on the role of feelings and experience in religion

I am reading through Paul Hiebert, et al’s Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices
(Baker, 1999).  It’s an interesting and insightful book.  If you are a pastor and you haven’t read it you should really think about doing so.  The problems associated with “folk religions” and even what is called “folk Christianity” isn’t a problem limited to developing countries or more traditional religious practices.  It’s as much a problem right here in America as anywhere else.  Why else are there problems of people reading the horoscopes, going to seances, playing with tarot cards and getting their palms read?  That is all aspects of folk religions, not just slaying chickens or pigs or something.  If you don’t think people in your own congregations are messing with this stuff (at least some) think again.

Anyways an early chapter is talking about the phenomenology of religion and looking at religion from a systems approach (evaluating how religion works in each of the human systems: spiritual, cultural, social, psychological and biophysical).  What I want to share with you is a part of religion as a cultural system.  Religion is an essential aspect of any culture.  All cultures have one form of religious expression or another and within the cultural system there are three parts to any given belief system: ideas, feelings and values.   Heibert et, al., make an interesting explanation about the role of feelings (and I am tagging on experience) in religion when they write  the following:

Religions also involve deep feelings – expressions of joy and sorrow, fear and revulsion; and awe and worship.  These powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods act as a wall, protecting beliefs from attacks from within and without by providing emotional support to their truthfulness.  These emotions are expressed in different ways in different cultures.  In some religions, the dominant emotions are awe and wonder in the presence of great mystery expressed in high rituals [liturgy?].  Others seek peace and calm by means of meditation and mysticism.  Still others stress ecstasy, achieved by means of dance, drums, drugs, and self-torture.  In short, religions vary greatly in the emotions they value and in the ways these emotions are expressed (37).

I find this interesting because I can see how they could replace “religions” with “denominations” or “sects” of Christianity as each different group seems to have different emotions they value and express these emotions in different ways.  But then some say “but it is just all emotionalism” especially when talking about Pentecostals and Charismatics.  I say, hold on a minute – and those who really like participating in the Divine Liturgy don’t get emotional about it?  That’s not emotionalism?  Perhaps they are not dancing and all that but they get caught up in it all experiencing deep emotions in worship. But if I raise my hands in worship, or shedding tears or even laughing (not wildly necessarily, I’m not talking about that) that is getting too involved?  How?

There is nothing wrong with experiencing deep emotions in worship or getting all caught up in the worship service and part of worshiping God in a corporate settingit is part of being human and part of being Christian.   Now, if that is all some people are into then it can be a problem, but if it is part of the whole service, why is that a problem?

In fact, if the experience of deep emotions and feelings and experiences are quelched or discouraged, people will leave and move on either to another church or to a different religion.   In fact Hiebert et. al., go on to say:

Cross cultural communicators often overlook the importance of this affective dimension in the lives of ordinary people.  Leaders stress preaching of cognitive truth in church services, and downplay the importance of feelings in worship.  They push to get work done and don’t see the emotional distress caused by their actions.  People often leave the church with their heads full and their hearts empty.  Most people make religious decisions on the basis of emotions and experience as much as on rational argument.  On the other hand, stressing affectivity alone leaves people with their hearts full and their heads empty.  Both cognition and affectivity are vital to religious life (37).

If I remember correctly, one of the speakers at a recent T4G conference very strongly discouraged emotional appeals to the gospel.  He said no one should ever make an emotional appeal to the gospel, only intellectual appeals.  That person needs to read this book and see they are not only wrong, they are hurting the people they preach to and even possibly hindering people from coming to the Lord.   Very few people I know who made an emotional decision to follow Jesus ever regretted it.  In fact, I know no such person.  If they do, it has more to do with poor discipleship of the church at large then it does the problem of so-called emotionalism.

While we all talk about not “going to church” for selfish reasons and all but to go to serve others, well, the point is taken yet I know there are time we all “need” worship to get ourselves fixed up so to speak spiritually – I do that.  Well, as a pastor, then I put in the worship CD and just listen to it and have a worship time and sometimes let the emotions go. Well, sometimes!  lol!

So all that to share that emotions, feelings and experiences have a valid place in religious life and that if you as a pastor or pastoral leader, even an elder team are not allowing even encouraging this, you are hurting your people.