Rethinking Feelings: Understanding the Complexities of Emotion and the Implications for Pastoral Care and Counseling

Team Members/Contributors

Barbara J. McClure Vanderbilt University Contact Me

About this sabbatical grant for researchers

Emotions and their complements (affect, passions, mood, feelings) have become a common subject of study, attracting significant interest in scholars across many spectra, from historians to theologians, social scientists to philosophers, and pastoral counselors to literary critics. It is not surprising that given the rise of therapeutic, the self-help culture, and evangelical theologies, especially in the West, the language of emotion has overtaken much of our culture. Indeed, a focus on emotions and feelings informs much of popular and religious culture: emotions are believed to represent the most “real” and important parts of ourselves. Identifying, understanding and managing our emotional states has become big business, from pastoral care and counseling to spiritual formation and “secular” forms of business coaching.

What is striking amidst the rising interest in the emotions is that studies of their complexity has not been taken up in pastoral theology, care and counseling to the same extent it has in other scholarly arenas; pastoral theologians and the pastoral practitioners their work guides and informs seem to accept without question the rather humanistic notion that emotions are simply the best road to the “core” and “real” self and therefore they naturally must be the stuff of careful scrutiny and sustained attention. As a professional pastoral counselor, I was trained to understand and work with emotions as the road to healing knowledge and practice. Indeed, just about every book used to train pastoral care providers has in it (whether explicit or implicit) a theory of emotions and their use in care and healing. However, in much of the pastoral theological literature the emotions are under-theorized. Wanting to correct this limitation, I take seriously what historian Thomas Dixon invites us to consider: that what is taken as a self-evident category (“emotions”) is actually one fraught with ideological baggage about persons and the good life. I explore this assertion and ask what implications a more complex understanding of emotions might have on pastoral understanding and practices of care.

Image Title Year Type Contributor(s) Other Info
Emotions: Problems and Promise for Human Flourishing 2019 Book Barbara J. McClure