Rightly Ordered Emotion

In our culture, the main distinction we tend to make about emotion is between emotions that are pleasant vs. emotions that are unpleasant. But that isn’t the healthiest way to think about emotion, not least because it can lead to the assumption that unpleasant emotions should be avoided and pleasant emotions sought. Instead, it is better to think about emotions that are rightly orders vs. emotions that are disordered. Some rightly ordered emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions can be either pleasant or unpleasant.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) helps us to understand the distinction between rightly ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role in correct thinking as well as in helping a person’s appetites be regulated by virtue. Accordingly, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. Rightly ordered emotion is thus integral to the concerns by which we perceive the world as moral agents. But it is also possible for disordered emotion to obscure our perception of the world. For example, if I feel envy at the good fortune of another, then my ability to rightly perceive the other person’s situation has been obscured. The goal of education, especially the education of children, is to cultivate proper habits, including the habit of responding to situations with the right emotional reaction. Without properly ordered emotions, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated happiness but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.

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Beauty and Virtue

In my earlier article “Listen to Your Feelings“, I added the following section on the importance of beauty, after my friend Jason Van Boom alerted me to the important connection between beauty and moral reasoning (an insight Jason got from reading Hume of all people).

…it is through an emotional attraction to beauty that we are motivated to make moral judgments and to order our lives according to transcendent realities. Through the sense of beauty we are moved out of indifference to become emotionally invested in pursuing one outcome rather than another. For example, when Eve succumbed to the temptation to disobey God (Gen. 3:6), it was because the beauty of the tree and its effects (“pleasant to the eyes… desirable to make one wise”) captured her imagination with greater force than the beauty of remaining faithful to the will of God. That example might lead us to disparage the role of beauty in moral decision-making, and yet the same principle also works in the other direction as the Holy Spirit sanctifies our feelings and imaginations. Through a sense of Christ’s beauty, we become emotionally invested in following Him. For example, when we observe character traits in Bible characters and saints that are worthy of emulation, when we identify certain things as honorable or shameful, when our praise of God is rooted in heart-felt admiration, or when we order our actions based on a longing for outcomes that lie outside the scope of the present life but which are attractive to our imagination—all these things partly arise from a sense of “the beauty of holiness.” (Ps. 96:9) A rightly-ordered sense of beauty is thus central to the moral imagination of the believer.

Pain, Suffering and Resilience, Published by St. Sebastian Orthodox Press

St. Sebastian Orthodox Press has just released a new book Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives.

This collection of peer-reviewed essays explores the mystery of human suffering along with the spiritual and psychological resources that enable us to achieve resilience in the midst of pain.

The publisher explains how the work

“includes eminent scholars, clergy, physicians, and psychotherapists seeking to serve people in their respective fields, through their respective disciplines informed and guided by the depth and riches of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is the unifying thread for each of the contributors who bring this ancient Christian perspective into dialogue with the contributions of modern psychology and medical science as they seek to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain and human suffering in a variety of contexts.”

I was privileged to be asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on the topic of practicing gratitude during times of suffering. My essay  develops material I began exploring in my chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Saints and Scoundrels. By drawing on classic spiritual texts (i.e., The Way of the Pilgrim, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza’s Saying and Discourses, etc) and integrating them with recent developments (i.e., advances in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, the twentieth-century prison literature, etc.) I make a case that suffering and gratitude are not related like two sides of a zero-sum transaction where an increase in the former entails a decrease in the latter. Rather, by receiving our sufferings rightly, we can use them as opportunities to actually grow in the cognitive, behavioral and emotional dimensions of thankfulness. From the essay:

“…true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within a context of thanksgiving…. Gratitude releases us to lean into the pain, to stand face to face with the ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. In contrast to stoicism, cynicism and sentimentalism, gratitude-based reframing does not involve detachment from suffering; rather, it provides the inner resources for genuine engagement…. In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to engage with others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain. In our comfort-oriented culture, many people’s default response is to avoid those whose lives are lonely, messy or filled with pain. Instead of going through people’s pain with them, we often numb ourselves to the suffering around us in order to protect ourselves. However, when the pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the impact of suffering, what we are doing is numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. This is because it is impossible to selectively numb emotion. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, we are inadvertently reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.

Gratitude enables us to look pain straight in the eye and not to despair. Gratitude enables us to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.’ (Romans 12:15)”

What I don’t share in my chapter, but which I would like to share here, is that the research behind this essay was prompted by a very painful set of circumstances in my personal life. The Lord brought me to a point where I was ready to dig deep in ancient spiritual teachings on contentment and pain. What I found is the spiritual paradox encapsulated by Elder Alexander of Gethsemane who observed that “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.

The best chapters in Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, are actually the ones written by others, including a contribution by Fr. John Behr and another by His Grace, Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), who serves as Bisohp of the Diocese of the South for the OCA and ruling bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.

Fr. John Behr’s chapter expands on material he presented in this fantastic podcast, where he observed that the greatest change in the modern world (greater even than electricity and the internet) is that we no longer have to deal with death in an immediate way. Until the last fifty years, ordinary people had constantly to deal with the process of dying and with dead bodies. But in the modern world we no longer see death or have to deal with dead bodies, and hence we have no practical horizon for understanding finiteness, vulnerability and transcendence, or even for fully grasping the mystery of the incarnation when God embraced death in order to trample it down.

I hope all the essays in this book can prove an encouragement to ordinary men and women facing struggles and pain.

I would be grateful for people to buy the book on Amazon and then write a review (Amazon always privileges reviews if the person writing the review has bought the book through them).

You can read more about the book on the St. Sebastian Orthodox Press website.

Further Reading

James Matthew Wilson in the Mars Hill Audio Journal

Last year someone asked me what were my favorite podcasts. Without a second thought I referred my friend to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Since 1993, Ken Myers has been using this audio journal to encourage conversations about faith, faithfulness, and culture, exploring the various factors that have given modern Western culture its distinctive character. Over the years this has involved Myers conducting interviews with a wide-variety of scholars on subjects that include art, technology, history, music, theology, philosophy, politics, film, poetry and almost anything else you could imagine.

I was struck with my debt of gratitude to the Mars Hill Audio Journal today when listening to an interview from the most recent issue, Volume 141, in which Ken Myers has a conversation with James Matthew Wilson on the role of beauty, truth and goodness in cultivating “intellectual vision.” Here’s a few nuggets from this interview:

“that desire, however deformed, to perceive, to encounter being, is the very foundation of the possibility of falling in love with wisdom.

…to remind ourselves that the world is beautiful tells us something about ourselves, that we can stand in contemplation before the world and not have to think ‘what are we learning this for?’ We’re learning it for the joy of it’s being beautiful. And also it tells us something about the world: that the world is itself, even in its most minute particulars, a kind of mystery, where even the crudest material thing conceals depths within itself….

The way Aristotle begins the Metaphysics…has always seemed to me one of the most beautiful few lines in our tradition. It, of course, begins, ‘all philosophy begins in wonder because human beings would practically rather see than do anything else.’ And what he’s proposing to us is that the world itself is wonderful; that is to say, the world itself is a mystery whose existence stirs us to wonder about it. And to wonder about it means both to desire and to know–to desire to know the truth. And so the world, just by its fact of its existence, inspires us to enter into that world with both our active will and our capacity to love and our capacity to know, our reason. So the world is a mystery that seems as if it was put there just to make us start thinking about it and contemplate it.

Rod Dreher on How to Refuse Defeat

From How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem, by Rod Dreher:

“Life is fragile and uncertain. Sooner or later, you will experience a great loss in life, when suffering reveals that the world is not the place you think it is, and that your dreams will not come true after all. What then?

Don’t blame others for what happened to you, even if it might well be their fault. This is a dead end. And don’t settle for stoic acceptance of your fate. Merely bearing up under strain is noble, but it’s wasting an opportunity for transformation. You have the power to turn your burden into a blessing.

What if this pain, this heartbreak, this failure, was given to you to help you find your true self? Make adversity work for you by launching a quest inside your own heart. Find the dragons hiding there, slay them, and bring back the treasure that will help you live well.

Wisdom From Saint Paisios

“The person that is struggling to the best of his abilities, who has no desire to live a disorderly life, but who – in the course of the struggle for faith and life – falls and rises again and again, God will never abandon. And if he has the slightest will not to grieve God, he will go to Paradise with his shoes on. The Benevolent God will, surprisingly, push him into Paradise. God will insure that he takes him at his best, in repentance. He may have to struggle all his life, but God will not abandon him; He will take him at the best possible time.”

—Saint Paisios

The Truth About the Border Wall

The day after I published my earlier post on how the President can respond to the shutdown by calling Nancy Pelosi’s bluff, he took my advice. The Democrats’ response lends credence to my theory that a prolongation of the shutdown is politically advantageous to the Democrats as long as the public generally blames the President.

I am not a fan of Trump, as a cursory browse of my “Donald Trump archives” will show. But in this battle, I support the President. In an article that recently appeared in The Hill, Ford O’Connell clarified exactly what President Trump is and is not asking Congress to do. Specifically, O’Connell pointed out, the President is not asking for a continuous border wall across all 2,000 miles of America’s border with Mexico. Rather, he is asking for money to improve and expand the highly effective fences that already exist along more than 650 miles of the border. Prominent Democrats (Schumer, Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, to name a few) all voted to support these fences.

The border wall in Yuma Arizona resulted in a 90 percent drop in illegal traffic in that area and was supported by Democrats like Obama.

Why did so many Democrats support the existing 650 miles of fencing and barriers in the most dangerous parts of the border (for example, in Yuma Arizona)? This question isn’t hard to answer when we reflect that these barriers resulted in a 90 percent drop in illegal traffic in that area. Before the Yuma wall was erected, the area was averaging around 800 illegals a day. Contrary to right-wing caricatures, Democrats do actually favor border security. The current opposition to Trump’s plan to expand and improve existing barrier structures is purely political, having been fueled by the President’s incendiary rhetoric and angst about his alleged racist motivations.

From O’Connell’s article:

“Of course what Pelosi and Schumer won’t tell you is that the U.S. currently has more than 650 miles of physical barriers and fencing on its southern border. They also won’t tell you that several prominent Democrats including Schumer, Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden voted for it as senators in the name of better border security….

If the Democrats were to come to the table right now and talk comprehensive immigration reform and DACA, so long as it contains additional physical barriers along the southern border, the White House has signaled a willingness to move forward on that front, provided that it enhances border security.

The White House is ready to deal. And even though federal government workers will eventually receive back pay, the White House doesn’t want to see them suffer. The questions for congressional Democrats are simple: Do they really hate President Trump more than they love border security? Do they care more about illegal immigrants than American citizens? Only time will tell.

Of course nothing is impenetrable or foolproof, but the fencing in Yuma, Arizona, is a great example of what works. Since its construction in 2005, it has yielded better than a 90 percent drop in illegal traffic. Similar numbers have been registered at other physical barriers in San Diego, El Paso, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona, since their construction.

Even former Obama Border Patrol chief Mark Morgan, who was removed by Trump, concedes that physical barriers work and that more need to be constructed to make the southern border stronger.

Contrary to the media hype, President Trump is not advocating that one continuous wall should be built on the nearly two-thousand mile U.S. southern border, but that the current barriers be extended by a few hundred more miles. He is also asking for more immigration judges, law enforcement officers, detention beds and additional border technology, among other items — common sense stuff when it comes to stronger border security.”



The Simple Shutdown Solution: Trump Should Call Pelosi’s Bluff

UPDATE: Two days after posting this, the President took my advice, effectively calling the Democrat’s bluff. Can anyone still take Nancy Pelosi’s sophistry and word-games seriously?

There appears to be no end in sight on the stalemate about how to resolve the government shutdown.

The issue is not that Pelosi can’t budge because of genuine concern about the impact a $5 billion border wall will make on the economy. Everyone knows that the economic cost of the shutdown is about to exceed the amount the President is demanding for his wall. So what is really going on?

Once we properly answer this question, the solution from the President’s perspective becomes breathtakingly simple.

What is really going on is that House Democrats want Trump to appear bad, and do not want themselves to appear weak after digging themselves into an intractable position. Consider that if the shutdown were to lead to starvation and social disaster (something that may be approaching sooner than you think), Pelosi may still be unwilling to compromise as long as Trump is getting the blame. Polls indicate that most Americans are indeed blaming Trump for the shutdown, which means that from Pelosi’s perspective the worse the situation becomes, the better it actually is, since more Americans will dislike Trump and vote Democrat in the next election.

Admittedly, this is a very cynical way of looking at things, and it flies in the face of what Pelosi has been telling the public. Officially, her line remains that she is the one who wants to transcend petty politics, that she is the adult in the room contending against a president who is, as she put it, “holding the American people hostage.” To fortify the impression that she is willing to compromise, democrats are passing spending bills they know the President will not sign. The narrative they are projecting is that the House majority are trying to end the shutdown in the face of a stubborn and immovable President.

So what’s the solution? Simply this: Trump should call Pelosi’s bluff. He should offer her a compromise on his terms but which still leaves him on top in the symbolic and psychological power struggle. For example, instead of asking for $5 billion to start the wall, maybe he could ask for $2 billion to start it, or $30 billion for general border security without the wall, or maybe a package that includes only $1 million for the wall and $9 million for ramping up general border security. That sort of thing.

Here’s why I think this is an obvious solution. If Pelosi responded by granting the President’s modified terms, that would be a huge symbolic victory for Trump. The wall could start being built; Trump’s base would love it and could point to it as one more example of shrewd statesmanship under the guise of bombast. We all know that Pelosi will want to avoid the impression of granting Trump even the most nominal victory on the wall, and so she would probably refuse even $1 million to get it started and reopen the government. But such a refusal would simply call her bluff and demonstrate to the public that Pelosi is just as stubborn and intractable as Trump. Moreover, her refusal might help to shift the blame for the shutdown over to House Democrats. “Gosh,” people will begin ask, “if even Trump is willing to compromise, why can’t Pelosi?”

To the extent that Pelosi has framed the border wall controversy in moral rather than prudential terms (for example, pronouncing that because the border wall is “immoral” the Democrats will never agree to fund it), she has effectively painted herself into a corner. Thus, if Trump requested something that was merely a nominal and symbolic victory for himself (say, requesting a million just to start the wall), then it would put Pelosi in a dilemma: she couldn’t meet Trump in the middle without being accused of back-tracking on her earlier statements, and yet to not agree to something that small would also powerfully demonstrate just what type of dispute this really is for her.

What type of dispute is this for Pelosi? From our earliest fights on the playground to the most complicated disputes within marriage, we all know that specific issues become important when they are emblematic of deeper power-struggles and principles that operate in the background, perhaps without being clearly acknowledged. This is just such a dispute: it is not about what Pelosi actually thinks is best for America (remember that the shutdown is about to exceed the amount the President has requested) but about winning her power-struggle with Trump, or continuing it as long as most Americans continue to blame him for the shutdown.

If this reading of things is correct, then it’s time Trump called Pelosi’s bluff by creating a lose-lose situation for her: if she refuses to grant Trump even a reduced proposal on border security, she is highlighted as the one unwilling to compromise; but if she does grant a modified proposal, Trump emerges as the symbolic winner of the power struggle. Then government can re-open and hundreds of thousands of workers can return to their jobs.

Help me publicize this simple solution to the shutdown by liking and sharing my post about this on my Facebook author page.


Why Steve Turley’s Problem With The Benedict Option is a Problem [Updated]

UPDATE: Since writing this article, Steve Turley has offered a response to me, what he called “a critique of the critique of the critique.” Since he has further clarified his position and identified possible points of misunderstanding, I asked Steve if he would be okay with me sharing his response below following my original article. Steve kindly gave his permission. Scroll down to read his response.

The critics of The Benedict Option seem to range from those who are rattled at how modest Dreher’s proposal actually is (“hey, what’s so special about TBO approach when this is what the church has always been saying?”) to those who assume that Dreher is advocating some type of paradigm shift from cultural engagement to retreat. The former critics can at least be given the credit of having understood what Dreher is saying, which cannot be said of the latter group.

Steve Turley’s problem with The Benedict Option is nuanced and thoughtful, while still generally falling into the second category of critics.

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Response to Doug Wilson’s Food Sectarianism

I was recently approached about Douglas Wilson’s 2016 book on food and asked if my articles interacting with his food teachings were still online somewhere. I have been out of the loop for so long that I didn’t even know that Doug had got round to writing this book, although when I had coffee with him about five years ago he told me it was in the works.

From a brief look at Wilson’s book on Amazon, it appears to repeat all of the same distortions, misunderstandings, eisegesis and caricatures that pervade his corpus of blog posts and videos on the subject. Moreover, he offers the worst sort of legalistic sectarianism mascaraing as catholicity.

Wilson’s rampage against health food has reached the point almost of madness, as he is declaring that subcultures in the church made up of food enthusiasts cannot be tolerated and much be expunged from the church. From page 161:

“The church is capable of including any number of subcultural groups within her pale, and can do so without great difficulty. Ham radio operators, rodeo riders, surfers, and rock climbers are all welcome. And what they all do the Saturday before worship does not disrupt the reality of their worship together. But food subcultures are a different matter. Food scruples are the deathly enemy of church unity.”

Wow, that is a pretty extraordinary thing for a Christian pastor to say given the clear teachings of Romans and Galatians. After all, if Paul could advocate a Jew-Gentile mixed church (Galatians), a church in which some people eat meat and other weaker brethren have scruples about eating meat (Rom. 14), then how much more should we be able to tolerate, in the name of charity, a church made up of people whose conscience allows them to eat junk food and other ‘weaker brothers’ whose conscience only allows them to eat organic or gluten-free food?

The point is not simply that Wilson misreads Romans 14, but that on ground-level his theories are divisive. Various people have shared with me that in communities influenced by Wilson’s teaching, they feel increasingly marginalized, stereotyped and judged for their decision to embrace a healthy lifestyle. Some have even told me that they have to keep secret what they buy at the grocery store for fear of being labelled and judged. A good dose of Christian freedom wouldn’t go amiss.

I raised this point back in 2013 in a series of articles interacting with Wilson’s idiosyncratic food theology. A couple days ago, at the urging of a reader, I dug up these articles, cleaned up all the links and republished them on this website, back-dating the articles to reflect their original dates of publication. All the links are given below.

Now that Doug Wilson has upped the ante by writing the aforementioned book, I think he owes the public some sort of response to the scriptural and pastoral concerns I raised back in 2013 about his  food theology. In fact, I’ll go even further: I publicly challenge Douglas Wilson to a debate. (The debate must either be a written debate or live but not timed, to give me opportunity to look up notes, key passages and Scripture verses as we go along.)

Here are the links to my five earlier articles along with four from other scholars who raised similar concerns. I hope these articles can be useful in bringing some Biblical balance to Wilson’s complex theories about food and health.