An interview with Brandon Benziger on emotions and orthopathy

One of the most significant but neglected aspects of multi-faith engagement is orthopathy, or right emotions. Evangelicals often focus on orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right behavior), but the significance of emotions related to both Christian belief and practice fails to receive the attention that it should. In my work with the Multi-faith Matters grant project through the Louisville Institute, we have conducted case studies and identified best practices that churches are using with their religious neighbors like hospitality. But such practices can't get off the ground if we don't have the right emotions toward those in other religions beforehand.

In this blog post I interview Brandon Benziger, a Denver Seminary student (see his bio at the conclusion of the interview) on emotions, orthopathy, and multi-faith engagement.

Q: In the past, what direction has theological reflection tended to take in regards to emotions? What have been its basic contours?

Benziger: Before turning to theology, it might benefit to take a brief look at the history of philosophical and psychological theory on emotion. Thomas Dixon and others have argued that "emotion" is a relatively new term and concept, beginning with the 18th- and 19th-century work of the anti-Aristotelian Scottish philosophers David Hume (1711–1776) and Thomas Brown (1778–1820). Attempting to revise the then-predominant, premodern psychology of "passions," "appetites," "affections," and "sentiments," Brown and Hume took what was understood as active, cognitive faculties of the soul and re-cast it in terms of passive and involuntary mental states. It is interesting to note, then, that the original concept of "emotion" was a deeply non-cognitive one.

Concurrently, throughout the history of Christianity, theological reflection on the "emotions" (i.e., passions, etc.) has been infused by a dualism between "head" and "heart" religion. This stems from both a Platonic or substance dualism, which associated passions with the evil, inferior status of the body, and an Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of the soul as dyadic, which emphasized the spiritual faculties of intellect and will. According to Andrew Tallon,

What Aristotle and Aquinas did was to relegate the emotions to the "lower," sensible, animal soul, having to do with the body, while reserving to the 'higher' soul the "spiritual" faculties of reason and will. The effect of this doctrine of the dyadic spiritual soul entered Catholic and Protestant theology through the influence of Aquinas and was woven into the fabric of Christianity's relation to embodiment and emotion from then on. This is the historical origin of theory and practice today. It is still dominant in Christian teaching, although signs of its demise are emerging as neuroscience enters mainstream education. ("Christianity," in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion, ed. John Corrigan [Oxford University Press, 2008], 117–18).

With that said, there has been a tendency among theologians to take a fairly negative and non-cognitive view of the emotions (applied to theology proper and anthropology alike). There are important exceptions, such as the Edwardsean, Wesleyan, and Pentecostal traditions, but overall emotion has received little explicit attention until recently and has been relegated in large part to religious praxis and piety.


Q: How has this changed with developments in and awareness of neuroscience and related disciplines?

Benziger: Cognitive and social-constructivist theories of emotion, whether from the fields of philosophy, psychology, or neuroscience, have helped foster a much more positive and constructive view of the emotions, especially with respect to art, religion, and ethics. To quote Tallon again, "Scientific investigation, and especially neuroscience, suggest that emotion is absolutely necessary for successful practical and ethical decisions, refuting the idea that an emotionless robot would be a perfect saint, devoid of unruly passions and lustful desires" (ibid., 122). This has been a major driving force behind my own academic work, and it has had a significant impact on biblical and theological reflection in general, especially since about the turn of the millennium.

Perhaps the most telling treatment of this shift within biblical studies is Matthew Elliott's book Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2006), which was actually the impetus for my study of emotion in the first place. Elliott's work deals more with philosophy and psychology than neuroscience, but it is an excellent reminder of just how far biblical scholars and theologians have imbibed a non-cognitive view—and, consequently, a distrust and suspicion—of the emotions.

Q: Have evangelical theologians engaged in a multidisciplinary approach to the development of emotions, and how has this compared to other scholars in other Christian traditions?

Benziger: As far as I can tell, evangelical scholars and theologians have been fairly ambivalent about emotion and have not contributed as significantly to the discussion as have scholars of more liberal or progressive persuasions. Matthew Schlimm, in his book From Fratricide to Forgiveness (Eisenbrauns, 2011), details several social and cultural reasons why scholars have often neglected emotion in the biblical text (see pp. 1–3). This probably applies to theology and the humanities more generally as well. But from a distinctly Christian and evangelical perspective, three additional factors may help explain the skepticism: (1) the theocentric nature of the faith seems to militate against our human-oriented, therapeutic culture; (2) emotions are often associated with young children and troubled adults—and thus immaturity; and (3) many emotions, such as lust, bitterness, and envy, seem intrinsically sinful (Lydia C. W. Kim-van Daalen and Eric L. Johnson, “Transformation through Christian Emotion-Focused Therapy,” in Transformative Encounters: The Intervention of God in Christian Counseling and Pastoral Care, ed. David W. Appleby and George Ohlschlager [IVP Academic, 2013], 171–72).


Q: What types of applications have you seen this applied to in Christian theology, and any in relation to multi-faith engagement?

Benziger: Several studies exist on the intersection of emotion and pastoral theology. Other than your own articles and posts, as well as the resources that can be found in my bibliography on "Emotions and the Bible" (http://www.denverseminary.edu/resources/news-and-articles/emotions-and-the-bible-an-introductory-bibliography/) and on my website (bcbenziger.com), these include:

  • Gregory S. Clapper, "Finding a Place for Emotions in Christian Theology," Christian Century, April 29, 1987.

  • John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (P&R Publishing, 2008), e.g., 370–82.

  • Gregory R. Peterson, Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (Fortress Press, 2003), e.g., 85–95.

  • William C. Mattison III, "Examining the Role of the Emotions in the Moral Life: Thomas Aquinas and Neuropsychology," in Theology and the Social Sciences, ed. Michael Horace Barnes (Orbis Books, 2001), 277–92.

  • Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, "Coming to Our Senses: Feeling and Knowledge in Theology and Ministry," Pastoral Psychology 63 (2014): 689–704.

  • Carrie Doehring, "Emotions and Change in Spiritual Care," Pastoral Psychology 63 (2014): 583–96.

  • Doug Blomberg, "'The Heart Has Reasons that Reason Cannot Know': Thinking, Feeling, and Willing in Learning," Journal of Education and Christian Belief 17.1 (2013): 61–77.

  • Lynda Z. Tyson, "Feelings in the Bible: Tools for Religious Leadership Education," Journal of Religious Leadership 13.2 (2014): 111–31.

  • Carson E. Reed, "Motive and Movement: Affective Leadership through the Work of Preaching," Journal of Religious Leadership 13.2 (2014): 63–82.

  • Dale M. Coulter, "The Whole Gospel for the Whole Person: Ontology, Affectivity, and Sacramentality," Pneuma 35 (2013): 157–61.

  • Adam C. Pelser, "Reasons of the Heart: Emotions in Apologetics," Christian Research Journal 38.1 (2015): 34–39. Accessible at http://www.equip.org/article/reasons-heart-emotions-apologetics/.

  • Ellen T. Charry, "Christian Theology as a Guide for the Emotions," Arrington Lecture, Regent College, February 19–20, 2014. Accessible here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/ellen-charry-lecture. This is the only resource I've come across (again, besides your own) on the role of emotions in multi-faith engagement, and it seems Dr. Charry is working on a lengthier, full-scale project. 

Brandon C. Benziger (MDiv, Denver Seminary; BA, Fresno Pacific University) is currently a ThM candidate at Denver Seminary, specializing in Old Testament studies. His thesis is on emotion, rhetoric, and character ethics in the so-called “strange woman” poems of Proverbs 1–9. Brandon works as a freelance editor, as a librarian at the Carey S. Thomas Library at Denver Seminary, and as a research assistant for Dr. Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at North Park Theological Seminary. He lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wonderful wife, Steph, and his two delightful children, Evelyn and Oliver.

John Morehead