Evangelical affectiveness (and that’s not a typo!)

It wasn’t long after deciding on the above title that I wondered if it would be assumed to contain a ‘typo’ and that I actually meant to write ‘evangelical effectiveness’.

Certainly, there is no lack of evangelical writing on effective leadership. For example, when you search Amazon.com using the phrase ‘evangelical effective’, you will see 35 books listed in the results. In contrast, the phrase ‘evangelical affective’ only yields a single result.

Now, some might attribute that difference solely to the fact that, in modern parlance, ‘effective’ is far more prevalent than ‘affective’. Yet, when you search for both those words in the handy Google Books N-gram Viewer (which charts word frequencies in sources that were written between 1500 and 2019), you will find that the difference in usage is nowhere near as pronounced as some might imagine.

In fact, when you search for ‘affective’ by itself (defined as ‘relating to, arising from, or influencing feelings or emotions’), you will find a wealth of learned writing on that subject.

Let me be clear that I’m not implying that there is an overall reluctance among evangelicals to tackle tough emotional issues, such as bereavement, depression and suicide.

Instead, what I am saying is that, when discussing morality and ethics, we (and I include myself) can become over-reliant on what I call ‘confessional rationalism’ rather than also engaging affectively with those issues.

Here, I should emphasise two things. Firstly, I am not dismissing the value of confessional declarations per se. Indeed, down through the centuries, those statements have reflected an admirable commitment to integrity within the Reformed tradition (I think of Luther and Bonhoeffer). In situations of moral crisis, our adherence to a common confession has served the church well.

Secondly, I am not implying that subjective feelings or ‘lived experience’ should replace reason as the sole arbiter of truth.

Instead, I’m deeply concerned that over-reliance on confessional/doctrinal apologetic reasoning can and has resulted in an arid soulless rationalism, which is devoid of pastoral engagement and empathy.

For example, there have been several high-profile court cases and tribunals which have involved Christians invoking their (Article 9) human right of freedom to manifest their religion and belief (e.g. Ladele v. London Borough of Islington and the more recent Richard Page v. Lord Chancellor)

When Christians have lost their cases, it has been all too easy for evangelical commentators to join in the ‘pile-on’ and adopt an unyieldingly censorious tone without expressing a whit of sympathy for their fellow believer.

Similarly, after the Euro 2020 final, despite the heartening way in which our country rallied behind the three young black England footballers who had been deluged with racist tweets (and who also happened to be Christians), I was deeply saddened by some evangelicals, who were incapable of expressing deep sympathy towards these young victims of racism and were more intent on downplaying the gravity of the offence.

To them, the real danger was not the harm caused by such vile bigotry (which they readily attributed to Russian bots).

Instead, they expressed far more concern over the fact that English footballers were ‘taking the knee’, which they readily interpreted as incontrovertible evidence that the team had all but surrendered to a rising tide of cultural Marxism.

What they had abandoned was St Paul’s explicit exhortation to empathy: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom. 12:15).

And that tendency towards cold rationalism is neither winsome, nor is it particularly Scriptural.

For example, St Paul readily interspersed his discourse with pastoral engagement and deep empathy. Consider these affective excerpts from his letter to the Philippians, which would have been read aloud before that congregation:

• ‘I thank my God every time I remember you’

• ‘In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now’

• ‘I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel’

• ‘God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus’

• ‘You whom I love and long for, my joy and crown’

Even when Paul is warning the church about sinful behaviour or false teaching, he doesn’t just call out the culprits. He tells the church that he has wept bitterly over them (Acts 20:19; 2 Cor.2:4; Phil.3:18)

Erudite scrutiny is valuable. But for evangelicals to prize it at the expense of affective empathy is not merely wrong-headed. It’s downright unscriptural. That should be reason enough to change.

David Shepherd is an active member of Beacon Community Church in Camberley and was formerly a Deanery Synod Representative in the Diocese of Guildford.

Image: Vicki Nunn – Pixabay

Is it possible to be good without God?

William Christofides explores the question, does Atheism provide an adequate basis for morality?

In his book on Humanism, Jim Herrick writes: ‘For humanists, morality is a human construct underpinned by our biological development’.1

To say morality is a human construct is to say that it has no objective value. To be objective a thing must, by definition, be independent of human thought. For instance, the planet Jupiter is objective as it continues to exist whether humanity recognises it nor not, as are the stars and the cosmos. By Herrick’s definition, right and wrong do not ultimately exist, as they are simply what a society collectively decides is acceptable or not. For instance: rape, murder, torture, lying, slavery, and genocide appear wrong to us; but that is only because we decided it. If a society decided these things were acceptable, there would be no objective standard to refute them. Since morality is a human construct, different groups of humans can decide for themselves what is right and wrong. In some societies, human sacrifice is acceptable. If morality is a human construct, who are we to criticise their ideas?

This moral dilemma is illustrated by David Rose, who relates a true story of a Catholic missionary who attempted to convert a tribe who practiced human sacrifice. The Catholic missionary ‘compared the pure and simple rite of the Catholic Mass with the hideous practice of human sacrifice’. However, the tribe leader responded that ‘it was much less revolting to him … to sacrifice human beings than it was to eat the flesh and blood of God Himself.’ From this, Rose concludes: ‘Simply stated, intuitions are not universal, but expressions of our individual, social and historical characters and are – as such – arbitrary, true merely by luck’.2

Mobile morality

In our own time it is clear that a society’s understanding of morality is never static. What was once considered acceptable (and even commendable) is later repudiated and condemned. This is powerfully illustrated in the #metoo movement. The French author Gabriel Matzneff made his literary career out of the sexual exploitation of underage girls. In 1974 he wrote: ‘To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.’3 Matzneff was not unique in his views. In 1977 a group of French authors, intellectuals, and philosophers (including Roland Barthes, Jacque Derrida, and Michel Foucault) signed a petition which called for the ‘decriminalisation of all consensual relations between adults and minors below the age of 15’.4 It is clear from these examples that it is not always safe to base one’s morality on what is socially acceptable.

Some Atheists and Humanists have tried to get around this moral relativism by appealing to human progress. They accept that our society has held abhorrent views in the past, and that other cultures today continue to hold them, but we have progressed beyond that! By using science and reason, they say, humanity can gradually discover what is correct and put aside backward and archaic values. Steven Pinker writes: ‘With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism, humanity could make intellectual and moral progress.’5 Such views of human progress were widely held by Humanists and liberal theologians in the 19th century. In a Christmas sermon in 1867, the liberal Anglican Benjamin Jowett said:

‘[There] seem to be very real improvements which we have ourselves witnessed. And they show that the world is not always getting worse and worse, but is upon the whole in some degree better than formerly, whatever we may be as individuals. There may be some temporary distress during the present year, but upon the whole we are all better off, both in material and moral well-being.

‘… I think that we certainly gather from the past, the lesson of confidence and hope of good upon the whole increased, and evils likely to be diminished, because they begin to be more realised. And although there are some dark spots on the horizon at present, yet there is no reason to think that any dangers are coming upon us which may not be averted by firmness and prudence; especially if we do not allow ourselves to be diverted from the plain duties by panic fears and unreasoning prejudices.’6

War and ‘reason’

Here the same values of reason, science, and progress were espoused. However, these optimistic views of human progress were severely tried by the devastating events of the 20th century. Again, Jim Herrick writes: ‘As a century of war, genocide and totalitarianism it was an appalling period’.7 The atrocities of the 20th century do not seem to fit into the 19th century’s optimistic narrative of ‘confidence and hope of good upon the whole increased, and evils likely to be diminished’. If people in the 19th century were wrong to think human society would gradually improve with the advances of science and reason, what makes us think we are right today?

The fact of history is that scientific advances do not necessarily result in moral improvements, and ‘reason’ has often been championed to justify the most bizarre, counter-intuitive, and abhorrent actions. The cause of ‘reason’ was perhaps at its height during the Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe. Whereas thinkers like Steven Pinker praise Enlightenment thinkers as those who applied ‘the standard of reason to understand our world, and [did] not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts,’8 cultural historians have shown that these thinkers entertained many strange and irrational notions. Alister McGrath observes:

‘The 18th century [was not] consistently rational in every aspect. In fact, the Enlightenment is now recognised to be intellectually heterogeneous, including a remarkable variety of anti-rational movements such as Mesmerism and Masonic rituals. Mesmerism is of particular interest. The movement takes its name from Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a German physician who achieved considerable success in Paris. Mesmerism was grounded in astrology and the occult, and laid particular emphasis upon the therapeutic powers of animal magnetism and the potential of hypnotic séances. The strongly irrational character of this movement, which gained a considerable following within the Paris social élite on the eve of the French Revolution, is a reminder that the “Age of Reason” had its decidedly less-reasonable aspects.’9

This demonstrates that, contrary to Pinker’s assertion, ‘reason’ for the Enlightenment thinkers did not exclude the so-called ‘generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts’. If reason has so many faces, how can it be a reliable foundation for morality?

Nothing beyond ourselves?

If morality cannot be clearly discerned from societal norms, science, or reason, then where else can we look? Are we left in agnosticism and scepticism when it comes to moral issues? Such was the conclusion of the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Starting from the premise ‘Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself,’ (thereby excluding the external authorities of society, science, and reason) Sartre concludes: ‘If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad’. Elsewhere he states: ‘If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.’10 Such then is the position the Atheists find themselves. There is no moral imperative beyond themselves to which they appeal. They may choose to largely subscribe to a Christian ethic, a Marxist ethic, or a Hedonistic ethic. The choice is theirs!

From what has been said so far, an objective source for morality needs to be: 1) independent of human thought, 2) transcend societal norms, and 3) transcend the limits of autonomous human reason. Christian theism meets all these requirements.

Christian theism

Firstly, Christianity holds that God is not bound by our subjective impressions and thoughts of Him. He is not, as liberal theologians like Feuerbach suggest, an embodiment of our ideals and aspirations. The Bible says: ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ This tells us that God is beyond our thoughts and is therefore objective. It is from such a source that an objective ground for morals can be found.

Being objective and high beyond us, God’s moral character and requirements transcend all societal norms, thus meeting the second criteria needed for objective morality. The Bible says: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.’ God’s goodness and love endure forever, and are an eternal objective standard against which we measure our morality. Again, the Bible says: ‘Be holy, because I am holy, and be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ When God defines goodness and perfection, He always points to Himself, since God is good and perfect.

Finally, being high beyond us, His standard of what is right for us necessarily transcends our limited scope of reason. The medieval poet and theologian Dante wrote: ‘Reason has short wings.’ Dante demonstrates how human reason is capable of incredible feats: it could search out the ways of Earth and Nature and could understand the workings of the human mind. However, when it came to the great questions of purpose and meaning, reason had to stop. In these matters Dante had to submit to revelation (symbolised in his poetry as the Divine Beatrice). This is what the Bible says: ‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.’ There are certain things we cannot comprehend which only God knows. Only God knows what is good, as no-one is good except God alone. Goodness would always remain secret to us if God had not revealed it to us in the Bible, and ultimately in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, and when we look to Him, we see what goodness looks like in practice!

William Christofides is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University reading history. His interests range from Welsh history to Idealist philosophy. He is a member at St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff.


Jim Herrick, Humanism: An Introduction p.34.
David Rose, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: A Reader’s Guide p.17.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/world/europe/ france-pedophilia-gabriel-matzneff.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_petition_ against_age_of_consent_laws
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now p.11.
Benjamin Jowett, Sermons: Biographical and Miscellaneous pp.361,367.
Jim Herrick, Humanism: An Introduction p.115.
5 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now p.8.
Alister McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750-1990 p.15.
10 Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism & Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet, pp.30, 35, 41. Emphasis added.

Enjoying God more, enjoying sex more

Fresh Pathways to Spiritual Passion
By Julian Hardyman
IVP. 183 pages. £9.99
ISBN 978 1 789 741 735

This book is a lively reflection on the tiny, enigmatic Song of Songs. In 20 brief chapters the author explores the Song. Each chapter concludes with questions for further thoughtful action and a short prayer.

People tend to see Song of Songs through one of two dominant lenses. One lens sees the book as an ancient sex manual. Another lens, with an ancient pedigree, sees the Song as an extended meditation on the intimate relationship between the divine lover and His people. This lens has a variety of tints and filters. Some take a relatively restrained approach that draws links between human love and marriage, and the relationship God’s people have with the divine bridegroom. Others almost allow their imaginations to run typological riot in their interpretation.

The middle way

Hardyman wisely treads a middle way by viewing the Song with bifocal lenses. Jesus, Lover of My Soul sees the Song as a celebration of human love that reveals a deeper experience of love in our relationship with the divine lover. Feedback from the sermon series on which this book is based is scattered throughout the book; these messages clearly hit the spot. I like the way that the author weaves Biblical reflection with the soundtrack of his life, through musical references and honest observations about everyday life. One of the most helpful statements is: ‘People generally think that the main theme of the Song of Songs is sex. As I have studied it, I have realised that the main theme is actually desire.’

Permission to enjoy

The author helps the reader to challenge misdirected and disordered desires. The book includes two chapters on the corrosive nature of porn as one of these intimacy wreckers. Maybe the best thing about this book is that it grants permission to enjoy God and His good gift of sex. It reminded me that I am a person loved by God and helped me to reflect on how to love in a way that is pleasing to God.

The September issue of Evangelicals Now is out now!

The September issue of Evangelicals Now is out now! With features on evangelism in 2022, cricket, the Festival of Light and much more, as well as all the usual news and reviews.

Visit e-n.org.uk to get a copy, or to sign up for a FREE two week digital trial