Secularism and its contribution toward making religion subjective has resulted in emotionalism. This article addresses the restoration of balance between ethics, spirituality and emotion. The author looks at biblical teaching on the relationship between these three things.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2011. 7 pages.

Affect and Effect The Significance of a Biblical Spirituality for Christian Ethics in a Secular Age

In our time, there is every reason to reflect on the relationship between ethics, spirituality and emotion. This threefold combination is very popular in Western society of our day.

To illustrate, I point to a 2008 project carried out by the well-known Dutch singer Marco Borsato. He is an ambassador for the organization “War Child”, and attempts to mobilize the broader public in support of his help for child soldiers. His project is entitled White Light. He has released a CD full of vaguely spiritual lyrics. One of them is an anthem to ‘white light’. He quotes Genesis 1: “and God said: let there be light, and there was light”. At the same time, this white light turns out to be a New Age symbol for higher healing powers. Borsato organized mass events in public stadiums, where he played on the emotions of the crowds. In addition, he has produced a film – which received numerous awards – with the same title: White Light. It contains a shocking and emotional recount of the things done by child soldiers. Whoever takes part in this project will feel a powerful and deep-rooted appeal. By means of a combination of emotional impulses and spiritual symbols, people of today are driven towards ethical action: taking the side of child soldiers. Borsato’s project is an exemplar of a contemporary combination of ethics, spirituality and emotion.1

This same combination is also taking hold of Reformed Christians. For them, too, the choices between good and evil are increasingly governed by whether or not it ‘feels right’. For them too, it is not just a matter of ordinary feelings, but especially of religious feelings. As people undergoing authentic experiences, they feel free to let their intuitions guide their ethical choices. This is often accompanied by resistance to an externally imposed Christian ethic, such as ‘rules’ that call for obedience. The alternative is that doing good ought to come from within. Ethics should be internal in their motivation and growth.

In this presentation, I intend to examine a number of aspects of this relationship between ethics, spirituality and emotion. To begin with, I will analyse how our context drives us to this connection. Then I will consider, from a theological and Biblical perspective, how such connections might legitimately be made. Finally, I will show what effect a healthy connection of these three elements will have for our ethics.

1. The Challenge of our (post)-secular age🔗

In the eyes of many, our present world is going through a ‘post-secular’ period. They point to the fact that religion, having been marginalized for some time, now enjoys renewed attention. ‘Secularization’ seems to be drawing to an end. That, however, is not what the inventor of the term ‘post-secular’, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, intends it to mean. In his view, secularization simply continues; next to it, however, we encounter a growing array of new forms of religiosity. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor takes this a step further.2 To him, this new emergence of religion is simply another manifestation of the present secular era. Characteristic for secularization is not that religion should disappear, but that it should no longer be self-evident, a matter of course. You can ‘do’ religion, or not: that is a matter of subjective choice. Before modernity, faith was the first, self-evident ‘default option’. In all directions, the human self was open to the cosmos, and the cosmos was full of higher powers. Whatever you thought and did was determined externally: by God or by the gods. With the onset of modernity, man for the first time begins to see himself as a separate, defined identity with a private inner world. In addition, the cosmos starts to lose its enigmatic character; it becomes an empty universe, in which natural and moral laws provide order and structure. Instead of a cosmos that determines your ‘self’, an ambition grows to control the outer world from within the self. Since then, orthodox Christians have increasingly begun to see God as living outside of nature, in a space which, so to speak, is attached to the outside of the ‘normal’ closed natural world. True, God sets the laws for this natural world, but He is no longer present in it as a distinct entity; He does not usually intervene in the existing order or in human responsibility. Over against this, atheists assert that there is no place left for God at all. Secularization sets aside any possibility of transcendence.


Together, orthodoxy and atheism have evoked counter-movements. Both of them are too ‘rational’; they both leave humanity stuck in an empty universe. In these counter-movements, the human self is primarily seen as the source of feeling. ‘Ethics’ is not that the self assents to an existing framework of laws, or that it develops a set of laws of its own, but that people, from out of their feelings, strive for self-actualization. By means of authentic experiences, in which they remain true to themselves, they shape their own lives. In this way, there is a renewed place for the transcendent and the divine. Transcendence is a movement by which one rises above the self, and so fulfils oneself. This ethic and this spirituality are extensions of each other. In Taylor’s work, we frequently encounter this ‘moral/spiritual’ combination.

In Taylor’s view, then, there are only two places left in this secular age where we can still think about God or about ‘higher’ things: in the transcendent world of orthodoxy, or in the inner world of personal feeling. This secular world-view influences ever more sections of society; since the 1960s it has reached almost universal dominance. The result is an explosion of new variants of spirituality. A growing number of people have made the shift away from an excessively one-sided rational orthodoxy or atheism, towards more emotional or spiritual variants. Since they do this as individuals, an endlessly varied palette of moral/spiritual options has arisen, all of which have emotions at their core. Marco Borsato’s project, as described above, is a typical example.

In the light of Taylor’s analysis, it is remarkable that reflection on the relationship between ethics, spirituality and emotion is relatively rare. This is true for general ethics, in which the liberal variant has remained rational and atheistic, while the more communitarian approach, while leaving some room for this connection, still remains quite reticent concerning the possibility of a moral role for emotion. Within Christian ethical reflection, this link also receives very little attention.

Hence, where these cultural shifts begin to gain influence in society and in the churches, the risk grows of a divide between everyday ethical and spiritual practice on the one hand, and ‘official’ theological reflection on the other. Fortunately, there are some contexts in which thought is being given to the relationship between ethics and spirituality. One of these areas is the study of ‘spirituality’ itself. This has come about because this concept has been expanded to become an inclusive label for all kinds of religions and therefore any religiously-motivated ethics. In addition, reflection on this relationship has developed within Roman Catholic ethics since Vatican II, within Eastern Orthodox ethics, within more recent forms of liberation theology, within the Jewish ethics of Levinas, and within the narrative ethics associated with thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. We also encounter it where reflection on the use of the Bible in ethics leads to advocating a less linear-rational use of Scripture, and in renewed attention for the concept of ‘the art of living’, which in practice combines what we usually distinguish as ethics and spirituality.

Added Challenge🔗

While there is room for more encounters between ethics and spirituality, the inclusion of emotion presents an added challenge. Recent research in psychology has clearly shown that emotions play an important role in both the spiritual and the moral dimensions of human existence. For example, it is interesting to note that difficult ethical choices are greatly demanding of emotional or affective energy. As with physical energy, it appears to be possible to train the emotions, just as muscles can be trained. This becomes all the more interesting when we are confronted with the increasingly popular view that good deeds of Christians must arise spontaneously from within.

Useful distinctions can also be made between emotions, moods, and affective characteristics. ‘Emotions’ in their narrowest sense are responses to stimuli, and generally last for a short time. For instance: when seeing Borsato’s film, there is an immediate impulse to donate money. If we do not, the emotional impulse quickly diminishes. Moods are longer-lasting emotions. Affective characteristics are linked to dispositions. They position people to feel – or not feel – certain emotions.3

2. Spirituality, Affectivity and Ethics🔗

Is it possible, by means of Biblically responsible theology, to throw light on the relationship between spirituality, ethics and affectivity? One of the insights of the English ethics scholar Oliver O’Donovan is helpful here. In his ethics, he assigns a decisive place to the spiritual emotion that we call ‘the joy of faith’. Christian ethics arise from the resurrection of Christ. Through the resurrection, God confirms and completes His creation order. People are called to share in the resurrection themselves, and to learn to live in such a manner that they do justice to and become part of this restored creation order. Our motivation for this, the Bible teaches, is affective. The resurrection evokes joy in human hearts, and this joy includes a heartfelt assent to the renewed order within God’s creation. This affective motivation must be present, if conduct that willingly conforms to God’s purposes for life is to follow.4

It must be said that O’Donovan barely considers whether joy is an emotion or an affect. He thinks at a fairly conceptual level. Jonathan Edwards, to whom O’Donovan explicitly refers, is different. In his renowned ‘Religious Affections’ Edwards pays much attention to the affective character of faith. To this day, his work continues to stimulate thinking about the connections between ethics, spirituality and emotion.5

In Edwards’ epistemology, there can be no knowing without feeling. Everything that we know evokes an emotional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ within us. That leads to actions of the will: we are attracted to or distance ourselves from whatever we know. At bottom, this occurs because God, as the first object of human knowledge, always appeals to our affective dimension. Since people have been created to know God, they are affective creatures to the very core of their being. In His holy love, and by means of its extraordinary radiance, God exerts an irresistible attraction on human beings. A unique beauty proceeds from God, an aesthetic dimension that evokes these affects in people. This beauty is all the more unique because at its very centre stands the hideousness of the cross. This is the beauty and the attraction of divine love. Beauty calls forth longing; this affect implies action of the will and hence determines the direction of life. In Edwards’ view, the ethic has its origin in the aesthetic.

Develop Tools🔗

Edwards was not naïve in his thinking about the affects of faith. His prime intention was to develop tools that enabled a distinction to be made between genuine and false affects of faith during the Great Awakening of his day. His aim was to take the wind out of the sails of those who uncritically acclaimed all affective manifestations, as well as those who immediately condemned all unusual or even extreme expressions of emotion. His own criteria go deeper. He held, for instance, that genuine affects of faith must have an external origin, the Spirit of God. We would never discover the beauty of God in the Crucified One through an affective movement from the inside out. God Himself needs to break open our closed-up selves. Edwards, therefore, would oppose our present-day combination of emotion and spirituality, which has its origin within ourselves. Once we see this beauty of God, our perception of reality is altered and enhanced. We could be compared to someone who, once colour-blind, suddenly sees the world in full colour.

It is important to note that genuine affects of faith will lead to a change in ethics. Whether spirituality and its accompanying affects are truly authentic will become apparent through the ethics that proceed from them. Conversely, Edwards understood that authentic Christian ethics are unthinkable without authentic affects of faith. Only those who have been affectively touched by Christ will move towards Christ and grow to resemble Him in their lives. The core of such ethics is not which concrete act corresponds to which specific command. More than that, the question is the manner in which our lives, in concrete situations, show the best fit with the glory of God in Christ. The core of every ethical question is framed in an aesthetic dimension. Edwards’ ethics have therefore rightly been characterized as ‘ethics of the fitting’. Actually, this description also fits O’Donovan’s approach, albeit with an added redemptive-historical dimension. His central question is: how does my life fit with the works of God in Christ? Still, we may not forget that there is a similar element in Edwards’ thinking. Christian ethics are determined by the question: to what extent are affects of faith truly present? Should the affects be weakened, then the glory of God touches us less, and it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom reality, and to know and practise what is good.


As a theologian in the Calvinist and Neocalvinist tradition, I believe that this valuable emphasis in Edwards’ thinking nonetheless requires an addition. In the approach we have just described, the core of faith is love. Still, the teaching of Scripture (consider for instance the expression ‘obedience of faith’ in Romans) and theological tradition (not least the Calvinist tradition), also allows us to understand faith in terms of obedience. Next to ‘ethics of the fitting’, there is also room for ethics based on obedience to the Word or commands of God. Ethical questions cannot be limited simply to ‘what is fitting’; they must also respond to ‘what is required’.

That becomes clear, for instance, when we explore the affects of faith that come with ‘the fear of the Lord’.6 In my view, this is the fundamental affect of faith in Christian spirituality. Whoever knows the fear of the Lord responds to the real presence of God himself. Where the fear of the Lord is absent, all the other ‘affects of faith’ cannot really be considered as being evoked by the radiance of God. For then they are and remain projections of the pious self. In the fear of the Lord, reverence for God and attraction to Him go together. There can be no encounter with God unless both elements are present, at least to some extent. Such an encounter will always call forth reverence and cause a strong attraction.

One the one hand, in the Bible this fear is described as a true affect, one that has a strongly motivational influence. We see that in Christian family life as well as in the New Testament instructions for our place in public affairs, to mention just two examples.

On the other hand, in Scripture the fear of the Lord is not always portrayed as being a tangible affect. It sometimes also coalesces into an ongoing attitude towards God and his Word. In such situations, it is seen as synonymous with obedience, characterized by a radical attitude of attentive submission.

The affective experience of the impact of God is not always a directly personal experience. Sometimes, the Word was accompanied by powerful and deeply impressive manifestations. We see that at Mount Sinai, and in the visions in which some of the prophets were called to their office. Whenever this word is repeated in later contexts, it is always with the intention that this first affective impact continues to resound. Even if later listeners have not experienced these manifestations directly, they still serve to motivate them to take an attitude of attentive obedience. Affectivity is then indirect. The act of listening can then be transformed into a genuinely affective and emotional response. But even if it does not, training and perseverance in this attitude towards the Word of God is and remains important. In the words of contemporary affective psychology, one undergoes a certain kind of affective training. It serves to position you, so that you continually receive direct affective moments in faith; in this way they also become direct motivators for growth in Christian ethical understanding and conduct.

Not Sufficient🔗

For this, an ‘ethics of the fitting’, as advocated by Edwards and O’Donovan, is in itself not sufficient. The actual impact of the glory of God on the human heart cannot be taken for granted, and until the eschaton it will always be under attack. In practice, periods of strong affects of faith will alternate with leaner times. And our ethical practice will vary accordingly. It is only during times of rich affect that Christian ethics will increase in strength. At other times, what is good will not come of its own accord, and there is a need for the external discipline of Word and command that calls for obedience. Even a heart that has been softened can revert to hardening. It is especially at times like these that we do not depend entirely on internally driven ethics, but also on external discipline and obedience. Sometimes, the external imposition of a certain order in the midst of brokenness is the best that can be achieved. Just as occurs in the Bible itself (most notably in the Old Testament), it may be necessary to accept a compromise, and to be willing, for the time being, to be satisfied with a minimum. For the present, the chief thrust of ‘ethics of the fitting’ still cannot survive without the support of ethics of outward obedience, discipline and – sometimes – compromise.

3. Consequences for Christian Ethics🔗

The connection between ethics, spirituality and emotion, as outlined in the foregoing, has consequences for Christian ethics.

a. In a (post-)secular culture, Christian ethics must learn to listen and speak out in public.🔗

Christian ethics must beware of accommodating itself to the demands of the dominant liberal view of society. Contrary to the wishes of this view, it must not keep its spiritual roots to itself in public debate. Nor should Christian ethics be limited to thinking about how best to speak out in public life. It must learn to listen publicly to the Word of God. Only in this way can it become a guide to real transcendence in today’s culture, and overcome Taylor’s dilemma between the ‘upper world’ of orthodoxy and the ‘inner world’ of modernity.

Christians must do more than simply warn against today’s mix of emotion, spirituality and ethics, all the while minimizing the role of emotion. It is better, drawing on Edwards’ tradition, to overcome the hype of today with a better combination of emotion, spirituality and ethics, one that springs from listening to what God says.

This public speaking and listening will have to be actualized on the level of everyday practice. The distinctively Christian combination of affectivity and spirituality must, from an ethical perspective, be at least as fruitful as the range of variants found in contemporary culture. Christians must be at least a forceful and effective as Marco Borsato in taking action against child soldiers – to take just one example – if their public listening and speaking is to have any credibility.

b. Christian ethics must integrate the findings of the social sciences.🔗

The practice of Christian ethics has been strongly biased towards the perspective of systematic theology. In following this path, however, Christians have come to understand that emotions do have a strong influence on ethics. In addition, we have learned to see that other disciplines have carried out useful and intriguing research about the nature of emotions and their moral dimensions. In order to avoid becoming too abstract and too theoretical, Christian ethics must be much more purposeful in exploring and integrating the findings of these disciplines. For example, it has become clear that in everyday situations it is not sufficient for Christians to explain what is good, and to set out its normative character. It is also necessary to exert influence on the emotions of faith and spirituality. To neglect that is to rob all ethics of their power.

c. Christian ethics must learn to open itself to the transcendence of God.🔗

Developing the lines of Edwards’ thinking, there is a need to ask critical questions about those who practise Christian ethics. They too must be touched affectively by the radiance of God, if they are fruitfully to come to grips with the full depth of the created order and its ethical dimensions. Otherwise, they too will remain colour-blind. Christian ethics is more than following a coherent and convincing method. Therefore the study of Christian ethics can only be effectively pursued if it is embedded spiritually, such as in a practice of prayer and meditation.

d. Christian ethics must rediscover its place in its interaction with the Word of God.🔗

This will have direct repercussions for the way in which the Bible is used in Christian ethical reflection. In both classical and more hermeneutical approaches, there has been a tendency to draw ‘information’ from the Word of God and transfer it to the ethical argument: data, models, a coherent set of principles, etc. Ethics that does justice to its spiritual roots ought to take on a listening attitude much more explicitly. It is only when we adopt a continuous attitude of listening to the text of Scripture that it can have an experiential effect on our lives. Such an experiential effect is indispensable in living with that Word at a practical-ethical level. Unlike our usual practice, this fruitfulness of Scripture for ethical reflection does not depend on specific Biblical data, which might – directly or indirectly – provide answers for specific ethical questions. The strength of the Bible in Christian ethics must be sought primarily at a more fundamental level.7

e. Christian ethics must examine itself, to see whether it provides sufficient room among Christians for differences in ethical practice.🔗

The degree to which the radiance of God really does have an affective impact on people will have a bearing on ethical expectations as well. This will vary from time to time and from person to person. On one occasion, a Christian will be closer to the transcendent style of the Kingdom of God than on another. The well-known spiritual writer Thomas Merton relates that in his (rare) moments of passive contemplation, what is good proceeds almost of itself. At other times, then, it is not so easy. In like manner, God will have a greater place in the life of one Christian than in another’s. While the affective impact of the glory of God is sometimes lacking, an attitude of listening obedience to the Word of God may still be present. No doubt this will lead to a Christian ethic and way of living, but this will be less far-reaching than where the affects move more powerfully.8

This realization will help the church on the one hand to take its starting point in the transcendent style of the kingdom of God, such as Jesus has set it our for us in the Sermon on the Mount, while on the other hand to leave room for those who are in a weaker position, or who are struggling with irremediable brokenness in their lives.

From this perspective, while Protestantism has always objected to the dualism found in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, there is some wisdom in the distinction between clergy and laity, each with differing moral standards. At the very least, it helps us to remember that room ought to be left between ethical examples and ethical followers.

The church is not some kind of company where the communal average sets the tone. It needs members who have been visibly touched, more than most, by the beauty of God in Christ, and who therefore display a style of life that is visibly and more than usually governed by Him. At the same time, this cannot be held up as a standard of conduct to which all members, as a matter of course, are expected to adhere. The church is not an elite assembly; it must leave room for those who have not reached that level, but who genuinely desire to submit their lives to the discipline of the Word of God. In such a communion, the affectivity of the one will become effective in the life of the other.


  1. ^ (22-04-2009), (22-04-2009)
  2. ^ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge, USA; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007
  3. ^ Raymond F. Paloutzian, Crystal L. Park (eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, New York: The Guilford Press, 2005, 239. 245. 420ff; Nico H. Frijda, The Laws of Emotion, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2007.
  4. ^ Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral order: An outline for evangelical ethics, Leicester: Apollo, 1994-2, 26 (O’Donovan uses the term ‘delight’). 71; Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Evangelicalism and the Foundations of Ethics’, in: R.T. France, A.E. MacGrath (eds.), Evangelical Anglicans: their role and influence in the church today, London: S.P.C.K, 1993, 96-107.
  5. ^ Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2: Religious Affections (ed. by John E. Smith), New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959
  6. ^ John Murray, Principles of conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, London: The Tyndale Press, 1957, 229-242.
  7. ^ Brian Brock, Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
  8. ^ Thomas Merton, Spiritual direction and meditation and What is contemplation?, Wheathampstead: Clarke, 1995, 95ff.

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