Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Emotional Impact of Good Thinking

There is a long practice (or prejudice) in Christian history that separates “head” and “heart.”  It comes to us most strongly, perhaps, from the Pietist movement that began in Germany in the 17th century.  People who identify themselves as “evangelical” know this terrain very well.  We pietist evangelicals use this kind of language commonly to describe inauthentic religion (“mere” head knowledge) and authentic religion (heart knowledge).  I don’t like this trade-off and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.  The head-heart trade-off is a false dichotomy.

It turns out that good thinking involves having the right kind of feelings, a point to which Christians need to pay close attention.  We need, therefore, to quit talking about “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge.”

I rather feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but let me try out this idea anyway.  Let’s try to notice the difference between between two aspects of learning.  “Learning” can mean something like cognitive mastery – I “get” (i.e. understand and can manipulate) an idea and can make use of it in other ideas.  I’m afraid that, usually when we talk about learning doctrine, we put it in this framework.  But (by itself) it isn’t learning.  It is reductionistic and looks much like the “head knowledge” we decry.

If we follow the usual path, at this point we switch to “heart knowledge” for the corrective, but it is precisely here that we start going wrong.  We go wrong because with “heart knowledge,” sound doctrine (good thinking) tends to get downplayed.  Oh, yes, we know that believing the right things matters, but really it matters mostly to prove our orthodoxy, our being on the “right side” of a controversy.  For spirituality, by contrast, what  really matters is how one feels and what one does.  Does one feel love for Jesus?  Does one do what Christians are supposed to do (go to church, tithe, feed the poor, etc.)?

If we want to work on “heart knowledge” we tend to look to the spiritual disciplines to help us.  So, we read books on prayer and mysticism, or fasting, or some other practice.  We tend not to read books on theology, partly because “theology” has become so technical that only professional academics can use the lingo.

So we pietist evangelicals fall off the log the other direction and reduce the Christian faith to “heart knowledge.”   In truth – and it’s critically important that we “get” this point –  “learning” something means doing the hard cognitive work for understanding and being taken by, possessed by, the truth of God’s revelation.  It is still mental and conceptual, but it is more than mere mastery of concepts.  The ideas become personal – the will has yielded and “made it personal” in a more-than-merely-cognitive way.  In learning, I’m not merely manipulating an idea.  That idea permeates my whole being.   Clearly, this sort of learning affects our emotional tone and we become, over time, different, renewed, transformed people.

If my chain of thought is sound, it means we Christians need to spend a lot more time with doctrine/theology: reflectively, ponderingly, persistently, leisurely, slowly, prayerfully.


December 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The “Metaphysics” of Blogging

A friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to a blog by Franky Schaeffer about the sickness of evangelicals (and evangelicalism).  He took aim specifically at Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham, but got in a few digs at father Billy as well. Purportedly, the blog was about larger, more substantive matters than just the personalities mentioned, but it came across as especially bitter and vituperative.

I commented on my friend’s fb page, as did a few others.  One commenter reminded us that blogs in general represent a particular type of writing.  He’s right: blogs are commonly expected to be edgy, raw, less-filtered, emotive, therefore provocative. Provocative of what?  Granting his point, I still was left pondering both the impact, therefore the nature of, blogging.

So, here I am, blogging about blogging.  Does it mean that I’m doing an exercise in “meta-blogging?”  Have I coined a new term?  (I didn’t think so.)  Perhaps I’m playing with the “metaphysics” of blogging.

For completely separate reasons, I have been re-reading C. John Sommerville’s book, The Decline of the Secular University, (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), a slim, but meaty collection of essays on how the secularist university has become irrelevant to public discourse, and why.  One must read this book carefully.  Sommerville, a first rate historian, has been doing his homework for a long time and knows his stuff.  This is a compelling book.

In the chapter about post-secularism, Sommerville argues that the dailyness of daily newspapers has helped to create “a news consciousness, a fixation on daily trends and fashions instead of more comprehensive treatments of significant subjects,” (p. 138).  “News” content reflects what we want to hear and read about.

Which makes me think about blogging.  “Fashion,” rather than sustained and serious thought, pervades most of our public discourse.  The tone and structure of Franky Schaeffer’s blog about evangelicalism’s sickness demonstrates the “fashion” in blogging.

So, Professor Sommerville has provoked some self-doubt in me about blogging. Somewhat analogous to texting in one’s “vote” on some news item on a cable news network, blogging is ostensibly a form of empowerment, allowing people to opine about all manner of topics.  Since we’re putting our thoughts on the worldwide web, there’s a chance that someone besides our five or six friends might actually wander across our blog and discover our brilliance.

Now, I’ve added another question.  Is blogging merely a form of narcissistic self-expression?  That’s not all it is for people writing books and appearing on talk shows.  Blogging is marketing.  Well, what is blogging for blokes like me?

I enjoy and am edified by some people’s blogs, usually Christian thinker/leaders whose books I also read.  I like to read other blogs because the bloggers are my friends and it’s a way of keeping in touch.

But blogging, like other forms of communication, presents the wonderful possibility of stimulating thought and dialogue.  At their best, blogs accomplish this aim.  Therefore, we blog on.  But at their worst, they contribute to thoughtless, verbal violence.

Dare we check the balance?

November 30, 2009 Posted by | Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments