On Being Interrupted by God

By John Lussier

Spring has sprung. Portland is currently engulfed by white and pink cherry blossoms (and the pollen that always accompanies this bloom). Pale legs emerge from under their covers. “Looks like you got some sun” becomes a common greeting. The rain will return at some point, but for now things are blossoming and the sun is out. We are in a transition time.

In a similar way my study on sociobiology, the evolution of the mind, and the emotions, now takes a theological turn. There will still be moments to talk about eusociality, social psychology, monkeys, and the mind, but they will come in the midst of discussion moral theology, the Spirit’s role in changing our affections, and the nature of the Church.

This transition is made a little easier today because of a commonality between two of the authors I’ve been reading. Last week we were introduced to David Hume’s philosophical thoughts on the affections and their role in human action. As a reminder: Hume believed that the emotions were the initiating cause of any human action. The will is simply affections moving us to action. Reason has a place in our actions, by making connections between ideas, and bringing forward thoughts on means, but is not the deciding factor.

Hume’s thoughts on the role of the emotions bear a striking resemblance to the affective theology of Jonathan Edwards. In his work Religious Affections, Edwards posited, much like Hume, that the soul (perhaps interchangeable for him with the mind) was endued with two faculties.

The first was the ability to perceive, speculate, discern, and judge. We could responsibly call this faculty the reason. The second was an inclination to or away from something. This inclination, when it leads to action, is called the will. When this faculty is made into a subject it is often called the heart. The inclinations of the heart we feel in our body, and actively sense in our mind, Edwards called the affections: love, hate, joy, sorrow, pride, humility, etc. The will and the affections are not two separate faculties for Edwards, but a matter of identification. Affections are those inclinations we notice in our body and mind. The will is the result of these inclinations in actions (either in movement away or towards something). Sometimes we can note the inclinations that lead to actions and at other times we cannot. Either way the will is an expression of our soul’s inclination.

At the start (but really core) of Edwards’ Religious Affections is this wonderful line: “True religion, in great part, consists in Holy Affections”. Christianity does not consist in a work of humanity or some step towards God that we initiate. It is not sacrifices, temples, or accomplishments. Instead, Christianity at its center is the Holy Affections of a Loving God, poured out into humanity and the rest of creation. In its purest and most real form, religion is the exercise of holy affections— first God’s then ours. Elsewhere Edwards calls these, in relation to believers, gracious affections, for in reality they do not come from us, but from the free and unwarranted act of God in our lives.

We are not given one at this point in his work, but Edwards could have easily given us a full blown Trinitarian theology of the affections, starting in the Father-Son-Spirit love of one another, and then over-flowing, in creating, sustaining, covenanting, atoning, exiling, returning, incarnating, ministering, dying, resurrecting, healing, confronting, calling, commissioning, disrupting, recreating, and reigning.

The love of the Father of his Son. The love of the Son for His Father. The love and joy between the the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Holy Affections, expressed in the world. And these affections being given, in turn, to the hearts of God’s people.  Graciously this love is poured into our hearts. What is good and right in us is a free gift from God, one that returns to Him and overflows to our neighbor.

We express these Holy Affections in a number of means, but centrally for Edward are the “ordinances and duties which God hath appointed” in the Church: prayer, singing praises, the sacraments, preaching, and reflection on the Scriptures. When their exercise is done in proper relationship to God these activities are expressions of our love for Him. These acts are not done to please God, or merit something inside of us. God has no need of prayer or praise (although he desires them). Instead, these duties are something helpful to us and our affections. In prayer to God we gaze upon His person and heart. Prayer stirs up our affections for God.

The same goes for praise, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, and the reading of Scripture. These are not something that puts us in right relationship with God. This liturgy, the work of the people, reorients our hearts to the one whom we love: the Father-Son-Spirit. It stirs up in us joy for our lives, love of our neighbor, sorrow in relationship to sin, hope for the future, pride in the God who has saved us, humility in our accomplishments, mercy to all— 

As God’s people we are interrupted in these acts by our God. Our ears turn towards the voice we love. We taste the bread of life again. Our skin tingles upon the presence of our lover. We smell the sacrifice. Our gaze is centered upon the King.

[The above is part of a series on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the nature of the mind by Master of Divinity student, John Lussier.  In this series he will be asking some pretty big questions: How might biology inform our sense of the moral? Where do emotions and reason come in? Who are we and what were we made for?  Definitive answers are often hard to come by, but sometimes becoming informed is just as much about learning to ask the right questions.  We hope you will come alongside him--and us--on this intellectual journey! ]