Is it Defensible to Preach “Heart Religion” Today?

Gregory S. Clapper

When getting to know someone we often start by asking questions like: What kind of work do you do? Where do you live? What was your major in college? What’s your hometown? It’s normal to start with these kinds of questions that can give us an “objective” picture of a person.

The Bible, however, says that the best way to judge a person is determined by answers to different kinds of questions. These questions include things like: What brings you joy? What makes you mad? What brings you peace? And, most importantly: Who or what do you love?

Those are “heart” questions.

While we often value most highly the “objective facts” about people — things like their external appearance, their political affiliations, or what country they happened to be born in — the Christian tradition says that those things pale in importance when compared to the quality of one’s heart.

When the Bible refers to the heart, it is not focusing on the blood-pumping muscle in our chests. “Heart” in the Bible is a metaphor, a figure of speech, used to describe the center of a person. It defines what matters most to a person. Since the physical heart stands at the center of our bodies and is so essential to our lives, it is a powerful metaphorical image for what is most central to who we are, what most defines us. These subjective questions are the most important because, as the Bible says, while humans look at the outward appearance of people, “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7); to be a Christian is to have a “circumcised heart” (Rom 2:29).

What does such a heart look like?

It is a heart marked by trust that one’s sins have been forgiven by the work of Jesus, a humble heart that has put away pride and that has let the “Holy Spirit” take root. The Holy Spirit is not some shadowy or spooky presence. The Spirit’s presence (or absence) is typically quite obvious. Just as we know an apple tree by its “fruit” – whether it grows apples, for example – we know if someone’s heart is controlled by the Holy Spirit if that person is growing the “fruit of the Spirt”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

One reason people today are reluctant to talk about the “heart” is that we have inherited a vocabulary that pictures anything emotional as necessarily uncontrollable, unrelated to anything outside of the self, and “irrational.” Thankfully, recent scholars have started to address this mischaracterization.

In his book From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Thomas Dixon, a professor at the University of London, shows that through the influence of thinkers like David Hume, Thomas Brown, and Immanuel Kant, “emotions” came into being as a distinct psychological category in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, replacing such terms as appetites, passions, sentiments, and affections. “Emotions” in this school of thought were seen as “alien powers rather than movements integral to the self” (97) and as involuntary “mini-agents in their own right, rather than movements or actions of a will or self … non-cognitive states … to be contrasted with intellectual judgments and thoughts…” (251).

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who often spoke of the heart and its affections, has typically been interpreted through this nineteenth-century paradigm of “emotion.” Accordingly, it isn’t surprising that his vision of Christianity as a “religion of the heart” fell out of favor with so many twentieth and twentyfirst-century Methodists. After all, who would want to be a Christian if that meant being caught up in irrational, amoral, individualistic “inner” experiences that had nothing to do with the external world, let alone with the gospel?

If, however, we resist this often-assumed, dismissive understanding of “emotion” and, instead see these movements of the heart as Wesley did – that is, seeing emotions as having a rich intellectual, moral, and (potentially) theological integrity – we can again unashamedly preach, as he did, a “religion of the heart.” Fortunately, we have powerful allies in this task of envisioning affective reality in truer and more appreciative ways, including contemporary emotion theorists like Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago.

Nussbaum sees emotions not as unthinking energies that simply push the person around, but as “intelligent responses to the perception of value” (Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions [Cambridge University Press, 2001], 1). I can’t elaborate her theories in this brief space, but if the reader is interested in pursuing her views, and their applicability to Wesley’s “heart religion,” they can consult the works mentioned in my bio.

Wesley said that “the great end of religion is to renew our hearts in the image of God” (Sermon 44, “Original Sin,” 185). This means that accepting God’s love, so that so that our hearts can then grow into the fullness of God’s holiness, is not something dispensable or an exercise in self-indulgent irrationality; it is the gospel itself.

The fact is that all people have an interior life, and its nature, shape and content are crucial matters in God’s eyes. Christians see the life of the heart as designed not to be pure chaos, but to be ordered around our perception of that highest value – God’s saving love.

Posted Sep 11, 2017

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