Are “Feelings” and “Truth” the Same Thing? Let’s Ask Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric

 

By Scott Keith

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric encompass the first three rules-based focuses of the seven liberal arts. As these disciplines are absorbed and accomplished together, they form the all-encompassing system for determining clarity and consistency of personal thought called the Trivium.

  1. Grammar: Mastering the basics of the material. It answers the question of the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” of a subject, determining and ordering facts of reality, and comprises basic formal knowledge.
  2. Logic: Understanding the why of the material, developing faculties of reason, and establishing valid [i.e., non-contradictory and facts corresponding to observable reality] relationships among facts.
  3. Rhetoric: Learning to discuss the material; having an educated opinion. It provides the “how” of a particular subject in that it teaches the student how to apply their newly acquired knowledge.

The Trivium was the well-established system of education used in the West by the 1600s and abandoned in the early years of the twentieth century. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the American educational system has focused on the mechanics of learning rather than the content. That is, Americans have, for more than one-hundred years, learned to merely “read” mechanically, not master information. As part of the mechanical process, students have been asked for their opinions far too early. Thus, once a student has learned to read “See Spot run,” the student is asked how they feel about Spot’s trip.

Thus, the modern educational method goes something like this:

  1. Learn the ABCs.
  2. Learn to read basic words.
  3. Learn to read basic sentences.
  4. Learn to give your opinion regarding what you have just read.
  5. Eventually, learn to read more complicated sentences with an end goal of attaining a reading level commiserate with one a “tenth-grader” ought to have.

What’s the problem with this method? Well, it has led to “opinion” or “feeling” being equated to epistemological truth. In the above scenario, the only matter of any import is the “opinion” of an undereducated and ill-informed student. Real information, content, material, and even truth is equated to the meager feelings of a child who has yet learned to master (grammar), comprehend (logic), or properly communicate (rhetoric) the meaning of a particular proposition or set of propositions.

logic

As a part of the theology course I teach at the university, I ask my students to complete reading reviews of the assigned material for the week. Reading-review assignments consist of the students cogently responding (rhetoric) to a primary source selection from our theology reader. The thought behind this assignment is wrapped up in the ideals of the Trivium but constrained by the student’s more modern educational upbringing.

Long story short, my students rarely take the time to master, comprehend, or learn to communicate the content of the reading and typically jump right to their opinion. In turn, their jump usually results in them equating their “feelings” to facts or even to truth. The interesting part is that we spend quite a bit of time in my course covering epistemology, and they cover formal logic in their paired course, Philosophy 101. Nonetheless, time after time, for them, “feeling” is equated to truth.

I wish this were not the case, but alas, I fear it is. By the time students get to college, I am afraid it is almost too late to turn them back. What that means is that it is up to you. You, their parents, need to get them early on. Why do we ask kids how they feel about something rather than what they think? Why do we ourselves say “I feel like he’s saying” rather than “He said”? Furthermore, what do we communicate to our children when we equate the nonsensical––all non-verifiable statements that are thus non-statements––to the actual or factual. We need to understand that every conversation is an opportunity to teach them about grammar, logic, rhetoric, and truth.

What do I mean? Well, I mean to ask if feeling is the same as knowing. Here is an example. Do you feel Christ is your Lord and Savior and rose from the dead, or do you know it? If you know it, I’d ask: How so? You could answer with a litany of feelings or experiences you’ve had, or you can answer like a Christian. You see, Christians have the benefit of a real, factual, and truthful answer. We can answer as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”

resurrection

If Christ’s resurrection is only a feeling, then it is neither true nor false; it is merely a non-proposition. But that is not our cry on Easter morning. Our cry on Easter morning is: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia.” After all, if we believe the words of Paul, not nine verses later, our faith is dependent on the fact of the resurrection. “…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:17-18)

So don’t give up the truth for a feeling. Furthermore, as you teach your children about life and about the faith, communicate to them that truth is real, factual propositions, statements, or sets of affairs, and that feelings are transitory emotions. They are not the same. There is nothing wrong with feelings, but feelings are not truth. Knowing the difference is important, which is why the Trivium was such a helpful tool in the education of the young. Maybe we ought to consider resurrecting it, if not in the formal, at least in the informal education of young.

For more of the same, listen to the Thinking Fellows podcast as we discuss truth in our series on Christian Apologetics.

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3 thoughts on “Are “Feelings” and “Truth” the Same Thing? Let’s Ask Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric

  1. I can work at this, with conversation, with Bible class, and especially with confirmation instruction. I knew this intuitively (I don’t see it with middle-schoolers so much – they just refuse to think; but with adults I have noticed it a lot), but it has done me a great service to bring it to the front of my consideration. Thanks a bunch.

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    1. I agree with what Don said. I am 59, considering finally finishing my Bachelor’s degree, and possibly going on to some sort of theology training. My biggest concern is exactly this. Can I , at my age, be retrained to think more and feel and speak less? I am in much prayer and wrestling with this now. Thanks for these thoughts. I also see it so clearly in my children and grandchildren.

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      1. As it turns out, I’m 59 also. There’s nothing wrong with forming an opinion based on facts, and feelings are real enough. The hard part is not to suppose opinions and feelings are particularly dependable for doing anything, for acting, short of an emergency. It is important for me to remember and to teach that human beings are flawed creatures, with limited ability to perceive the truth. Worse, we can be lied to and never realize it, even by our own reasoning and feelings. It takes practice and training (perhaps self-training would work for you in this) to act on what can be known, including speaking and listening.

        I’ve always found Luther to be helpful in this. You could try this for starters: Start with prayer for understanding, Then check in with the facts, as you can perceive them (I like Scripture a lot to help with this); evaluate them with experience and learning to form an opinion on which to act. That seems a bit like a contradiction, but it should be a part of consideration that opinions are often wrong in some way – proceed with caution, but proceed. In the end, by living in the real world with known facts and educated opinions, everything is tested and better experience and better opinions can be formed upon which to act.

        And don’t forget the best parts – all is forgiven in Christ (and you’ll need it); and God works all things for the good of those who love him (even bad acts on bad opinions). That felt like a lecture a bit – forgive me.

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