Religious Significance of Feelings

I am reading Darkness Is My Only Companion, written by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, an Espicopal priest who has suffered from serious depression and is bipolar. The book is her effort to “offer a biblically grounded account, from [her] own experience, of how the Christian may interpret, accept, and handle suffering, especially that with such a stigma as mental illness.”

I just finished reading a chapter titled, Feeling, Memory, and Personality, which I’m puzzling about. In the Ignatian tradition, we learn to pay attention to our feelings, to what stirs in our hearts, not just what we think in our head. This is not unique to Ignatian spirituality; the author observes that “people in the Protestant West have tended to define religion in terms of feeling or experience.”

The author suggests that this notion that feelings have religious signficance is a problem: “If we really believed that feeling is the essence of the Christian faith, the depressed Christian would be given all the more ammunition for self-destruction. Since she cannot by definition feel anything but violence toward and hatred of the self, if that ‘feeling’ were to be validated as religiously significant, then the tendency toward self-annihiliation would only be fueled.” She ends the chapter by saying that she questions the religious significance of feelings.

I don’t disagree with the final line of the chapter that God does not regard the mentally ill soul any differently from when we are mentally healthy. But it seems to me to go way too far to suggest that feelings have no religious significance or that “feeling is not really that important for the life of faith.”

Her comments do, however, suggest that we need to be careful in talking about the sense in which feelings have religious signficance. It would be wrong to suggest either that God looks upon us according to our feelings or that we can always be confident in acting on our feelings. (Neither of those is reflected in Ignatian thought.) We also need to be sensitive the different things (including but not only, mental illness) that affect our ability to feel the presence of God, let alone to feel God’s love and mercy.