Empathy?

The thesis behind Dru Johnson’s book, “Knowledge by Ritual” is that humans acquire knowledge through the rituals in their traditions. That means that by participating in the Eucharistic Liturgy for example, one will gain more knowledge of the Holy Trinity. Not just knowledge about God, but knowing God. In laying out the argument for the book he traces the history of the liturgical or ritualized life of Israel. In rehearsing and reliving the rituals over and over the people come to knowledge of God. The same then, he says, is true for Christians. Of course modern Christianity would like to be rid of the rituals or becomes suspicious of them and so devise new ways of supposedly coming to know God. People begin to hear new mantras as to how liturgy is rote, formal and dead. When the mantra is heard enough those who are listening begin to doubt the tradition and her wisdom and begin to move away to non-tradition.

The same effect happens to us in our everyday life. We just don’t think of some of these things as ritual, and to be fair it doesn’t meet all of Johnson’s criteria for ritual, but nevertheless the repetitive nature of certain words, phrases, and actions in culture is what creates much of the change. Think for a moment about the ritualized progression of LGBT movement. It begins in a time where for the most part no one would publicly admit or acknowledge such inclinations or behavior. Then the initial stage of the sexual revolution comes about (I say initial because I don’t think it ever ended). A certain amount of openness in public discourse takes place. Certain assumptions and practices begin to be repeated as normal. First by a few voices but then is echoed more and more throughout the world. The progression increases over time as the repetitive nature of what is good and normal gains traction. Eventually you reach a point where people consider such behavior as ‘normal’ and therefore legalize such things as ‘gay’ marriage, transgenderism, etc. Never mind that there are studies that would argue contrary to the newly ritualized knowledge that such behavior is normal.

However, I only want to use the above as an example. Mostly because people often ask, “How did we get here?” So, I began thinking more about this process when I came across an article in First Things by Patricia Snow titled, “Empathy is Not Charity”. (You can read the whole thing here https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/10/empathy-is-not-charity It is behind the pay wall but I think they give you three free reads.) The word empathy is a relatively new word to our language as words go. It means literally to ‘feel in’. Feeling in means to feel what someone else is feeling. Snow says that humans are created in such a way that to achieve our satisfaction for selfhood and intimacy we must locate it in our knowing the Trinity. She quotes a passage from theologian Romano Guardini in The Lord:

Man’s desire to share in the life and destiny certainly exists, but even the profoundest union stops short at one barrier: the fact that I am I and he is he.

This of course means that as humans there is a point at which there has to be a natural differentiation between one and another. We cannot assume to ‘feel in’ or feel what another feels because we aren’t them. Guardini goes on:

Love knows that complete union, complete exchange is impossible—cannot even be seriously hoped for. The human ‘we’ capable of breaking the bonds of the ego simply does not exist…My every act begins in me, who am alone responsible for it.

The key word here is ‘ego’. Ego in this sense doesn’t mean to be conceited. Rather it is in Freudian terms the central part of our being. The ego defines me. However, it also limits how far I can enter into relationship with another human. We have two ego’s that will always establish boundaries as to how far others might go with us. Another way of saying this is that it establishes differentiation between us. Snow says, “Only with the help of God’s Spirit can his needs for both autonomy and community be met.”

This however, doesn’t slow the demands in our culture that we observe the moral imperative that we must in all cases show empathy toward others. The reality is that we live in an age (the Enlightenment was often called the age of reason) of increasing secularization where “man has had to learn to live without God, his solution for the most part has been to draw closer to other people, in unprecedented, ultimately untenable ways.” And of course, this is fueled by ‘empathy’. “Unable to locate life’s meaning in God and His eternity, we seek it in our relationships with other people.”

Snow writes, “Empathy, in the secular kingdom, does not mean simple kindness, consideration, or compassion. It means actually feeling what you believe someone else is feeling at any given moment.” We have been duped into believing through the constant and repetitive use of the word empathy to the point that moral balance is guided by how empathetic one is. It is a made- up notion. It has been used to manipulate. We cannot ever, ever feel what someone else is feeling. We can feel with them. We can be sad because someone else is sad. When my brother lay in the hospital last year suffering from his bicycle accident I could no more presume to feel what he felt. I could however have compassion which is Biblical.

She goes on to write, “For many years now, we have been living in what Frans de Waal called an age of empathy, an age not of reason but of overflowing emotion…Indeed, given a choice between reason and emotion, or sense and sensibility as a culture we incline to emotion and sensibility more and more, and we are proud of our choice, as if it were evidence of our evolving humanity.”

What we end up doing however is causing much more harm to one another than we know. “Far from being kinder and more supportive of others, overly empathetic individuals are so overwhelmed by the sufferings of other that they are finally helpless to help them…”

The article goes on to reflect upon how this has impacted the Church. We must realize that our energies and attention must be diverted from the ritualized nonsense that keeps coming at us from the media if we are to be a church that is truly faithful to her mission in the world. Snow further states, “In a world without God, man attributes too much agency to himself. This may exhilarate him for a time, but in the end, he cannot bear so much responsibility…This is not a world in which Christianity can flourish. Christianity, to be passed on, depends upon strong individuals, people who know where they end and others begin. It depends upon people who understand both their natural limits and their supernatural potential—secure individuals, who are unafraid either of proposing strong truths or of entertaining challenging proposals from others.”

May we take heed of this good counsel. The emotive softness is everywhere. It is destroying not just our culture but is also infecting the Church. May we be buoyed by the every present and ever patient Lord who has redeemed us to fulfill our destiny and potential in Him.

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