell myself) I read in the morning prayers I will never get finished or I will get caught up in my own emotions. On the other hand if I ” feel” nothing what sort of prayer is that?
Good questions. Feelings are by no means wrong. But it’s useful to understand what they are. To are large extent, they are reactions and are not the same thing as careful consideration or commandments from God. Thus, they’re not the basis of our lives and are not meant to be. Pain and pleasure are inherent to human life in this world. Some pleasant things we should do, and some painful things we should do. The “should” is not connected with the pain or pleasure. In our culture, people avoid pain, even when it’s good and necessary and seek pleasure even when it’s harmful.
Feelings are a natural part of prayer, but are not the basis of prayer. Thus, I can pray whether I “feel” like it or not. But some feelings are also helpful in prayer and should not be stifled.
Tears are extremely good in prayer – particularly tears associated with repentance. They are a gateway to the true heart.
Pray and have feelings. Only don’t make the feelings drive your prayer life.
It seems to me that the problem is not one of sentiment, but of creating right sentiment.
The first and second great commandments of the Christian life are both calls to sentiment. They are: thou shalt LOVE the Lord thy God, with ALL thy heart, might, mind and strength, and the second is like unto it, thou shalt LOVE thy neighbor as thyself. On these two SENTIMENTS hang all the law, all the prophets, and all the true gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ.
It is certainly true that we may need to strive to overcome our selfish desires and sentiments. But we do so by growing our sentiments of love and compassion, NOT by turning all sentiment off and becoming a mindless feelingless robot. I do not believe that this is the path of Christ, or of Christ’s gospel. I believe that Christ’s path is one of continually refining our sentiments not of destroying or removing them.
Jonathan Haidt points out that there are instances where the parts of people’s brains where “sentiments” reside are damaged, but where their “thoughts” are left largely intact. The result is neither a Nietzschian super man, nor a logical super-Christian. It is not a person who is finally able to think the right things, because their pesky emotions and sentiments are now finally out of the way, leaving them with a purely logical mind. Instead, the result is a mind that is completely unable to make even the simplest of choices. The mind is paralyzed with thought, and indecision. The person is capable of making a logical list of all the possible outcomes of their choices, but is completely incapable of caring one way or the other with regard to which outcomes they want. The result is inaction. These people’s lives are completely and utterly ruined.
It turns out that “thoughts” are rather bad at determining what we should WANT. They are better (sometimes) at logically seeing what the results of our actions are likely to be, but they are incapable of choosing between results.
Ultimately we prefer a world where people are living in love and peace, where the poor are fed, clothed, and cared for, and where good people are left with freedom and choice over one where we are dominated by dictatorship, where a horrible world war is constantly being fought over and over unendingly, and where a holocaust of Orthodox Christians (instead of Jews) is taking place. And WHY do we prefer that? Because of our sentiments, namely our sentiments of love and compassion. It’s not because of our thoughts, but because of our sentiments that we prefer the one world over the other.
And this is as it should be. The proper role of thoughts is to decide what is likely true, and what is likely to result from our actions. The proper role of sentiments (such as those of love and compassion) is to determine which of those outcomes we prefer.
I believe that reason is a powerful tool, but I believe it must always be applied with love, compassion, and discernment. And those thing reside in the more noble sentiments of the human mind and soul.
I see what you are getting at but perhaps there is a semantics issue here… And part of this has to do with many of the original terminology from the Greek Fathers not having analogous English counterparts with the same exactness and precision…
In traditional patristic thought, for instance, there is a subtle -yet crucial- differentiation between “λογισμοί” (logismoi – thoughts) and “νοήματα” (noimata – ‘meanings’). The first ones (λογισμοί )are closely interweaved with human falleness, while the second (νοήματα ) with the Divine illumination of Grace. There is also a key distinction between “αισθήματα” (aisthimata – sentiments, possessing a somewhat ‘reactive’ quality ), “συναισθήματα” (synaisthimata-emotions) and “ενέργειες” (“enegies” – a term that associated with God’s ‘energies’, of which hypostatic love –an ‘active’ rather than reactive energy- is transmitted through His grace to the person that He comes to “possess”). This last (energy) term signifies the fact that man of his own accord cannot ever love purely – he has not got it in him in his falleness in an unblemished manner, although he certainly can love (purely, as God does) through God’s grace. This love is God Himself though, and acquiring it in its fullness would be the same thing as ‘Theosis” (utter union with God); we would generally hesitate to use the noun ‘sentiment’ to describe it.
It’s always difficult to mix worldviews – modern psychology versus classical Orthodoxy. Classical Orthodoxy has far more experience and reflection, with less biology. But your reflections begged more than one question.
For example, yes thoughts may decide what is likely true and likely to result, and you suggest “sentiments…determine which of those outcomes we prefer…”
But that is precisely the problem. What I have described as sentiments is a whole cascade of manipulated desires and fears. They are deeply disordered in the modern mind, constantly bombarded, shaped and formed by an all-pervasive non-stop media geared at created and managing them with a view towards consumption.
Every aspect of human life is today the target of such manipulation. People have all kinds of sentiments about everything, frequently contradictory, and they act impulsively, reactively, and to their own destruction.
Orthodoxy has a view of what it is to be a whole person, a truly healthy person, according to the image of Christ, and it has 2000 years of careful experience about how we are transformed towards that image. It does not teach the abolition of sentiment (feelings), but their proper ordering – their healing.
You suggest some very “noble” thoughts and sentiments. But they seemed rather disconnected from human reality.
I know that feelings are not the goal of worship or prayer. I spent a long time in a tradition in which stirring emotion was certainly a goal in the arrangement of worship sevices, choice of music etc. Before converting to Orthodoxy, most of my (rare) personal prayer time was spent in silence or with very few words. I occasionally “felt” the prescence of God in a real way. Now, sometimes I feel like there are so many words to be said and read, that I can hardly “pray.” Sometimes, though I am granted that feeling or awareness of God in prayer at home or in Church. I recently read this in a homily of St. Theophan the Recluse and it really struck a chord with me:
“However, not every act of prayer is prayer. Standing at home before your icons, or here in church, and venerating them is not yet prayer, but the “equipment” of prayer. Reading prayers either by heart or from a book, or hearing someone else read them is not yet prayer, but only a tool or method for obtaining and awakening prayer. Prayer itself is the piercing of our hearts by pious feelings towards God, one after another – feelings of humility, submission, gratitude, doxology, forgiveness, heart-felt prostration, brokenness, conformity to the will of God, etc. All of our effort should be directed so that during our prayers, these feelings and feelings like them should fill our souls, so that the heart would not be empty when the lips are
reading the prayers, or when the ears hear and the body bows in prostrations, but that there would be some qualitative feeling, some striving toward God. When these feelings are present, our praying is prayer, and when they are absent, it is not yet prayer.”
It struck a chord, but my mind can’t understand it. Could you please comment?
It’s a wonderful passage. Note the kind of “feelings” he describes: “feelings of humility, submission, gratitude, doxology, forgiveness, heart-felt prostration, brokenness, conformity to the will of God, etc” These are not pleasure-driven feelings. They are proper responses to the reality of God and the goodness of all He does and the goodness of His creation. They represent a return to our “right mind.”
In contrast, when I’m grumpy, lacking gratitude, angry, etc., they are certainly feelings, but they represent the sounds and noise of my disordered soul. So, we learn to pay attention to those things that help us return to our right mind. It may differ from one day to the next.
I find that it often helps if I do with my body what I want my soul to do. Thus I make prostrations, or stand with uplifted hands, etc. Evagrius taught that our souls will follow our bodies.
St. Theophan is defining prayer as communion of our heart with God.
Father thank you for addressing the nature of feelings. It is critical especially now. Historically I observed that with the shattering of the Church in the West a concomitant bifurcation between “rational” Christians and “pietists”. That continued in the secular sphere effectively dividing people within themselves.
Personally that bifurcation caused me great confusion before I was led to the Church. Here I found a theology and practice which reveals the wholeness of man.
God be praised
I am constantly struck by the fact that I still have so much to learn as a “cradle”
Orthodox. I am 59 years old. I can sometimes only read small portions of things in multiple sittings in order to garner the most benefit from them. This means I will return to this article in the future. The fact that stood out this time was that sentiment is a passion…I had no idea…. Thank you for your work. I look forward to learning more from this in time…
Orthodoxy has always been positive about experiencing God who graciously cleanses us, feeds Himself to us (Christ’s flesh) and unites with us in prayer through the power of His Breath/Spirit.
It is hard to talk about this with secularists because any experience of God is categorically limited to individual perceptions and opinions. Religions can make claims about god, but in effect all they can do is amass adherents around something the individuals think they hold in common.
It’s hard to talk about this with Evangelicals because most are idealists, sentimentalists, or both, with disregard (sometimes contempt) for the church’s consistent liturgical tradition in which God has always been experienced by those who will approach, taste, and see Him.
Pentecostals appreciate experiencing God but confuse passions and delusions for grace. Like Evangelicals, charismatic leader cults usually distinguish the congregations which are almost as changeable as the leaders.
I wish it was easier to talk about experiencing God, especially with other Christians.
Actually I usually find it easy to talk with others about God. It is those who have the various idols you mention in place of God who are hard to talk to.
I was brought to mind of this post as I recently reviewed some of the take-home material from my child’s first-grade day (at a Catholic school). In the lesson about Jesus was a list beginning with “People needed Jesus to: ” The list had several uncontroversial items like “preach the gospel”, “show them God’s love”, but what stood out to me was the first item: “make them feel better.” My first assumption was that this was a “find the item that doesn’t fit” exercise, but I soon realized that this was indeed the intended teaching: people need Jesus to make them feel better.
(I believe this was the same lesson that had a circle-the-right-answer question stating [I’m going from memory here] “I can show God’s love by…” The only choices given were “treating others badly” and “loving myself.” … Huh. Let’s see… Huh. Maybe we could imagine at least a third possibility that might more fully encompass the gospel?)
All of which is to say, I guess, that, Fr. Stephen, should you ever create a children’s version of Everywhere Present, you’ll have at least one buyer. I struggle to know how to counteract these kinds of influences in my children’s lives, especially when they come packaged in spiritual language. Knowing, of course, that the best (and hardest) way of teaching begins with my own appropriation of these truths.
I also have a daughter in the local RC school (Kindergarten), and I to have found myself doing as you do. So far, I have found the “peace sign” used on 9/11 (as I said in another thread my wife and I used it as an opportunity to discuss real “peace signs”, like the Cross, etc.) and it seems that some of the older grades (starting 2nd grade, I think) create and sign “pledges to the earth” on “earth day”. I have already told our teacher that I will need to see what is going on that day this year and that my daughter might be staying home 😉
As far as “religious” formation, at our school it is directed by a nun who is from Brazil and I don’t detect any “sentimentalization” of Christianity in her or the materials that she uses. I will have to keep my eye out after what you have written here.
As far as how to counteract these sorts of influences it is difficult is it not! I thought what my wife and I did with the “peace sign” worked pretty well (basically a re-direction: We had her draw and we then discussed several “signs of peace” without overtly negating what she learned in class). That is until yesterday, when out of the blue (literally wedged between some unrelated verbiage about her doll) she asked me about “that circle with an upside down Y in it daddy, what does it mean?” I guess I was hoping she sort of forgot about it. I explained that to “some people” it means peace (a weak negation but one nonetheless) but that we have better signs of peace, like the Cross, etc.
On the one hand, you don’t want to deny something like the “peace sign” that might be redeemable (however weakly) out of a false strictness and you do want your children to “explore” ideas and “symbols”, even the very imperfect ones of our debased culture, and yet you want them to have the fullness of “Peace”…No doubt Fr. or someone will have a relevant quote from C.S. Lewis here…
An esteemed Abbot (Athanasius Mitilineos) -knowing the entire pagan/magic connotation described above (broken upside down cross in a circle etc) and mocked as Christian paranoia by the secular world- simply called the peace sign the “peace without God/without the Cross” sign of Babel.