Against the Charge of Evangelical "Emotionalism"


I am not an artist, but I have the good fortune of being married to one. Over the years, my graphic designer wife has shown me enough tips and techniques for me to try my hand at creating a flyer or postcard from time to time, then I pass my rough draft along to her to give it that professional finishing touch. On one particular occasion, my wife asked if I made the deliberate choice to use a black-and-white background image, or if I just happened to like that image best. I was confused. I was completely oblivious to the fact that I had chosen a black-and-white image. I actually had to go back and look at it myself to verify the fact.

You see, I had chosen an image of a cross with a wide-open sky as its backdrop. And in my mathematical/analytical mind, since the sky is blue, that meant that a picture of the sky would be blue as well. The concept of "sky" determined my perception of the image itself so that it never occurred to me that I was working with a black-and-white image. To me, the concept of a thing often feels more "real" than the thing itself.


This anecdote came to mind after reading an article by Dr. Gregory Popcak wherein he argues (rightly, in my opinion) that much of present-day Catholic culture suffers from a kind of "spiritual autism." He writes,

Generally speaking, people who are on the autism spectrum struggle with the idea of relationship. Their brains tend to see people the same way they see objects. They aren’t good at picking up or even appreciating the need for emotions and emotional cues... I see these dynamics in certain Catholics’ practice of their faith. This 'spiritual autism' tends to cause Catholics to see people as irrelevant. Relationship (with God and others) feels like a painful distraction at best and even unnecessary or offensive.

In the broader picture, this means that Catholic culture leans heavily towards traditionally left-brain traits that value fact, analysis, and structure, versus more right-brain qualities like relationship, emotion, and creativity. By contrast, large segments of the Evangelical world that have embraced more right-brain, relational approaches to ministry are seeing significantly better results in the areas of evangelism and discipleship.


Despite the evidence, many Catholics remain resistant to the idea of adopting Evangelical approaches or learning from their methods. The resistance that is voiced usually comes down to labeling these methods as "emotionalism," whether that charge is aimed at their music, sermons, multimedia, or terminology (e.g. "personal relationship with Jesus").

At the core of this resistance, I think what you will find is a dynamic very similar to what was taking place in the story I shared at the beginning of this post. Left-brainer that I am (a math major in my undergrad), the concept that the sky is blue constitutes "reality" in my mind, enough to make me oblivious to the fact that the image itself was black-and-white. In a similar way, a hyper-focus on the conceptual aspects of our faith is blinding many Catholic ministry workers to the immense gap between concept and experience in the lives of those they are trying to reach.

The norm in Catholic culture is to explain away the lack of experience by appealing to ontological assertions, as in the following examples:

  • Catholics who bristle at the notion of a personal relationship with Jesus will frequently say something like, "There's no need to introduce this 'Protestant' notion. Every Catholic who receives the Eucharist already has a personal relationship with Jesus - what could be more personal than being united to him in his very Body and Blood?"
  • Charges of "emotionalism" are frequently leveled against Evangelical worship services, but this only reveals an underlying assumption among Catholics that we should not expect our subjective experience of or enthusiasm for worship to align with the objective magnitude of what is taking place in the act of worship.
  • A Vatican document keenly observes that the Church shares some of the blame for the rise of interest in New Age practices due to its neglect of the supernatural dimension of the faith. Certainly our Catholic catechesis teaches about supernatural realities, like the Sacraments, the theological virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and yet we are told in the next breath not to expect miracles or any discernible evidence of these supernatural realities operating in our lives


C.S. Lewis once wrote that theology is like a map. It's helpful for navigating, but the map itself isn't the point. The point of the map is the experience it makes possible, whether that map is a simple road map, an amusement park map, or a treasure map. Just so with theology. Theology exists for the sake of experience - contact with the Divine - not as an end in itself.

Oftentimes in Catholic culture we can fixate on the map - the objective theological truths of the faith - while undervaluing the subjective experience of those realities we profess to believe. Our concept of faith then amounts to believing in some hidden reality despite the fact that my experience is void of what faith professes.

To be sure, that's a good and necessary starting point for faith. We ought not let our circumstances dictate to us what we believe about God. But this can't be the end point of our faith. When St. Paul says, for instance, that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control," he's saying that we should expect the outflow of the Spirit's presence in our lives to look like something. Love looks like powerful selflessness. Joy looks like a smile. Peace looks like the absence of anxiety and agitation. And so on.

Because of my "theology" that the sky is blue, I made the mistake of believing my picture was blue. When my experience of faith does not align with what Scripture says should be the outcome of faith, it can be tempting to "theologize" away my lack of experience, to dismiss my experience as irrelevant while maintaining that true faith is "believing without seeing." When theology thus replaces experience, the Christian life becomes colorless, emotionless, dull. It takes on "the form of godliness, but denies the power thereof" (2 Timothy 3:5).

Theology is meant to be a guide for experiencing the fullness of what Scripture says is available to us. When my experience falls short of this, this is not the time for my theology to reduce Scripture to my level of experience. This is when faith must engage so that my experience can rise to the level of Scripture.