The Power of Feeling over Thinking

by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s

David ison 2

I write this on the day that the British Government is triggering Article 50 to take Britain out of the European Union: a day regarded as totemic by many, but for diametrically opposite reasons. There will be many articles, blogs and posts, and will continue to be over the next few years, as we enter the uncharted waters of Brexit: but how many intellectual exchanges will engage with the deeper feelings at work?

The Leave/Remain divide operates at different levels. During the campaign there were many arguments and claims made on both sides (‘the facts that you should know’), the truth of which were disputed; and that argument continues to play out. But underlying such argument, such reasoning and the quest for truth, are the feelings that drove much of the debate and which were very powerful in deciding what people thought.

What many of us will remember about the result of the referendum on 23rd June 2016 is not what we thought about it, but how we felt about it: our emotional response to leaving, and our feelings about the people who responded with a different view. And that conflict of emotion continues, in the way in which ‘Remoaners’ and ‘Brexiteers’ are stereotyped and written off by those on the other side, instead of coming together with those with whom we disagree in order to find the best way forward for our country.

The reality is that we’re not rational people, though we may try hard to be. We are whole people, and until we acknowledge and work with our feelings as well as our thoughts we won’t be able to address the underlying issues. Until Remainers respond to the desire for change by those voting Leave, especially those who feel excluded by globalisation and social and economic change, and until Leavers recognise the feelings of loss and fear that Remainers have with regard to an unknown future for their children and wider society, the greater national unity which the Prime Minister aspires to will be unattainable.

And this applies as well to the issues around ordained women and LGBTI people in the Church. We can’t treat these as simply rational matters, problems to be intellectually solved, issues of proclaiming biblical truth or avoiding it. As the practice of Shared Conversations acknowledges, until those on either side (or none) can recognise the power of feelings over what all of us think – and not just over what those on the other side think – we’ll be unable to engage honestly to find an understanding of how to move forward together.

A recent blog on the Via Media site by Martin Seeley highlighted the issue of the interpretation of scripture. But this isn’t simply choosing to negotiate on the principles by which we interpret scripture in order to decide what is true. It involves a whole raft of feelings and loyalties, a commitment to a community who see scripture in a particular way, an emotional commitment which is quite independent of intellectual inquiry. We have an emotional investment in what we believe, and we don’t just change it because the opposing argument is good. As human beings we are social; like a wolf pack we follow the lead of others, and we fear stepping out of line. We won’t be able to really talk about the ways we interpret scripture until we’re honest about the feelings that underly our commitments to them.

After the 1992 vote to allow women to be ordained priest went through, I encountered a number of male clergy who were intellectually accepting of women’s ordination, but joined Forward in Faith because they didn’t want to lose their friends and community – and I also met clergy who had been ostracised by their ‘friends’ because they agreed with the change, and so had in the view of others been disloyal to their community.

And I, along with many others, have discovered that changing my mind in response to arguments both intellectual and emotional about how as an evangelical I should interpret scripture on these issues – and thus how I believe the wider Church should interpret scripture – brings with it the struggle to integrate what I feel emotionally with what I believe intellectually, as well as facing the cost of exclusion by those who are emotionally as well as intellectually wedded to a different view.

At a deanery synod in a village in North Devon twenty years ago which was debating Issues in Human Sexuality, I overheard one lady saying to another: ‘I was just brought up to believe it was disgusting’. And it’s that which we need to get out into the open: the feelings that underly and affect our thinking and our ability to empathise with others, coming out of our own experiences of sex and gender, the need to identify with a group, and the fear of those different from us.

What it feels like to face the prospect of being expelled from your group for having a different view; what it feels like as a woman priest or bishop to have people reject your ministry and be allowed to discriminate against you; how it feels to be gay or transgender and be told there is something deeply wrong with and about you; how it feels to be regarded by many in society as unacceptable in your views; what it feels like to believe you’re being faithful to biblical truth when those outside your constituency (whatever it is) tell you you’re wrong…

As with Brexit, so with the Church: until we listen to one another’s feelings and acknowledge the power of our own, we have little prospect of coming together for the future.






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6 Responses to The Power of Feeling over Thinking

  1. Stephen Colver says:

    As both Christian and a psychotherapist, I’ve long known this to be true. There is a powerful emotional base behind what theology or churchmanship we find ourselves identifying with. Of course it is easier to talk on the intellectual level than to explore and discuss one’s emotions for various reasons.

  2. Martin Sewell says:

    You might be interested in the views of the American Lawyer Jerry Spence. He was a phenomenal trial lawyer feared by every Corporation in the USA. He never lost a civil case and last lost a criminal trial in 1969! He ran his business from a small office in a Wyoming and described himself as ” just a simple country lawyer.”

    In his book ” Win your Case” he gave the secret of his success as realising that every case turned on emotion. Command that position and Judges would work around the law thereafter.

    Were this not the case, he reasoned, dry as dust tax disputes would be ruled upon unanimously by the Supreme Court with mathematical precision – only they are not. The Court often splits 5:4 and that is only explicable in the terms of emotional attachment to some part or implication of facts.

    • Christopher Shell says:

      It could equally be that 5 (or 4) are rational and 4 (or 5) are emotional – incredible though this be in the case of judges. That is my understanding of the anomaly that views can be polarised whereas evidence (on which views should always be based) is not polarised but may be expected to show ‘normal distribution’ to a greater extent. If there are emotion-led people and reason-led people, then that explains not only the anopmaly of polarisation but also the binary pattern (seen in US election, in TV debates,etc.) as though there are 2 main positions. Yes there are: the emotional and the evidence-based. But they are obviously not of equal value.

      I also think that judges rule (and remember that they regularly rule in cases where evidence is finely balanced, by definition) according to the norms and mores of their particular society, what will be considered socially acceptable. If that is correct then the rule of political correctness overrides the rule of law – a scary thought.

  3. Pingback: ‘Feeling over Thinking’ – Dean of St. Paul’s | Kiwianglo's Blog

  4. Fr. John-Julian , OJN says:

    Many years ago I was having lunch with the great Swiss psychologist and expert on child intellectual development, Jean Piaget, and I asked “What do you think is the most important thing the world needs to hear today?” His reply was immediate—as he stabbed his fork towards me in emphasis—”All human decisions—ALL DECISIONS—are made on the basis of emotion!”
    So you have very good company in the case you make so well—sad though that may be in cases such as Brexit, same-sex marriage, or the election of Trump here in the USA. How ever can we reintroduce reason into human (and especially ecclesiastical) discourse?

  5. Christopher Shell says:

    Kirk and Madsen admit their own dishonesty (p154) a bit like the Moonies with their ‘heavenly deception’.

    Feelings are based on wants, and therefore are less mature. Arguments are based on facts and on the desire to be as objective as possible. It is not surprising that today when 70 year olds go to nightclubs, divorce, younger people feed off the bank of mum and dad, and 60 is the new 30, there is a shift to less maturity.

    On what basis can it therefore be argued that the two are on a par?

    It is convenient not to engage in the factual debate (especially when the facts are against one’s preferences), but if you don’t or can’t engage, then you lose. Having done no factual research it is also convenient to plead that one’s position has equal weight to the position of those who have devoted years to research. But everyone knows that is very far from true.

    Transpose this to a home setting. A parent knows rationally that sweets harm the teeth. A child emotionally wants sweets.

    We ought to give the child’s position the greatest respect, based as it is on such experience and insight.


Any thoughts?