Witness is about actions, not feelings

BY FR DAVID RANSON

All of us enjoy a good novel from time to time. But it is interesting to reflect that the novel is a very modern way of writing and has only been around for a couple of hundred years.  

People like Shakespeare and so forth, of course, never wrote novels and certainly the ancient Greeks never did.  The novel has only come about as we have focussed more on the human subject and the subject’s inner workings:  the subject’s thoughts and feelings.  This, however, is a relatively recent emphasis in human philosophy.

Previous to this writers from the Greeks right through to Shakespeare and beyond were more interested in people’s actions than their inner processes.  It was Aristotle who once said “don’t tell me what a man thinks, tell me what a man does.”  And so, the play became the main form of writing.  A play is built around a plot, a series of actions.  The actions tell us what is inside a character.  There is no need for long analyses of the character’s interior development.  

Maybe films have taken on this way today.  But all of us do retain the common wisdom that the ancient writers knew instinctively, that “actions speak louder than words.”  The writers in the Scriptures would put it another way.  They would say that faith without good works is empty.  We can have all the good intentions in the world but in the end it’s our actions which really show us who we are.  When we put our money where our mouth is then we know we are fair dinkum about things.

Jesus draws the same line between those who say they will respond to his invitation and those who actually do respond (see Matt 21:28-32).  He was aware that often those who say they do really have nothing to show for it and yet those who would normally be dismissed as not being very religious or very proper are the ones who in the end are bringing into their everyday life the values of the Kingdom, even in hidden ways which the self-righteous may miss.

In drawing out this distinction, Jesus also exposes the modern myth that our feelings and actions must go together.  As modern subjects, we tend to be so concerned with authenticity that unless we are feeling in harmony with a particular action we won’t go along with that action.  To do so, we rationalise, would be hypocritical.  The problem here is that we tend to over-identify with our feelings. If I feel angry, then I am angry, therefore I have to act angry; if I feel unforgiving, then I am unforgiving, therefore I must act unforgiving.  “I wouldn’t be true to myself if it were otherwise.”

But our feelings and our actions do not have to be in harmony.  I can feel angry and act rationally, I can feel selfish and act generously, I can feel insecure and act confidently, I can feel fearful and act boldly, I can feel unforgiving and act lovingly.  I may often not feel “very Christian” but I can still act in a Christian way.  This is not to say that feelings are not important and should simply be discarded.  Feelings are very important, but they are only a part of the story and not the whole story.  In the end, too we need always to remember that there is no good or bad feeling, no right or wrong feeling.  Feelings simply are; and being Christian excludes not one feeling, no matter how negatively we may experience it.  Christianity is primarily a way of acting, not a way of feeling.  And it is our actions, not our feelings for which we are going to be held accountable in the end.

If I wait until my feelings are all they way I would like them to be I will not get very far.  We know the truth of that often enough with work, with our family life and with sport and our other interests.  But we often fall short of applying it to our life of faith.  Jesus points out today that in Christian faith we are not being called to feel a particular way; we are being called to act a certain way.  May our actions speak of our faith in him.

Fr David Ranson is Academic Secretary and Senior Lecturer in Spirituality at the Catholic Institute of Sydney

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