Feelin’ It

Michael Metzger

“When you have to stop and think about things is when they go wrong.”

When San Antonio Spurs’ forward Tim Duncan is playing well, he’s feelin’ it. Think too much and things go wrong. You might not be involved in high-speed sports, but you do experience high-speed decision making everyday. Why then does the Western faith tradition depict decision making as relying only on thinking?

Traditional Western thinking depicts decision making as a cause-and-effect temporal sequence—first the thought, then the assessment of the thought, and then the feeling of correctness. This however is not how we make most decisions, writes Dr. Robert A. Burton. If you haven’t played high-speed basketball, consider a baseball pitch.

Professional baseball pitchers throw with velocities in the range of 80 to 100 miles per hour. Elapsed time from the moment of release to the ball crossing home plate ranges from .380 to .460 milliseconds. It takes approximately 200 milliseconds for the image of the ball’s release to reach the retina of the batter and to initiate the swing. The swing takes another 160 to 190 milliseconds. Hitting a high-speed pitch is mostly a matter of feelin’ it, since the combination of reaction and swing time approximately equals the time it takes for a fastball to travel from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.1 This however is not how the Western faith tradition sees decision making.

The easiest way to understand the tradition’s take is to read one of its most popular gospel tracts, The Four Spiritual Laws. It reads: “The promise of God’s Word, the Bible—not our feelings—is our authority.” Decision making is depicted as a train. The engine is Fact, the coal car is Faith, and the caboose is Feeling. “The train will run with or without the caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way, we do not depend on feelings or emotions, but we place our faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God and in His Word.” The Four Laws properly distinguishes between reason and emotion. Depicting thinking preceding feeling is relatively recent in history, however.

In How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer says Plato pictured decision making “in epic terms, as a pitched battle between reason and emotion, with reasoning often triumphing. According to this classic script, what separates us from the animals is the godly gift of rationality. When we are deciding what to do, we are able to ignore our feelings and carefully think through the problem.”2 As Plato’s ideas played out, they proved to be particularly popular in the West.

In his Discourse on the Method for Properly Conducting Reason and Searching for Truth, René Descartes described humans as having a holy soul capable of reason and a fleshly body full of “mechanical passions.” Francis Bacon and Auguste Comte agreed, seeking to shape society around “rational science.” So did Thomas Jefferson, hoping that “the American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone,” writes Lehrer. This idea that thinking precedes feeling sounded scientific until science began to discover that feelings in fact trump reason.

In 1982, a man walked into the office of neurologist Antonio Damasio. His name was Elliot. A few months earlier, a small tumor had been removed from the frontal lobe of his brain. Since the operation, Elliot could not make a decision. Damasio decided to run a series of tests measuring Elliot’s emotional state. “The results were clear,” Lehrer writes. “Elliot felt nothing.” What Damasio demonstrated is that when we are cut off from our feelings the most banal decisions become impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind. The train diagram isn’t true.

“The Protestant tradition has taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment than it does to a holistic, biblical vision of human persons,” writes Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith in his book, Desiring the Kingdom.3 We operate by desire, and we feel our desires. “I don’t think my way through the world,” Smith writes, “I feel my way around it.”4

The Enlightenment take on decision making might explain why many Christians struggle to do well in the high-speed world. In Tom Wolfe’s novel about contemporary college life, Charlotte Simmons loses her faith and virginity by the end of the first semester of her freshman year. The problem wasn’t cognition. It was the high-speed college culture. William Wilberforce describes this process in his book, Real Christianity. He writes that, over time, more than one college student will “gradually begin to doubt the reality of Christianity.” How do they become skeptics? “Reason, thought, and inquiry have little to do with it.”5 It’s more a matter of not feelin’ it.

It turns out the brain operates like a calculator and computer working in parallel. Reason is the calculator, using math for making simple decisions. Any problem however “with more than four distinct variables overwhelms the rational brain,” Lehrer writes.6 High-speed decisions require a high-speed computer performing the complex algorithms—feelin’ it. Feelings work in parallel with reason. Data points matter. The good news is that the ancient gospel has four: creation-fall-redemption-restoration.

On a good night, “it seems like you don’t think,” says Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom. “On an off night, you may be thinking too much.” Athletes make decisions the same way we drive cars, doctors perform surgery, and baseball players hit fastballs. Feelin’ it is most important… and how Tim Duncan knows he’s playing well.

1 Robert A. Burton, M.D., On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), p. 70.
2 Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), p. 9.
3 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), p. 31.
4 Smith, Desiring, p. 12.
5 William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1982), p. 128.
6 Lehrer, How We Decide, p. 244.


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  1. Mike –
    good column again… Feelings do need to be intentionally formed through practice. The reason that Tim Duncan and Lamar Odom can “feel it” is that they have spent countless hours over the course of their lives practicing — even when they didn’t “feel” like it. You are absolutely right that our decisions are driven by both reason and emotion (at least I know for sure that mine are). I also know my feelings can be fickle (the heart is deceitful above all else). So it seems to me that practice is key — just like in basketball or baseball. If we want our feelings to be formed into the image of Christ so that we instinctively make good decisions when the fastballs of life are barrelling toward us, it seems that engaging in spiritual practices is key — even when we don’t “feel like it.”

  2. Danny –
    Well said. Practices, such as “take and eat” as well as the spiritual disciplines, are critical to “loving our neighbprs” becoming second nature. We also need to practice shalom at our workplaces. The “10,000 hour rule” makes it virtually impossible to gain the prerequisite number of hours of practice by merely being involved in church activities. If mastery, such as in making culture, requires 10,000 hours of practice, do the math. An hour of corporate worship and a small group meeting an hour a week = two hours/week. You’d need 5,000 weeks to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice – almost 100 years (of course, this assume the practices make you proficient in making culture). All this to say, I agree – and Sunday services as well as small groups in the church matter. But to achieve mastery, by, say, the age of 30, requires working out our faith – practice, practice, practice – at the places where we work.

    Again, good word!

  3. So can you get faith through practice? I am working with two people who simply tell me they can’t get a grip around faith . They are telling me they do not “feel ” it. I have sent rational readings to help one of them understand the reality of God’s existence . She has rationalized by saying it all sounds good but nothing has come to her like a ” burning bush” experience to have her latch onto some feeling of faith in God.

    Does faith come to those who practice by reading the scriptures and other supportive documents , through prayer and fellowship? I think so, but then again , it seems like some people are tough to convince.

    With the two people to whom I refer, both are over 50 and had been raised in the ” church” . How well that experience was in introducing Jesus is anyone’s guess. But it is what it is and these are two good souls going to waste, as far as declaring their faith .

  4. I read your column regularly and always appreciate your insights in matters of culture and faith.

    The award winning physical chemist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi is very helpful on the matter of decision making. Mars Hill Audio did an audio-zine about Polanyi’s life and thought.

    I have listened to this probably 10 times. Each time I get something new out of it. Very helpful!

    Have you heard of this or read anything about Polanyi?

  5. “Professional baseball pitchers throw with velocities in the range of 80 to 100 miles per hour. Elapsed time from the moment of release to the ball crossing home plate ranges from .380 to .460 milliseconds”

    You can check my math but a 90 MPH fastball takes approximately .682 seconds to travel 90 feet. That is 682 milliseconds – not a fraction of one millisecond.

    Still, hitting a baseball is the harding thing to do in sports. But this metaphor needs a little bit more development.

    To be capable of consistently hitting a baseball requires preparation: both practicing time and time again hitting a ball (muscle memory) but also while the you are at the plate!

    The best players are thinking: what’s the count? What is the pitchers favorite pitch? What’s the score? Who’s on base? Who’s up next? What is my objective: a single, a sacrifice, or go for the fence?

    All this is calculation. no emotion and feeling. I still firmly believe decisions made with emotion without logic to guide it is faulty. Perhaps substituting the word “intuition” for “feeling” is more appropriate because intuition must be developed to be reliable.

  6. Mike, help me integrate your commentary with a Willard article that critiqued the whole Nietsche influenced postmodern culture that says everything is about individual desire. He says, in short, if all we have is desire to base, then we are lost.

  7. I’ve been mulling over St Paul’s admonition to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” How does this fit with your discussion of feelin’ it?

  8. The distinction I’m making has to do with conscious and unconscious behaviors – a distinction born out by discoveries in science. We know, for example, that the brain processes about 14 million bits of information per second. It processes these ‘bits’ by routing them along paths. These paths however have a limited number of traffic lanes, so the brain compresses ‘bits’ into bundles. On average, 100-200 bundles travel along paths at one time but we can only be conscious of between five and nine of them. About 95 percent of the information travels on pathways we are unconscious of. This is why Cal Berkeley professor George Lakoff writes, “It is rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought.”

    I’m simply saying that the cognitive is very limited as opposed to how we feel our way along. Willard is right in critiquing pomo because it absolutizes feelings. I’m not saying desire is the only thing, but I am saying it is the main thing. It is humanly impossible to be cognitively aware of 14 million bits of information every second.

    As for St. Paul, the question is: how did he understand “the mind?” In Jewish thought, there an integral understanding of knowledge, so that we think with our feelings and feel with our mind. It is only the Western mind that isolates “the mind” to the rational.

    Chris, while I understand your qualms, you create a few dichotomies – such as feeling versus logic. Feelings can be entirely logical, it is not necessary to set them in opposition.

  9. Rebecca:
    Michael Polanyi was exactly right. For those unfamiliar with him, Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence” is a worthwhile interpretation. Thanks for the reminder Rebecca!

  10. I found this definition for the word translated “mind” in Romans 12. It confirms your take on it, Mike:
    Results for G3563 – nous
    Transliteration: nous
    Pronunciation: nü’s
    Part of Speech: masculine noun
    Root Word (Etymology): probably from the base of G1097
    Outline of Biblical Usage:
    1) the mind, comprising alike the faculties of perceiving and understanding and those of feeling, judging, determining
    a) the intellectual faculty, the understanding
    b) reason in the narrower sense, as the capacity for spiritual truth, the higher powers of the soul, the faculty of perceiving divine things, of recognising goodness and of hating evil
    c) the power of considering and judging soberly, calmly and impartially
    2) a particular mode of thinking and judging, i.e thoughts, feelings, purposes, desires

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