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Volume 14, Issue 1: Incarnatus

Knowing is Loving

Douglas Jones

Most traditional philosophy tends to assume that emotion is always an obstacle to real knowing, never a help. Emotions are closely tied to the body, and, to them, the body is almost always a roadblock. But if, as this column has been sketching, the Incarnation provides a model for knowing, then we can't denigrate emotion in that way. The kind of knowing pictured in the Incarnation is not just ideas manipulating endless ideas. It was a doing, indwelling, imaging, and tracing, all of which is pushed forward by the emotional frame of love: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (Jn. 3:16; cf. 1 Jn. 4:9; Tit. 3:4).

Alvin Plantinga summarizes this connection at the creaturely level: "There are certain things you won't know unless you love, have the right affections"1 and vice versa. W. Jay Wood draws the connection even more tightly: "emotions and moral virtues are to our cognitive life what rudders are to an airplane: they are part of the thinking apparatus itself. If they don't function properly, our cognitive life doesn't function properly."2
But how does this work? One way to characterize how emotion shapes our knowledge is to imagine it as analogous to the focusing action of a projector or camera. When the lens is out of focus, the object is a fuzzy blur. In focusing the lens, there is a midway point, either side of which objects get fuzzy. When the lens correctly links to the traits of the object, clarity appears. Clarity depends upon both parts matching up.
By analogy, proper emotions focus our connection to the world; they sharpen our understanding. God has morally designed objects and events in the world to be loved, liked, disdained, hated, etc., according to His master interpretation. When we direct the proper emotions upon their proper recipients—objects or events—they come into focus. At the largest view, this means that the universe remains fuzzy unless we see it as the creative gift of God. At a more local view, it means that I can't really know my brethren, amoeba, and work, unless I have the appropriate emotions lined up correctly. Even more narrowly, individuals increase and improve their knowledge of their callings—woodworking, computer programming, literature—depending on their love of the subject in question. Conversely, we're called to dislike and hate other things, and if, instead, we love them, we distort our knowledge. Growing in wisdom is learning what emotions are appropriate in what contexts.
Metaphor is also a helpful way of understanding how emotions work in knowledge. Some speak of emotions in a quasi-perceptual fashion in which emotions are value-laden images or metaphors in which we "construe" one thing in terms of something else. On this scheme, emotions are vaguely like colored transparencies which we lay over and around the objects we perceive. It's "as if" these colors classify and judge the objects according to our values. Or our emotions allow us to see people and events in terms of some type: "He's a bear." "She's a witch." We know how love "covers a multitude of sins" and how shallow love can make the most disturbing of suitors appear to be Mr. Right. Similarly, when we're angry, the object of our anger can do nothing right; we interpret their every action as some pernicious conspiracy. We haven't lined up the correct emotions/metaphors, and we fuzz the proper interpretation. This may help us make better sense out of scriptural judgments, such as "the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him" (1 Cor. 2:14). He cannot discern because he cannot align the right emotions to reality. It's all fuzzy.
This emotion-focus analogy rests on picturing knowledge in visual terms. That has benefits and dangers, but the analogy could also be made auditory. Emotions are like ears or tuning instruments which pick out fine sounds. Similarly, we could imagine emotions in a more tactile fashion in which emotions are like a firm grip on a handle, and so on.
It's easy to intellectualize emotion and neglect its close connection to the body. Emotions are never merely bodily feelings, though popular misconceptions picture them this way. But they're not bodiless either. Instead of the visual picture above, where emotions are like colored veils (value-laden perceptions), we might see them as judgments grounded in our bodies. Emotions impel bodily action, just as the Incarnation was impelled by love. It's as if emotions exhibit how much body we're willing to sacrifice in a given situation. Anger may give up plenty of pain. Hope and joy and compassion make the body persevere. Patience picks its battles carefully. Indifference won't sacrifice anything. But "Great love" lays down a whole life (Jn. 15:13).
Whatever the exact case, emotion plays a very central role in knowing. Needless to say, this has giant implications for a philosophy of education. Oftentimes, we assume education is just about ideas and information. But if no genuine knowledge can occur without the presence of certain emotions, then moral/emotional education would need to have to play a much bigger part. But "emotional education" involves far more bodily wisdom and subtlety than a typical curriculum could ever hope to capture.

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