By Patrick Nullens
Anne Frank, then 13, showed astonishing wisdom when she wrote in her diary: “But feelings can’t be ignored, no matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.” While writing this, she was hiding from the dark powers of Nazism, a political system based on pseudoscience and strong nationalistic emotions.
Anne Frank in 1940, at about age 11, while attending school in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Unfortunately, and rather ironically, we are masters in ignoring the vast impact of our feelings, just and unjust alike. Take, for example, certain Evangelical leaders who tirelessly argue biblical principles, adding pragmatic arguments about consequences and coherency to the mix. While this form of reasoning may have its merits, on its own this approach is far too limited to deal with the real issues of everyday life.
More Than Thinking
We all can be charged with ignoring the feelings behind our own reasoning. Yet, spirituality shouldn’t just be about bringing about a change in our way of thinking; it should equally change our emotional dispositions.
Our emotions can color our perception of the world, and this bias does not go unnoticed by others. However, those outside the church tend not to be impressed by our intellectual arguments; instead, they look at our heart and our behavior. We live in a culture that desires authenticity above all.
Fortunately, there are some intellectuals who advocate the significance of developing right social emotions. Dominique Moïsi is a typical European example. Moïsi is professor in political sciences and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. His book The Geopolitics of Emotion (2009) has the promising subtitle, How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World.
Comparable to Samuel Huntington’s well-known Clash of Civilizations? (1993), Moïsi is convinced that what we are experiencing today is a global clash of emotions. Emotions create not only whole cultures, but also influence our perceptions of the other—the outsiders.
Emotions and Global Relationships
The process of globalization fosters these collective emotions, and a survey of these emotions can explain a great deal about the relations between the world’s political powers. To make this concrete, currently the Asian world is particularly characterized by hope, the Arab-Islamic world by humiliation, and the Western world by fear.
The American and European cultural climate of fear is a breeding ground for political populism. Complex problems can easily be simplified by pinpointing dangerous enemies from whom we need protection and scapegoats for our problems.
The Muslim world, in turn, is influenced by a sense of humiliation, which can lead to a culture of resentment and even hate.
In certain parts of Asia, such as China and India (not Japan however), we encounter a culture of hope. Hope, in the broad secular meaning of the word, is about one’s ability to interact positively with the world and is related particularly to economic and social empowerment. This kind of optimism and confidence in the future is most clearly manifested in the skyline of Shanghai.
An illustration of this clash of emotions is found in one of Europe’s greatest political and social challenges of today: the massive migration of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa. ISIS and Islamic terrorism are the result of a deep sense of humiliation inflicted by the West and experienced in the Middle East. As a result, millions of refugees find their way to Europe, driven by an overwhelming hope for a better future. Many Europeans, in turn, respond in fear.
I do not necessarily agree with Moïsi in his political analysis and classifications of societies. These are open to critique, and certainly many nuances should be made in that regard. But having studied the role of emotions in moral decision-making for some time now, I tend to agree with his basic idea.
Emotions do play a decisive role in how we evaluate social changes, relate to people of different opinions, and use our intellectual power. We are often convinced of the rationality and sensibility of our arguments, yet ignore our own emotional prejudices. The reality, however, is we often first have some kind of intuitive emotional judgment; subsequent to this, we skillfully construct our arguments based upon those emotions.
While it is a bold step to go from geopolitics to religion, it’s not far-fetched to speak of the influence religion plays in fostering these fundamental emotions: fear, humiliation, and hope. Let’s relate these emotions to the small world of our churches.
As Evangelicals, we often select specific Bible passages, construct our own theology, and read Scripture with a certain emotional state. It isn’t difficult to find examples of Evangelicals who are driven by fear, humiliation, and hope. These three different moods reflect three different sets of arguments. The larger a church is, the more it can become self-sustaining in its own reasoning. The loud applause of its own group deafens its members and leaders to the voices of outsiders.
Some Evangelical churches are held hostage by a sense of fear, and even humiliation, as they feel threatened by a surrounding increase of secularization. It feels as if we are losing control. In this climate, our main challenge is to remain hopeful and avoid the destructive powers of fear and humiliation.
Building a Culture of Hope
The question then becomes: how can we build a culture inspired by hope that really contributes to the common good? The gospel is good news, and God’s Spirit makes us free. These facts alone should inspire us to be hopeful and aspire to a better world.
In order to really engage with the world around us, we need to be thoroughly aware of the way secularization has changed society’s appreciation of religions, perhaps even turned it into aversion. By which criteria do our neighbors assess us?
One rather obvious criterion is the fact that people long for well-being and flourishing. I am reminded of the phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We sometimes hear this phrase quoted even in Europe, which shows us there is a rather universal search for a fulfilling life, liberty, and happiness. Meanwhile, there is a broad interest in human flourishing, positive psychology, and social well-being.
In our society’s quest for a fulfilling life, liberty, and happiness, however, we often seem quite impatient. We are obsessed by instant success and the experience of now, and seem to have lost sight of the long-term perspective. The result generally is that people feel anxious, restless, and rather unfulfilled; they have fear about the future and a sense of humiliation over a lack of instant success.
As Christians, we must ask ourselves: Are we sufficiently engaging with these topics, or is our core message one of apocalyptic warnings, fear, and dangers? Our understanding of all of these concepts needs a profound biblical engagement. We need to beware of false freedom and deceitful flourishing. If properly understood and biblically grounded, however, the Christian virtue of hope can be a source of good news (gospel) in these uncertain times, a horizon against which these longings for fulfillment can be viewed.
Hope as a virtue has historically been a distinctive of the Jewish-Christian heritage. On the other hand, it was a vice for the Romans and for many critical philosophers after the Enlightenment. And yet, as we know, hope can be a driving force of social change.
If we look more carefully at the concept of hope, we find it is an emotion as well as a virtue. As an emotion, it defines how we see and experience reality. For Christians, it is most important that God is the source of all our hope and joy (Romans 15:13). Paul teaches us that hope is a partner of faith and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Faith is the virtue that defines our identity, our trust in God. Love is our deepest driving force, and thus also the motivation for creating hope. Hope, then, is the art of potentialities. Driven by love and rooted in faith, hope uses all its intellectual energy to find solutions. In this sense, hope is a call for reasoning and critical engagement with society.
This call to spread hope is not limited to thinkers, politicians, or churches—all of us can contribute in this task. Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper was fully engaged in society because he believed there is such a thing as common grace. God in his grace wants to preserve this world and protect it from its self-destructive powers.
In this sense, not only our churches, but especially individual Christians—in their professions as nurses, teachers, builders, scientists, civil servants—contribute to the common good by spreading hope, driven by God’s grace.
Are we sufficiently influenced by this living hope? Is this an emotion we genuinely experience? And is this what people see when they look at us?
Patrick Nullens, PhD, is president of the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium, and director of the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics. He is also an ethicist involved in a research project on hope as a driving force in economics (with Erasmus University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands), funded by the Dutch Goldschmeding Foundation. He is coauthor, with Ronald Michener, of The Matrix of Christian Ethics (InterVarsity Press, 2010).