He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fair Questions: Is Christian conversion an emotional reality?

I would like to preface my answer to this question by pointing out that I am only 30 years old and that my life experience may not be up to the task of answering this question adequately.  The conversion from our state of existence as an unruly ego-driven child to truly imitating Christ as a son of God is generally a long process and I'm not even close to the end of that process.  That said, I may be able to see the end correctly in light of the Gospels and the Saints, and if so, then I may be able to give some useful insight into the answer to this question.

"[We] are listening to a CD by Steve Wood.  He is a convert to the Catholic Church and is a major influence in present Catholic philosophy.  Well, one of the things he says is that the religious education and the parent education and the Catholic University education is based on the wrong philosophy as proved by how many people leave the church even with a good Catholic education.  (two out of three) The students and children are being taught the history, rules, etc. of the Catholic Church and he feels that this is important, but they are missing a very important ingredient.  They are not being taught the love of God, Christ.

Only if the parent, teacher that has a conversion of the heart and by this a great love for God can teach this love of God.  Teaching prayers and going to Mass is not enough.

A second thing that he says is that this conversion of the heart is not an emotional thing, but a deep love for God.  I have a question about this part and would like your opinion on this and also the first part.

Here is where I am coming from.  The God of the whole Universe has wanted each of us to be here from the beginning of time.  This is the God that has created this universe (and possibly many universes) with its billions of galaxies and countless stars and planets.  He loves each of us more than we can understand and is always at our side and always listens to us and always does what is best for us.  This is the God I love with all my heart and with my life.  He is a giving God that has saved me even though I am not really worthy of being saved and certainly do not merit any of His love.  Then, my question is, how can this not be emotional??  I am overwhelmed by this love that the God of the universe gives such an insignificant person and undeserving person such as me!  He has been there every time that I have needed Him and has never failed me or let me down.

So, I think the conversion of the heart is an emotional thing and I am not really understanding where Steve Wood is coming from."

The position taken by some that the conversion of the heart is not emotional is, in my view, not quite correct.  It is, however, somewhat understandable as a response to the popular view that our emotions are what are most true, right, or good.  There is a mentality of "Do whatever makes you feel good!" inherited from influential parts of the culture of the West from the 1960s and 1970s that is deeply unhealthy, and this mentality has been very problematic for many people when it has been applied to spirituality.  It has tended to lead people to mistake mere pleasurable sensation due to aesthetic experience or chemical influence for a genuine spirituality.  Spirituality in their view is a reductive spirituality, a spirituality without a spirit, in which the spirit is a symbol that reduces to biochemistry and/or neurology.  This is a view the Christian should rightly oppose, but we should also avoid the temptation to make the opposite mistake and claim that emotion is totally excluded from our conversion process.

And Steve Wood is right that simply learning the history, the canons, and the doctrines of the Church are not enough to keep someone in it.  The history of Christianity has proven that already.  We do need something deeper than a knowing about the Church.  We also need something deeper than a feeling about the Church, even if those feelings are strongly positive emotions.  Those emotions are not necessarily bad, and they may be both good and necessary, but they are certainly not sufficient.  We do indeed need a great love of God that transcends mere emotion, mere exertion of the will, mere performance of rituals with the body, mere groanings of the spirit, or mere exercises of the intellect.

We are integrated beings, and as such the conversion process can and should impact all of the components of our being.  Our will, our intellect, our emotions, and our body are all functioning as one integrated system.  Conversion is a turning of the entire integrated system of our being toward Christ so that we can follow him as an unblemished model of full human participation in the Kingdom of God.

As we become more like Christ through sincere imitation of Him and communion with Him, this entire integrated system that is our being is transformed so that we can begin to participate more fully in the divine life of love.  This process of radical transformation can only take place after our conversion, and this is the process known as sanctification.  This sanctifying process transforms the entire integrated system of our being, including our emotions which we tend to understand as being seated in the heart.

The radical transformation of our hearts is shown in how our disordered emotions become ordered toward the highest good. Our fear of being alone is transformed into a fearless love of the community and a fearless delight in solitude. Our fear of death is transformed into a fearless commitment to caring for others at the most vulnerable stages of life and a fearless delight in the joys of our own lives. Thus we are instructed by Christ in the Gospels: "Be not afraid." It is a call to transform our hearts from the one who showed us how to live with radically transformed hearts, hearts turned from stone into hearts that experience love alone, a love that completely reorders our being (soul, will, intellect, emotions, and body) toward God as our beloved.

For the person who is currently operating on a purely emotional level in their conversion process (and I really don't think that the person asking this question is doing that at all), I would encourage them to go deeper and discover that the love of God is so much greater than an emotional experience alone, that like a holy human relationship of profound love (as we find in the married or celibate life) it re-forms us as an entire being by reordering our will, our intellect, our emotions, the acts of our bodies, and ultimately our souls toward the highest good.

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