Religious feelings: Sentimentalism or spirituality?

Bright and early the day after Thanksgiving, I hitched a ride with my elders quorum president up to the Seattle temple to do an endowment session. It was the first day that the temple had be open since being closed for renovations, and I hadn’t been in a while myself. Taking advantage of the of the fact that my temple recommend had a few days left before expiring in December, I was glad to return after many months of absence.

While I was in the temple, I was reflecting on a theme that has been resurfacing in my life recently, namely, the role of feeling and emotion in the religious life. I have very mixed feelings about it, because I don’t like to trust my feelings. I feel sketch whenever I make a decision based solely on feeling without having good reason to do so. A few examples from my life about how I’m suspicious about feelings:

This past year, President Nelson visited Washington to speak to the members of the Church. I was in attendance at the event at Safeco field. As per tradition, everyone stood when the prophet entered, and the whole stadium when absolutely silent until President Nelson reached the stand. Later, I heard many comment on the sense of awe they felt, some telling how they had it confirmed to them that President Nelson is God’s prophet in that moment. I didn’t feel that way; I get a little angsty when everyone stands, showing this kind of deference to a man. It feels to me, to use Holden Caulfield’s term, phoney. Replace the religious framework with a Nazi rally, and the same kind of deference would be monstrous.

In a testimony meeting, a brother got up in sacrament meeting, and quickly broke down before even getting a word out. Through tears and heaving sighs and loud outbursts, he told how he was convinced that he would be separated from his children who had left the church for eternity. I did have feelings, but they weren’t ones I was proud of: a mix of pity and disgust at this outburst, and what I felt was a self-induced pain from a misapplication of doctrine that was hurting others just as much as himself. I distrust the tears that accompany testimonies as well as the attempted sounds of conviction that are used. On my mission and in my youth, I remember trying to conjure up tears or a resounding bellow to get the right level of spirituality for my “I know this Church is true.”

In my personal gospel learning, I often struggled with whether I had repented “enough.” Had I felt sorry enough to be able to move past my guilt? Big sins require big sorrow, right? Perhaps this sounds silly to some, but these attitudes are built into some of the background noise of the gospel emanating from Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. In it, he posits a “test of conviction” that is supposed to help you evaluate whether you truly have repented:

There is a good verbal test to apply to determine the depth of one’s conviction of sin and hence of his start on the road to repentance. A brother who had committed heinous transgressions was trying to tell me he had repented. I was far from convinced and I asked him some questions. Long before I ceased asking the questions his head dropped and he admitted that he had hardly begun his repentance. He had not thought it so all-inclusive. These were the questions.

Do you wish to be forgiven?

Could you accept excommunication for the sin if deemed necessary? Why do you feel you should not be excommunicated? If you were, would you become bitter at the Church and its officers? Would you cease your activities in the Church? Would you work your way back to baptism and restoration of former blessings even through years?

What have you done to prove your repentance? How much did you pray before the sin? How much during? How much since your admission of it?

How much did you study the scriptures before your trouble? How much since?

Are you attending meetings? paying tithing?

Have you told your wife or parents? Have you confessed your total sins?

Are you humble now? Is it the result of “being forced to be humble”?

Have you wrestled with your problems as did Enos? Has your soul hungered for your soul’s sake? Did you “cry unto him” a day-long prayer and into the night and raise your voice high that it reached the heavens, as did Enos?

How much have you fasted?

How much suffering have you endured? Is your guilt “swept away”?

Does that clear everything up?

The role of feelings

But I feel that feelings do play a role, and are in fact central to the spiritual life. Feelings draw us closer to people and to God. I just finished reading a collection of writings by Lowell Bennion, where he touches on feeling first in the context of faith:

Humility, faith, and love are essentially feelings, or attitudes; and they make their rich contributions to life. No apology need be made for faith because it is, in part, a state of feeling.

Because faith is linked with feeling, it need not be evanescent and whimsical, without substance and, like a soap bubble, easy to burst, even though the faith of some people is of this kind—blind, inconstant, and without foundation. A strong, solid, and enduring faith is grounded in knowledge and experience.

Christ’s teaching emphasized that sincerity changed the nature of our very deeds:

Without sincerity, one cannot love, one cannot have mercy, one cannot forgive, one cannot be honest. Jesus told us that when we pray, we should not pray to be heard of men, but with singleness of purpose, that we should go into our closets and shut the door and pray to our Father in heaven in secret. And when we give, we ought not to let our “left hand know what the right hand doeth.”

He taught us to live our religion because we believe in it, because we are born again. We build churches to worship God, not to be counted. We should do our ward teaching because we love to teach the gospel and are concerned for the welfare of our fellowmen—not for any record, not out of fear, but out of the righteous desires of our heart.

In the Book of Mormon, Moroni seems very concerned with the importance of sincerity, even going so far as to making it the mark between a good and evil man rather than the deeds themselves:

For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.

For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.

And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.

Added Context

So do my personal qualms regarding feeling leave me missing something essential about religion? Is mine a cold-hearted faith? I think I have places where I can be better, but I feel that being able to step outside of feeling sometimes to observe its role in our lives is vital as well. I love the insight from George MacDonald who used the first temptation of Christ in the wilderness to illustrate that “man must not live by feelings alone”:

“As a man cannot feel the things he believes except under certain conditions of physical well-being dependent upon food, the answer is the same: A man does not live by his feelings any more than by bread, but by the Truth, that is, the Word, the Will, the uttered Being of God”

In this sense, perhaps feelings are a necessary element to religious life, just like we cannot truly live without bread. But we cannot rely on them alone, otherwise our religion becomes a sentimentalism on the same level as a football game.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt posits that man is 90% ape and 10% bee: in the normal everyday, we are a single organism looking out for our own interests. But we are able to enter a “collective mode” at times that gives us a feeling of transcendence in order to unite ourselves and feel bound to one another: this happens everywhere from football games to political rallies to religious observances. Haidt explains how he felt such feelings during 9/11. When the planes crashed, he felt a burst of patriotism that moved him to serve, to donate, and even to put a little American flag on his car. I found this secular explanation very appealing, because it showed the value in feeling in binding communities to one another. Perhaps I could go a little easier on the sentiment and appreciate it for what it is?

One last note. Have you read C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters? They are a series of letters from a senior devil in hell to a minor tempter assigned to a “patient” on earth. In one passage, there is a humorous explanation of how to exploit feelings of humility to turn them into pride. I thought it appropriate given the discussion on feeling:

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of “grace” for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad. I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble”, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

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