Once upon a time, the ideal personality was thought to be, well, thoughtful and emotionally controlled. Now, when emotion is so very highly regarded, letting our emotions all hang out is thought to be ideal. These sharp distinctions about the place of emotion effect the church: what is the proper place of emotion within Christianity? Does the cart come before or after the horse?
Abraham Lincoln perfectly characterized the old ideal. Apparently passive, reserved, and solemn, Lincoln led the nation through its darkest hours. Sadly, the nation's darkest hours were also Lincoln's darkest hours - his beloved 11-year old son Willie died during the early years of the Civil war as his wife slipped into depression. Regardless of his circumstances, Lincoln's most powerful leadership tool remained his dominance over his own emotions.
In his dark suit, in his dark top hat, and in his somewhat dark personality, Lincoln does not suit the current, emotionally "out there" ideal. The new emotional ideal is characterized on OPRAH and on DR. PHIL (where celebrities go to confess and cry) and on THE VIEW (where celebrities go to shout and argue). Emotions that were once expressed only in private are now welcomed in public.
Religious thinking has been influenced by these extremes. Once, worship services were more emotionally controlled (Did God accept our service?). Now, services are measured by an individual's emotional reactions to the service (How did I feel?). Pentecostalism and pop-Psychology have had a profound effect. The Encounter Groups of the 60s and 70s and the once-rejected assumption that emotionality is spirituality have become emotionally hyperactive worship services of today.
Twice in Acts 2, people reacted emotionally. In both cases, however, (ii) the cart of emotion (i) followed the horse of teaching. Perhaps there is a lesson here about where emotion best fits within Christianity.
- "Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do" (Acts 2:37)?
- "And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41-42).
Emotionalism is a poor substitute for reason. Why would mature people who have learned not to let their emotions control major life decisions allow their emotional reactions to dictate their religion? There is something "less" about a religion that allows the cart to run away with the horse. There is something "more" to a religion that (i) begins with teaching from the word of God and (ii) then proceeds to the various emotional reactions of people to that teaching. God approaches us through the reason of learning His will.
Emotional extremes are a poor substitute for normal variations in emotional make-up. Just as we all wear different sizes of shoes and clothing, we all have different emotional constitutions. Just as some need more and others need fewer inches in their waistbands, some need more and others need less emotionality, in life and in worship. Here is the rub: these different emotional constitutions need to work and worship together as the church. Identifying the extremes (Lincoln; Whoopie Goldberg on THE VIEW) is easy, but where is the happy medium?
Catharsis is a poor substitute for repentance and for the discipline of the new life. A catharsis takes place when people get worked up emotionally, and then release their emotions into a great sense of relief. Two examples: (i) some people feel better after "a good cry," and (ii) some people feel better after they "vent." Similarly, some people fell better if there has been a lot of emotion expressed in worship services.
Affirming the normal differences in emotional make-up, other people feel better if they choke back their tears, bite their lip instead of venting, and keep their emotions in check. Those people tend to be put-off by highly emotional displays in worship and by highly emotional appeals by preachers.
Much to the detriment of its followers and of itself, religion can pander to catharses. In other words, emotionalism can so dominate a worship service that many feel better after a service in which emotion has played a huge part - and leave being no better at all. Satisfied by their good feelings, they fail to satisfy God with their better lives and more dedicated service.