Striking the Balance: Emotion and Reason

The view that religious people are ruled by their hearts and never think with their heads is wrong. It just is. For sure, there are those for whom religion is a largely emotional experience, but there are also those for whom religion is an experience ruled by reason. This may seem strange to someone who hasn’t spent much time in religious circles, but I can assure you that this is the case. Personally, writing from a Christian point of view, I think that someone claiming to be part of a religion is best off with a bit of both. You may disagree with this, and that’s fine. I’ll try and give some examples from the Bible, but I’m aware that this post is largely my opinion on the matter and I’m not claiming to have the truth, partly because I think the right balance of reason and emotion will be different with each person, depending on their beliefs, background, route to faith etc. I will briefly try and establish why I think that emotion and reason are both important in Christianity and perhaps I’ll make myself clear to some extent.

I’ll start with emotion. One of my favourite poets, William Blake, reacted violently against early-Victorian religious observance; a kind of Christianity that was very much legalistic and left little room for personal expression. I don’t actually understand what Blake was going on about half the time, and at other times I do not agree with his distinctly unorthodox ideas at all, but there are times when I sympathise with his cry for passion and freedom to enter the cold world of religion. I’ll stick to Christianity because it’s what I know, and I don’t see how a Christian can observe their faith without emotion. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, was this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. The last part of this command is actually very interesting for me with regards to reason, but I’ll come to that later. However you specifically interpret ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ I think it’s clear that an emotional love is suggested here. I’ll just clarify where I stand, for me, ‘heart’ suggests an emotional, passionate love; ‘soul’ suggests a devotion of your identity and existence; ‘mind’ suggests a commitment to understand the reasons for your faith. The point is, emotion is important. It helps you to react to God’s presence with joy and, conversely, to hate sin. It is, in my view, essential for a dynamic, living faith and in this I agree with William Blake.

Now for reason. I touched on it in the last paragraph with the ‘love the Lord your God with all your…mind’ command. Also, in Acts, Luke records that Paul reasoned with the Greek people and Peter calls for Christians to be able to give people a reason for why they believe in Christ in his letters. Furthermore, what was Jesus doing a lot of the time if not reasoning with the Jewish religious authorities? It seems clear to me that there is a place for reason in religion and that Christians cannot ignore this (I don’t know if there are any relevant teachings from other faiths). I think that if Christians don’t have reason, they are losing a crucial evangelical tool because there are a lot of people in the world who won’t be satisfied with an emotional faith. This attitude has come about partly because of the Enlightenment Project of a the late 19th century when reason and logic became the dominant forms of seeking knowledge, and though the Enlightenment was largely atheistic, I do not think that the ideas should be ignored. I am for objective reasoning if used in the right way and I think that Christians need to engage with this in order to continue to share their faith with the world.

I hope I’ve started to show why both emotion and reason are important. Now I hope to say why they are important together. Firstly, I think having either one in excess is a very bad thing. An excess of reason with no emotion could, I think, lead to a dead faith and an obsession with research that means that you are distracted from God who should always be the centre of your faith if you’re a Christian. Similarly, an obsession with emotion could lead to someone going away from what their faith actually teaches in favour of what they feel to be right. As a Christian, I think it’s important to be able to read the Bible and talk it through with like-minded friends as opposed to just striking out alone, going by whims. Also,  I think emotions can be deceiving. I do not believe that all emotional, religious experiences come from God, I believe that reason is needed to discern if that experience was from God or not. That is one example of how reason and emotion can go together. In a broad sense, I think that they can keep each other in check, allowing Christians to love God and explain to others while they do, allowing Christians to work out when something is wrong and then to react against that strongly. Think of successful charity work, without an emotional reaction against something, it wouldn’t start, yet it can only be successful with reason and thoughtful planning.

I don’t know how well I’ve explained this, but I hope that I’ve made it clear that there needs to be a balance between reason and emotion when it comes to faith. You may disagree; as I said at the start, I think that the right balance will be different for each person. However, I do not see how either one in its extreme can lead to a living, genuine, powerful faith.

I’d love to read your thoughts on this because I’m sure that all readers will have had their own experience of reason and emotion at some point, either in their own religious walk or noticing it in the lives of friends and it’d be really interesting to see how these two elements work in people other than myself!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. everexistent says:

    This post is very interesting, and I agree with a lot of what you say. We cannot really become reasonable people unless our hearts who carry most of the emotional burden also become reasonable. An obvious characteristic of a reasonable person is that s/he does not ignore or suppress or deny any of her/his observations and experiences and does not rashly jump to conclusions on the basis of some others. But this would not be the case if our reasons and emotions are unreasonable. In some specific matters we may be able to carry out a very rational and profound analysis but if our reasonings are misguided and our emotional reactions are unsound, then in some other important matters we would incorrectly use our observations and experiences. We would ignore some of them, build too much on some others, and as a result arrive at erroneous and possibly disastrous conclusions. Then there comes the fact that God doesn’t need us and we need him so giving emotion doesn’t add to his power neither decrease of it. As a result of abundance in reasoning there comes so much understanding in ones faith. Therefore, I feel (with all due respect); that reasoning is actually good if a person focused on it solely to know more about his Creator and the existence of the heavens and the universe. So, I definately agree with you when you say there should be a balance with emotion. Reasoning should be encouraged if it is for positive reasons, but should be avoided if it is for negitive. Same way emotions should be encouraged if they are positive and discouraged if they are negative. It’s a matter of avoiding the bad reasoning and emotions; and embracing the good reasoning and good emotion.

    I’m pretty sure there are a lot of verses in the bible on examples of how we could/should use our reasoning, pondering and inellect on what is around us.

    Example of reasoning, along with emotion (the heart):
    “Do they not travel through the land that they may have hearts with which to reason and ears with which to hear? (In most cases), it is not the eyes that become blind, but the hearts that are in the breasts.” Qur’an (22:46)

    But then again emotions can be divided into good and bad. Good being the emotions such as love determination and hope; which are encouraged. The bad being; envy, hatred, anger, depression etc. which are strongly discouraged. So, it is definately the positive emotions to God that count. Such as crying out of love for God and all the blessings he is bestowing upon us everyday…etc.

    A penny for your thoughts?…..Sorry, I wrote so much…:p

    1. bengarry says:

      I agree with pretty much everything you said there, especially the bit about good and bad emotion/reasoning which I don’t think I addressed very well in the post! I think that, if used in the right way, emotions and reason can guide each other, but that sort of relies on them being basically good in the first place. Good reasoning can tell us if our emotions are right and in line with what God wants and good emotions can help us to reason well about the right things, if that makes sense.

      On the other hand, bad reasoning can, obviously, lead us to thinking that bad emotions are good, such as, to give an example from Christianity’s mottled past, thinking that it’s a good idea to go to war with countries in order to convert them. There, it was reasoned, badly, that God doesn’t care how people are converted, as long as they are, therefore a Holy War is the best solution. Handily for the Crusaders, the reasoning also allowed them to justify their arrogance and ideas of superiority!

      As for bad emotion, I suppose that if you start off with the idea that what you want is more important than what God wants, then all of your reasoning will lead you to justify your own actions, even if they are completely opposite to what God wants. This is clearly bad.

      I’m glad you raised those points because it led me to address them a bit better than I did in the post! I suppose the only thing left is to work out how we know whether emotions/reasoning are good and, off the top of my head, I suppose that’s why we have prayer and holy books!

      I did think when I was writing this that this is one topic that people from different faiths could agree on, but I didn’t want to assume anything, which is why I stuck to Christianity in the post, so thank you for commenting on it from your perspective as well!

      1. everexistent says:

        No problemo! Thank you for your intake, I always feel welcome in the realm of your thoughts; and because of you understand more and more about Christianity everyday.

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