There was once a time when the best of conversations began with, “I think…” Though not always the case, the implied assumption was that the speaker had taken a moment to consider the facts at hand, weighed differing viewpoints concerning those facts, then reached his/her own conclusion based upon that informal research. This was the basis for the old phrase “informed decision”. No decision is perfect of course, but in this case, the route taken to reach that decision would have been slow and intentional, making sure all the differing paths were considered along the way.
We don’t have time for that today. As I’ve written about before, we have become a reactionary society. Careful consideration has given way to gut reaction. What we feel in the moment sets the thermostat of the larger cultural climate, which in turn sets the policies by which we govern. On a personal level, you may notice conversations now beginning with “I feel…” Emotion is slowly but surely taking the place of logic.
Please understand, I’m not discounting the role of emotion in our lives. God embedded them within our design, and scripture often ascribes emotion to God (though I doubt ours are measured in the same way). Jesus himself wept and rejoiced on several occasions, so it’s obvious emotions reflect the heart of the creator. The questions is, have we given them more authority in our lives than he intended?
The Church finds itself in the thick of this emotional revolution. Though many congregations realize the importance of scripture, they also want to serve the felt needs of the congregants. They see the danger in making decisions on gut reaction, while at the same time feeling obligated not to ignore it. Emotion is more palpable, more relevant, and more immediate. It better reflects the culture than does discernment. The result is a flip of the flow chart. Instead of relying on the plain teaching of scripture, or even two millennia of teaching and wisdom that support it, we’ve declared that this culture, here and now, has progressed beyond all of that and is better suited to enlighten and inform the Church. Scripture is no longer the first authority. At best it’s “1a”. The current cultural climate, how we feel at the moment, will serve as our primary translator.
For example, I recently heard someone stating their position relating to a very important decision their particular denomination was undertaking. When another person presented them with what scripture plainly said about the subject, their response was, “Well, that’s what you feel about it, but I feel differently.” There was no recognition of or response to what the Bible actually said. Common interpretation was immediately replaced with personal belief. It wasn’t seen as what the Bible said, but about what they felt it said.
This conversation was critically enlightening not just for this particular issue, but in looking at the Church as a whole. The real danger is that our individual feelings have become the interpreter of scripture. There is no longer a single point of reference toward which we all bend. We each bend toward self first. We form our theology based on how it makes us feel, how offensive or acceptable it is. We cast our votes on critical issues based on how we’ve been touched by a testimony or swayed by an argument. We feel our way through faith, and the result can go one of two ways. The first is division, or rather fragmentation, as each individual opinion is held sacred and no two opinions are exactly alike. The second is unity, but under the banner of “the most common popular opinion”. Since everyone can’t agree in this system, the only way to achieve unity in the Church (which is still an acceptable biblical concept) is to go with what feels right to the most people. And since scripture isn’t the primary influence, other feelings, other voices are allowed in, such as those from outside the Church. When culture is allowed at the table of doctrinal decision, cultural relevance is seen as a mandate.
But let’s not swing the reactionary pendulum toward pure logic either. We have too long of a history in the Church of drawing clean-cut prescriptions out of the Bible that each of us must swallow. We dissect portions of verses and neatly apply them to our current situation with no cultural or contextual appreciation. We boldly declare “the Bible says” without really knowing what the whole Bible says We lay the axe of truth at the trunk of culture, rather than taking the time to prune a few limbs.
So how do we balance what we feel verses what we think? I believe the answer lies in the formatting of the previous sentence. It should instead read like this: How do we balance what we feel verses what we think? The root of our problem is that we are the interpreters. Neither our intellect nor our emotion should be driving us. Instead it should be God’s Spirit. What does He feel? What does He think? In our modern humanistic society, we’ve lost the ability to actually listen to God’s voice, so we have no one else to turn to except ourselves. However, following the Holy Spirit is the key to any and every matter, both inside and outside the Church. There is no matter that is “non-spiritual”. Nothing can be written up to pure emotion or pure intellect. We were created spiritual beings, so listening to God’s Spirit is the only means by which we can accurately interpret our thoughts and feelings. This isn’t a mystical endeavor, because God’s voice becomes clear in the depths of his Word. What we must ask ourselves is, are we willing to allow his Word to shape our opinions before they be come our opinions? If so, we can all have common ground on which to begin.