Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Eschatology and the Emotions in Early Christianity

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Eschatology and the Emotions in Early Christianity

Article excerpt

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I. The Emotions: A Missing Element in the Study of Early Christianity

Academic interest in the study of the emotions has grown considerably in recent years. Already an obvious focus of research for the biological sciences, the emotions have gained the attention also of the humanities and the social sciences. Witness developments in such cognate disciplines as philosophy, classical studies, history, social anthropology, and social psychology.1 By way of contrast, especially if standard reference works are any indication, study of the emotions has attracted relatively little attention in studies of early Christianity.2 The main exception is in the field of rhetorical criticism, where the attempt is made, drawing on Aristotelian categories, to identify the pathos-that is, the intended emotional effects on readers or hearers-of particular NT texts.3

Arguably, this neglect reflects a scholarly preoccupation in academic theology with matters of doctrinal, historical, and textual reconstruction. Arguably also, however, it reflects a certain myopia with respect to approaches to human perception and cognition that take seriously the expressive and cognitive resources of the emotions and the realm of the experiential.4 Allied with this may be the effects of a bias against Enthusiasmus in the history of Christianity in some quarters. In addition, in philosophy and the history of ideas generally, there has been a recurring tendency in the modern period to build a wall between reason and emotion, the Cartesian tendency being to posit emotion as a threat to reason (and, along with reason, ethics), as opposed to the tendency in Romanticism to exalt emotion at reason's expense. In consequence, in the study of early Christianity, the ways in which belief and practice may have generated a distinctive emotional life (both individual and corporate) and the ways in which Christian emotional life may have affected belief and practice have been somewhat overlooked.

Symptomatic of the problem is the way Klaus Berger curiously does all he can to play down any element of affectivity in Paul, as in the following statement:

For Paul, new creation (dying in baptism and subsequent new being-cf. Rom 6:4-6; 12:2) is not a matter of feelings, of inner experience or certainty. Pauline Christianity has nothing to do with psychology of this sort. Thus Paul is a firm opponent of the modern union between pietism and psychology. . . . Paul hardly ever brings the new existence of the Christian into positive relationship with feelings, with emotionality, or with inner longings. Indeed he is deeply suspicious of all such notions. One can thus hazard the thesis that Paul in his anthropology and theology is a resolute rationalist, fully in accord with Hellenistic Judaism. . . . Between reason, on the one hand, and ecstasy, on the other, there is "missing" (or so we would say) in Paul the subjective middle of feelings, uniquely private needs, positive perceptions, and direct awareness of one's corporeality.5

Berger's statement is a salutary-although to my mind rather overstated-reminder of the rational-juridical "mode of thinking" that Paul shares with (at least some of) his contemporaries in Hellenistic Judaism, and of the danger of "psychologizing" Paul by attributing to him a subjectivity that is alien. I do not think, however, that Berger's should be the last word, in relation either to Paul or to the first Christians generally.

The aim of this study therefore is to open up the question of the impact of early Christian belief and practice on the construction and display of the emotions and to do so against the backdrop of cultures of the emotions in the Greco-Roman world. The kinds of questions I have in mind as an agenda for research are these: Is there a connection between developments in early Christian eschatological faith and the first Christians' emotional life? …

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