Thursday, December 02, 2010

"To the dogs with the Head"

I recently challenged a couple who have led a church out of their house for many years (if regular meetings, the administration of the sacraments and spurious "Word from the Lord" can be considered church) and whom I believed were guilty of grave spiritual abuse. The type of abuse I witnessed was not unlike the way the Pharisees treated people during the time of Christ.
I shared with this couple some of the things Jesus said to the Pharisees, hoping they might be convicted and seek forgiveness from their victims. When this couple eventually responded, instead of addressing the scriptures I had shared, they said that the the problem was with me, and in particular the way I relied on the head rather than the heart. The Lord, they said, favours cardiac faith rather than cerebral religion.
Putting aside the basic problem that it is wrong to abuse people in the name of either the heart or the head (or any other organ, for that matter), this response is indicative of a disjunction which has infected evangelical thought since the era of the revivals. Fallen man has an abiding temptation to separate things which are actually two sides of the same coin, and the disjunction between the head and the heart is no exception. The Bible knows nothing of this dualism:  regenerate man is said to be given both a new mind as well as a new heart. Both are to be sanctified and put in the service of Christ. If the mind is used at the expense of the heart (as with the Jehovah's Witnesses) the result is no less idolatrous than if the heart is promoted at the expense of the mind (as in the people mentioned above, or Finney and much of the 19th century revivalism).
While this false dualism can be found throughout church history ever since the time of Tertullian (who fell prey to the Montanists in his later life largely because he separated faith and reason, the mind and the heart, the intellect and faith), it has been a particularly potent poisen ever since Finney (pictured above) and the, so called, Second Great Awakening. In his book The Life of the Mind in America, Perry Miller writes that
Finney's basic theorem was that everybody can agree upon intellectual propositions. The difference is that some grasp them with the heart, others with only the mind. Thus at Troy and New Lebanon Finney proposed a disjunction which - though it had long figured in literary metaphor and had been dealt with by Edwards - had acquired a new vitality in romantic literature and in religious exhortation, that of the head versus the heart, of intellect versus emotion. Beecher was perfectly familiar with the verbal distinction; he never could comprehend that at New Lebanon he met a creature prepared to say, in language later used by Herman Melville, "To the dogs with the Head."
By making the dualism between the mind and the heart his recurring motif, Finney was able to short-circuit rational critique of his measures by claiming the high moral ground of “heart religion.” Counter-argumentation from his opponents was faulty on the grounds that they were reasoning without the heart, while Finney treated his judgements as self-evident because they were his (a future blog post will show how).  Significantly, however, when Finney appealed to the "heart" what he meant was feeling, leading Finney's contemporary, Nettleton, to insist that the fatal difficulty with Finney's system is that "he uses feeling and heart as synonymous terms."  For Finney, however, this confusion was a useful rhetorical device allowing him to claim – in the name of the “heart” - the primacy of whatever he happened to be feeling at the time.
Suffice to say, any system which elevates one's own feelings to an authoritative status in the name of the "heart", and then short circuits critique by appealing to the spurious disjunction of between the head and the heart, is a charter for the worst type of spiritual abuse.

What would Saint Irenaeus say, I wonder.

Further Reading:

Finney and the New Measures

Blog Posts on Faith and Reason

Ravi Zacharias and The "Indispensable Balance"
8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed

The Problem of Mediation in the First Great Awakening

Religion of the People, by the People, for the People

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