Sunday, May 01, 2016
Last time I spoke about using the tools of ethics and psychology as a means to better read Scripture, and the topic of "head versus heart" came up in the discussion following. This is a really important topic which I felt deserved a discussion of its own. It is particularly important because the idea of head and heart is ultimately about having our theories connected to reality and experience.
Let me begin by defining some terms. When I speak of the "heart" I am referring to our experiences, and how these affect our feelings, that is how we perceive and experience reality. When I speak of the "head" I am referring to how we cognitively understand those feelings and experiences, including the idea of language. If we have the cognitive alone -- disconnected from our experience of life, it remains merely theoretical, detached from lived experience. So the heart (our experience of life) is important, perhaps we could say it is primary. We however also need the cognitive to make sense of our feelings and experiences. Heck, the fact that you are reading this and thinking about whether you agree with me means you are engaging in the cognitive. At its most basic level it is about making sense, and giving a framework to our experiences and emotions. This does not need to be some deep philosophical exercise. It is something all of us do constantly. For example, a five-year old might think, "I'm feeling something, I think it feels good, it's caused by this other person, who I call 'mom', and this thing is a hug, and it makes me feel safe and loved. I love hugs from my mom." All of that is about understanding, conceptualizing about the meaning of our experiences. In short, both head (our understanding) and heart (our feelings and experiences) are essential for us. They impact theology, but they also of course impact way more, they impact how we all experience life.
With that brief intro, let's consider a comment made by Kent on my previous blog post (which was the impetus for this conversation). He begins by saying this,
"Living a life of being loved by God and loving others is not hard. From my perspective, we are changed (born again/born from above/become a new creation -- whichever biblical description one wants to use) when we experience the love of God in our hearts (right brain) through intuitional revelation."
First of all, there is far more in Kent's comment that agree with than there are things I disagree with. So let me begin where I agree. It is certainly true that we humans are formed through loving relationships. Ideally, as a child we are formed by the love of our parents, and out of that we grow to be loving, responsible, thoughtful, mature people. There is of course a parallel with God's love, and we find that idea expressed in the declaration that "God first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19), which is the context out of which we respond by loving others. As Paul puts it, "all that matters is faith expressing itself in love" (Gal 5:6). Again, just as we are formed by the love of our earthly parents, the idea is that God, our heavenly abba, loves us, and that love forms us, resulting in our loving others as a result. Our trust/faith in our experience of a loving relationship God expresses itself in our, in turn showing the same kind of love to others that we have known -- in short, trust expresses itself in acts of love.
Yet, often experience... let alone (shudder) feelings and emotions... has been spoken of in very dismissive ways by theologians, who tend to be very "head" focused and mistrustful of emotions and experience. That's a real shame because emotions and experience are vital to being human. Moreover, a theology that is disconnected from experience and feeling is disconnected from life, disconnected from relationship (including relationship with God), and disconnected from love. There is a biblical term used to describe that sort of head-only theology: dead. So when theology dismisses experience and feelings and the heart, that means it is very broken.
Experience: Changing your Heart
As noted above, our experiences shape and form us. They make us into who we are. The good news is that this is not only something that happens in childhood. Experiencing love can also change us as adults in positive ways, just as experiencing trauma as adults can change us in negative ways.
Where that connects to theology is that if we think that people are changed merely through information, we are misunderstanding something really basic about how we humans work. People are changed -- including changing our minds -- by what we experience. Change my heart, and that will surely change my mind. So if as pastors we want to change someone for the better, if we want to change the way we treat each other, a crucial part of how we get to that change is by positive experiences re-shaping us.
Let me give an example. One particular school of marriage therapy, known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), stresses the importance of couples experiencing positive emotions as the central means to healing relationships and rebuilding connections in a marriage. Let's say that there is a couple where the guy is kind of a brute. He barges in and takes over when she is parenting. As the therapist digs into this however, it comes out that the guy is actually pretty insecure, but feels like he needs to be "strong" to hold things together. This is not something that the therapist tells him, but something he uncovers about himself. In other words, EFT helps him to get to a vulnerable part of himself, beneath the protective wall of his outward "strong" behavior.
In turn, as his wife experiences him having these vulnerable feelings, opening up, seeing a side of him that she has never seen before, she herself experiences feelings of empathy and understanding towards him. Experiencing this together as a couple brings them together. So it's about helping couples to break out of old patterns of conflict, by getting them to vulnerable places beneath that outward conflict (their fears, their insecurities, their wounds), in order to build empathy and connection.
The means to this is not primarily about understanding something cognitively, but much more about experiencing it together, and how that positive experience of being understood, as you were vulnerable, leads to deep connection.
The point of all this is that practitioners, who are working directly with people, people who need help with their relationships, with love, are finding that experience plays a crucial part of that work. It is through elicits positive emotional experiences -- not simply by cognitive understanding, but primarily through experiencing vulnerable feelings together -- that empathy and connection is built, the couple is re-connected, and the marriage is healed. Imagine what would happen if pastors learned how to elicit positive emotional experiences in people and how that could affect spiritual formation.
Experience is vital. Love is vital. But I have to disagree with Kent's claim that it is "not hard". Love is good, but it is certainly not easy. If love were easy, marriage therapists would be out of a job! Love is hard, and does not come to all of us intuitively. Couples often need to learn how to communicate, how to relate to one another in ways that bring them together, instead of ways that put them in conflict. A part of that is that most of us do not only have positive experiences as a kids, but also come with some emotional "baggage" that we bring with us into our intimate relationships. That is, we have learned some messed up ways to relate to others, and so we need to learn how to love well. The closer you are to someone, the deeper the intimacy, the harder that becomes.
Re-framing: Changing your mind
All this is not to say that there is no place for the head, for the cognitive. Indeed the cognitive is crucial because without it we'd have no way to make sense of our feelings and experiences. In fact, the way we understand and frame something actually changes the feelings we have about it, changes how we experience it. For example, as a kid I broke my wrist playing soccer, and because this happened in the context of sports, I thought it was cool. When some kids picked on me in school and pushed me against a locker, that was really upsetting to me. The physical pain involved was trivial compared to breaking my wrist, but the emotional experience of being bullied was really upsetting, while breaking a bone felt cool. How we frame our experiences, the narrative we place them in, changes how we actually experience them emotionally.
Theology is all about how we frame things. How do we make sense of who we are as humans? How do we make sense of suffering in our world? The way we frame those kinds of things makes all the difference. Do we frame human misfortune as a sign that God is angry and punishing us? Or do we frame suffering in the context of a God who shares our suffering with us? That framing changes how you experience your life, and that's why negative images of God can be so damaging and debilitating to people. It's not just a detached theory because it impacts our lived experience, in this case in a bad way.
Just as we can have both positive and negative experiences (the heart), we can also have understandings of life (the head) which can help and heal us, and we can equally have understandings that hinder and harm us. So the way we make sense of and frame our experiences matters tremendously, and even shapes how we experience life. That's why the cognitive matters, why theology matters, because badly framed theology can block us from experiencing God's love, and good theology can allow us to experience a life filled with meaning and love.
When all is said and done, we don't need to choose between head and heart, between thinking and feeling, between the experiential and the cognitive. Rather, we need to understand how they both work together. In a nutshell, the head interprets the heart, that is, our understanding frames our experiences. The way this works is not linear (first one and then the other), but more of a circular relationship where both influence each other.
So instead of disparaging one or the other as bad (head focused people saying that emotions are "weak" and "unreliable," or heart-focused people saying that the cognitive is "cold" and "detached"), we need to be able to embrace both of these aspects of ourselves, recognizing that they are both good and vital parts of what it means to be fully human. What we think and what we feel are not in fact separate, but intertwined, each influencing the other. They are not rivals, but partners -- two lovers in a dance.