The Problem with Passion

Michael Metzger

If you believe the political pundits, in a matter of days half the country will think the sky is falling and the other half will act as if it’s The Second Coming. The good news is that neither winner nor loser is likely to take to the streets and rant for revolution — though some might run to the courts and demand a recount! Americans remain in general agreement with Thomas Aquinas, who believed civilization is constituted by conversation; that is, by argument. That’s why Michael Novak says, “Civilized people, treating each other as reasonable, argue with one another. Barbarians club one another.”

But events also suggest that the art of argument is in eclipse. G. K. Chesterton once suggested, “The principal objection to a quarrel is that it interrupts an argument.” More and more, we are becoming a quarrelsome country. I’d like to ask people of faith — particularly evangelicals — if we are mitigating or contributing to the rise of incivility. Specifically, I’d like to consider one word used repeatedly in the church as well as in advertising, magazines, health clubs, and business. It’s even touched upon in David Brook’s latest book, On Paradise Drive, when he asks how magazine editors — month after month, year after year — can churn out “page after page on lip-gloss trends, armoire placement, or powerboat design” without getting depressed. How do they do it? “These editors have, to use their favorite word, passion.”

A great gob of contemporary evangelical literature urges us to be “people of passion” or have a “passion” for God. But as recently as one-hundred years ago, thoughtful Christians shied away from such language. John Hibben, president of Princeton in the early twentieth century, urged graduating students in 1913 “to take your place and fight in the name of honor and chivalry; against all the innumerable forces which are working to destroy the image of God in man and unleash the passions of the beast.” Yet, if you go back thousands of years, every passage of Scripture that takes up the idea of passion does so negatively. In Jeremiah 2:24, the “wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness… sniffs the wind in her passion.” In Romans 1:26, God gives fallen people over to “degrading passions.” Paul says if you don’t have self-control, “let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (I Corinthians 7:9). You get the picture. If you want the whole nine yards, look up Galatians 5:24, Colossians 3:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:5, and Revelation 14:8. Indeed, the Federalist Papers show that the Founders were also concerned about curbing and containing what Hamilton called (and feared) the “passions of the people.” That is why they created a bi-cameral legislature with a Senate conceived by America’s founders as “the saucer into which the nation’s passions are poured to cool,” a separate executive branch and an independent judiciary (the “separation of powers”), a nation of states supplemented by a central government (or the “division of powers” we call “federalism”), checks and balances and other institutional mechanisms to dampen the passions of free men, to “prevent the rabble from passing sweeping new legislation in response to some passion of the moment, as well as to prevent the moneyed classes from abusing the rabble.”

So what’s the problem with passion? C.S. Lewis once observed that those most willing to die for their faith are also most likely to kill for it. Passion lacks peripheral vision. It is so narrowly focused that it doesn’t take into account the fact that we’re fallen, finite, and fragile. Passionate people are not 360-degree people. They often miss the important points that come from obtuse angles. This is why Bernard Lonergan said “elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters.” But, “to exclude an insight is also to exclude the further questions that would arise from it and the complementary insights that would carry it towards a rounded and balanced viewpoint.”

So how should religious faith offer a rounded and balanced viewpoint? First, I’m not suggesting we be apathetic or aloof. I am saying the Judeo-Christian view calls people away from passion toward enthusiasm. The difference is not semantics; it is substantive. The Judeo-Christian idea of enthusiasm is rooted in the compound en + theos (meaning “in God”). Put another way, enthusiasm is passion constrained by God’s law, what Michael Novak calls “the regulative value of truth.” Commitment and purpose came from seeing God involved in our daily lives. The unique feature of faith-centered enthusiasm is that it required an ongoing openness to self-examination (since God is here). That is why 18th century preachers like Jonathan Edwards expressed strong reservations about the passions, knowing that they ward off self-critique.

After the election — and every day, for that matter — we need 360-degree citizens who argue for differing positions, listen to one another, and live with our deepest differences. People of faith can lead the way here.


Morning Mike Check


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *