Affect Theory and Christian Growth

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Paul’s lament in Romans 7:24 comes as he considers the ways in which his body rages against his better knowledge. Despite what the mind knows to be good, the body resists and persists in directing the self elsewhere—toward sin, death, and destruction. Many Christians are aware of the so-called “sanctification gap,” that chasm between the doctrine we know and our concrete habits that are still so often mired in sin.

But despite our affirmation of Paul’s teaching, we can still treat discipleship as merely content transmission, as if we’re speaking to robots that can be reprogrammed by just entering the right code. We haven’t acted fully on our conviction that our bodies need more than sound doctrinal knowledge to be transformed.

Despite our affirmation of Paul’s teaching, we can still treat discipleship as merely content transmission, as if we’re speaking to robots that can be reprogrammed by just entering the right code.

Affect theory is the study of how precognitive feelings, impressions, and influences direct our behavior and attune our intuitions in particular directions. Irreducible to conscious emotions, affects are those unconscious ways the body is moved and influenced by social relations and the embodied embeddedness of everyday life.

I believe two concepts drawn from contemporary affect theory give us a more detailed description of Paul’s claims about our recalcitrant flesh. After reviewing those concepts, I’ll offer three ways (alongside teaching sound doctrine) that Christians can seek deep change.

Sin and the Body

Sometimes we think human beings can be easily transformed from the top down—from propositional belief to behavioral transformation. This is what phenomenologists and empirical psychologists call the linguistic fallacy. It’s a fallacy because human beings are not, in fact, brains on sticks, so changing one’s beliefs is not sufficient to redirect the whole of one’s life.

Despite what occurs in the space of reason within one’s mind, the body’s intuitions, instincts, and behavior can remain “stubborn” and unaffected by the propositions we come to believe. This resistance to change is a property called intransigence.

Consider a child who grew up in a non-Christian environment where premarital sex was celebrated and discussed nonchalantly. That child may grow up to confess Christ and reckon with the Bible’s teaching on the sacredness of marriage. But though his beliefs have changed, he may not feel a gut-wrenching sense that something is wrong when premarital sex comes up in the sitcoms he watches or in workplace conversations. It may take some time for him to feel an instinctive pull away from the topic.

This is why political inclinations often remain untouched despite changes in religious convictions. There’s an intransigence to our body’s affections. Our default feelings about whether something is attractive or repulsive, good or evil, beautiful or ugly persist even after our minds change.

How Change Happens

Christians should be the least surprised at this phenomenon. Sanctification requires hard work precisely because of remaining sin. As Paul remarks, we often remain captive to “the law of sin that dwells in [our] members” (Rom 7:23). How, then, should we pursue change, given sin’s intransigence? Here are three ways:

1. We must depend on the Spirit as the Lord and Giver of life.

John Webster often remarks that becoming a theologian, much like becoming a Christian, is in an important sense an impossibility from the human side. As Simeon Zahl argues,

It is because sinful desires and dispositions are so stubbornly resistant to top-down efforts at transformation that when the New Testament authors want to speak about the ethical transformation of Christians, they very often attribute such change to an external, divine agency, the Holy Spirit.

Reformed theologians, armed with an understanding of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will and the Westminster Standards on effectual calling, see the intransigence of sin and point to the necessity of God’s sovereign work to regenerate and renew us.

2. We should be holistic and attentive to the body in our discipleship work.

Human beings are psychosomatic unities. Our bodies and souls exist in a reciprocal relationship. It’s insufficient to read book after book on a particular temptation or sin if we’re not aware of the body’s habits. What the eye sees, what we laugh at, the company we keep, and our physical location often determine what we do and feel. Think of the Bible’s own warnings and commands to flee youthful passions, to behold God’s glory, to not be drunk with wine, and to imitate your leaders.

Studies have shown that social media use nurtures schadenfreude—the pleasure and relief people sometimes feel bodily when others fail or suffer pain. For this reason, fasting from social media is not merely a way of making ourselves feel better. It may help to redirect our bodies away from the natural urges of the flesh and help us flee toward the things of the Spirit.

3. We should emphasize the importance of being involved in church life.

People are hardwired to attune themselves to the other people around them. We’re not sovereign and autonomous individuals but socially connected beings. We’re hardwired to conform to and imitate our social surroundings. We follow how others around us dress, we pick up on their body language, and we respond to their social cues. This explains why our personalities and schedule can shift so quickly when we travel abroad, or why conversation and personality alterations often occur when one moves to a different culture altogether.

The church is called to embody a culture within a culture—an alternative city within the city—emulating not merely a different confession but also a different way of life.

The church is called to embody a culture within a culture—an alternative city within the city— emulating not merely a different confession but also a different way of life.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff and James K. A. Smith have shown, the church invites the self into an alternative liturgy, where the body is habituated within a network of people and practices that transform it deeply and habitually. In the language of phenomenology and affect theory, the church invites bodies into an alternative entrainment. Follow the way of this community; attune yourself to these affects of the Spirit.

The Spirit works through these remarkably ordinary ways to form and change us. As we flee from sin, imitate our elders, sing songs, eat together, and exhort one another in the daily and weekly habits of church life, the inner man is being renewed day by day. Let us continue availing ourselves of these means of grace as the Lord shapes us from one degree of glory to another.

A. Sutanto

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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