Christianity has issues with emotion. This is, of course, nothing new. Church Fathers might not have fully agreed with Stoicism’s particular teachings, but they borrowed some of it’s central philosophical concepts, it’s terminology, a beliefs of humanity’s depravity and sin nature, and the futility of worldly possessions and attachments. Both pointed toward Asceticism’s teaching that it’s followers ought to abstain from worldly pleasures in order to pursue spiritual goals. Christians could do this by going to the desert communities of Kellia, Scetis, and Nitria, giving up their worldly possessions, and living as simply as possible in communion with each other while focusing on the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual thinkers. Ascetics usually tried either to escape from their emotions (by removing themselves from things that might make them emotional) or to suppress their emotions (think of Star Trek’s Vulcans, creating a theology that made the lack of emotions to be spiritually superior to one fettered with those annoying emotions.) Stoics believed that there were ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ emotions, and it was the lower emotions that had to be reigned in by abstaining from them. The theological opposite of the Stoics were the Epicureans, who believed that pleasure was the ultimate good and delighted in emotions as well as anything that could produce them. They were viewed as heretics by many early Christians who viewed them as pleasure-seeking sinners who put themselves first.
On one hand, we have inherited the ’emotions are bad vs emotions are good’ conflict from the influence that Stoicism had on Christianity, but we have another teaching that doesn’t help matters. Women are emotional, therefore emotions are feminine. Feminized churches are a failure partially because of the touchy-feely ‘Jesus is my Boyfriend’ emotionally-driven worship services. Small groups are all about being emotionally vulnerable, confessing sins, and crying. Men are not emotional, therefore being unemotional is masculine. Masculine churches ruled Christianity successfully for millennia partially because they didn’t give into the whims and fancies of emotions. Small groups are all about knowledge and facts, sharing truth, and such things keep one free from displays of emotions. It is, therefore, a failing of women to be so emotional and why they cannot be pastors or teachers because they might so fervently believe something to be so and not realize they’re teaching heresy. Or so the argument tends to go. Now that Christianity is emphasizing gender roles, it’s creating a theology where not just one’s gender is a factor, but anything associated with that gender get’s emphasized as being good or bad, or better or worse, too. So not only are women subordinate to men, but emotions are subordinate and inferior to being unemotional. An emotional man would be considered less than an unemotional man, would he not?
One would think that in two thousand years enough thinkers would have come to realize the value in emotions being acceptable and a healthy part of being human. Jesus himself displayed a fair number of them: sadness upon Lazarus’ death, disappointment and anger at the corrupt temple system, annoyance with the religious leaders, and being a human being, he must have been delighted, happy, thrilled, amazed, surprised, and all of the other emotions that make us who and what we are at some point. Nowhere does he affirm that emotions ought to be suppressed so that we can become more spiritually aware believers. All he asked was that we be responsible with our emotions; mourn with those who mourn, celebrate with those who celebrate, don’t be afraid, don’t let your hearts be troubled (cheer up!); but somehow Christianity lost the message along the way and created a theology that has issues with emotion.
One of the members of one of my churches was one of the sort of people who took to drama class when he was young and he never lost his love of acting. On occasion, he would perform a short play for the church, sometimes enlisting others to take up a part or two. He was entirely in control of his emotions and able to display them as the play demanded. On the ones where crying was a part of the play, I could look around and see the other men in the church physically tense up and shift around awkwardly. Even if the reason for crying in the play was perfectly reasonable, like the loss of a relative, the other men viewed it as inappropriate for him to do. On occasion, they would tease him for it. Later on, they might watch one of their favorite action movies, watch the hero of that movie tearfully vow vengeance for the death of his one true love, and praise the actor for a masterful performance as he kills dozens of bad guys without remorse, pity, or mercy.
I happen to believe that there’s a very good reason why we have emotions – we need them. Look again at the Bible and it’s full of emotion, from God’s wrath and anger to his mercy and sorrow. Everyone in the Bible has an emotional element to their stories, from shame and fear and worry to honor and boldness and confidence. While we might see black and white and red words on a page, we have to use our imagination to add in the emotional context to what’s going on. How might Abraham have been feeling when he heard that Lot’s family had been captured or the city in which he lived was about to be destroyed? How might Esther have been feeling when she was asked to go before the king un-summoned knowing that he could very easily have her put to death for doing so? How might Ruth have felt as a foreigner in a foreign land? How might David have been feeling when he was fleeing Saul? Actually, we can know that – because the Psalms are full of emotions as well, delight in the Lord, doubt and questioning, fierce anger at God’s enemies. Could part of the reason why David was a ‘man after God’s own heart’ was that he himself was something of an emotional guy? Does that make him less than any of the less-emotional prophets? I don’t think so.
I just hope that we happen to realize that not all our teachings are helpful before it’s too late. As it is, too many people feel ostracized because Christianity thinks of them as ‘too emotional’ but they’re in good company with King David, so I think it’s the rest of us who needs to learn how to follow their example.