Whenever I teach graduate seminars, I lay down one rule for the participants. While they’re free to say what they think, they cannot start any sentence with the words “I feel . . .” or ask a question which begins “Don’t you feel . . .?” Quizzical expressions immediately appear on some students’ faces. Then I inform them I couldn’t care less what they feel about the subject-matter.
At that point, there’s at least one gasp of astonishment. But before anyone can even think “trigger,” I say, “Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m not interested in your feelings about our topic. Well, I want to know what you think about the subject. We’re not here to emote to each other. We’re here to reason critically together.”
The puzzled looks disappear. Students, it turns out, grasp that reasoned discussion can’t be about a mutual venting of feelings. And that’s as true for the Church as for graduates.
Catholicism has always attached high value to reason. By reason, I don’t just mean the sciences which give us access to nature’s secrets. I also mean the reason that enables us to know how to use this information rightly; the principles of logic which tell us that 2 times 2 can never equal 5; our unique capacity to know moral truth; and the rationality which helps us understand and explain Revelation.
Such is Catholicism’s regard for reason that this emphasis has occasionally collapsed into hyper-rationalism, such as the type which Thomas More and John Fisher thought characterized much scholastic theology in the twenty years preceding the Reformation. Hyper-rationalism isn’t, however, the problem facing Christianity in Western countries today. We face the opposite challenge. I’ll call it Affectus per solam.
“By Feelings Alone” captures much of the present atmosphere within the…