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!