Certain Alaskan ecclesiastical circles have recently revived the old “Heart v. Head” chestnut, e.g., “for too long we have simply focused on the intellect, and not done nearly enough to engage the hearts of believers.” Or again, the “starting point is not the teaching, but the person of Jesus.” Along with that fusty old Baltimore Catechism, it now seems that the Divine Commission to teach all nations has outlived its usefulness.
Historically, this sentimental journey occurs in Alaskan pulpits when the peons in the pews clamor for authentic Catholic formation. But it is not limited to Alaska, nor even the clerical state. The classic “heart-over-head” exponent was that brilliant Jansenist sympathizer, Pascal, who wrote in his Pensees:
The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things…It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.
Feelings…whoa-oh-oh…nothing more than feelings. See? Pascal wrote that, not Morris Albert.
It is good to draw distinctions here. Pascal lived a saintly life, and died yielding his room and board to a destitute family. May we meet merrily in heaven! But Pascal, along with his fellow Enlightenment geniuses Leibniz and Newton, veered into weird heresy when he applied his mathematical mind to the things of God. Interestingly, Jansenism, for all its modern reputation as a heresy of “moral rigorism,” was originally a kind of Catholic determinism. Quoth Fr. Hardon:
According to Jansenius, man’s free will is incapable of any moral goodness. All man’s actions proceed either from earthly desires, which stem from concupiscence, or from heavenly desires, which are produced by grace. Each exercises an urgent influence on the human will, which in consequence of its lack of freedom always follows the pressure of the stronger desire. Implicit in Jansenism is the denial of the supernatural order, the possibility of either rejection or acceptance of grace.
Jansenism thus leads to a Calvinist idea of predestination. The human will is overwhelmed, determinism ascendant, and man is not free. Rather than love – that is, man freely willing the good of another person – Jansenism produces an anxiety whereby a man is uncertain whether he is among the saved. And how does one know whether one is saved? Says Obi-Wan, er, Pascal: trust your feelings.
There are, of course, echoes in the Gospel that make the heart-first, head-later ideology initially attractive. Our Lord spoke at length about the human heart: Where your heart is, there also will your treasure be. Love the Lord your God with all your heart. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Our Lady, too, pondered all these things in her heart.
But there is a distinction with a difference here. The recent Alaskan trend views the heart essentially as sentiment, an effusion of “warmth, compassion, mercy, and love.” Such gushing language calls to mind the embrace offered to Wormwood by dear Uncle Screwtape. Or, Barney.
The Gospels, on the other hand, regard the heart as the utter interiority in man – that is, that ineffable inner sanctum wherein one either accepts or rejects God. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. You shall indeed hear but never understand, for this people’s heart has grown dull.
Yet God forces Himself on no one. Howsoever corruption may take hold, the human heart remains essentially free to choose, even in the natural order. St. Paul, wonderfully, drives this home:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.
But can they call upon him in whom they have not believed, in him of whom they have never heard? As the Baltimore Catechism (shudder) suggests, can you love, honor, and serve Someone without knowing Him first? Is faith, as Pascal said, “God felt by the heart, not reason?”
No, no, and no. St. Paul tells the Romans, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Better yet, Our Lord tells us, “Go and make disciples of all nations, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Please pray for the Pope and our Bishops and Priests, that they may preach and teach Christ and His doctrine – not sentiment.