Why Do We Disagree? (Part 4)

It’s tempting to think about theology as a purely intellectual and academic exercise. What you feel about a doctrine is irrelevant, we may say. In truth, however, our emotions often affect our formulation of doctrinal truth and our acceptance of it. Like so many other aspects of life, this has positive and negative aspects to it. On the one hand we should feel strongly about doctrine, God even commands us to feel certain ways about theology (Ps. 33:1; Phil. 4:4). Yet, how we feel about a doctrine isn’t necessarily determinative of its truthfulness. Our emotions impact our theology, and because of this it impacts the results of our theological work. Our emotional diversity can lead to theological diversity.

It is rarely discussed but our emotions do play a part in our hermeneutics. No one approaches truth dispassionately. We feel about our theology like parents feel about their children. We can become so devoted to certain ideas that we struggle to be impartial in our discussions. We love and treasure our doctrinal beliefs and we will defend them with tenacity and ferocity if need be.

Rhyne Putman discusses the difference between nonrational and irrational factors. There is an important difference between the two. When someone is irrational, he notes, they are “thinking in ways contrary to reason or elementary laws of logic” (When Doctrine Divides the People of God, 122). Irrational thoughts are blatant logical contradictions, like saying “up is down” or “2+2 = 5”. Nonrational factors, however, are simply ways in which we make decisions that are “not part of the formal reasoning process.” If I say, for example, that I enjoy the sounds of punk rock over the sounds of country music, I am using a nonrational argument because my preferences cannot be logically defended. You may think I am crazy, if you are a country music fan, but you cannot accuse me of being irrational. While matters of theology are certainly weightier than matters of taste, there are ways in which nonrational elements contribute to our doctrinal formulations.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the various reasons that “good people are divided by politics and religion.” The book is an introduction to moral psychology, and while I can’t agree with all his conclusions his research sheds some light on the influence of nonrational factors in formation of beliefs. 

According to Haidt, our intuition about ideas precedes our “strategic reasoning” of them. Most of us think that we come to our beliefs purely by reasoning our way to them, but in reality we already have preconcious gut feelings about ideas. As Putman explains:

Before we think about what is right and wrong, we have a gut feeling about it. Our reasoning is often subservient to our intuitions and emotions. Even the way we reason our way to the best possible explanation is often shaped by our feelings.

(When Doctrine Divides the People of God, 131)

Long before you are able to intellectually explain your theological position you have an emotional response to it. If I say the word “predestination” you will have an emotional response towards that word, either favorable or unfavorable. If I say the word “fundamentalist” you will feel something before you develop a rational argument about the positives or negatives of the word. Our intuitions about a concept, that theological gut feeling, precedes our reasoning. This can lead to very different doctrinal ideas because we are not simply making rational arguments, but we are making rational arguments often in response to our feelings about a doctrine.

This is not to say that all Christian doctrine is purely emotionally-grounded. While Haidt might believe this is the reality for all beliefs, I do not. Emotion and intuition may influence our theological beliefs but they are not determinative of them. God has made us such that we can learn to embrace truths that conflict with our desires as we seek to walk according to the Spirit.

Our different intuitions and tastes, however, can lead us to develop doctrines that are in disagreement with one another. Pre-conscious biases turn us off to certain doctrinal concepts that, entirely apart from reason, we are inclined to dismiss. In other words, we may disagree because we feel differently.

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