Volume 15, Issue 2: Thema
Rattling the Stoics
"When he finally put / his mouth on meon / my shoulderthe world / shifted a little on the tilted / axis of itself" begins Marie Howe, in her poem "The Kiss."1 She has been grieving over the death of her brother, and this husband-kiss brings her to a new place: "His mouth on my shoulder and / then on my throat / and the world started up again / for me / some machine deep inside it / recalibrating”this kiss moves her, jolts her inner world; it cranks slowly, mechanistically, and then finally it turns into music: "And when his mouth / pressed against my / mouth, I / opened my mouth / and the world’s chord / played at once”the ancient mixture of anguish and love, disintegration and renewal.
Notice how the emotional world dominates this perception. Grief and love can shift an entire globe; and the lips prompt not just a basic chord but "the world’s chord" back from the dead. Everything turns on that chord. This emotion is not some odd uncle best to be ignored. Not just a sliver of life that only gets whispers down hallways. Emotions reorganize our world.
Robert Solomon captures some of this by describing our emotions as our mythologies, the stories that cast our world: “Our emotions subjectively reorder our world, casting minor characters from the rambling plot of Reality as epic heroes and protagonists in its own intensive theatrics. . . . The emotions create their own hierarchies of status and importance, their own sense of power, often in the face of objective impotence.”2
The mythology of our emotions isn’t mere biological feeling obtrusively tagged onto our intellect—the alleged real us. Instead, our emotional mythologies act somewhat like a vast, transparent, technicolor cape we cast over the world, coloring every situation into shades of good and evil, trustworthy and unreliable, clear and murky, boring and beautiful. That person is colored trustworthy, this other isn’t; that person shines the color of generosity, this one leaks the rusty hue of stinginess; over there, "violence covers them like a garment" (Ps. 73:6), and this one has “clothed himself with cursing as with his garment” (Ps. 109:18); I had perceived this event under a jade judgment, but now I must cover it, restructure it, with the color of love (Prov. 10:12; 17:9).
Growing in godliness means finding the right colors over time. The foolish misapply their colors, calling good evil. The ignorant color something ugly that is wonderful, but they can’t match the color correctly yet. But the wise clothes her household in scarlet and purple. Over a lifetime, the goal is to match our emotional mythologies to the colors of creation, to the color of judgment with which God has dyed every event, person, and thing. Until our colors overlay His faithfully, the world is often an unappealing mix of conflicting colors, a kindergarten rub of yellow and brown. The mature, on the other hand, see the world as it is, a garden blend of shades and brightnesses, a masterpiece of the fruit of the Spirit.
When you step back from the Bible and ask what is really important, what is the goal of all the intrigue, we get this answer: a special kind of community for fellowship with the triune God"He seeks godly offspring" (Mal. 2:15). And the feature that Scripture finds at the center of this community is not a list of propositions or long prayers or boycotts but a cluster of emotions: faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13), and the last of these is most important, because God Himself is most "essentially" an emotion: "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:8). In case we miss it, the Apostle repeats it a few verses later: God is an emotion; "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:16).
Why do we cringe when God calls Himself an emotion?
Some of us cringe because we instantly hear a little girl’s voice saying "God is love." Most contemporary Christians are closet Buddhists. And we whisper with circle eyes about love and compassion like the Dalai Lama: "Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, nonharming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering."3 Yikes. Juicy sewage. That view of love quickly twists one into a despiser of life. That sort of definition immediately clashes with the biblical Jehovah of violent exiles, prophetic rebukes, and table turning: "God is jealous, and the Lord avenges; the Lord avenges and is furious. The Lord will take vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies" (Nahum 1:2). Can you imagine if you put Christ and the Dalai Lama into the same room? Modern Christians would think Christ was a meany with all His whited-sepulcher shots. Niceness goes to Dalai. To them, God is love means God is Lama. Biblical love is nothing like that, though. A warrior could say it, and we wouldn’t snicker.
Others of us cringe at calling God an emotion because we are part of a tiresome Western tradition of thinning emotion. How convenient. How Romans 1. We, instead, want to insist that God’s “essence” is something allegedly thick and solid like a stack of thoughts or a dense ball of simplicity. But He says, no, I am love (without the Lama tone). Rationalist sorts of both the Greek and French traditions have insisted that emotions are just feelings, just dirty biological reactions to pristine intellectual things. To say that God is an emotion, for them, is just to say that He’s one of those things some teenage girls fall victim to; He’s unstable, dominated by His margins.
Emotions can’t be just feelings, though. Emotions or affections are complex weaves, complex moral judgments about the world that grow out of and bring forth our particular blend of body and mind. When God is "furious" or "merciful" His whole person expresses a moral judgment about the issue at hand; they show us how seriously a person prioritizes the issue. In addition, emotions move us to action, as the word’s etymology ("motion") suggests. Mere ideas can’t shift a feather. But loving a truth or a person moves us to act. Emotions can show how much we’re willing to sacrifice. In short, our emotions, joined with our imagination, actually do all of the work traditionally attributed to the intellect. They judge, evaluate, discern. They awaken, move, drive. Emotions bring together strands of life from the whole person; they are the expression of our whole body, whether for good or ill.
Notice how dangerous this makes those people who imagine themselves to be "logical sorts," not buying into this emotion stuff. They, of all people, are most fanciful, most unreal. Emotion is inescapable. "Cool reason," "judiciousness," and "objectivity" are all emotional expressions. So they’re bound by emotions even while beating others up about it. In addition, to find one’s “essence” in something static like logic, rather than divine lovingkindness, can’t help but move one further and further from deepest, triune reality. God is love.
If emotions are truly so rich and complex, involving every part of us, then when God says He is love, He is an emotion, we can see something much deeper being said: every aspect of the Triune beingFather, Son, Holy Spirit—goals, actions, insightswork together in a culmination of love. God is not a concept. He is love.
We can see this wholeness of emotion come to special expression in musical worship. Words and preaching are key. But the act of singing appears to be a special act of the whole body, involving greater bodily contributions. Unlike mere listening, singing calls for extra work in our abdomen, circulation, bones, imagination, and more. In singing we shape our whole person in a particular emotional direction; we mold ourselves in the shape of adoration or lament. Perhaps in heaven, we’ll sing everything, one enormous, holy, laughing opera.
That famed Stoic Epictetus said, "What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about things. For example, death is nothing dreadful, but instead the judgment about death. . . . When you see someone weeping in grief at the departure of his child or the loss of his property, take care not to be carried away by the appearance that the externals he is involved in are bad, and be ready to say immediately, ‘What weighs down on this man is not what has happened, but his judgment about it.’ Do not hesitate, however, to sympathize with him verbally, and even to moan with him if the occasion arises, but be careful not to moan inwardly."4 Don’t moan inwardly? What a psycho Epictetus must have been. No wonder the classical world diedof tediousness.
Everyone has strands of truth, even the Stoics. Their main drive, however, was to eliminate emotion, eliminate anything that would ripple the stagnant pool they called their lives. And for millennia, plenty of Stoic Christians followed this path.
Scripture and large parts of the Christian tradition, however, push in the other direction. Emotions aren’t things on the periphery of life. They aren’t there just to be removed. They are life.
Following his litany of Scriptural references to the emotions/affections, the great Puritan Jonathan Edwards summarized it this way: "it clearly and certainly appears, that the great part of true religion consists in the affections." Understatement. We too, then, cast our colors upon the world and open our mouths to hear the world’s chord play.