(Gene Veith in the Canadian Lutheran)
I have been wondering what is "sensibility." It's not a word I use actively, nor does anyone I know personally. In the German language, we say about someone that they might be "sensibel", which would mean often that they are touchy, moody, or possibly depressive. In the best sense of the word it would mean that they have capacity to feel deeply and broadly. It would be the opposite to being a clod. To me, the most common meaning of "sensibel" would be "touchy".
The Internet gives these definitions for "sensibility": The ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity. Or synonyms: finer feelings, delicacy, taste, discrimination, discernment. A Person's delicate sensitivity that makes them readily offended or shocked.
Wikipedia, has this sort of detailed thing:
Sensibility refers to an acute perception of or responsiveness toward something, such as the emotions of another. This concept emerged in eighteenth-century Britain, and was closely associated with studies of sense perception as the means through which knowledge is gathered. It also became associated with sentimental moral philosophy.
One of the first of such texts would be John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), where he says, "I conceive that Ideas in the Understanding, are coeval with Sensation; which is such an Impression or Motion, made in some part of the Body, as makes it be taken notice of in the Understanding." George Cheyne and other medical writers wrote of "The English Malady," also called "hysteria" in women or "hypochondria" in men, a condition with symptoms that closely resemble the modern diagnosis of clinical depression. Cheyne considered this malady to be the result of over-taxed nerves. At the same time, theorists asserted that individuals who had ultra-sensitive nerves would have keener senses, and thus be more aware of beauty and moral truth. Thus, while it was considered a physical and/or emotional fragility, sensibility was also widely perceived as a virtue.
Originating in philosophical and scientific writings, sensibility became an English-language literary movement, particularly in the then-new genre of the novel. Such works, called sentimental novels, featured individuals who were prone to sensibility, often weeping, fainting, feeling weak, or having fits in reaction to an emotionally moving experience. If one were especially sensible, one might react this way to scenes or objects that appear insignificant to others. This reactivity was considered an indication of a sensible person's ability to perceive something intellectually or emotionally stirring in the world around them. However, the popular sentimental genre soon met with a strong backlash, as anti-sensibility readers and writers contended that such extreme behavior was mere histrionics, and such an emphasis on one's own feelings and reactions a sign of narcissism. Samuel Johnson, in his portrait of Miss Gentle, articulated this criticism:
She daily exercises her benevolence by pitying every misfortune that happens to every family within her circle of notice; she is in hourly terrors lest one should catch cold in the rain, and another be frighted by the high wind. Her charity she shews by lamenting that so many poor wretches should languish in the streets, and by wondering what the great can think on that they do so little good with such large estates.
Objections to sensibility emerged on other fronts. For one, some conservative thinkers believed in a priori concepts, that is, knowledge that exists independent of experience, such as innate knowledge believed to be imparted by God. Theorists of the a priori distrusted sensibility because of its over-reliance on experience for knowledge. Also, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, anti-sensibility thinkers often associated the emotional volatility of sensibility with the exuberant violence of the French Revolution, and in response to fears of revolution coming to Britain, sensible figures were coded as anti-patriotic or even politically subversive. Maria Edgeworth's Leonora, for example, depicts the "sensible" Olivia as a villainess who contrives her passions or at least bends them to suit her selfish wants; the text also makes a point to say that Olivia has lived in France and thus adopted "French" manners. In addition, the effusive nature of most sentimental heroes, such as Harley in Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, was often decried by literary critics as weak effeminacy, helping to discredit sentimental novels, and to a lesser extent, all novels, as unmanly works.
Aha, we see.
What then is a Christian sensibility or imagination? How do we choose what we let in or out of our heads and hearts?
Nowadays, it seem that the sensibility of our age expects us to be shocked at nothing, and then call everything "love." Everything seems rendered meaningless. How is a Christian sensibility counter to this trend?--Love is more defined. The Bible tells us what kinds of things are loving and which not. It is an understanding that needs cultivating. It does not happen entirely on its own. There may be the innate--as the natural law demands--but that can easily be dulled or manipulated. Chesterton would say that Orthodoxy helps us find a way while everyone else leaves us stranded at the crossroads. There is a certain direction in the Christian sensibility; it is not afloat.
I find that also life events really change a person's "sensibility", much more so than art. When we have been through a type of situation, we can understand it, we have certain feelings about it, we have developed a certain sensibility about it. Novels can let us enter into situations we don't face ourselves, and thus we can learn empathy through this channel. It still is not at all the same kind of thing as experiencing something yourself.
The Bible lets us enter into various kinds of situations and trials, exercising our imagination and sensibility. The trials, foibles and faith of Israel, the patriarchs, and so on, are also my own. King David's faithful courage inspires our own. Plenty of not so inspiring events occur in the Bible, too, but the Christian "sensibility" is able to put these things to use, too. None of us are any better than another. We are all dependent on God's grace. He gives and takes away. We have nothing from ourselves.
The essence of the Christian sensibility is that things come from the outside, we need not stir the pot on the inside. It is already boiling over. Rather we find a way to think and feel and proceed.
"Without love. I like it rough. Because I'd rather feel pain than nothing, at all."