Currently, the United States is experiencing a wide range of emotions in the wake of an agonizingly long vote count capped by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s historic victory in the 2020 election. Some Americans are jubilant, others defiant, and it remains to be seen where things go from here.
In such a situation, it might be helpful for us to recall the spiritual understanding we have of our emotions from the perspective of Christian revelation and theology.
We know as human beings that we possess both a body and a spiritual soul. Our spiritual soul distinguishes us from the animals and allows us to transcend, order, and redirect our instincts and sentiments to a greater good.
Our spiritual souls consists of our intellect and will. Our intellect allows us to reason and make rational decisions, while our will allows us to exercise prudence, to choose good over evil or a greater good over a lesser good, and to structure our human faculties toward a set decision.
Our feelings and emotions are born from our body, or from our body and soul. We can feel hot or cold, as well as have emotions such as euphoria, sorrow, fear, agony, and embarrassment. Since our feelings and emotions are fluid and inconsistent, they have no moral identity. Feeling one way, or to have an emotion another way, can sometimes be beyond our control.
Of themselves, therefore, our feeling and emotions have no moral status. This means that they are neither good nor bad. They are morally neutral.
Our sentiment – the combined experience of our feelings and emotions – cannot be used as a gauge for whether something is good or evil. Our sentiment is not a moral equivalent to the Ten Commandments. Simply because we feel something, does not make it right (or wrong).
The moral neutrality of our sentiment, however, does not sit and rest in a vacuum. Our feelings and emotions are experienced in a real world. This means that they are often felt within a particular state of affairs.
In light of this reality, the moral status of our sentiment is determined by what we do with it. Our feelings and emotions do not simply float away. Even if repressed or denied, our feelings and emotions will be expressed in one way or another, and it is exactly how they are manifested that will decide whether they are morally good or not. Our actions and responses determine the moral status of our sentiments.
As we understand sentiment in this way, we can begin to realize the importance of discipline and a moral formation of our hearts. Our intellect and will assist us in the formation our hearts. They provide us with a healthy suspicion of our emotions. Our intellect convicts our sentiment of lies or exaggerations, as our will disciplines and directs our sentiment to a greater good. In order to live free and abundant lives, therefore, we need to accept such a schooling and mentoring of our sentiment so as to live a life of virtue and holiness.
Since we are a fallen people – created good but inclined to sin – if our sentiments are devoid of a moral compass, they will demand to be worshipped and obeyed. They will overwhelm our hearts and lead us into a profound darkness. Our sentiments cannot stand alone.
As Christian believers, and people of goodwill, therefore, we realize that we are to work to order and direct our sentiments so that they will match the very sentiments and way of life of the Lord Jesus. As Christians, we labor in this effort so that we might possess a full maturity, the full stature, of Jesus Christ. If our sentiments seek to lead us astray, they must be disciplined and brought into an alignment with moral goodness. If our sentiments are wounded and hurt and desire malicious actions, they must be healed and channeled in positive and uplifting actions.
As Christians, walking through this peculiar election cycle, we are called to let our sentiments be guided by truth and a love for the common good. We are called to form our consciences, to build up the moral strength of our hearts, to exercise robust virtue, and to be witnesses to peace and goodness.
In these times, more than ever, this balanced and peaceful witness by Christian believers is most needed by our country and fellow citizens.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby