If Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and a mix of our ancestors from virtually any age of human history were crammed into a time machine and hurled into the twenty-first century, there is something normal to us that they would find totally bewildering. I am not referring to air and space travel, or the worldwide renown achieved by a cartoon mouse, or even technologies that put all human knowledge at our fingertips that we use to watch endless cat bloopers, bizarre as all of that would seem. I am referring instead to the sacred, unquestioned authority granted to feelings in our day. Western culture has been through a so-called ‘Age of Faith’ and an ‘Age of Reason.’ We live in what Princeton’s Robert George calls “the Age of Feeling.” Canadian Philosopher, Charles Taylor, prefers the moniker, “The Age of Authenticity,” to describe how staying true to your feelings, whatever they may be, has become the highest virtue of our day (unlike historic virtues in which certain feelings could and should be chastened).
Most of our human ancestors thought that some feelings were valid and others were not. The difference, for them, was whether or not the feeling corresponded to the world beyond the feeler. Feeling awe at a night sky, for example, would be valid not merely because you feel it, but because the night sky is truly awesome. For Plato, feelings were about a “just distaste [for] the ugly” and “delighted praise to beauty.” Aristotle called them “ordinate affections.” Augustine called it the ordo amoris, ordering our loves to match the actual love-worthiness of things. C.S. Lewis called them “just sentiments.”
The last half century has taken a sharp detour from that long travelled road. In our Age of Feeling the only condition required for a feeling to be valid is not that it conform to the world beyond us, but simply that it be felt. Nowadays, a feeling can no more be invalid than a circle can be un-round; a circle is round just by being a circle and a feeling is valid just by being felt. This all seems very liberating. But before jumping on the new cultural bandwagon and leaving our ancestors forever in the dust, we might pause to ponder the implications: Doesn’t progress require us to move from erroneous feelings to more noble and virtuous feelings? If we hail every feeling as sacrosanct and authoritative, is it even possible for us to make any real progress anymore? And if we can no longer quest upward to reach better feelings, are we left to drift sideways on a never-ending plateau of equally valid feelings? If so, how might Jesus open us up to a more layered and mountainous terrain of life where it is again possible for us to embark on a meaningful quest toward more worthy and heart-expanding emotions?
Those are the questions this five part series on “The Emotions of Jesus” will explore.