On ‘Thinking Through Feeling: God, Emotion and Passibility’

Anastasia Scrutton writes:

It has been about a month since I submitted my book, Thinking through Feeling: God, Emotion and Passibility, to the publisher, which seems like a good time to reflect on why I wrote it, on my hopes for it, and on my sense of the kinds of conversations I would like it to spark.

I first became interested in relating philosophy of emotion to theology and philosophy of religion through the ‘impassibility’ debate. The impassibility debate concerns whether God could have emotions (in general) or could have the emotions involved in suffering (in particular). In Christian and Jewish theology, the history of the debate is fascinating because it is so dramatic. Until the late 1800s, the ‘orthodox’ and mainstream position was that God is impassible (that is, that God cannot have emotions, and cannot suffer). Around about the turn of the twentieth century, there was an almost complete passibilist revolution. The new passibilist ‘orthodoxy’ became a common theological response to the First World War, and, later, to the Second World War and the Holocaust. At this time, the idea that God suffers ‘with us’ became an almost-ubiquitous way of dealing with the extreme suffering that was happening.

There are many reasons why the passibilist revolution took place. These include increased awareness of the extent of human suffering, the rise of democratic aspirations, and a backlash against the Hellenistic philosophical roots of Christianity. However, what grabbed my attention most was the way in which a shift in our perception and evaluation of human emotion affects the debate. This seems to me important on a human as well as on a theological level since human ideals not only affect, but are also affected by, human conceptions of divine affectivity. Viewing God as self-sufficient and impassible tends to lead to the same ideals in humans (as we often see in discussions of apatheia in Stoicism, Platonism, and early Christian thought) while affirming the fullness of God’s emotional life has a knock-on effect for human ontological, teleological, and ethical values.

As it developed, the book became a three-way conversation between contemporary philosophy of emotion, ancient Christian understandings of human affectivity (particularly those of Augustine of Hippo), and contemporary philosophical theology/philosophy of religion. This conversation was a fruitful one because of the way in which the three areas are able to inform one another. For example, contemporary philosophy of emotion reminds philosophical theology of the need to begin with our experience of emotion. This is important because much of what has been written on impassibility tends to involve a preconceived idea of what emotions are. If all emotions are (as they have sometimes been thought to be) irrational, involuntary (or passive) and necessarily physiological, then they are, of course, inappropriate to a wise and omniscient, all-powerful, and incorporeal God. Contemporary philosophy of emotion, and particularly cognitive views of emotion, forces us to reassess this view. At the same time, ancient Christian understandings of affectivity can challenge the modern understanding of ‘emotion’ as a single category, while contemporary philosophy theology points beyond the ancient understanding of perfection as entailing self-sufficiency.

One of my central concerns in the book is to encourage us to move beyond the dichotomy between the intellect and the emotions, or the head and the heart. This is not a new idea (in fact, the dichotomy seems to be a modern one) but it still seems to be the default position of much theology and philosophy of religion, and perhaps of academic disciplines more widely. Some feminist theology is good at critiquing it, but, because of the label ‘feminist’, this often gets relegated to the partisan or even sex- (or gender-) specific rather than being incorporated into mainstream discourse. Jettisoning the heart-head dichotomy and recognising the way in which emotions can be intelligent has implications not only for the impassibility debate, but for other areas within philosophy of religion (for example, debates about divine omniscience and omnipotence) as well as for philosophical and theological perceptions of who we, as humans, are, and of how we can, do and should act in the world.

I am also interested in specific emotions, in the part they play in our mental lives, and, in particular, in whether and how they can contribute to our intelligence. In my book I focus on three emotion types: compassion, anger and jealousy. All of these emotions have received very different evaluations. For example, we tend now to think of compassion as morally good, and of anger as morally dubious. However, in the ancient world, the converse is sometimes the case: anger was seen as helpful, and as a sign of self-worth, while compassion was often criticised as being discriminatory and misleading. I hope my book will be of interest to all concerned with what conditions are needed for emotions to be intelligent and revelatory of value, and what conditions make emotions misleading or irrational.

Thinking through Feelings: God Emotion and Passibility is coming out in September and is part of Continuum’s Studies in the Philosophy of Religion.

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