Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What God Has Joined: More on Head and Heart

Well, I told you it wouldn't be easy letting go of the "18 inches between head and heart" thing. Two of my friends have weighed in on the matter in comments but I think the subject is so important I wanted to bring it to the surface here.

Byron said:

Allow me to protest a tad, Keith; I think that it all depends upon what you mean when you speak of a head/heart dichotomy. I use this analogy---hey, maybe I need to give it up---but I think that the way I intend it to be understood isn't necessarily at variance with your point. When I speak of "head", I'm speaking of mere intellectual assent, as opposed to "heart", signifying not so much an opposition to head as a trust in , a commitment to, an obedience in, those things which the "head" rightly understands. In my understanding, then, I wouldn't speak of a head/heart dichotomy, as though the two were opposed in some either/or scenario, so much as I'd think of "heart belief" involving a commitment to, a fulfillment of, those things to which the "head" mentally assents. 'Zat make sense?

Yes, that does make sense. What Byron wants to make clear is that knowledge, assent, and trust are essential to biblical faith. With that I'm in full agreement. I think, however, that there are more biblical ways of communicating that concern than by making a head/heart distinction. For example, James warns us against deceiving ourselves by only hearing the word and not doing it (James 1:22). 

The critical issue is, as Byron noted, one of obedience to that which I assent to and obedience originates in the heart. Paul, for example, is grateful to God that the Roman Christians became "obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which [they] were committed" (Romans 6:17). Throughout the Bible, belief and obedience are intertwined and, at times, used interchangeably. In John's gospel, believing in the Son is contrasted with disobeying Him (3:36). According to Psalm 78, the Israelites in the wilderness "did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power" (v. 22). Again, belief, trust, and obedience are in mind. What was the cause of their unbelief, lack of trust, and disobedience? The answer is given in verse 8. They were "a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God." (I take this to be an instance of poetic parallelism demonstrating that heart and spirit are different ways of referring to the same thing.)

I'm a firm believer that we should allow the Scriptures to guide us in our use of biblical terms and concepts. It's much too easy to fall into using biblical vocabulary in unbiblical ways thereby changing its meaning.  A few days ago I picked up Marva Dawn's new book, Talking the Walk, in which she examines a number of key words in biblical faith whose meanings have become distorted or ignored. Dawn, who was an English literature major and teacher, writes in the introduction: "...I am solemnly concerned about the corruption of words in contemporary Christian faith. When we speak bad theology, we live badly theologically. When our theologians and pastors and communities reject or abuse significant words in the heritage of faith, our Christianity is reduced or decimated." Though "heart" is not one of the words she investigates, I think it has been corrupted by being torn from its canonical context.

As Jerry (read with open eyes) pointed out in his comment, the Bible does not ascribe intellectual activity to one part of a person while assigning trust to the heart. I understand that Byron doesn't intend to convey a dichotomy between the heart and head when he speaks of the 18 inches between them, but I think that such language, no matter how well-intended, distances people from a biblical perspective on the unity of the person. 

Another problem is that in our setting people are prone to associate "heart" primarily (if not exclusively) with the emotions. Distinguishing between "head knowledge" and "heart knowledge," and implying that the latter is superior to the former, can also serve to perpetuate and strengthen the misconception that reason, education, and intellectual rigor are inimical to Christian spirituality.


Roger N. Overton said...

Hey Keith, great discussion going on here. I've never actually heard the "18 inches" line, but I've read and taught plenty on distinguishing between heart and mind (and often hands as action).

Interestingly, I think we're all concerned with unity here. Whenever I use the dichotomy (or read it), the point is that we must be cultivating both in our Christian life. I'm usually concerned with the lack of concern for the head in contemporary Christianity, though there's occasionaly the problem of heartless heads.

Take this passage from R.C. Sproul for example (Essential Truths, XVI) "There is a primacy of the mind in the Christian faith. There is a primacy of the heart in the Christian faith... With respect to the primacy of importance, the heart is first. If I have correct doctrine in my head but not love for Christ in my heart, I have missed the kingdom of God... However, for my heart to be right, there is a primacy of the intellect in therms of order. Nothing can be in my heart that is not first in my head."

I think in this type of literature (as well as my own thinking) head typically/generally means intellect and heart means emotions. So then, are you suggesting we simply drop head/heart for intellect/emotions? (I'm assuming you'd agree with the points even if you disagree with the language.) Is that really necessary when from what I've seen such language is used to point to unity?

Beowulf said...

I think Ravi Zacharias said it best when he stated: I can’t believe in my heart, if I don’t also believe in my mind (paraphrased). I think there is a momentous truth to that.

Mastering the mind and heart to be functioning jointly (complementing each other), seems to be the means to effectively bridge that 18” gap (or 18 feet for some).

Apparently, one of the major problems today is that one starts with head or heart, rather than conjunctively. Either they start with the heart and have difficulty reaching the head (which seems the most prominent problem), or they start with the head and scare everyone off with their ice cold approach.

One way or another, the gap must be bridged.

KP said...

Hi, Roger. Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the discussion.

I do agree with the point Sproul and others are trying to make about the necessity of a holistic engagement with and response to God. I find it curious, however, that a theologian would deviate from the biblical understanding of the heart as the seat of intellectual, volitional, worshiping, and emotional activity and adopt a view that restricts the heart to the realm of the emotions.

While it's true that many who speak in terms of head (intellect) and heart (passion) are contending for integrity, that's not always the case. Some make the distinction to support their prejudice against the life of the mind.

In a book I intend to review here in the near future (Full Gospel, Fractured Minds?), author Rick Nanez warns:

"In modern American culture, we understand 'the head' as the place where thinking, reasoning, and understanding occur, whereas the heart is 'the seat of emotions.' When Christians assign stale, rationalistic traits to the head, then mistakenly equate the head with the mind, and, finally, detach the mind from the heart, they have succeeded in constructing a dangerous, unbiblical, and self-defeating doctrine that can become fatal to one's faith. But this is what has happened-seemingly without alarm. It shouldn't surprise us, then, that this widespread miscalculation has had cataclysmic repercussions in the realm of the life of the mind among professed believers" (p. 23).

If we want to effectively combat this kind of misconception within the church, rather than merely conceding to the cultural concept of the heart, we should promote biblical understanding. I think head/heart language stands in the way of this and, therefore, should be discarded.

jerryb said...

I'm probably too late,
but did you notice that the Great shema includes heart, soul and strenth, but is repeated in Mark as heart, soul, mind and strength (Mk. 12:30). Seems the Hebrew concept of "heart" (leb) as the central faculty or "mission control" did not translate directly into Greek as the main word since the Greeks had nous, kardia, and pseuke to deal with. IT STILL means I must love God with all of my intellectual capacities, emotional passions and willfull determinations. The four terms really describe the three areas, intellect emotion and will. To me these are all three windows into the same house.

Also didn't Augustine say, I do not understand so that I may believe, I believe so that I may understand.

If you see Tim, say hello for me