In Defense of Passion

Let me return to a familiar topic but this time with a new facet in view. How does our Trinitarian faith touch on the question of passions? A book recommendation from a friend stirred my question.

C. Kavin Rowe, in his One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions, affirms the traditional portrayal of Stoics as dispassionate thinkers. He cites Seneca, the noted Roman Stoic, who warned his friend Lucilius that “emotions are bodily things” and, as such, are like “diseases of the spirit” that “harden our souls” [p.31]. Seneca also chided followers of Aristotle. The latter accepted moderate emotions but insisted they must be kept “in check.” The problem with this balanced view, Seneca believed, is that emotions—like cancer—always spread.

Stoics and Aristotelians both presumed emotions to be bodily appetites, like hunger, that stir impulsive responses. So the emotional life makes us too much like animals—led by “appetitive” instincts. A sound soul, they believed, must rule these drives through objective choices.

The Stoics, in particular, favored the mind as the only reliable center of the soul. This reflected their conviction that every soul has an extended quality of God’s mind within them. So their goal was to be more godlike by maintaining a strictly rational—reasoned—approach to life.

Aristotle had a slightly different view. He saw emotions as useful in motivating many of life’s ordinary choices. But emotions still need to be contained—especially those that are impetuous and unseemly—with the intellect and the will linked as partners in ruling them.

So both Stoics and Aristotelians, despite their differences, dismissed a passion-led life.

Most of us follow the Greeks here, with a commonsense bias in favor of the mind and will and a distrust of the emotions. In education today students are taught that sound learning is based on rational thought. Emotional arguments, we learn, are flawed arguments; and critical thinking, using strict logic, leads to academic success.

But is it true?

Not really. The Bible teaches, instead, that we are made to love. And Jesus, as in a deeply-rooted Old Testament pattern, viewed the affective “heart” as the motive center of the soul: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” [Mk 7:21-23].

Jesus also taught that life properly revolves around selfless love: “[They] asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” [Mk 12:28-31].

But let’s add a new question here. What difference does our belief in the Trinity bring to this conversation? I ask this in light of Robert Jenson’s axiom that sound theology always starts with the Trinity, and any particular theological truth must have the Triune God as its context.

With that in mind let me also take advantage of an earlier post that notes the Augustinian tradition of an affective God. Last week in “Broken Love” I looked at Jonathan Edwards and his view of God’s love.

Edwards, like Augustine of Hippo, believed love in the Bible is a label for the mutual communion of the Triune God. And this love relies on the Spirit’s ‘searching-and-sharing’ activity as noted in 1 Corinthians 2. Edwards relied, especially, on John’s theology. So in 1 John 4:8&16—where John twice stated, “God is love”—Edwards was happy to reverse the common assumption that human usage of love must define the term. God himself defines it, at least as we find it used in the Bible. And God is the ultimate object of proper love in the Bible.

Jesus, too, offered us an example of how critical God and his love is in establishing sound theology. In the lame man’s healing at Bethesda, in John 5, Jesus set out his main credential to a hostile audience of Temple theologians: “the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” [v.20].

The religious scholars were not impressed. Yet Jesus persisted. He argued that Moses and the Scriptures were witnesses to his ministry. But once again the scholars didn’t buy it. So Jesus was then kind enough to summarize the problem: “you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” [vs.40-42]. Without a love of God they were theologically blind.

Now let’s turn back to the question of passions. Was the “love of God within you” that Jesus refers to here an emotion-based love, or was it a dispassionate version of love—a love rooted in the intellect? I ask this because I know how widespread the Stoic impulse can be in modern theology—with the result that love can become a synonym for disaffected rational judgments.

So let me defend the passionate, gut-wrenching, weeping-for-Jerusalem, version of love Jesus offers us. This love led him into the “passion week” and crucifixion. And it was the opposite passion—a deep hatred in his religious opponents, and in their spirit-mentor, the Devil—that led them to crucify Jesus.

The mistake we make in speaking of the passions, without the Triune love of God in view, is that we have a very wobbly imitation of this real love in mind. Call the imitation self-love. And self-love brings with it all sorts of emotional misconduct, including wild impulses, that any thoughtful person will want to avoid. But only “the love of God within you” is an antidote to such things.

In sum, false loves are only overcome by the one true love of God as found in Christ. And the “dispassionate” Stoics are, in fact, affectively blind: foolishly captured by a naïve self-love that misses this one true ambition of the love of God.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *