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Philippe de Champaigne's "Saint Augustine"

The Scriptural writers used the words 'mind' and 'heart' differently than we do today. It is important we understand the difference lest we acquire a flawed vision of the human person.

“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Matthew 22:37).


Words are notoriously slippery things. They often wriggle around and subtly change their meanings over time. In reading old books (like the Bible) we need to be aware of this, lest we use the same words as the Scripture while meaning something different. These two words, “mind” and “heart,” are a case in point. They are immensely important in the Christian Scriptures and throughout the Christian tradition. It happens that both of them have been performing a slippery operation of meaning-change during the last few hundred years. What we mean by “mind” and by “heart” is different in important if subtle ways from what the words would have meant for the Scriptural writers and the tradition. The differences can cause confusion and sometimes serious misunderstandings.

When the Scriptures say that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, it isn’t using technical philosophical terms and dividing humans up into these three separate categories, as if the heart were one thing, the mind another, and the soul a third. Each of the terms means something like “the whole of us,” viewed from different perspectives. For Scriptural writers, to do something with all one’s heart is similar to doing something with all one’s mind. Mind and heart are overlapping concepts. It is important to note this because modern people often think of the mind and the heart as two different faculties, and yet more significantly, they often place them in opposition to one another. We hear comments like: “Stop thinking and just follow your heart,” or, “Get out of your head and into your heart.” Statements like these make no sense from a Scriptural point of view and can leave us with a mistaken idea of what Christ expects of us.

Modern Meanings

Our predicament comes from being downriver from the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That movement has sometimes been called the Romantic reaction because it originated in a widespread dismay caused by the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason as the arbiter of all reality. The Romantics found this exaggerated emphasis on “reason alone” to be bloodless and inhuman, and they sought to re-introduce feeling and mystery as important elements in human experience. As with most reactions, Romanticism tended to exaggerate things in the opposite direction and to give an outsized place to sentiment, intuition, and the irrational in human life.

Part of the Romantic dislike of Enlightenment rationalism arose from the reduced view of reason espoused by proponents of the Enlightenment. Christians, heirs to and improvers of the ancient Greek tradition, had applied reason to all possible areas of knowing, from the smallest investigations of the naturalist to the highest questions of the theologian and philosopher. This rich intellectual tradition was jettisoned by the Enlighteners, who applied reason only to what could be either experimentally proved or logically deduced. The view was increasingly held by them that whatever dealt with God or even with moral or aesthetic questions was not a matter of knowledge at all, and was therefore arbitrary and unimportant. This attitude left the most significant matters of life – the nature and being of God, the drama of the human soul, the mystery of human love, the meaning of suffering – either trivialized or entirely left behind.

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds.
Ephesians 4:22-3

In their reaction against this unfortunate amputation of reason, the Romantics reclaimed the areas left behind by Enlightenment rationalism. But in doing so they regrettably accepted the reduced Enlightenment view of reason. Rather than re-expanding reason’s province to take in all things human, they cultivated the irrational, the emotional, and the mysterious, and they called this side of life “the heart.” They then pitted the Enlightenment “mind,” now saddled with a reduced view of reason, against the “heart,” now purged of rationality. Consider these lines from an early poem by the romantic poet William Wordsworth called “The Tables Turned”:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
We see here the opposition posed by Wordsworth: the intellect meddles and murders, while the heart watches and receives. Whatever the wisdom or folly of this idea, the point here is that Wordsworth’s notion of both intellect and heart are different in meaning from those we find in the Scriptures. As a result of this Enlightenment/Romantic battleground, we are left with two disfigured concepts. We read “mind” and we tend to think of stuffy book-learning or technical facts and figures, a kind of Google in our brains. We read “heart” and we go to our emotional responses and to how we are feeling about things. Neither of these will help us understand God’s revelation to us.

The Mind in Scripture

It is impressive to see how often the New Testament speaks of conversion in terms of what it calls “knowledge.” To become a Christian is to be “renewed in mind.” St. Paul prays that the Ephesians “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13), that the Colossians will lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10), that the Philippians’ love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1:9), and to Timothy that God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). St. Peter prays that grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord (2 Peter 1:2). Jesus himself constantly speaks of his mission as one of bearing witness to the truth (cf. John 18:37). Our minds, our intellects, are the faculty by which we grow in knowledge and embrace what is true. It is our highest, most God-like faculty, and therefore the one most involved in becoming fully human.

At this point someone might object: “But when St. Paul talks about knowing God, he isn’t referring to just reading books about him. He means personal knowledge, of the kind that comes in the context of a relationship of love and friendship.” To which the reply would be: “Right.” To know God, in Paul’s parlance, does mean knowing certain things about him, such as his nature, his power, his character, his aims for humanity, and his promises to us and his expectations from us. But it goes much further. It involves knowing God himself, becoming united to him, being penetrated by his life such that his life becomes our life.

The seventeenth-century mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote famously of his conversion to the faith by distinguishing between two conceptions of God: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and savants… the God of Jesus Christ.” In commenting on this, the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini wrote: “He [Pascal] had thought about God with concepts, but without arriving at any reality. He had exerted himself, but had not gotten off the ground—now he stands before the reality of God” (Guardini, Pascal for Our Time). Guardini goes on to say that philosophical concepts remain true and valid; but they are not the full vision of the truth. One really knows when one is seized and taken by a truth, when the truth comes alive. Pascal has gone from ideas about reality to the knowledge of reality itself. He has gone from using only part of his mind to using the whole of it, such that he has begun to glimpse reality in its full proportions.

The Heart in Scripture

If our post-Enlightenment conception of “mind” has been reduced from its scriptural meaning, our use of “heart” has been entirely changed. It has come to be equated with our emotional life. A forlorn lover dies of a “broken heart.” A sentiment is “heartfelt.” To call someone “heartless” means to think them outside normal human emotions. This is a perfectly good use of the word, as long as we don’t read this meaning back into the Scripture. In Scripture the “heart” does not mean emotion. It refers to the deepest core of the human, the part of us that is made in God’s image, the bedrock “me.” When Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt” (Jeremiah 17:9), he is not speaking of human emotion; he is pointing to the Fall and its corrupting influence on our inner being. When Joel says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments, return to the Lord your God” (Joel 2:13), he is calling for a change of the most fundamental kind; a change of mind and of intention of life. When Jesus says, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil” (Luke 6:45), he is addressing our highest faculties, our minds and wills, the location of the inner moral battle we are all fighting. A passage from the Letter to the Hebrews makes this understanding clear: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The essence of the heart is in its thoughts and intentions: in the mind and the will.

The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6:45

All of this is not to suggest that our emotions have nothing to do with our life of faith. We are humans, enfleshed souls, and our emotions are constantly present. They are given to us to support, strengthen, and deepen the experience of what our minds perceive to be true and our wills set out to accomplish for love and goodness. Doing what we can to cultivate and train our emotional responses such that they take their harmonious place in our inner life is an important moral duty. But given our fallen state, our emotions – the usual scriptural word for them is “passions” – often run counter to truth and goodness, and cannot simply be counted on. The point being made here is that God, in his wisdom, does not command our emotions. He understands their wayward nature and their subordinate role. His directives are addressed to our “hearts”: to our minds and our wills.

The many commandments we have been given: to love God, to love our neighbor, to mourn our sins, to rejoice in the Lord, to fear God, to hate what is evil, and to forgive our enemies, can easily be heard by us as directives to have certain feelings. But none of these instructions from God are addressed to our feelings; they are addressed to our wills. Our world, awash in emotional titillation and mistaken about what it means to be human, teaches us the false and discouraging doctrine that “you are what you feel.” According to that doctrine, our emotions are the most authentic part of us. Christ, who knows us truly and who wants to heal us and bring us to the full measure of our humanity, tells us something different: that our deepest identity is not in what we happen to be feeling, but what have set our minds and wills on becoming under his guiding Spirit.

Mind, heart, will, soul: the meaning of each of these terms runs off into mystery. God is infinite, and none of our words or concepts can do justice to the mystery of our own being and the reality of becoming “partakers of the divine nature.” St. Paul said a prayer for the Ephesians: “that you may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19). All the fulness of God: may St. Paul’s prayer be accomplished in us.

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