An Imbalance in Modern Culture
Our lives are inextricably influenced by what we think is true about reality. This is one of the reasons that thinking about what you believe and why you believe it is so important. Having a solid grasp of these things also means that you will recognize people come to believe what they do in various ways. Reason and logic are the go to for some, while feelings and emotions provide others with confidence in their beliefs. Epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies the nature and foundations of knowledge, explores questions related to belief formation and justification. Now, both reason and emotions are important aspects of how we are made as human beings and both serve as valuable foundations for our worldview. However, if one is overemphasized to the expense of the other, this can create disastrous consequences. I think that such an imbalance is on display in modern society. It seems that in many quarters of our culture, people have decided that feelings and emotions alone determine what is true. In other words, many are no longer concerned with what is actually the case about reality. Their sole interest is in whatever course of life provides them with a subjective sense of fulfillment. We could call this a “truth is what you feel” epistemology and it is reminiscent of what Carl Trueman has described as “Expressive Individualism”. To get a sense of what I mean, imagine a skeptic is asked this question: “If you could be shown that Christianity was true intellectually, would you follow Jesus?” If the skeptic answers “No!”, then they are clearly not concerned with what is true, but only what suits their own preferences.
The Problem with Relying Solely on Feelings and Emotions for Truth
Now, nothing is wrong with seeking personal fulfillment in life. This longing for deep satisfaction and fulfillment is built into us and it has a proper end (I would argue in God Himself). But a significant issue with making your feelings and emotions your sole guide for what is ultimately true (and fulfilling) about reality is they are not always reliable. Our feelings and emotions change from day to day and if we make them our compass for determining what is true, we will be misled. We all know what it is like to feel discouraged and disheartened about something in our lives one day only to find that we feel the exact opposite the next day. Maybe something changes in our circumstances or we gain a better perspective. The point is that if we had acted on our feelings of discouragement in the moment, we may have missed out on a larger truth of our situation.
Another problem with making your feelings and emotions your sole guide for what is true about reality is that they are not always good. In other words, we often have desires that can lead to destructive outcomes; we do not always want what is truly good for us and others. For example, if a man is told by his doctor that he needs to drastically reduce his sodium intake or he will have a heart attack or stroke, his strong cravings for bacon do not change this reality about his health. He may feel the desire for bacon, but this desire cannot be used to ignore the condition of his body without serious consequences. The truth about his health must take precedence over what he desires. He must have a greater truth that guides his desires in the present circumstance. We can multiply examples of this principle. If someone is struggling with deep depression and suicidal thoughts, we do not bolster such feelings. Rather, we seek to get the person help and to counteract these harmful emotions with what is true. If your friend is anorexic, you don’t affirm his or her feelings which tell them they are fat and need to go on a diet. Rather, you would seek to help them overcome these false beliefs and emotions with what is true. To not question such harmful feelings in others and to not seek help for them would be cruel.
These liabilities about relying primarily on our feelings to guide us to truth mean that they should not be used as our sole guide for the ultimate questions of life. If we give in to this temptation, it will prove devastating in the long run. Questions dealing with ethics, God’s existence, life after death, etc. cannot be settled by our changing feelings and desires. If we make feelings our compass in these areas, we will be adrift on a sea of relativism where there are no real answers and thus, no real hope or meaning. We need a greater truth outside of ourselves to affirm our feelings when they are good and to counter them when they are misleading us.
The Need for a Better Epistemology
Instead of having our lives guided by changing emotions and feelings, we need reliable truths to help us navigate life. Without a solid way of knowing, our conclusions in matters of great importance (such as ethics and religion) are likely to be swayed more by cultural opinions rather than what is actually true.
The Christian faith provides a way of knowing that values both reason and our feelings. From the Bible’s perspective, human beings are made in God’s image and as such, we are both rational and emotional. We are not cold, calculating machines nor are we beings always puffed up with vacuous emotions. Coming to know God in Jesus and walking with Him requires the use of our minds as well as a commitment of our whole person. Jesus does not call us to abandon our reason nor does he teach that our feelings are irrelevant. We are to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds (Matthew 22:37). He also taught that our hearts are corrupt and that our wicked deeds flow from our hearts (Matthew 15:10-20). If our hearts are corrupt, this means we cannot give blind trust to whatever we are feeling at the moment. We must have a healthy skepticism towards our feelings since they so often can lead us astray. Thus, truth is not determined solely by what we feel inside. This treats it as something relative and relativism fails in many ways to provide an accurate picture of truth.
Where does this leave us? Well, I have tried to show that an epistemology that treats feelings/emotions/desires as the sole guide for truth is destructive. I have also tried to demonstrate how the Christian worldview provides a way of knowing that makes sense of our reason and our emotions. Christianity does not say that our feelings and emotions are irrelevant to the quest for truth since they can help us to know God and connect with Him. However, the cultural message that “whatever you feel inside should be affirmed and not questioned” must be rejected. A life lived with this epistemology results in destructive outcomes and it does not lead to wholeness or satisfaction. The path to both truth and fulfillment is found in Jesus Christ who saves us from the darkness of our own hearts by making us new. It is in him that we find our true purpose and are able to live in accordance with his good design.