Rethinking Faith, Knowledge, and Emotions

Oh frustrating ebb and flow! Why do you trick me with your ways?   One day your waves of wanton joy, the next your waves of weeping woe!

Emotions are a mixed bag. They can take us to the heights of joyful bliss and the depths of human despair. For some, they are the spice of life and for others . . . humanity’s curse. Such unpredictability has earned emotions a reputation of bad news for the life of the mind. Yet, interestingly, recent breakthroughs in the cognitive sciences have redeemed the perceived cognitive value of emotions. Believe it or not, these findings actually bear directly on our understanding and experience of Christian faith.

Emotions and the Brain

The last several decades of brain science research have established that emotions and feelings are indispensable for healthy cognitive function. Leading brain scientist, Antonio Damasio in his book, Descartes Error, claims that emotions and feelings play a fundamental role in how the brain processes knowledge. Even more, he has found that human cognition works best when the whole body is involved. In other words, our brains are embodied. This means that cognition is more than just rational-intellectual activity; emotions and behaviors also play a vital role in our quest for knowledge and understanding.[1] Thus, when our learning process dismisses or minimizes any of these components, the whole process of cognition suffers.

Faith and Emotions

For Christians, faith is ultimately concerned with one goal—knowing God. Therefore, we need to recognize that our knowledge of God is mediated to us in ways similar to how we acquire knowledge of other things. Because we live in bodies, all of our experiences, even “spiritual experiences,” are mediated through behavioral and emotional realities intrinsic to embodied human existence. This is simply how our brain works. Why is this important?

While rational knowledge about God (via Scripture and orthodox doctrine) is necessary for sound faith, such knowledge by itself is incomplete for a vital and dynamic faith. So, in addition to cultivating rational knowledge about God, we must also be intentional about nurturing an experiential faith. By this we mean a faith that is rich with the kinds of emotions and feelings that come when one has surrendered his or her heart to God amidst the overwhelming awareness of his love.

So, despite our waves of wanton joy and weeping woe, these raw emotions can be powerfully used by God to help us know him better. For in the joyful heights and painful depths of our emotions, God will increase our knowledge of him by proving his love, faithfulness, and goodness. Next week we talk more about how our emotional experiences—positive and negative—can actually draw us closer to God.

What Do You Think?

How do you feel about cultivating an experiential faith, rich with emotions and feelings? Do you find this scary? Why or why not?

♦   To see the poem this post is based on, click here.

[1] For a more detailed explanation of the meaning and implications of embodied knowledge, see my book, Salvation in the Flesh: Understanding How Embodiment Shapes Christian Faith (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018), chapter 2.

Author: David Trementozzi

David Trementozzi is married to his wife, Emily and they have three children—Judah, Kaleb, and Halle. David likes to write on topics related to Christian faith and their contemporary relevance. He has a B.A. in Psychology (Messiah College), Masters of Divinity, and Ph.D in Theology (Regent University). David is currently a professor of Theology at Continental Theological Seminary in Brussels, Belgium. To learn more about David, go to the About David page above.