Posted by: duncandrews | May 11, 2012

My eyes a fountain of tears: a theology of weeping (i)

At the outset, I need to confess there is much about this topic that I find deeply confusing. On one level, our tears are a fairly straightforward physiological phenomenon. Chemical processes take place, tear ducts kick into action, salt water is produced. As Seinfeld puts it, ‘what is this salty discharge coming from my eyes!?’

But the closer you look, the more complex the issue becomes. Some people cry all the time; others hardly ever. Apparently Richard Nixon had to be taught how to cry by his publicist! On top of that there are so many different types of tears. The tears of a grieving parent are miles away from the blubbering of a celebrity receiving their gong. There are genuine tears of sadness and false tears of manipulation. There are onion tears and hungry-baby tears.

But amidst all this complexity, what seems clear is that our tears just won’t go away. They’re a universal phenomenon, and they come at definitive moments in our lives: births, deaths, marriages and everything in between.

Science has long been interested in tears. Darwin believed they serve a purely functional purpose; they lubricate the eye, dampen the nostrils, and wash out dust particles. Modern science has recognised a psychological element to our tears – there’s more going on than pure physiology.

But is there anything more we can say about human crying? Does it serve more than a purely evolutionary function? Does the Christian gospel have any light to shed on why we cry, and how we should cry? Is there any theological significance to tears?

P.S. At the outset, we will define our interest as being not only in the phenomenon of tears, but in the intensity of emotion they represent, as the outward manifestation of an inward disturbance. We will also restrict our investigation to tears of sorrow, acknowledging the possibility of other kinds of tears, for instance tears of joy, but not exploring them here.

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