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In Praise of Empathy
One of the marvelous turns in contemporary theology is the drive to recapture the God described by John.
In his recent book, Against Empathy, psychologist Paul Bloom makes the controversial case that our psyches would be healthier and our social policies more effective if we had “less empathy, more kindness,” by which he means less feeling what others feel, or experiencing what they experience, and more conscious, deliberative response to what others feel and experience. (“There is a neural difference,” fMRI studies demonstrate.) That distinction may be roughly parallel to one invoked by those who want to characterize God’s love in ways that insulate the divine from the experience of human pain: love without pain, without vulnerability.
Opponents of Bloom’s view argue that “affective empathy is a precursor to compassion,” and that, “We can’t feel compassion without first feeling emotional empathy. Indeed, compassion is the extension of emotional empathy by means of cognitive processes.”1 Bloom denies this, insisting that we can exhibit compassion with no experience of what we are exhibiting compassion for, but that seems untenable. We may not have experienced torture or tragedy, but we have all experienced pain and sadness. As the word’s etymology suggests [com-passion = suffer with], a compassion devoid of any shared suffering needs a different name than compassion, and while a non-empathic response might be helpful, it is a far cry from solidarity, relationship, or love. “More kindness, less empathy” might foretell great social policy, but it is not a basis for a personal relationship—with God or our neighbor.
To love the other is to be personally invested in that good of the other that one is committed to promoting. It follows that if one’s actions are directed to a preservation or improvement of the other’s thriving, then one’s indifference to the consequences of those actions would falsify the motive. One’s concern, in that case, would be simply to perform an action, and not to achieve the desired outcome of that action. (Rather like the do-gooder who feels ethically bound to feed the beggar, but having done his duty, rests content with a duty fulfilled, regardless of whether that meal actually nourished the hungry man.) If one is not indifferent to the consequences of those actions, then one’s own future disposition is necessarily, inescapably affected by those consequences. One has chosen to make the shell of selfhood permeable, interconnected. To open oneself to joy in the other is simultaneously to open oneself to pain in the other, and thereby sacrifice self-sufficiency. This concern as investment, as willful subjection to the contingencies of time’s unfolding as it relates to an impulse to preserve or alter the welfare of the other, is the indispensable dimension of love that is relational.
These conditions are fundamental to love as we all experience it. Love, in the words of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett, “is eternally unsatisfied.” In the state of love, “our happiness is produced by that something or someone toward which we are drawn.” Therefore, “in the act of love the person goes out of himself toward something else. It does not gravitate toward me, but I toward it.”2 The complications of associating those entanglements with God are immediately apparent, and whether these dimensions of love pertain to the divine nature is the question that perhaps more than any other will complicate and at times derail Christian history.
One of the marvelous turns in contemporary theology is the drive to recapture the God described by John—a description that was obscured by an unyielding devotion to the God of classical understanding: remote, inaccessible, impassible. At the point that Jesus became God incarnate, two options, and only two options, emerged. Either the Jesus of history would disappear into the God of the philosophers, or the God of the philosophers would be reinterpreted in the light of Jesus. Christian theology largely opted for the first. In the words of the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, they took as their starting point "the axiom of God's apathy" instead of "the axiom of God's passion."3 He is one of a rising chorus in what Thomas Weinandy calls “a sea change…such that at present many, if not most, Christian theologians hold as axiomatic that God is passible, that He does undergo emotional changes of states, and so can suffer.”4 The God of Enoch has returned to the center of theological consciousness.
In one of the earliest documents written by a Christian to a curious observer, one “Mathetes” is explaining to one Diognetus the basis of that unique “affection which [Christians] cherish among themselves.”5 He defines love as being rooted in the experience of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. Before the love made concrete and effable in Jesus, “who of men at all understood…what God is?” he queried. His point is an elaboration of the claim made in the gospel of John: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him…. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14.6-7). Both writers find in the person of Jesus Christ the full and sufficient face of God, all “love and goodness.”6 In the words of Christian Wiman, we can now “walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ.”7
Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 141.
José Ortega y Gasset, On Love (New York: Meridian, 1957), 12-13.
Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1993), 22.
Thomas Weinandy, “Does God Suffer?” First Things (November 2001).
Mathetes, “Mathetes 1.” In Philip Schaff ed, Anti-Nicene Fathers Vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1885), 44.
Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God (1924), 126.
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 121.