Weekly Edgework #65 - September 26, 2005

Living From The Heart

Rationalism that is unfeeling and sentimentalism that is unreflective both distort the truth…we cheat ourselves if we are either too rational or too emotional. In neither case can we get close to one another in real friendship, or develop an authentic relationship with God (The Heart’s Desire, James Houston, p. 16).

Many persons I know seem to have little idea of what it means to live from the heart. That should not be surprising to me because we live in a society that has largely forgotten how to live by heart. Living by heart requires us to be honest about our intimate relationships and desires. But we are mostly afraid of such honesty that might reveal to others who we really are. When someone in our midst does, in fact, begin living from the heart one of two things happens. Either we recoil in fear that if we get too close our own hearts will also be exposed in the process. Or we begin a journey of longing to get to the place where we too can live by heart.

In the 17th century, René Descarte invented analytical geometry and then proceeded to apply his cold logic to philosophy. To him, the mind was central to human existence. So, the way he saw it, life consisted of a series of problems that could be solved by rational means. He advocated breaking down a complex problem into its simplest parts, and then by means of logical deduction arranging these parts into a geometric pattern. He claimed that when done correctly in accordance with his prescription life’s problems could be solved in a logical way.

One of Descarte’s contemporaries, Pascal, condemned the notion of living by pure logic. He held that spiritual and emotional realities cannot be defined in a mathematical way. There must be room for intuitive reasoning, he argued, that comes from the heart’s experience. It is in the context of this conviction that his famous statement was born, The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.

But for the most part, philosophy through the centuries has mistrusted feelings rooted in the heart. This imbalance can be traced back as far as Plato who lived in the 4th century before Christ. For him the mind was more important than the heart. And it seems that ever after we have tended to think that emotions should not be taken too seriously by intelligent people. Emotions are “messy” and “confusing” and best left hidden behind a more rational approach to life.

I have come to the conclusion, along with James Houston, that a well-balanced life needs to incorporate both reason and emotion. But reason must be tempered by feeling, and emotion by reflective thought. Having said that, however, it seems to me that most of us are afraid of allowing emotion into the equation of life. We are afraid of the heart. It can not be trusted. It is all too easy to cite instances where unreflective sentimentalism did not serve us well. And at the same time remain blind to how unfeeling rationalism has often wreaked havoc on the human condition.

Of course this tension between reason and emotion is very much present in the religious dimensions of our lives. A comprehensive reading of the Bible, for example, demonstrates that both are seen as important. We are called upon both to live with renewed minds and tender hearts. Jesus did not have kind words for the Pharisees who lived by the code of unfeeling rationalism. He regularly pierced through their logic and challenged them to learn to live by heart.

Some people within Christian circles are tempted to say that how we live out our faith will depend upon our various personalities. Rational persons will have a more cerebral approach to faith and life, while emotional persons will lean toward sentimental expression. I think such thinking is too simplistic and basically an attempt to adapt the Christian way to our personal preferences.

While most of us give lip service to some kind of balance between reason and emotion, we tend to side with Descarte in the end because we just don’t know what to do with emotions that are rooted in the heart. While it is important not to lose a reasoned approach to faith and life, it seems to me that in our present context we are especially in need of bringing in Pascal – that is to say, that we must learn to live by heart.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart…He who believes in me, as the scripture says,”Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water”…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me…My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast…Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God…love one another earnestly from the heart…

I know a lot of Christians. But I only know a few of them by heart. Ironically, I know some persons by heart who make no profession of faith. And to speak truthfully – from the heart – I find some of those relationships more fulfilling and life-giving than those I have with Christians who don’t allow me into their hearts. Living without heart is to live a two-dimensional life, as it were – flat and lifeless like the cartoon existence of Archie and Jughead. Living with heart and allowing others into the regions of our hearts is to live with a third dimension. It provides a depth of vision and life that heartless living never can.

There have been times in my life when unfeeling rationalism has had the upper hand. There have also been periods when unreflective sentimentalism has ruled the day. I am still on the way toward a life characterized by feeling rationalism and reflective sentiment; that is, a life in which mind and heart have found a healthy balance. But it seems to me that right now my heart needs more attention than my mind.