Feeling and Religion

Tradition-minded Catholics, perhaps especially those of us familiar with Bro. Francis Maluf’s landmark essay on the subject, are rightly wary of sentimentality in religion.

By sentimentality in religion I don’t mean saccharine piety, which is bad enough, but the emotion-driven acceptance of untruth for truth: belief in something because it makes us feel good. The great example of this in our day is the belief in universal salvation. Many Catholics embrace it because it comforts them to think of all their deceased loved ones enjoying eternal life with God in Heaven. Of course it also gives them an assured feeling they’ll do the same. As I say, it makes them feel good.

My own wariness of such sentimentality probably stems from my non-Catholic upbringing as well as the convictions to which I came as a convert to the One True Church. My parents were restrained in the practice of their brand of Evangelical Christianity but we had relatives who were not. Familial solidarity sometimes dictated our worshipping with them. Thus I know about tent-meetings where there is much speaking in tongues and many are “healed”. The adults around me weren’t feeling merely good. Red in the face, sweat pouring off them, they were ecstatic.

We even had relatives down in east Tennessee who were snake-handlers – folks who danced around with rattlesnakes and copperheads while they praised God. They had a biblical basis for this: “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not harm them.” (Mark 16: 17-18 in the King James Version of Scripture.)

I have a vivid memory from boyhood of attending one of their services during a visit to these relatives. Deacons carried to the front of the church a large wooden box to which, having set it down, they gave several hard kicks. This was to rile the rattlers inside before the preacher opened the lid, reached in, and began flinging the snakes out into the congregation amid clamorous shouts of “Hallelujah! Yes! Amen! Praise God!”

Have in your head the memory of such a worship service and you, too, will be wary of emotion in religion.

I don’t wish to disparage my relatives. They were good people leading extremely upright lives, so upright I’m sure it would have grieved them had they foreseen their young cousin, me, growing up to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol.

Nor do I wish to disparage fellow Catholics, including some of traditional bent at least insofar as they worship according to the extraordinary rite, who don’t handle snakes or speak in tongues but reveal a hankering for signs and wonders by an unwholesome preoccupation with stigmata, Eucharistic miracles and Marian apparitions. Obviously such phenomena, when they really take place, are not evil, but obsession with them, especially the apparitions, can lead down a path that ends at Garabandal, Medjugorge or Bayside. I have trouble even with Fatima when fixation on its “secrets” obscures the message of every authentic apparition of modern times: our need (and that of the world) for prayer and repentance.

All this said, I want to suggest that wariness of sentimentality should not lead to our discounting the importance of feeling in religious belief. It is vital. We may have the intellectual understanding that God is everywhere in the universe at any given moment, but we feel His presence when we turn to Him in prayer. However, there is more to the importance of feeling in religion than that. It is in emotion that understanding often begins.

Last March when the princes of the Church were gathering in Rome to elect a successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict, I joked in an email to a friend about the persons I would canonize were I elected. One of my saints was the Lutheran J.S. Bach. It was a joke, but the point I was getting at is serious.

You’ll grasp it if you have ever walked into the Mother Church of Christianity, St. Peter’s in Rome. Has there ever been a man stepping into that basilica for the first time who didn’t say to himself, and maybe out loud, “Oh, my God”? It is the natural reaction to such grandeur on such a scale: awe. Then, if we analyze what we behold, we see that grand as it is, the architecture of the edifice, as of all great Baroque churches, virtually compels our eyes to focus exactly on the spot where a consecrated Host will be elevated for our adoration at Mass said at the main altar.

Even so, the “architecture” of Bach’s music – think of the B-Minor Mass – is designed to inspire the feelings of reverence, solemnity, awe and joy that will help engender and then fortify religious belief. These feelings dispose us to it and enrich it. Without them, intellectual understanding remains mere intellectual understanding – like that of a professional theologian with no prayer life.

Ever know one of those? Such a man is like a beautifully-bound book whose pages are blank.

I’ll go further. The link between emotion and understanding is so close that when some or all of the emotional elements are removed from the religion, a different one with a different God will result. When statues and pictures were stripped from England’s churches and music banished except for hymn-singing (and sometimes even that), it was bound to produce a God who disapproved smoking and wine-drinking. When the liturgical revolution of the 1960s and 70s removed reverence, solemnity and awe from Mass but left “joy,” we got the cult of the Happy Jesus and a pale simulacrum of the tent-meetings of my boyhood.

I don’t know – I can’t know – how the Lutheran Bach is spending his eternity. I am contending his art has helped produce more Catholic belief, including my own, than, for instance, the wooly existential writings of one recent Pope ever could do.

I don’t know – I can’t know – how the Catholic Jose Maria Gironella is spending his eternity, but I remember, and shall forever, the tears streaming down my cheeks as I read for the first time the concluding scene of The Cypresses Believe in God with its portrayal of sanctity in action.

In sum, I am contending, fully aware from personal experience as well as intellectual understanding of the dangers when it is excessive or wrongly directed, that without emotion we can become in our spiritual life like the proverbial war correspondent who covers a conflict from the hotel bar. He’ll file his report but doesn’t really know what it’s about.