Teaching Ourselves to Feel – Or, Cardionomism, Calmly Considered

I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have sh*t for brains. – from “High Fidelity,” the movie

By way of introduction, I believe the fastest-growing folk religion in the United States is not agnosticism or Pentecostalism, but Cardionomism (Káhr-dee-oh-NAH-mizm to the uninitiated; from kardia, “heart,” and nomos, “law”).

It seems Cardionomists differ on certain matters, but its adherents share some common beliefs and the Cardionomistic version of the Islamic Shahada: “Follow your heart.”

If not the fastest-growing, it may at least be the most pervasively proclaimed. Cardionomism shows up in motivational posters, commencement addresses, daytime talk shows, and even Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. We may disagree on exactly which dogmatic tentacles dangle from this ideological jellyfish, but the core tenets look something like this:

Premise 1: Each person has an inner set of values, feelings, and desires (dubbed the “heart”) that offers guidance to their life decisions.

Premise 2: This “heart” is at least an authoritative guide toward personal fulfillment and flourishing, and possibly the most authoritative one.

Premise 3: The more intense the inclination of the heart – the stronger or more enduring the feelings – the more important it is to follow the heart’s guidance on a matter.

Premise 4: The key to an individual’s flourishing is to discern the guidance of the heart and follow it.

I grovel in apology before any Cardionomists whose particular beliefs I may have left out, but I believe this captures the ideological center of the philosophy.

I introduce this not to evaluate the relative merits or drawbacks of Cardionomism’s central tenets (which do deserve attention), but rather to draw attention to one way the Christian liturgical calendar pushes against at least two of the key premises if not all of the last three.

We’re in the thick of Advent right now – Christmas is just around the calendar – and around the world, many churches have set aside three or four weeks to focus on this season and its core event: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, there are many, many reasons to celebrate the event itself – that deserves more than one post – but I want to point out the idea that lies behind devoting not just one Sunday, but a month’s worth of Sundays, to mark liturgical seasons.

In short, following a liturgical calendar teaches us to feel.

See how this pushes against Cardionomism?

“Follow your heart!” assumes that my “heart” already knows how to feel. Not only that, but it knows so well that I had better respond to its feelings if I want to find happiness and flourishing. It assumes that my feelings are, if not infallible guides, at least so close as to need little shaping or guidance themselves. My heart has got life figured out; I just need to get my mind and my will tied onto it like inner tubes and I can ride the wake of joy all day long.

But what the liturgical calendar in general teaches us – what Christianity teaches us, if we’ll listen – is that by nature I don’t know how to feel. I have a “heart,” in accord with Premise 1; but rather than teaching that I should follow it, the Bible offers warnings like these:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” – Jesus, Matthew 5:19-20a

Christianity teaches that far from being infallible, the heart is prone to deception and self-serving. It cannot be a guide; it must be guided by a standard and a power outside itself.

By dividing the year into seasons based on the history of our faith, Christianity helps us put ourselves through seasons that teach us how to feel in direct us in why to feel.

I’ll close with the two primary emotions of Advent: celebration and longing.

Advent (from Latin adventus, “arrival”) is a season of celebration because in it we mark the first coming of Jesus, our Savior and Lord, into the world. Tolkien called Jesus’ birth the ultimate eucatastrophe: the climactic wonderful event that changed the course of the human narrative.

In Jesus’ birth, God became Man; God took on the responsibility for obedience and faithfulness that humankind had demonstrated itself incapable of keeping. Jesus is our Savior because, as the representative for humanity, he died on behalf of our sins and made it possible for wicked-hearted us to come back into the presence of God.

Celebration! We preach this news to ourselves to teach ourselves godly celebration.

But Advent is also a season of longing because Jesus’ work isn’t done until the world is rid of sin, suffering, sorrow, and death. Just as the Jews longed for the Messiah’s first Advent, Christians long for the second Advent when Jesus will come back and finish what he started. When he will restore the Creation back to its original glory.

Longing: we let this season remind us of the ongoing suffering of the world, so we can learn to long properly for God to finish his great work.

So, may this Advent teach you to celebrate and to yearn in a way that leads you to know and follow Jesus. And may potential Cardionomists consider just how authoritative and infallible their hearts really are.

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