Mistaking Good Feeling for Righteousness

on March 13, 2020

Jim Paul, a worker at the English branch of the L’Abri Fellowship, discussed our current cultural revolution, and its underlying idea of the preeminence of emotion in life and understanding of justice at the annual L’Abri Conference in Rochester Minnesota on February 14 and 15.

Paul called this revolution “the affective revolution,” because it is based on emotion. It is a revolution which is still in progress, still developing, be believes. He said that it has “been gathering pace” even in the last five years. It is “a revolution in the way we see reality, and particularly in the way we see ourselves in relation to the world around us.” One now commonly hears of events which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. One example is the cancellation of college lectures because students feel offended. This is held to be reasonable because in the new affective morality “if I feel offended, then an offense has taken place.” Similarly, new marriage vows promise to remain together “until our love ends.” Even theology, which is supposed to speak of eternal truth, is affected. People increasingly say that they know God exists because of the way they feel. On the other hand, when they feel badly, they say that they feel God ceases to exist.

The affective revolution has several components. First, epistemological subjectivism began with Descartes. We look inside ourselves to find truth. Descartes looked for intellectual truth, but in the second component, the romantic artists moved to make the feeling of self preeminent. They held that we know reality through feelings. Thirdly, postmodern theorists advanced expressive individualism. This maintains that “we become ourselves and we are happy when we are not constrained by external things.”

Involved in postmodern philosophy is the claim that ideas are all about who has power. Consequently, we are made “free by rejecting all definitions of reality that we are given.” One is admonished, in this line of thinking, to look inside one’s self and express what you feel. It is held that being unconstrained makes one happy. People who accept these ideas treat emotions as authoritative in experiencing and defining reality. “The goal of life is happiness … where I can feel at ease and comfort with myself and where I can feel good with my expressed self.” Happiness, as one defines it “is an end in itself in the affective revolution.”

All of the above gives rise to the final characteristic of the affective revolution, which is the “affective rights thesis.” Although to virtually anyone in the past it would have seemed like wild irrationality, it is held that I “have [a] right to express my feelings as reality.” Beyond that, “I have the right for those feelings to be accepted, affirmed and allowed to form reality,” and further, “I have the right to be free from the oppression of all external definers of reality.”

These rights are, of course, a raw demand to control the lives of others, and an imposition of one’s own reality on everyone and everything else. The current attack on the legal rights of conscience inevitably flows from it.

Questioners raised several telling issues. First, “what is difference between affective revolution and mental illness?” Secondly, “how do I feel when I can’t shape reality?” “Whose feelings take precedence” in determining reality? (e.g., “transgender women” vs. biological women?) Also, “what happens to my identity when I don’t know how I feel?” and “what happens when feelings change?”

Paul posed additional questions. What about those suffering from anorexia? They feel they are overweight. Should we let their feelings define reality, even though we know they suffer from a dangerous delusion? Also, how stable is reality based on feelings? Parents cannot be parents only when they feel like it; that would be too unstable a reality for children.

Clearly, the affective revolution makes one’s feelings at the moment supreme. Paul said that the anxiety of re-creating ourselves all the time is negatively affecting mental health of young people.

He maintained that it is tempting for Christians to counter the subjectivism of the affective self with an absolute objectivism rooted in God, but said that the Christian worldview is not “an absolute objectivism.” God, the source of all reality is not himself completely objective, but is a relational reality within the Trinity. Also, people adopted subjectivism because of the dry objectivity introduced by the epistemological rationalists, beginning with Descartes. We do not want to answer the natural desire for a personal reality with a strict objectivity, which is not true to the way reality in fact is.

Pursuing relationality, Paul observed that God the Father is a father in relation to God the Son. A person “cannot be a father on your own” (although one might claim to feel like a father). The experiential reality of being a father comes in the personal interaction with one’s children. God creates and relates to the world “within this pattern of subject/object relational reality.” The same relational reality is at work in human relations. He noted that children develop their sense of self in relationship.

Our need for relationship shows that the affective self is inadequate. Is feeling kind the same as being kind? Paul asked. What if others experience us as being cruel? In fact, the reality of kindness must be established by the experience of others.

Similarly, God is relational toward human beings as well as within himself. “He has feelings, he is angry … he has compassion for the weak, and those who turn to him in need.”

Paul cited C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, to find the right place for feelings. Lewis held that until recent generations people understood that things have a reality in themselves, they are not “just what we think or feel they are.” In a Christian view of reality, “our thinking and feeling and imagination … connect together.” Also, the creator has spoken into his reality. It is thus right to be compassionate, because God himself is compassionate.

Reality is “not random, but has a definite shape to it.” In the case of humans, “God has made us in his image … Reality is encountered when we live as thinking, feeling, imaginative subjects in relationship to the created reality of objects around us … my identity is not found inside myself, in my feelings alone, but we find our identity actually as we live in subject/object relational reality.”

“It’s what we will enjoy for eternity, the job of relationship, as we find reality” in God and his creation, Paul said.

In a second presentation, Paul asked if reality is entirely socially constructed. Social constructivism is similar to the claim that reality is what people feel it is, although it would seem to be in tension the individualism of the affective revolution. He referred to the book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, which maintained that “knowledge is not discovered, but invented.” A central claim is that the human world is “made by men, inhabited by men, and in turn making men in an ongoing historical process.”

An example of this might be our understanding of attention deficit disorder, or hyperactivity. Was this invented or discovered? Several generations ago, hyperactivity disorder might simply have been regarded as a child misbehaving.

Constructivists begin from a naturalistic account of the world, regarding it as just molecules and atoms. “They would say that because nature is chaotic, human beings need to organize society in certain ways … those ways that we organize then become externalized in certain rules.” Animals do not commonly practice monogamy, for instance. Marriage was thus invented, at least in part, to protect women and children. The next step is objectification. With this step, we forget that the rules are contrived. Finally, in internalization conventional rules become understood to be obvious moral rules.

Paul observed that social constructivism really posits “the self against the world.” The “most important question social constructivism gets you to ask is ‘who says so?’” Paul said that this question is in fact very Biblical. “God asks that question to Eve,” he said. In contemporary debates “a lot of people are defining things on their terms, and then the argument always goes a certain kind of way.”

Behind this “is the question of power” the question of who has the power to define reality for you. And behind the question of power is the desire for freedom. If belief has no more basis in reality than social convention, then the individual is “free to challenge society.” This is seen especially sharply with transgenderism. Knowledge of sex, like all knowledge, is socially constructed, so people should be free to create their own sex (or “gender”). Alternatively, “who defines what it means to be a Christian?” In sum, if reality is socially constructed, we are free to challenge society and to re-create the world as we like it.

Constructivism is plausible because it “is a partial truth about reality.” It would seem impossible to deny that many ideas do indeed derive from social convention. Theology, which expands on the Word of God, is in some measure a social construct. Brides wearing white was another example given. Paul said that clinicians at a gender clinic in U.K. have seen a 6,000% increase in girls who question their sexual identity in the past five years. Some clinicians claim that this is a result of a socially constructed reality. Similarly, the “post-truth” world, where “people are very willing to bend all the facts in order to suit their points of view” is a manifestation of social construction.

Some measure of social constructivism is mandated in Scripture, Paul said. Genesis 1:28 is the “cultural mandate” which gives humans the prerogative of creating culture. “God is not a micromanager,” Paul said. The naming of animals in Genesis chapter 2 is an example of the social construction of reality with language.

However, regarding social construction as a total truth makes it impossible to measure the truth or falsity of moral issues. Female genital mutilation, “practiced in some cultures” cannot be condemned. In fact, all human rights become culturally relative, not absolute for all cultures, and thus subject to change by the state.

Paul maintained the social constructivism “falls by its own sword,” because it must itself be a social construction. By their own theory, the theory’s advocates have seized power and are foisting their ideas on everyone else.

Paul said that by contrast with this theory, Christians advance an “innate morality,” a sense of “ought” and “ought not.” We thus have an explanation for the moral sense that people feel. Additionally, there is “an ontological status of objects in the material world” which gives them a reality beyond mere belief. As a result of the fall of man, people have lost an undistorted idea of what “the shape of the world” should be, but God has restored it in his moral law. We are commanded to “care for one another” and “not cross boundaries.” As we learn the moral law “our thinking conforms to the cosmic order.” It necessarily involves a doctrine of “objective value,” in which “there are certain attitudes that are true and certain attitudes that are false to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we are.” He gave the example that “to care for your neighbor” is “true to reality,” while to “use them is false” to reality.

Within a Christian worldview, we can create our own “microconstructs,” but they must be “in line with the cosmic order.” He noted the utilitarian apartments built in communist countries and housing projects in America as cultural artifacts which are out of line with the cosmic order, because they assume that people are machines. Such social maladies as “crime, hopelessness, and isolation” result. Another example cited was the attempted abolition of the family in early communist Russia as a “bourgeois invention.” But this was contrary to human beings’ relational nature. It was noted that the abolition of the family by the state is a common feature of dystopian novels.

Paul said that “within our creational pattern, the family can function lots of different ways.” But some varieties of family “are totally outside the creational pattern,” as was seen in Russia. Since “we have been given creational patterns by God’s Word … part of our work as culture creators is to reform social constructs so they are more in line with the creational pattern.”

This writer would add that the problems Paul identified are a result of generations of struggle against religious, political, and social authority, resulting in mistaking our own feeling about what is righteous for what is truly righteous. To know what is truly righteous, we must have a transcendent basis, and neither governments, scientists, nor laymen can give us this knowledge. It must be final and come from beyond this world. Only God can give us this knowledge by his gift, a gift the world and its authorities can neither give nor take away.

  1. Comment by Joseph M on March 13, 2020 at 1:47 pm

    I have found salutary N.T. Wrights clarification that the word in NT Greek that is frequently translated as “righteousness” more accurately means “covenant faithfulness” or ones determination and ability to keep the promises they have made.

  2. Comment by Jane Bonner on March 13, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    Thank you Rick for this very helpful explanation of the chaos we are watching each passing day. The unhappiness which these pattern of thinking and then acting creates is like a snowball going down hill. How many others get caught up in it and are also damaged? The Word is God revealing who He is and then it follows who we are and can become. It is so sad to see the vain imaginations of so-called philosophers and culture warriors destroying and dismantling what took thousands of years to bring forth. Lord have mercy and give us peace.

  3. Comment by Cbbyrd on March 13, 2020 at 8:18 pm

    Thank you.

  4. Comment by binkyxz3 on March 14, 2020 at 7:30 pm

    Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.
    — C.S. Lewis

  5. Comment by Theodore Edwards on March 15, 2020 at 11:01 am

    I find that material on “social construction” very helpful.
    Individuals will feel what something is through their perception and the precepts they bring to feeling about it — which is fine, because feelings at the individual level usually don’t connect to objective reality and what is felt initially has time to recalibrate itself. We all do that.

    It becomes Social Construction as individuals find and gather up allies and try to organize/affiliate. That makes it social, and then it is articulated and formulated into a kind of platform position. That is when it becomes an opposition force to what is either objective reality or the doctrine of existing organizations like faith groups.

    That also reaches out into Ethics, because objective reality is very hard to work within Ethics, and there are a number of systems of Ethics which conflict with each other.

    All those systems of feelings are undependable because they are vulnerable to hurt feelings, emotions of anger, and subject to change at any time as convenience dictates and new circumstances emerge. It is messy and unstable — as are such people who live by emotional feelings apart from the stability of Christian faith.

  6. Comment by DONALD E MOORE on March 15, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    It has been my experience that church congregations make their decisions based on their emotions and not from logical or rational thinking.

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