Do you believe empathy can be spiritually dangerous?
I do, and I have tried to explain why and how. And as I have, I have received some criticism (some of it quite fierce). The criticism is not surprising. Most of us have categories for the way that certain passions (such as fear or anger) can become sinful; articles about “the sin of anger” or “the sin of fear” make sense to us. But in the modern world, empathy is viewed as an almost unalloyed good, and therefore the notion that it could be dangerous, and even sinful, may be shocking.
Nevertheless, the interactions and criticisms have been both illuminating and instructive. For instance, one group of responses sounds like this:
How can you call empathy a sin? Empathy is Christlike care for suffering people that seeks to deeply enter into their pain in order to help them. By criticizing empathy, you must be advocating for an aloof, uncaring, and unchristian response to suffering people.
At a basic level, this criticism of my argument is simply false. It’s a misrepresentation of what I’ve said and written. It defines empathy in a positive way (Christlike care) and then acts as though I attacked that understanding of the term. But my burden has been precisely the opposite: to encourage Christlike care for suffering people. So, how do some of my critics draw their conclusions? I believe they fail to practice what we might call “Golden Rule hermeneutics”: Am I doing unto authors as I would have them do unto me?
“Clarity and charity hang together. Clarity serves charity; charity seeks clarity.”
Now, not all of my critics have responded to a straw-man version of my arguments. Many of them have sought to genuinely engage with the strongest versions of my arguments, and I have been grateful for their clarity and charity. The debates, however, have given me an opportunity to revisit several vital principles for disagreement within the church.
Clarity and Charity
One of my key convictions is that clarity and charity hang together. Clarity serves charity; charity seeks clarity. Loving others well means that we seek to avoid ambiguity and vagueness, and bring light to confusion and darkness. Nowhere is this more needed than when we are engaging with our theological or political or philosophical opponents.
In my classes at Bethlehem College & Seminary, I am constantly pressing my students to love others by seeking clarity. We ought to regularly ask ourselves hard questions when we’re engaging with other perspectives, whether of dead authors or living people. Two questions in particular guide my own attempts to seek clarity and charity.
1. Have I Understood and Represented Rightly?
When engaging with others, I regularly ask whether I’m understanding and representing them accurately and fairly. In other words, am I doing unto authors as I would have them do unto me?
Because I want others to read my writings charitably and represent my position accurately, I likewise strive to read others charitably and represent them accurately. Whether we are reading Plato or Dante, Hume or Edwards, our first goal is to observe accurately, understand clearly, and represent these thinkers fairly. Only then are we in a position to evaluate and assess them rightly.
Developing these habits of heart and mind is not easy. It’s far easier to set up straw-man arguments and attack them, especially when dealing with positions and views that we reject. To counteract this tendency, I regularly require my students to represent an author’s questions, concerns, and thoughts in a way that he would embrace. If he heard them reproduce his arguments, he should be able to say, “Yes, you’ve expressed my position well.” Then, having represented his view fairly, they are free to evaluate and criticize what they’ve understood.
Even more than that, I frequently try to “steel man” an opponent’s position. A steel-man argument is the opposite of a straw-man argument. When we erect a straw man, we present a weakened caricature of our opponent’s position, which makes it easier to knock down. Social media incentivizes this sort of engagement, as we aim for the “mic drop” moment. It’s easy to find plenty of cheerleaders who will applaud when we demolish our opponents (or at least, the straw man that we’ve attached to their faces).
In contrast, a steel-man argument seeks to represent an opponent’s position better than he did. We might supply an additional argument for his position — one that he did not advance — in order to present the strongest expression of that position. This sort of exercise is an act of love towards him, and towards those who agree with us. By strengthening views that we eventually reject, we can become aware of limitations or weaknesses in our own arguments.
Lewis on Purgatory
For example, when I teach a class on C.S. Lewis, I discuss his belief in the doctrine of purgatory. Lewis is quite clear on the matter. In Letters to Malcolm, he says, “I believe in Purgatory” (107).
It would be wrong, however, to conclude from this statement that Lewis believed in a temporary hell for Christians, in which devils torture saints for a limited period of time. More than that, it would be wrong to infer from Lewis’s belief in purgatory that he likewise would have embraced the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of indulgences that so incensed Martin Luther. In both of these cases, we know that such conclusions are false because Lewis tells us so in the paragraphs following his statement about believing in purgatory. He explicitly rejects the notion that purgatory is a place of retributive punishment, as well as the idea that it demands commercial transactions in which living saints pay money to release dead relatives early from their torment.
“Loving others well means that we seek to avoid ambiguity and vagueness, and bring light to confusion and darkness.”
Thus, when I teach Lewis, I first attempt to describe accurately his beliefs about purgatory — it is a temporary season of purging in which the saved soul desires to be fully cleansed of the vestiges of sin before fully enjoying the presence of God. Then, having described Lewis’s view accurately, I provide biblical and theological reasons for rejecting Lewis’s perspective. But as I try to make clear to my students, we gain the right to criticize only through accurate representation of opposing positions. This is one way that clarity serves charity, and charity seeks clarity.
2. What Kind of Difference Is This?
But beyond accurately representing the positions of others, we also aim for clarity by seeking to determine the nature of the differences between various positions. For example, as my students seek to understand and begin evaluating other positions, I encourage them to ask probing questions in their assessment.
- Is this a difference in semantics? That is, are our positions substantially the same (we believe the same things), but we are using different terms to express our common belief?
- Is this a difference in substance? That is, is my position substantially different from the other person’s?
- Is this a difference in emphasis? That is, are our positions the same, but what we emphasize or accent about our positions is different? Do we have different instincts or different assessments about various dangers and temptations concerning our position?
So, how might an understanding of these kinds of differences bring light to the empathy debate in particular, and help us pursue unity in our differences?
I believe we have more agreement over empathy than we often acknowledge. For instance, I have been advocating for Christlike care for suffering people that seeks to enter into their pain in order to help them — while remaining tethered to the truth. The real question, then, is what the best term is for that Christlike orientation. My argument has been that compassion (or sympathy) is the best term, one derived directly from the Scriptures (1 Peter 3:8; Hebrews 4:15; 10:34). Others disagree, and think that empathy is the better term. But either way, if we’re agreed on the concept itself, then the difference is a semantic one, not a substantive one.
Now, semantic differences can be significant. They might create confusion. Some have criticized my arguments on empathy on precisely these grounds. These critics share my substantive concern but think that defining empathy as I do and talking about “the sin of empathy” is confusing to people. They’ve suggested I use a term like “sinful empathy” or “untethered empathy” or “ungoverned empathy” to distinguish the bad kind from a good and valuable form of empathy.
And while I intentionally used the provocative phrase in order to arrest attention and provoke thought (just like one might even seek to recover the word hedonism for Christian use), I’ve also been clear that I’m not hung up on the particular word. I’ve criticized the phenomenon without using the term empathy (“Dangerous Compassion”). And I’ve commended certain understandings of empathy, both in my own writing and in the writing of others. Therefore, untethered or ungoverned empathy seems to me to be an excellent term for the danger I’m encouraging us to avoid.
The main point here, however, is that it’s crucial to distinguish semantic differences from substantive differences, and that to treat a semantic difference as though it were a substantive one is often to misrepresent someone.
The same is true of differences in emphasis. For example, in my writings on empathy, I’ve especially focused on the danger of total immersion in the pain of others such that we lose touch with truth and allow other people to steer our emotional vehicles. I have attempted to help people realize when they are being manipulated by the sensitivities and pain of hurting people. Some critics, however, believe that a more pressing danger is the kind of aloof sympathy that simply utters the words “I’m sorry that you’re hurting” but never takes risks to actually help the sufferer. In this case, different assessments of the more pressing danger lead to different emphases. With any given issue, we each have to ask, What is the need of this hour?
“Different instincts and emphases, rightly governed, can help us maintain a full-orbed embrace of Christlikeness.”
Different assessments of the need (or danger) are frequently owing to different personal experiences and backgrounds. If you’ve seen or experienced emotional blackmail in the name of empathy, or if you’ve seen Christians divided because some have adopted the logic that “I’m hurt; therefore you sinned,” then you’re more likely to be aware of that danger and thus emphasize the need for a deep respect for objective truth and goodness in our efforts to help. On the other hand, if you’ve seen or experienced callousness and empty words of compassion in the face of real suffering, or you have detected a fearful unwillingness to enter into the pain of others, then you’re more likely to be aware of that danger and thus emphasize the need for intentional efforts to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.
And differences in emphasis, of course, can also be significant. In the long haul, they might actually lead to substantive differences. We can lean so far in different directions that we wind up with different positions. But as I’ve stressed to my students, they don’t have to. In fact, rightly governed, different instincts and emphases can help to ensure that a church, or a pastoral team, or a school maintain a full-orbed embrace of Christlikeness.
Different emphases among those who mutually respect one another and who value the different instincts of the team can be of great benefit to a church. The pastoral team that I serve with has precisely this sort of mutual respect. We make better decisions precisely because we bring our different instincts and leanings into the discussion, all while sharing the same fundamental convictions.
Where We Disagree
Personally, I’ve found the debate surrounding empathy and compassion to be very illuminating. Good-faith critics have helped me to hone arguments, identify various fault lines, and, as a result, (I hope) provide more clarity to parts of my arguments that confused some. Bad-faith critics have served my sanctification in other ways. More importantly, though, I hope that this specific debate might equip us for future disagreements (of which there will be many).
In all of this, our goal as Christians must be to practice Golden Rule hermeneutics. As hearers and readers, we ought to listen and read with clarity and charity, seeking to understand authors on their own terms. We should assess whether relevant differences are matters of substance, semantics, or emphasis, and represent others with faithfulness and care. Likewise, as speakers and authors, we ought to speak and write with clarity and charity in our various contexts, seeking to be wise, courageous, and compassionate in our speech.