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Untangling Religion from Sentiment

There is widespread belief that religion should spark our emotions and make us feel good. But sentiment can have bad effects on faith

Throughout my priestly ministry, I have always heavily preached the importance of frequent confession. In my homiletics, I stress the spiritual goods of the sacrament and their effects on our souls. Regrettably, many of the faithful dismiss the invitation and settle for the tragic minimum of once a year. Every once in a while, however, someone will be stirred by the Holy Spirit and will start going to regular confession.

On one such occasion, a woman accepted the call and started going to confession monthly. After a few months, she asked to meet with me. I expected a serious conversation on aspects of ascetical theology.

The conversation started amicably enough, but then it quickly spiraled downward. The woman expressed frustration not only with the sacrament but with me. She said she had accepted the call to make regular confessions, changed her schedule to accommodate her new resolution, and had dived into various resources to prepare well for the sacrament.

After giving a summary of her noble efforts, she told me, “Father, I did all those things, and I’ve received confession every month, and you know what? I didn’t feel anything. It made no difference. What’s the point?”

I was surprised. Did this Christian believer hear what she had just said? Did she realize what she had just said? Did she really mean it?

“But it sounds like you’ve made good confessions,” I said. The woman nodded, and so I continued, “Well, then, your sins are forgiven, and God’s grace has been poured into your heart. What else were you expecting?”

“I hear all these stories about people coming out of the confessional and feeling lighter and better and more motivated,” she said. “I thought I’d feel comforted. Or something.”

Okay, now I understood, so I asked her, “Do you know that your sins were forgiven, and that grace was given to you, even though you didn’t feel it?” She answered in a matter-of-fact tone, “But if I don’t feel it, what’s the point?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Did this Christian really just make those comments?

“Well, the point is that your sins were really removed, you were really given grace, and however your emotions did (or did not) respond has nothing to do with the reality,” I said. “Your sins were forgiven. You have received grace, which is God’s own life and power. That is reality!”

The conversation didn’t improve. As far as I know, the woman stopped going to confession because she didn’t feel consoled and decided that God had somehow not fulfilled his part of their presumed bargain.

We see the widespread belief in the West, even among Christian believers, that religion and worship should spark our emotions and make us feel good. The wayward conclusion is reached: if they cannot accomplish the demands of sentiment, then they aren’t worth doing. This is the sad, false reality that occurs when religion becomes sentiment.

This state of affairs raises a key question: How are we supposed to understand the proper place of sentiment in religion and worship?

Where truth is discovered

In our desire to accept the path of true worship, there are some struggles along the way. We are fallen, and in our fallenness we are inclined to incomplete worship, or even to well-disguised self-worship. In particular, our sentiments and emotions want to corrode reality and make our hearts the center of all things. With that temptation before us, we have to clarify what our heart is, why we’ve been created with sentiments and emotions, and how we are to understand them.

As human beings, made in the image of God, we have a self-possession born from our spiritual souls. This self-possession is the ground upon which we share in God’s own divine reason. It is the basis upon which our sentiments move.

Biblically, our self-possession is referred to as “the heart,” which the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls our hidden center, the place of truth, decision, covenant, and the arena where we encounter God (2563).

And so, when the Bible speaks of “the heart,” it is not referring to the epicenter of our emotions, or even to how we “feel” in the popular sense, but rather to the place where truth is discovered (not invented), where we are revealed to ourselves, and where we encounter the living God.

In a moral sense, “the heart” is also a reference to our conscience. But just as the heart has been redefined in our modern world, so has the conscience. Properly understood, the conscience is the inner sanctuary of the person where he communicates not only with himself but also with God. There, in the hidden meeting place of his interior life, the moral law and the person’s freedom interact and make decisions.

In understanding the conscience in this way, we can see it as the place of unity between the moral law and freedom. It is in the heart, a person’s conscience, that the moral law tempers freedom and spares it from becoming an idol, as it reveals the moral law and commands our freedom to obey it.

The human heart is fallen

In a similar fashion, freedom empowers the moral law for the growth of virtue and holiness. A mature conscience does not seek to be freed from truth but sees truth as the means by which it can be truly free and grow in goodwill as a child of God.

If a person does not have some form of an interior life, and lacks an attentive ear to his conscience, then he can be easily misled regarding what is true, good, and beautiful.

The conscience is not some type of divine oracle sent down from the gods into the mind of a person, nor is it merely our personal wish, or some type of a superego, or the consensus of a group of voices within the person. The conscience is not where we figure things out for ourselves, or where we find emotional fulfillment, or where we create our own reality. These are the exact opposite of the conscience.

The conscience, our spiritual heart, is a witness to God, truth, and goodness. It is a voice of judgment within us that concludes what is good and what is evil. It penetrates the entirety of our souls. As such, it convicts us and frees us from relativism and a misplaced self-satisfied life.

At times, sentiment assaults our hearts, and we are tempted to compromise with evil, to betray goodness or to redefine it. Though oriented toward goodness, the human heart is fallen. It can betray itself and its own mission in our interior lives. The prophet Jeremiah rightly warns us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

In his public ministry, Jesus was cautious of the human heart:

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man (John 2:23-25).

In moments of temptation or duplicity, treachery or sentimentality, the strength of a truly well-formed conscience will clarify any confusion, convict us, and guide us to remaining faithful to virtue and its demands.

In particular, if sentiment overtakes our conscience, then we are imprisoned in a small, self-created world, where good and evil become whatever we feel they should be. In such a world, we become slaves to the whims, shallowness, and cruelty of our own emotions. In this process, our sentiments demand that we worship them. By adhering to this false worship, we end up worshiping ourselves.

Any attempted usurpation over our souls by sentiment, therefore, needs to be addressed and redirected by a strong heart—invigorated by virtue, especially the virtue of religion and its call to worship God and God alone.

But are our sentiments always a threat? Should the emotional part of our personhood always be approached with suspicion? Could our sentiments ever be a good thing?

Sentiment is morally neutral

As human beings, we possess a body and a spiritual soul. Our spiritual soul distinguishes us from the animals. The animals, having only a material soul in the context of a “life force,” live by instinct. Although they can be conditioned by training and rewards, they are creatures of base impulses. For example, a dog will never stop and pray and reflect on whether it should bite someone it doesn’t know. As human beings, we also possess instincts, but our spiritual souls allow us to transcend, order, and redirect them for a greater good.

Our spiritual souls consist of our intellect and will. Our intellect allows us to reason and make rational decisions, while our will allows us to exercise prudence, to choose good over evil or a greater good over a lesser good, and to structure the abilities of our personhood toward a set decision.

Our feelings and emotions are born from our body or from our body and soul. We can feel hot or cold, as well as have emotions such as euphoria, sorrow, fear, agony, and embarrassment. Since our feelings and emotions are fluid and inconsistent, they have no moral identity. Feeling one way, or having an emotion the other way, can sometimes be beyond our control.

Of themselves, our feelings and emotions have no moral status (CCC 1767). This means that they are neither good nor bad. They are morally neutral. This is an important point! Our sentiment—the combined experience of our feelings and emotions—cannot be used as a gauge for whether something is good or evil. Our sentiment is not a moral equivalent to the Ten Commandments. Simply that we feel something does not make it right (or wrong).

The moral neutrality of our sentiment, however, does not rest in a vacuum. We experience our feelings and emotions in a real world. This means we often feel them within a particular state of affairs. In light of this reality, what we do with our sentiments determines their moral status. Our feelings and emotions do not simply float away.

Even if we repress or deny them, we will express our feelings and emotions in one way or another, and it is exactly how we manifest them that will decide whether they are morally good or not (CCC 1768, 1774).

For example, if I’m walking into my parish church for worship, and a parishioner stops me in the parking lot and lets me have it for something he doesn’t like, I may experience anger. At that point, the anger has no moral identity. If I walk into the church and vent my anger through unkindness to the ushers because of some misplaced object in the narthex, then my anger has become sinful. But if I walk into the church and channel my anger into extra warmth and a willingness to put misplaced objects in their proper place, then my anger has become virtuous. Our actions and responses determine the moral status of our sentiment.

As we understand sentiment in this way, we can begin to realize the importance of discipline and a moral formation of our hearts. Our intellect and will assist us in the formation our hearts. They provide us with a healthy suspicion of our emotions. Our intellect convicts our sentiment of lies or exaggerations, as our will disciplines and directs our sentiment to a greater good. In order to live free and abundant lives, therefore, we need to accept such a schooling and mentoring of our sentiment so as to live a life of virtue and holiness (John 10:10, Gal. 5:1,16-26).

Since we are a fallen people—created good but inclined to sin—if we are devoid of a moral compass, our sentiments will demand to be worshiped and obeyed. Our sentiments cannot stand alone. They will overwhelm our hearts and lead us into a profound darkness.

As Christian believers and people of goodwill, we realize that we must work to order and direct our sentiments so they will match the sentiments and way of life of the Lord Jesus (see Phil. 2:5, CCC 1769-1770). We labor in this effort so that we might possess the full maturity, the full stature, of Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:13).

If our sentiments seek to lead us astray, they must be disciplined and brought into alignment with moral goodness (Rom. 13:13-14). If our sentiments are wounded and incline us toward malicious actions, they must be healed and channeled into positive and uplifting actions (1 Pet. 2:24).

As our sentiments are guided by moral truth, they are dethroned from any misplacement in our hearts and placed in their proper place in our lives. We are called to form our consciences, to build up the moral strength of our hearts, to exercise a robust virtue of religion, and so to worthily worship the living God.

With this explanation of sentiment in mind, questions arise. Does sentiment have a place in worship? If yes, what does worship look like when sentiment is welcomed?

Sentiment used well

As a college student, I attended the Franciscan University of Steubenville. That university has been influenced by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. As a young person coming from the South and from a military family, I was caught off guard by the charged use of the emotions at the many prayer opportunities on campus. As I made a circle of friends who were more familiar or comfortable with such emotional expressions, I found myself more open to such an expression. And I was amazed by the conversion, healing, and deeper conviction that happened within me.

Franciscan University follows a method of “dynamic orthodoxy.” It calls the student body to a relationship with Jesus Christ and to a love for the Church and its worship. It acknowledges our modern culture and employs a heavy use of the emotions in order to engage students and provoke them to an ever deepening following of Jesus Christ.

In a culture where emotions have become king, and sentiment is the rule of the day, it’s a prudent and strategic evangelization method. It acknowledges the good of our emotive selves and directs it, through prayer and holy fellowship, to a deeper maturity in the Lord Jesus. It’s no surprise that many upperclassmen tend to replace, or parallel, the praise and worship sessions (with their strong use of emotions) with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, since the more our emotions mature, the less inclined they are to external or spirited expression.

Although I do not agree with some of the practices used at Mass, Franciscan University provides many extra-liturgical opportunities for prayer that serve as a positive example of the use of emotions in a program of formation for university students. The emotional expression is placed within the greater work of dynamic orthodoxy, and the emotions are able to lead young people to an acceptance of Jesus Christ and his most excellent way of love.

The emotions are not given a license to do whatever they prefer, or a false freedom to define for themselves who God is or what truth is, nor are they left where they are with no sense of direction or calls to greater maturity. The emotions are encouraged but guided and led along the way to an encounter with the true and living God.

The university is a helpful example to see how the emotions can be used well.

With age comes emotional maturity

Following this example, I think it’s important to stress that as we grow older, we are called to a less animated expression of emotion. As we age, our emotions should mature. Any use of emotion should have a greater goal in mind. The emotions should be solicited not only for the sake of soliciting them. They are a means to an end. If used correctly, they can be a powerful means to motivate and inspire faith.

As an example, I would encourage more emotion during the homily and less emotion in the music. The appropriate use of emotion by a homilist can give an impassioned witness to the Lord and call the community of believers to greater faith. Music, however, tends to take on a life of its own. I have found that traditional music, known and sung by the congregation, does more to emotionally direct adult believers to the Lord Jesus.

Loud music, multi-instrumental music, and performance-like music tend to distract believers and give too little direction to a focused worship of God. The goal is never an emotional experience for the sake of itself, but always to channel our emotions to a greater good, such as a true worship of God.

Sidebar 1: Sentiment vs. True Religion

Let’s see how sentiment measures up against the five criteria of the true virtue of religion.

1 God as God: When sentiment takes over, it seeks to replace God as God and become a god itself. Our sentiments are fallen. When they are not ordered to God, they seek the worship that is due to him alone.

2 Humble recognition: When sentiment is not ordered by and to truth, there is nothing humble about it. Unruly sentiment is an arrogant spirit that recognizes nothing other than itself and its own satisfaction.

3 Debt to God: When religion becomes sentiment, there is no recognized debt to God. Sentiment becomes bloated with entitlement and argues that a debt is owed to itself. Such a wayward sentiment nurtures self-pity and self-victimization.

4 Gratitude and obedience: When religion becomes sentiment, there is no gratitude to God or anyone else. There is no recognized truth beyond itself and, therefore, no obedience to anything other than its own whims and pleasure.

5 Connection to Others: Absolutized sentiment has no connection to anyone. It creates its own small world and dwells in that dark place. It becomes its own god and has no room for love of God or neighbor.

Sidebar 2: Are you Worshipping Correctly?

The following questions are meant as a help in examining our own consciences on the virtue of religion and the worship of God.

  • Do I have a healthy suspicion of my emotions and acknowledge that the way I feel is not always reality?
  • Do I allow my sentiment to change my understanding of God?
  • Do I regularly participate in Mass and allow the Church’s prayers to mold and shape my own prayers?
  • Do I accept the power of God’s grace, even if I don’t feel it?
  • Have I overreacted to a biblical teaching that challenges how I feel about something?
  • Do I show a docile and open spirit to divine revelation and the Church’s teachings on God and true worship?
  • Have I indulged in distracting and/or self-focused aspects of worship?
  • Do I pray even when I don’t feel like it?
  • When my emotions are provoked, do I pause and allow my intellect and will to inform and order them for a greater good?
  • Do I periodically laugh at myself and the fluidity of emotions that pass through my heart?

Having made this examination of conscience, it is recommended that you go and make a good confession based on these points.

Sidebar 3: Pointers for Apologetics

  1. As a help in speaking to our fellow believers and to unbelievers, here are some pointers for apologetics:
  2. As human beings, we possess a body and soul. Our spiritual souls consist of our intellect and will. Our sentiments—feelings and emotions—are fluid and do not have a moral identity by themselves.
  3. The moral status of our sentiments is based on what we do with them. Depending on how we act, our sentiments can be morally good or evil.
  4. How we feel is not always reality.
  5. Simply because we feel something, that does not mean it is morally acceptable.
  6. The best help to the formation of our hearts, and the guiding of our sentiment, is the virtue of religion and the true worship of God.
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