Image for Psychology & Spiritual Formation

Spiritual Emotions and Psychology

Robert C. Roberts

A Christian perspective on the intersection of emotion and virtue

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
March 9, 2014

The subtitle of my book Spiritual Emotions (Eerdmans, 2007) is A Psychology of Christian Virtues. Several juxtapositions in that title might raise eyebrows. Are emotions ever spiritual? What have emotions to do with virtues? Can psychology be about anything spiritual? And does psychology have anything to do with virtues?  In addition to these oddities, if you open the book you will find precious little about psychological experiments or the physiology and chemistry of the brain, and not much about psychotherapy. Instead, the book is a biblically based conceptual exploration of how Christian doctrines may shape our emotions, the place of emotions in mature Christian character, our basic drive to be in touch with God, and fairly extended explorations of such emotions as contrition (penitence), joy, gratitude, hope, peace, and compassion. In this note I want to comment on these juxtapositions and associations.

What is Psychology?

Let’s begin with the notion of psychology. In its broadest sense, psychology is the study of the psyche or mind (also in a broad sense). Psychologists study intelligence, personality traits, behavior, action, emotions, cultural understandings, and the physiological basis, as well as the consequences, of all of these things. They study health and dysfunction, and thus what is “normal” or “ideal,” with respect to them. Modern psychology has devised some very clever methods for studying them, involving close and systematic observation, controlled experiments using systematically varied conditions, and statistical calculation. Brain scientists now have detection devises by which they can tell roughly what’s going on in the central nervous system when subjects are thinking or doing or feeling things.

But the study of the mind is very old, and people in the ancient world (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans and others) also “did psychology” and made very astute observations about thinking, intelligence, character traits, psychological wellbeing, and other topics. And some of the ancient psychology is actually much better than some of the modern. Modern psychology tends to be less aware of the contestable ideologies behind it, and more faddish, than the best ancient psychology. This point is nicely illustrated by the case of behaviorism in the twentieth century. Behaviorism, with its strictures against mentalistic explanation, was at one time the most scientific kind of psychology, but is now completely passé in its purest forms. By comparison, Aristotle’s accounts of human and animal action are far more sophisticated. When ancient psychologists talked about such topics as mental health and psycho-social well-being, the central concepts for them were the concepts of virtue and vice. To live a life that was good—not just “morally” good, but “happy”—you needed to be just, wise, temperate, courageous, patient, and self-controlled.

The so-called positive psychology of our own day is a kind of modern personality psychology that tends to recognize the value of ancient thought about the virtues, including thinkers with markedly religious commitments. Thus Peterson and Seligman, for example, in their Handbook of Positive Psychology, try to include virtues that are analogous to the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. But they try to do this while eschewing any theology, because they want their psychology of happiness to be acceptable to persons of any metaphysical or theological outlook. I think that this is an impossible aspiration, and that any robust and coherent account of the human virtues must appeal to some particular and controversial metaphysics or theology. By contrast with that of positive psychology, the psychology of the virtues that I outline in Spiritual Emotions is frankly committed to a Christian and biblical theology.

Emotion Virtues

The virtues whose inner structure (or psychology) I explore in Spiritual Emotions are contrition, joy, hope, gratitude, peace, and compassion. I call them “emotion virtues” because each of them goes by the name of an emotion: You can feel contrition, joy, gratitude, hope, etc., and a person who has the virtue corresponding to each of these emotions will, on appropriate occasions and in an appropriate way, feel the corresponding emotion. The virtue is not itself an emotion, but a disposition to feel the emotion and to act in ways characteristic of someone who feels the emotion. Not all virtues are emotion virtues. Humility, for example, is not a disposition to feel humility. A person might be deeply humble without ever feeling humble. The same is true of courage. And faith is not an emotion, so having faith does not consist in a disposition to feel faith (whatever that would be). These are facts about the psychology of these virtues.

But even virtues that aren’t “emotion virtues” have emotional consequences. For example, the courageous person might feel fear less than a cowardly person, or he might feel it in a somewhat different way. A person with faith will characteristically feel relief from anxiety when she considers God’s love for her in Christ. A person with the virtue of humility will not feel the emotions characteristic of vanity or snobbishness or self-righteousness, for example. Humility is thus a disposition to lack certain emotions that less virtuous people are prone to feel. The idea that virtues are related in one crucial way or another to emotions is an ancient idea that has been acknowledged wherever people have carefully studied the virtues. Aristotle, in the fourth century B.C., says that a virtue is a disposition both to perform characteristic actions and to feel characteristic emotions in a “mean.” Thus, for example, the virtue of gentleness is the disposition to feel and at just the right time, toward the right person, for the right reason, for the right length of time, and in the right intensity. Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, precedes his discussion of the virtues in his Summa Theologiae with a long and detailed discussion of the “passions.” David Hume, in the eighteenth century, precedes Book III of his Treatise of Human Nature, “Of Morals” with Book II, “Of the Passions.” Adam Smith’s book on the virtues (also eighteenth century) has the title, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Somebody might follow the argument this far and say, “Okay, I can see that psychology can properly study virtues, since they are properties of human psyches, and I can see that they are crucially related to emotions and that some virtues may even reasonably be called emotion virtues. But what about this idea of a spiritual emotion? How can emotions be spiritual? What distinguishes a spiritual emotion from a non-spiritual one? The answer embodied in Spiritual Emotions is a distinctly Christian one.

“The emotions of joy and gratitude the apostles felt depended quite directly on their Christian beliefs. We might say that the very identity of their emotions—what those emotions are—was shaped and determined by what the apostles believed about God and Jesus and thus about themselves and the world they live in.”

The word “spiritual” is much in vogue these days. People speak of being spiritual but not religious, or spiritual but not Christian. The word is pretty vague, but it seems to denote connection with something deep and perhaps mysterious, something of value, something beyond our superficial delights in consumer goods. The object of spiritual experiences might be wild nature or profound art, and the idea is that the spiritual person sees rather deeply “into” these things, and somehow senses the meaning of her life in them.


The Holy Spirit and Emotion Virtues

The Christian tradition, by contrast, speaks of the Holy Spirit who is manifest in the Church in connection with the preaching of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In Galatians 5 the apostle Paul speaks of several virtues as the “fruit” of the Holy Spirit, among which are joy and peace. The other fruit he mentions is the virtues of love, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We find similar lists of virtues elsewhere in Paul’s letters, for example, in Colossians 3:12–15 and Ephesians 4:2 and 4:32. I take it that in Christians all of these good traits will be fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is in this sense, then, that the emotion virtues that I explore in Spiritual Emotions are “spiritual.” They are spiritual because of their connection to the Holy Spirit and thus to the preaching of Christ.

More specifically, the word about Christ with which the Holy Spirit works in believers’ hearts is embedded in the emotions characteristic of the Christian emotion virtues. One aspect of the Christian psychology that I promote is a conception of emotion that is compatible with and helps to explain what the biblical writers say about joy, gratitude, peace, and the other emotion virtues. It is also a view of emotions that is quite compatible with the “cognitive” understanding of emotions that is widespread in contemporary psychology of the emotions. My idea is that emotions are “concern-based construals.” That is, they are ways of “seeing” situations about some aspect of which we are concerned.

Consider, for example, the joy that the apostles are said to feel about being arrested, imprisoned, and beaten for telling the good news about Jesus (Acts 5:41). Most people don’t like being arrested, imprisoned, and beaten up. It doesn’t cause them much joy. But the apostles are said to have rejoiced about being “counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” of Jesus. They construe this situation, which most others would consider a personal disaster, as a blessing and a reason for rejoicing. Why? According to the account of emotions that I offer, it is because they 1) love Jesus and care about being like him and associated with him in his ministry, and 2) “see” themselves as having just done something wonderful and obedient for Jesus. And they feel gratitude to God for giving them the opportunity to do this. That is to say, they 1) care deeply about having this opportunity and 2) see God as their gracious benefactor in bestowing this opportunity on them.1

The emotions of joy and gratitude the apostles felt depended quite directly on their Christian beliefs. We might say that the very identity of their emotions—what those emotions are—was shaped and determined by what the apostles believed about God and Jesus and thus about themselves and the world they live in. This is what makes these emotions “spiritual.” It’s not exactly that they are a different kind of mental event from other emotions (as though spiritual emotions are a different kind of psychological phenomenon from such non-spiritual emotions as joy about getting a raise and gratitude to one’s boss for the raise she gave you), but rather, they are just plain emotions with a spiritual content—they are about God and Jesus thanks to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.

I gave Spiritual Emotions the subtitle A Psychology of Christian Virtues. Why? Because I want to stress that Christians can have their own psychological beliefs, distinct beliefs about human nature and destiny, about what is virtuous and what is vicious, about what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Christians do not need to import, and should not import from the psychological philosophies of the present age, the broad norms that guide our living. The Christian virtues are not the same as the ones promoted under the banner of positive psychology or any of the mainstream personality theories and psychotherapies of our time. We have a different moral identity because we have a different God.

About the Author