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Vol 37 No 4


Brian Lewis

Philip Malone MSC

Liz Hepburn IBVM

Tom Ryan SM

Neil Pembroke

Bruce Duncan CSsR

John Ryan


Kevin Mark


In Godís image: Towards a theology of our emotions


It is with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
—The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

EMOTIONS ARE bewildering. We relish joy and wonder, craving more of the same. Others like fear and guilt can so upset us that we want them to just go away. Culturally, too, we are expected to approach everything ‘unemotionally,’ since feelings can overwhelm thinking and discussion, distorting our judgments and our dealings with others. In other words, objectivity, maturity, reasonableness are best exercised without our feelings.

The reality is that we cannot live and develop as rational beings or Christians without the obbligato of our emotions. There is a growing awareness how much our feelings and emotional health bring insight and attunement that are indispensable to us psychologically and morally. The New Catechism describes emotions (‘passions’) as the passageway between spirit and body. Emotions anchor us in the world as embodied beings. But what is their significance theologically? How do we image God in our emotional life? We will explore this through four questions.

What Are Our Emotions?
Common to every emotion is being moved or affected. When I experience delight or pleasure, I am attracted towards some object or person and want to share something of its goodness. Alternatively, when I am afraid my instinct is to run, or when I am angry I just want to fight. Our emotions make us feel comfortable or uncomfortable about things or people or situations we perceive as agreeable or disagreeable, good or bad in some way.

Further, our emotions start and end with our lives being in a network of relationships. With each emotion I respond within a setting where I interact with a specific something or someone else. An emotion is, in simple terms, an ‘interactive response to value or disvalue.’ Vacek sums the four ‘moments’ in the structure of an emotion as ‘…a complex activity: the self (1) as an openness-to-good (2) becomes conscious of the value of a specific object, (3) is affected by that valuable object, and (4) responds to the object’s value’ (1994, 12).

Through emotions ‘we become attached to those great goods that inspire our lives’ (Vacek, 1994, 6). Without emotions, where and who would we be? Basically, we would be unresponsive and isolated beings ‘dead to the value of the world and of God’ (Vacek, 1994, 6). The signals and fine tunings with others would be muted, even silent. Often, we would not know what to do or when and how to react. Lonergan observes that feelings understood as specific responses to apprehended values give ‘intentional consciousness its mass, momentum, drive, power’ and that without them ‘our knowing and deciding would be paper thin’ (Lonergan, 1972, 53-4). Taylor remarks that without emotions ‘we become incapable of understanding any moral argument at all’ (1996, 73).

Having given a basic understanding of an emotion, we come to our second question.

What Can We Learn From God’s Inner Life?
The entire created world reflects the goodness of God (‘God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good’). Our concern here is the creation of humankind.
Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves…God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them (Gen. 1: 26-7).

It is the human person, especially as an embodied relational being, who is, in a unique manner, made in the divine image and is called to manifest and share in the divine life. How is this true of our emotions? How are our emotions an example of what Norris Clarke refers to as ‘affinities resonating at the various levels of being,’ of ‘veiled intimations of the higher in the lower’? (1995, iii). What do God’s affective life and responses tell us about our emotional responses and our affective life? That leads us to the theology of the Trinity.

There has been a recent retrieval of an approach to the mystery of the Trinity found in the Greek Fathers namely, Saints Gregory Nazienzen, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa. They develop what is known as the Bestowal Model of the Trinity. What are its key ideas?

God is primarily a community of love. The Father (lover) bestows through love all that He has and is on the Son (beloved). The Son as Word [Logos] is the affirmation of the truth and goodness of the Father. The Son receives and responds by bestowing on the Father what he has received from the Father in gratitude and love. The love that binds Father and Son is again personalized—the person of the Spirit. The dynamo of divine life is giving and receiving of love, the becoming and being a person through ekstasis—self-giving, self-transcending love, in which each person is a self-toward-other.

The Trinitarian life ‘towards-other’ overflows to generate other beings. Eckhart describes the super-abundance of divine love and goodness as ebullitio, a ‘boiling over’ through the Spirit from which emerges the created cosmos. For persons, in their freedom, the gift further becomes an offer of intimacy in God’s life to which we are called to respond in love. God’s creative and loving presence in the world is further personalized and realized in the incarnate Word and continued through the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Two conclusions flow from this. Firstly, what is true of God is true of God’s image, namely humankind. In concrete existential reality what comes first is not the subjectivity of the person but the intersubjectivity of persons. Bernard Lonergan wrote that ‘the person is not the primordial fact. What is primordial is the community. It is within community through the intersubjective relations that are the life of community that there arises the differentiation of the individual person’ (1973, 58-9).

Secondly, the Greek Fathers stressed the idea of the person who comes to be a self through another. Here, what makes us persons is that each of us is essentially someone toward another. God and the divine life is not turned on itself and confined to its own inner world. Downey points out that Trinitarian life is not about propositions. It is about prepositions which express sheer relation: from, towards, for, with, in (2000, 56-7).

How Does Jesus’ Emotional Life Reveal What It Means To Be The Image Of God?
How is the God of self-transcending love, of ‘prepositions’ revealed in Jesus who is the image of God? The central mystery disclosed in Jesus as the incarnate Word of God is the Christian view of salvation and of realizing that our personhood entails ‘ever-fuller participation in communion with God and with others’ (La Cugna & Downey, 1993, 973). Jesus has been given the Spirit ‘without reserve.’ Jesus reveals definitively in himself the divine life as love and its offer as a gift to humankind. At the same time Jesus realizes in himself the human response to God’s gift of love. We can tease out this action of the Spirit in Jesus.

Firstly, we see developing in the Hebrew Scriptures an understanding of God that is far removed from one who is detached and withdrawn from human history. The Jewish God is a God who is affected, moved by human suffering, by the tragedies and triumphs of human history. This is a God who is for us, a God of mercy and compassion.

Secondly, we see the God of the Hebrew Scriptures revealed in embodied form in Jesus. Jesus is the human face of God’s empathy and Love. In the Incarnation, God empties godself in self-giving love. In Jesus’ Passion and Death, he empties himself through loving unto death that we may have life (resurrection). In his ministry, Jesus is ‘moved with compassion,’ so that he heals and forgives in an inclusive manner. Jesus’ emotions, both positive (compassion, joy) or negative (anger, anxiety, fear, hatred, grief), expose his attitudes and values.

Hence, Jesus in the Gospels reveals a God of love who moves outwards, takes initiative, invites and responds to need. Jesus reveals the inner life of the Trinity: the mutual interdependence, giving and receiving of love of the three persons who can only each have their own identity because they are in relationship with each other. They respond to each other’s self-gift. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel of his Father ‘I always do what pleases Him.’

How does Jesus show mature humanity (reveal that He is God’s image) in his dark, uncomfortable emotions? Amongst Jesus’ many emotional responses in the Gospels, Gethsemane is paradigmatic of Jesus’ learning to obey through suffering and being made perfect by that process. But it can also be viewed as a case-study in Jesus’ handling of his emotional life. Emotions of anguish, distress, sorrow embody his agony [in Greek agon] or struggle, similar to that of a moral athlete. His coming to maturity demands that he be driven to the point of totally surrendering to God, in the Garden and in death, in the conscious re-embracing of childhood trust, but at the end and at the apex of his life.

Gethsemane presents the contrast in two groups handling dark emotions. Jesus claims his emotions, allows himself to feel them, praying to his Abba for the strength of being loved enough to transcend those conflicting emotions. He responds and obeys, ‘not as a victim, nor out of control nor subject to irrational passion’ (Karris, 1990, 717). Jesus allows his emotions to guide and teach him so that with his mind, heart, will and body he can move ahead with energy and determination. The disciples, on the other hand, succumb to paralyzing fear, loss of strength, despondency and sleep.

Thirdly, Jesus sums up in himself and his teaching the Hebrew understanding of the ‘heart.’ In Hebrew and Christian Scriptures the ‘heart’ is a symbol of the whole person. Scripture does not use modern psychological terms, with thinking or knowledge in the intellect and love and decision in the will. Heart embraces all that. As a symbol for the ‘inside’ of a person ‘it embraces feelings, memories, ideas, plans, decisions’ (Léon-Dufour, 1988, 228). In the global and concrete anthropology of the Bible, the heart is the principle of morality, the centre of one’s freedom, of decisive choices and the place where one enters to be in dialogue with oneself and where one opens oneself or closes oneself to God (Léon-Dufour, 1988, 228).

To have a heart is to possess the ability and inclination to be in relationship. It is not just ‘privately’ personal: it is essentially oriented to the Other and others. As La Cugna & Downey note:
‘Heart’ is the word for affectus, or affectivity, which is the openness of the human being to be touched by another, by others and by God. It names the human capacity to be toward the other. As such it is inclusive of communal and social realities…the heart described the human being’s openness to relate to the real, that is, to the claim of the other upon oneself (1993, 973).

Jesus captures this perspective in his analogy of the tree and its fruit. He expands this into the metaphor of the ‘heart’ as the core of the deepest self and the source of one’s attitudes, responses and behaviour:
A good man draws what is good from the store of goodness in his heart; a bad man draws what is bad from the store of badness. For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart [Lk. 6: 45].

Later, in the same Gospel, we see the Good Samaritan as the embodied expression of someone who acts from what fills his heart, namely his core attitudes and values. For Jesus, the central question is not ‘who is my neighbour?’ but ‘who has a neighbour’s heart?’ (i.e., one open and sensitive to all the real, open to embracing the real and people in an inclusive way). The neighbour’s heart is transparent in this ‘outsider’ who, by the fruits of his life, shows he shares in the divine life.

In Our Emotions How Do We Reflect God’s Image?
We are created in the image of a God who is inherently relational. Relationship involves not just responsibility (accountability) but response-ability. Without responsiveness, relationships are lifeless. We come into being ‘through and for others’ and realize our personhood not in ‘autonomy or self-sufficiency or isolation but in self-donation; we come to ourselves through others’ (La Cugna & Downey, 1993, 971). We do this through our freedom, in our capacity to be moral through self-direction which is the brightest reflection of the divine image in us. Most importantly, through the gift of grace, as Kelly notes, our morality participates in the moral awareness of the Trinity since we share the life of the divine persons which transforms and ‘conforms the graced person to them as the sources of... [our]…loving and knowing’ (Kelly, 2001, 250). Our responsiveness ‘for others’ moves to a higher register, namely as embodying a shared life of friendship with God.

This anthropology of God and of the human person is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Emotions are the thumbprints of the dynamic of bestowal and response that is at the very heart of God and personalized in the Holy Spirit. We express and nourish our capacity for relationships through bodily interaction, responsiveness and responsibility. Emotions are crucial in this process. Lonergan considers that our emotions, as properly ordered intentional responses to what is truly good, are integral to personal development. They are the apex of existential intentionality in that they engage the whole person and one’s freedom in a movement of affective and moral self-transcendence. Let us pursue this from another angle.

The Christian vision is that we are made for God and will only be happy in God. We cannot achieve this from outside, namely we cannot be forced to be happy. It must somehow come from within, from an inner thrust to fulfillment or happiness. If we check our deepest selves we find this yearning for happiness. We are beings of desire not only in our will but at deepest, instinctual level of the emotions.

We move towards what is good for us through love, desire and find pleasure and joy in resting in the goods possessed, or feel hatred, aversion, sadness when we don’t have them. We move away from what hinders achieving those values through fear, anger, guilt, shame, despair and have to overcome these emotions to achieve what will satisfy us.

Emotions, then, are concerned with what promotes or prevents well-being, namely our happiness. However, the person pursues happiness as a subject of consciousness and interiority properly understood, namely as a relational, dialogical being who responds and is responsible (M Buber, H R Niebuhr). Emotions, like the mind, will and body are integral to the person who is made in God’s image and grows in God’s likeness as a self-in-relationship who receives and responds. Like Jesus, we are called to find happiness and fulfillment through self-transcendence in self-giving love.

God is essentially a community. We share in God’s image principally through our intersubjectivity, as relational, responsive beings who can only mature and grow from and in community with others. It is through the Spirit that we have our first experience of God, often experienced in significant human relationships where we feel love, trust, pain etc. Thus we have the primordial self-esteem that arises from the bestowal of love from parents to the infant and the corresponding reciprocal trust and love from the child consolidates in the sense of being a self. From this emerges basic empathy on which moral response is built. This, then, is the ‘emotive bedrock of self-consciousness that constitutes the (moral) self’ (Callahan, 1991, 95).

Sharing in the life of God means that we are in a matrix of dynamic Spirit-animated relationships which involves inescapably that we are responsive and responding beings, either at the conscious level or the instinctual level of emotions which can be consciously engaged. Jesus shows us how to engage with and embrace our emotions so that they collaborate with mind and will and enable us to respond to others, especially through compassion, mercy, anger, fear, joy. We are called to imitate and identify with Him in this as in other areas of human life.

My emotions have moral significance, are part of responsible living, in linking us to God, world, people. They hence require attentiveness to discern their significance and to transform their, at times, destructive power into constructive energy. This is facilitated by good habits or the affective virtues (Fortitude and Temperance) that shape and guide our emotions so that we respond [in anger, fear, wonder, joy, guilt, love] to what is true and good to the right degree and at the right times. Virtues transform and tutor instinctual responses and so are morally significant for character and personal integration. We have responsibility for the shape of our emotional life and this is exercised in on-going conversion. Finally, our affective capacities are further transformed by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The action of the Spirit through grace impels a person towards a mode of operation that is beyond the limits of reason (our knowing, willing and emotional responding) to one that is ‘connatural’, namely, as if it were second nature to know, evaluate and respond as spontaneously God does. In the Spirit, we share a taste for the things that are God’s.

Some emotions (as, too, a maturing life) become increasingly other-directed and have a special mark of the Spirit of God. Certain emotions clearly have a transcendent quality about them, e.g., courage, compassion, love, mercy, anger. They continue the divine ‘boiling over’, carrying us out of ourselves, to stretch and go beyond who and where we are. We see these revealed and embodied in Jesus in the ‘other-directed’ momentum of his affective life through which Jesus reveals the texture and shape of the affective life of the triune God.

These considerations return us to our main argument: our emotions reveal God’s image in us as manifestations of our self-in-relationship exercised through our freedom. Kelly (2001, 248) contends that the ‘moral life is, in its origins, form and finality, radically theological’ (and trinitarian). Here it has been argued that this is true also of our emotions and affective life.

Daniel Goleman tells the story of Gary and Mary Jane Chauncey’s eleven year old daughter Andrea, confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy. Passengers on a train that crashed in a river in Louisiana, the Chauncey’s first concern was for Andrea. As waters engulfed the train, they managed to push Andrea through a window to rescuers. They then perished.

Goleman sees such acts of altruistic love, overriding the powerful impulse for personal survival, as testimonies to the purpose and potency of emotions in human life (1995, 3f). These acts are exceptional yet build on a daily pattern of good living. While they are instantaneous reactions at certain key moments, often without deliberation, they are still moral statements-about one’s character, values, basic attitudes, the shape and quality of one’s emotional life. Who cannot be inspired or moved to admire, praise even imitate them? Such self-transcending emotional responses to the truly good, defining a person and engaging one’s deepest freedom, are arguably the most profoundly human acts one can perform. It is especially through these (symbolized in Christ crucified) that God’s Spirit is reassuringly active and the image of God shines most brightly in our world.

Tom Ryan is a Marist Priest who teaches in the College of Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle WA.

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