Contemporary Affect Theology studies the heart of faith. It tracks how human emotions become religious feelings. The spiritual foundation of liberal faith, after all, is not a set of doctrinal claims or creeds or religious beliefs or ideas. Liberal faith begins with transformed and uplifted feelings that exalt the human soul and let us love beyond belief, come what may. I use Contemporary Affect Theology’s core principle of love beyond belief when I work with congregations. The goal: to transform “corpse cold” churches (as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it) into sanctuaries that warm and elevate the human heart and inspire folks to stand strong on the side of love.
Contemporary Affect Theology’s nineteenth-century antecedent is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Affekt Theologie, the attempt by the German father of modern liberal theology to give balance to the rational theology of Kant (among others). Schleiermacher’s Affekt Theologie focused on the affective stimulations of the human nervous system and made these movements of the “human soul,” as he put it, the first reference for all discourse on religious feelings and beliefs.
I have updated Schleiermacher’s system using insights from the brain science of emotions (affective neuroscience founded by Jaak Panksepp). Panksepp created this new field to show his neuroscientific colleagues what they repeatedly overlooked: the affective foundations of human and animal emotions. Panksepp found three basic types of affect: (1) affect that makes us experience shifts in the internal state of our body (e.g., hunger or fatigue); (2) affect that makes us experience shifts in the type of emotional system that has been triggered and thus aroused (e.g., the experience of being enraged); (3) affect that makes us experience our bodily sensations (e.g. tactile and visual stimulation from sources exterior to the body).*
These affective commentaries on our sensations, emotions, and internal physiological and anatomical shifts, Panksepp concluded, are the way we initially, consciously but non-conceptually, take note or become aware of what has just happened to our body. This awareness is indeed a state of consciousness, defined here functionally as the “bare awareness of ‘something.’”
Referring to affects as “pre-propositional feelings,” Panksepp found that they alert us, not through ideas, but through a felt sense of life—called affective consciousness—about how we are faring in the world, within ourselves, and with others at the somatic level of our lives.
To be sure, Panksepp argues, these affective triggerings can be modulated by rational consideration as well as through dream work on alternative ways of responding behaviorally to the triggered feelings. Nevertheless, they are a way in which the brain neurologically assesses the internal and external environment in order to make affective judgments and take action in the world.
These genetically grounded, trans-species feeling systems resonate as internal attention-getters, -stoppers, and -sustainers. They move human bodies to act before belief and rational reflection set in.
More broadly, Panksepp suggests that the analysis of affect is challenging traditional Western religious claims about the nature of the human soul and the human spirit as strictly rational entities. The human soul and the human spirit, Panksepp insists, have neurological characteristics, constraints, and histories, and so they must no longer be described as disembodied, rational, emotion-less entities.
Panksepp is affirming basic claims made by Schleiermacher here without ever mentioning Schleiermacher’s name. And similarly to Schleiermacher, Panksepp’s claims are not proffered as theological doctrines or as creedal belief. Rather, they are presented as neurological findings about human consciousness that can be investigated by science.
Contemporary Affect Theology thus brings theology back to its emotional senses – again. We pay attention to the feelings of wonder and awe and love beyond belief that bind individuals together and create healthy religious community. And we show how these feelings — in Schleiermacher’s words — are the “natal hour of everything living in religion.”
* For bibliographic references to Panksepp’s work mentioned here, see Thandeka’s essay “Future Designs for American Liberal Theology” and her forthcoming book Love Beyond Belief: Finding The Access Point to Spiritual Awareness (Polebridge Press, 2018-in press).