Affect and Faith: Putting the Worth-ship in Worship
The Heart of Faith by David McShane
Religions often don’t understand how faith happens. Like the cultures they are embedded in, many operate as though thought governs behavior. What most faith institutions fail to appreciate is that affects motivate, not thought. This article by David McShane, a retired minister and longtime confidante of Silvan Tomkins, explores the implications of affect theory in the context of what it means to worship.
Much of “the how” of faith is a mystery, but not all of it. No one can possibly be in charge of another person’s relationship to the Holy. However, one may be a catalyst for some other’s encounter with God. Often, if not usually, it happens by accident, or by providence, if you prefer. It is comprehended retrospectively, cannot be forced, and often, most often, it is at least highly surprising and to the most fortunate it is overwhelming and life-altering. There is no timetable, no progression, no system, no technique which guarantees entrance to the holy of holies. It is an event, not a programmed conclusion. The sacred is not ours to bid come, only to hope for. But hope, real hope, not just simple wishing, hope, hope for an encounter with the holy has a context, and that context is worship.
Indeed, God may come out of the blue, as it were, on an August starry night when the shower of Perseid meteors staggers one into grateful amazement for the wonder of creation. One feels addressed somehow, personally addressed, requiring a response one does not know how to make. Thanksgiving. Awe. Wonder. And the neighbor standing nearby says, “Hey, see that? I saw three at once. Good show.” This uncomprehending quantifying remark saddens the wonderer. Anywhere, any time, the world can be seen to be aflame with the glory of God, but seldom is it so even for the fortunate, and for many, for most in our God-forsaken time, it does not happen at all. The culture is mortally ill from the declared absence of the holy, or of God’s very death at the ashen hands of cold, calculating thought. Thinking one’s way to God is a fool’s errand. As philosopher Hartley Alexander put it once, “God is not the conclusion to a syllogism, but the illumination of a vision.”
Affect enables worth, worth enables worship
What sort of vision is this of which Alexander’s metaphor speaks? What light illuminates that vision? At what frequencies do those colors vibrate as one’s world is perceived? The answer is in how and in what ways the affects have been integrated and invested in. It is only through affect that one can feel the importance of anything. In fact, the evolutionary purpose of affect is to allow us to evaluate what is good and what is bad, so that we can be motivated to move toward the good and away from the bad. The experience of meaning, value and worth of anything is felt according to our complex affective response to it. That is the evolved purpose of the system, to decide “the value of an experience,” according to brain scientist James LeDoux. Or as Richard Cytowic puts it, “It is an emotional evaluation, not a reasoned one, that ultimately informs our behavior.”
Which brings us to questions of faith. Is anything worthy, and how come? Is anything out there WORTH attention, care, possibly devotion? Life, even? Worth is the claim of value. What out there in the world should receive worth-ship (as they might have said in Old English)? And today what, if anything, should we worship? The whole field of ethics is rooted there, in the rules we script from our affective experience. Aesthetics, too; evaluating what is lovely, beautiful, or ugly–these are signaled as well from one’s affective set. So, what we call character develops as a concomitant to script we form to order our world. Anyone who “intends” anything is assigning worth-ship to it, deeming it worth one’s time and energy, one’s life, that is. It happens whenever anyone decides what and how to do anything.
Religions leverage affect unwittingly
The religious institutions are quite forthright about this matter. They go about worth-ship honestly, openly, intentionally. Other institutions are doing the same thing, mostly unwittingly. I doubt that my third grade teacher knew anything about my affect system (that was many decades ago) but she was involved in offering me “an effective selection of the world” as Martin Buber characterized education. The advertising industry, however, knows full well that its very purpose is to guide people’s worth-ship, but hopes to do so subtly so we don’t catch on.
The affects are the primary motivators. The religious institutions face that squarely, intentionally and honestly in claiming that the central thing they provide for is worship. But for the most part they do not really know what they are doing. They “know” very little about affect, how the affect system is composed and how it works. They are in the business of furnishing a setting in which people’s affects are scripted to respond to experience mirroring the scripts of that particular religious body. If it is a Christian church then Jesus is presented as the figure whose life reveals the most dependable and appropriate way to go about one’s own life. The Bible is affectionately embraced as the guide book to Jesus and his way and therefore the way of true life for the members. The worship service is the place and time when all of one’s sensory inputs and behaviors are correlated with the actions and symbols which image the sacred. It is a personal event in which the worshiper is privately addressed. It is a communal event as well, enhancing affective resonance and magnifying the religious script.
The stained glass windows, organ music, candles, singing together, affectionate greetings, Bible reading, the Eucharistic meal, talk about God, and talk about proper human life accompanied by assurance of belonging–these all aim at engagement of the affects in a script for living a life dependent upon and reflecting the life of Jesus. If it is a synagogue or mosque the names, symbols, texts, and actions are different but the goal is the same, the engagement of the affects in such a way that the life style embraced by the particular religion will be become the life-defining script of the worshipers.
A biological theology in the making
Worship leaders need to know as much as possible about the human affect system and its engagement by symbols and rituals so worship may be as effective as possible. “Out of the heart are the issues of life.” The Bible has always said so. Silvan S. Tomkins put it squarely in saying, “The affects are the primary motivators.” Now the brain scientists are following suit, beginning to point out where and how in the brain those conviction-forming processes take place. A biological theology is in the making.
Why does it matter whether or not worship leaders know about affects? Because creeds so often come at the expense of caring. And faith is so often reduced to believing the recitation of a statement. Understanding the nature of affects, and their role in worth-ship, makes clear that a statement of faith is only faithful if if it is understood to be a way of publicly laying claim to the love of God. The function of the worship service is to offer the contents of the faith so that they engage the affect system of the worshipers, deepening their experience of the Holy. Professing adherence to a creed might be part of it, but useless, unless the Word becomes incarnate, fleshed out by the mutual embrace, the deep feeling, among and between worshipers and their God.