Bathos — sometimes the worst of the false spirits

Stephen MarshMormon 13 Comments

The first talk of the Priesthood session reminded me of a man I met on my mission.  His wife had died and he told us of all the things he had done in worship and prayer to seek God’s help.  He complained of how he had come up so empty.  The list he gave us consisted of various forms of emotionalism.

He was Catholic, but obviously had gone somewhere else for comfort (and, bless his heart, seemed to be blaming his priest).  I was struck by how he was substituting emotional processes for spiritual ones.  I have seen that process many, many times since.  I consider it a terrible mistake.

Too often I see a reach for Pathos (or even Bathos) as a substitute for the Spirit.  It is a common thing (as are other reaches for emotional states) as a replacement for the Spirit of God.  I have met people who thought they were the same thing.  The terrible flaw is that the approach leads to shallow or non-existent roots and it fails people when they need God the most.

In grief, the Spirit brings comfort and faith brings healing.  Emotionalism seems to do nothing positive for people, and as a substitute for the Spirit actually seems to harm them.  It may seem harsh, but I think in general we should avoid bathos as we would any other false spirit.  At least if we seek healing or to find God instead of a pale substitute.

I know, I went far afield from the speaker’s thoughts, but we came back together as he called for repentance, even if we thought of the need to repent of different things.

Comments 13

  1. I think the main difference is between being generally moved by the Spirit and mistaking cheap sentiment for a spiritual experience. A few years ago somebody gave a presentation at Sunstone called “Filmstrip Noir” discussing some of the tear-jerking Church films produced during the 1970s (“Cipher in the Snow”, “I’ll Build You a Rainbow”, etc.) which used death as a means of wringing emotion out of viewers without helping them come to terms with the messiness of death (and life). Rather, the emotional experience seemed to be the end goal.

    Hugh Nibley was an especially harsh critic of this technique, which he dismissed as “kitsch”.

  2. This is an important subject; especially for our youth. It takes time, experience, and sacrifice to learn to hear the voice of the Spirit. General Authorities constantly stress this point. However, we need to realize that the Lord doesn’t always communicate by subtle promptings. At times He will use dreams, visions, and ministering angels. These means of communication are not subtle, though we need to be attentive and not dismiss them. I am an advocate for going boldly to the Lord for our needs and ask in detail for what we need, using fast and prayer, and more importantly to be constantly in the attitude of repentance. We should plead for the Holy Ghost, the gifts of the Spirit and seek to obtain a remission of our sins. The Lord has told us to care for the sick, poor, and needy–otherwise He won’t hear our prayers.

    In my experience the Lord will respond and we will obtain answers to our earnest prayers and in the process learn to understand the dealings of the Lord.

    #2 John–My experience has been that in answering some of our prayers the Lord gives us information/intelligence. Many times there is no emotion whatsoever. The experience might be seconds in duration. The idea of burning and such is the exception, in my experience.

  3. This is so important. ‘Feeling’ the Spirit has more in common with ‘feeling’ sunlight, or the wind, than it does with ‘feeling,’ say, sad, or peace. True enough that the divine presence might cause us to feel emotion, but the emotion is not the thing. One thing is necessary though,, that has to do with emotion tangentially: one must have an open and receptive heart, and in many people that might also incline to easier emotions. In a person not inclined to experience their emotions strongly, however, I think the open heart is mostly a matter of intellectual humility. ~

  4. Kent, the first thing to do is to teach people not to reach for emotion. But, John, I’m not saying that spiritual experiences are emotion free, just like intellectual or physical experiences are not emotion free. But the experience of running a mile is physical first, regardless of the mental demands or the emotional state it evokes, if that makes sense.

    I think the main difference is between being generally moved by the Spirit and mistaking cheap sentiment for a spiritual experience. Amen. You did good in citing Nibley as well. I like the way you and Jared posted right next to each other.

    Thomas Parkin’s post is so good I almost did not respond to the comments, as it makes a nice conclusion.

  5. I don’t normally experience my emotions as quiet, whereas the Spirit is often so quiet as to be hard to listen to over the din of my emotions.

  6. “But, John, I’m not saying that spiritual experiences are emotion free, just like intellectual or physical experiences are not emotion free.”

    I think there is an inherent problem with trying to separate out spiritual experience from emotions because they are invariably manifest through our body. I will in discussing the need to avoid excessive emotionalism it would be wise to consider what emotional manifestations we might be talking about. Tears are not always from the spirit but neither, it seems to me, is the spirit never accompnaied with tears. I think the same could be said for a whole of other emotions. Maybe something worth considering is emotional/spiritual responses that are located in a context. I mean is there a difference to tears (this seems a common problem and easily recognisable so i’ll use it as my example) in response to a testimony about a particularly challenging moment in their life, or tears in response to a particular scripture when reading alone or praying alone.

    So maybe emotion is part of ‘the thing’, but perhaps we can be wiser about discerning how the body and spirit interact.

  7. We walk a fine line between emotional manipulation and hardness of heart.

    Any situation can lead to the first, and I am appalled by what I see in some denominations, but denying the power and legitimacy of the spirit almost invariably leads to the latter. Remember, perhaps the most stinging criticism of an entire people in the Book of Mormon is, “They were past feeling.”

  8. Premature submission – meant to add the following:

    I have been fascinated for years at the substitutes for the Spirit that I see all around me – in the Christian world, but, unfortunately, also sometimes in members of the Church. It’s easy to confuse manifestations of the Spirit with emotional manipulation – and it’s easy to get cynical when you observe blatant emotional manipulation. It’s also easy to dismiss emotional presentation of doctrine and forget that some concepts and doctrines simply are emotional in nature.

    Finally, it’s easy to forget that emotional manipulation often is the only thing people know, and sometimes those who we see as “orchestrating” it also don’t know any better. Often, their intentions are sincere, even if their methods are flawed. At least it’s worth considering, since it probably applies to each of us more often than we realize.

  9. I’m very bad at describing spiritual experience,and even worse at trusting it-either mine or someone else’s.But I do trust my husband’s counsel,that of those who are tasked with being my spiritual guides(home and visiting teachers,bishop etc.)and the scriptures.Really don’t mean to sound trite as I don’t think i have ever trusted any of these blindly,but they are my most likely sources.I’m not sure that I ever put my mind to bed though,I suspect I have trust issues.However,I do think my motivation is to preserve my testimony,I’ve heard some pretty weird stuff attributed to the Spirit over the years,including those offensive films which exploited people’s grief and insecurity as much as mediums.I have friends to whom the missionaries showed one of those films whose sensible and intelligent acceptance of the gospel was destroyed as a consequence.I’ve really given up on second guessing God-at least I hope I have.Things are clearly very different than I think they are,I just want to think a little more like God.

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