The Sense of Being Alive
In appreciation of Thandeka's Affect Theology
On Music and Being Alive
Thandeka on Affect Theology
"I created affect theology to fill in the emotion gap in liberal theology. Affect theology studies the human emotions and affective states that guide, direct, and prioritize religious beliefs, creedal claims, liturgical structures, religious education programs, and pastoral practices by members and leaders of a religious community. As an affective analysis of religious experience, theological reflection, and leadership practices in a religious community, affect theology functions as a complement to a systematic study of religious belief systems and doctrines. It also rounds out the investigation of religion as cultural studies and social science disciplines by focused attention of the way emotions are altered by religious practices. Affect theology’s antecedent, as we have seen, is Schleiermacher’s Affekt Theology, which focused on the affective stimulations of the human nervous system and made these movements of the “human soul” the first reference for all discourse on religious experience (piety).
Three types of affective states
Affect theology uses insights from the new field in brain research called affective neuroscience founded by Jaak Panksepp[li] to elucidate, correct, and expand Schleiermacher’s original insights about the role of the nervous system in creating pious feelings and religious ideas. The importance of affective neuroscience for affect theology is seen when we take into account two basic things.
First, codification of affective states into three basic types: (1) affect that makes us aware of the internal state of our body (e.g., hunger or fatigue); (2) affect that makes us aware of the type of emotional system that has been triggered and thus aroused (e.g., the awareness of being enraged); (3) affect that makes us aware as commentary on bodily sensations (e.g. tactile and visual stimulation from sources exterior to the body).[lii] These affective commentaries on internal muscular and anatomical shifts, on our emotions, and on our sensations are the way we initially, consciously but non-conceptually, take note or become aware of what has just happened to our body. This awareness is indeed a state of consciousness, defined here functionally as the “bare awareness of ‘something.’”[liii]
Second, analysis of “affective consciousness.” According to Panksepp, affects are “pre-propositional feelings” that grab hold of our attention not through ideas, but through a felt sense that lets us immediately know how we are faring in the world, within ourselves, and with others at the somatic level of our lives.[liv] Feeling startled, fearful or anxious are examples of affective consciousness as our immediate awareness of pre-propositional feelings felt as shifts in our own nervous system rather than through studied reflections using concepts and ideas. Babies, after all, can be startled, made fearful or anxious even though there are not yet any concepts in their minds to explain, analyze or reflect upon their triggered affective states.
To be sure, Panksepp argues, affective triggerings can be mediated by rational consideration as well as through dream work on alternative ways of responding behaviorally to the triggered feelings.[lv] Nevertheless, they are a way in which the brain neurologically assesses the surrounding environment in order to make affective judgments, links to motor movements that dictate approach or retreat, seeking, rage, fear, play, lust or other neurochemical systems constructed as physical value judgments that prompt actions by the organism in its exterior environment, its world.
And we affirm the primal importance of our emotions without claiming that our biology is our destiny, because, as Panksepp puts it, we do have the ability to make cognitive choices. But our neurobiology qualifies our destiny affectively. If, for example, the underlying groups of molecular structures produced by the brain that create our affective feelings of social solidarity, acceptance, nurturance, and love are compromised, our affective bonds with others will “probably remain shallow and without emotional intensity.”[lvi] His findings concur with other recent brain investigations showing that “social bonding is rooted in various brain chemistries that are normally activated by friendly and supportive forms of social interaction.”[lvii]
These neuroscientific investigations reveal the role of affect in the creation of social bonds and the material content of what Schleiermacher called the human soul. It is here that the foundation of liberal theology is found and affirmed by affective neuroscience and its related fields in two basic ways.
Emotions as foundational for community
Affect as foundational for the creation of community. Affect, as Schleiermacher insisted, is foundational to religious community. Pious communities, he said, are created by the reproduction of affective states, “by means of facial expressions, gestures, tones, and (indirectly) words” such that the contagion[lviii] of collective affective displays becomes for others not only a revelation of the inward as foundational for religious community, but also creates and maintains pious communities through affective consciousness as an emotional “consciousness of kind.”[lix]
Schleiermacher’s fundamental claim here about “consciousness of kind” identifies affect as a foundational material enabling community to be created and maintained. Affective neuroscience and its related fields confirm Schleiermacher’s claim that the foundational material here is shared affect.
For Panksepp, consciousness of kind begins affectively. It is our “internal biological logic,” and it pertains to our “emotional minds.” Our emotional minds create our desire to express our deeply social nature to other human beings, “especially those with whom we shared attachment bonds, and to mutually glory in the kinds of deeply feeling creatures that we are.”[lx]
Consciousness of kind thus entails an acculturation process. Clinical psychoanalyst and theorist John E. Gedo, who uses insights from Panksepp’s work, calls this acculturation process a “cybernetic loop between infant and caretaker.”[lxi] It pertains to the central nervous system of the infant and the caretaker as a dyad, Gedo observes. The unity of the self is thus a collaborative achievement.[lxii] Here Gedo and Schleiermacher meet.
As Schleiermacher succinctly put it, “We never do exist except along with another.” Human consciousness, Schleiermacher notes, always entails the co-existence of an Other whose affective signals we have first received. Schleiermacher understood the phenomenon, which Gedo terms the “cybernetic loop,” to be foundational to the creation and support of religious community."
No disembodied soul
Affect as the neural content of the soul. Schleiermacher called the study of the core affective level of human consciousness a study of the material impulses of the human soul.[lxiii] Panksepp makes a strikingly similar claim.
At the foundational level of consciousness, Panksepp suggests, we are aware of “our ineffable sense of being alive and an active agent in the world.”[lxiv] Panksepp describes this ineffable sense as the “primordial self-schema” or “self-representation,” and refers to “it” using the acronym, the “SELF – A Simple Ego-type Life Form” – to refer to this primordial structure of agency found “deep within the brain.”[lxv]
Moreover, as Panksepp suggests, this foundational fact of non-rational, affective conscious awareness can be thought about as a “core self” – or even as a soul. Perhaps it is now appropriate, Panksepp suggests, to “entertain neuro-psychological conceptions of human and animal ‘souls’”[lxvi] Panksepp calls this primal material “a subcortical viscero-somatic homunculus,”[lxvii] a SELF, and a soul. Here, Panksepp and Schleiermacher meet.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio also investigates this primal, affective level of human experience. He, too, talks about a self – a “proto-self” – where consciousness begins. Moreover, Damasio affirms Panksepp’s work on the link between the body and the self “by means of an innate representation of the body in the brain stem.”[lxviii] Damasio concludes that neither the mind nor the soul can be adequately discussed today without attending to a neurological analysis of the subcortical structures of consciousness.[lxix] Here, Damasio and Schleiermacher meet.
The ineffable sense of being alive
More broadly, Panksepp suggests that the analysis of affect is challenging regnant Western religious claims about the nature of the human soul and the human spirit as strictly rational entities. The human soul and the human spirit, like all other mammalian experiences, Panksepp notes, have neurological characteristics, constraints, and histories, and so they must no longer be described as disembodied, rational, emotion-less entities.[lxx] If the human soul and the human spirit are human experiences, Panksepp asserts, then they have to have human characteristics – and the foundations of such characteristics are neurological, affective states.
Affective neuroscience goes beneath concepts, below doctrines and creeds, and investigates the ineffable sense of being alive. For Schleiermacher, this affective sense is not religion, but its inception: the “natal hour of everything living in religion.”[lxxi] Schleiermacher did not make this sense the content of his theology. He made it the foundation of his theology. Affective neuroscience has found and affirmed this affective, ineffable sense exactly where Schleiermacher placed it: outside the theological domain.
Panksepp has noted the possibilities for this new affective theological field in his latest book, The Archeology of the Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, co-authored with psychologist Lucy Biven. Referring to my affective theological work, Panksepp suggests it “can provide a universal substrate for nondenominational religious experiences.”[lxxii]
This claim by Panksepp marks the first formal affirmation of affect theology by a neuroscientist as a theological system with affective neuroscientific integrity. And the link between affective neuroscience and Unitarian Universalist theology as an affective theological system gives us a cutting edge in an academic revolution Panksepp’s work, in part, has begun. Unitarian Universalism now has a constructive theology with its own doctrine of human nature.
The academy is presently on the verge of an “affective revolution,” Panksepp claims; one that will force the academic community to redefine the way in which it thinks about human nature, the human spirit, and the human soul. Nature, Panksepp argues, has encoded our organism with emotive organizing systems that help us decipher, interact with, interpret, and learn lessons from the world in which we live.[lxxiii] Affect theology is part of this cutting edge as a new field within liberal theological studies.
Contemporary academic theology, of course, has begun to take note of this emerging neuroscientific revolution, but there is more work to be done. The new field, neurotheology, has emerged to explain old religious beliefs using the new scientific work. Theists are using brain science to explain how God gets into our heads.[lxxiv] Non-theists are using neuroscience to get rid of all such theistic claims.[lxxv] In other words, much of the current neurotheological work attempts to “harmonize scientific method and religious belief,”[lxxvi] rather than to reveal the hidden foundational claim that occurs before and beyond rationally explained and delineated beliefs.[lxxvii]
A more balanced and non-reductionist theological engagement with contemporary brain science can be achieved when we begin with insights from Schleiermacher’s Affekt theology and contemporary affective neuroscience, which challenge traditional notions of the human soul as a disembodied entity.[lxxviii] The human soul, like every other aspect of human nature, has neurological characteristics, constraints and histories.[lxxix]
-- Thandeka, Affect Theology: A Roadmap for The Continental Gathering of Unitarian Universalist Seminarians
Schleiermacher: Early pioneer of Affect Theology
"First, Schleiermacher argued that the human feeling of being an inextricable part of the universe was far more immediate and easily felt than the notion that there must be a God. Schleiermacher, in effect, raised the importance of human feeling and lowered the importance of belief in or talk about God. As Schleiermacher put it in his book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, “the idea of God does not rank as high as you think.”[xx] Schleiermacher then created, in effect, a theological perspective that made artists and other “cultured despisers of religion” the true priests of religion. And Schleiermacher argued they did not even have to believe in God to have religious experiences.[xxi]
Second, Schleiermacher insisted that in the realm of religious experience there is no mathematical proof to demonstrate that things must be so and not otherwise.[xxii] The only test, Schleiermacher concluded, is personal experience. And so he called upon his readers to examine the structure of their own piety through their own acts of “immediate self-consciousness.” They must use this self-evidence to determine the veracity of his claims, Schleiermacher insisted. They must find the affective side of pious experience in order to complete, through personal self-description, his theological claims. This is why Schleiermacher’s new theological system was called “liberal.” He made personal experience rather than church doctrine, liturgical traditions, the Bible, or belief in God the benchmark for pious feelings. Now, thanks to Schleiermacher, one could reject all of the religious traditions, beliefs and creeds of a community and still count oneself as pious. The role of a religious community was indeed to change emotions into pious feelings, but the words and beliefs linked to this change of heart need no longer hold absolute sway over the individual.
The result of Schleiermacher’s theology for these “Nones” showed up in nineteenth-century Unitarianism in two basic ways: the distinction between man and God was lost; and the inherent worth and dignity of man was found and then lost again."
-- Thandeka, Affect Theology: A Roadmap for The Continental Gathering of Unitarian Universalist Seminarians