Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Unmoved by empathy

Empathy was foisted upon us 60 years ago as a more egalitarian substitute for sympathy. I suppose I’ve always had an analytical mind, sometimes that’s just an excuse for inaction. But I never believed this new word offered anything useful.

I have been part of a small minority. The majority has come to believe that what the world needs is more empathy. In recent years this has even crept into Christian thinking and Christian literature.

Empathy is the idea that we need to feel the pain and pleasure of others. But how does it help someone to tell him “I feel your pain”? How does it help me to be able to make myself feel the pain that others are going through?

Paul Bloom, a New York psychologist and researcher at Yale University, believes that empathy is a self-centred emotion and does more harm than good. In 2016 he published Against Empathy*, in which he argues that compassion is a far healthier and more useful response to the pain and suffering of others.

To put it as simply as possible, Bloom argues that when I feel empathy for your suffering it makes me feel very bad, but does not move me to do anything to help you. Compassion, on the other hand, causes me to do something to help you, rather than trying to analyse my own feelings. Bloom says that empathy can cause us to become overloaded with painful feelings and separate us from the ones who are suffering.

Compassion is a word that we often encounter in the Bible. Jesus demonstrated compassion for all those in sorrow and distress. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite may well have felt empathy for the poor man lying by the side of the road. But contact with blood, or with someone who was possibly dead, would have rendered them unclean for service in the temple. So they avoided looking too closely at the injured man. The Samaritan was moved by compassion and went ahead and did what he was able to do to help the man. Jesus closed the parable by telling the Pharisee “Go and do thou likewise.”

That message is meant for all of us. Let’s discard this newfangled empathy which leads to a preoccupation with our own feelings. May we rather allow ourselves to be moved to action by compassion.

Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion, by Paul Bloom, © 2016, published by The Bodley Head, London

Imaginary Sympathy

Around 50 years ago The Readers’ Digest carried an article suggesting that the  word “sympathy” had become so degraded in common usage as to make the word unacceptable to many people.  As I recall, the writer felt that “sympathy” had taken on too much of a connotation of superiority towards the person one felt sympathy for, and thus it was high time to find a replacement.  And of course the writer had just the ideal word in mind.  The word he suggested was “empathy,” a word that up to then had mostly been used by psychologists.
While I might agree that many people use “sympathy” in an improper way, I am not at all convinced that the suggested replacement is an improvement.  I think it is rather a step backward, at least for Christians, to replace “sympathy” with “empathy.”
Let me explain.  I believe that words have consequences, even if we don’t fully understand the etymology and meaning of the words we use.  The more that we use a word, even if most of us don’t fully understand it, the more we are in danger of being led, individually and collectively, towards embracing the concept embedded in that word.
Sympathy, compassion and empathy are all formed from the Latin word pathos, which means feeling.  The following definitions come from the Gage Canadian Dictionary:
Sympathy (syn– together + pathos feeling) 1. a sharing of another’s sorrow or trouble; a sharing, or ability to share.  2. an agreement in feeling; the condition or fact of having the same feeling; 3. an affinity between certain things, whereby they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence.
Compassion (com– with + pathos) feeling for another’s sorrow or hardship that leads one to help the sufferer; sympathy; pity.
Empathy (en– in + pathos) Psychology. the quality or process of entering fully, through imagination, into another’s feelings or motives, into the meaning of a work of art, etc.
Note that while the first two words describe a condition of the heart, the last one is merely a state of mind.  Sympathy, at its root, describes a heart that is tender and responsive, and will instinctively “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
Could it be that the hearts of many people have become shrivelled and hardened to the point that Psychology now offers the alternative of imagining that which they can no longer feel?  Or is Psychology actually the culprit here, leading us to analyse and intellectualize rather than to feel?
Let’s put it another way: sympathy and compassion describe real feelings having very real value.  Empathy is just a cheap man-made imitation.

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