Where Now?

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We shall have to exchange Athanasius’s “He became human in order that we might become divine” for the yet more incarnationally oriented summarization of soteriology: “He became human in order that we might become truly human.” (Douglas John Hall, Professing the Faith, pp. 337-338)

Huh? To satisfy my spell checker, I had to add three new words to its dictionary from that one sentence. Let me try to translate English into English.

Athanasius was the bishop who in the Fourth Century became the leading speaker for what emerged as the correct (orthodox) position concerning the nature of God’s being with us, God’s coming to us. We call that correct position the doctrine of the Trinity.

So what?

The biblical understanding is that all our human problems come from our rejection of relationship, first with God and then with each other as with ourselves. In short, we reject our being creatures of flesh and blood. We want to “be as gods” – gods to ourselves and gods over each other. Not content to receive life as a gift and accept our vocation as humans, we demand life for ourselves on our own terms. This denial of relatedness and rejection of relationship is sin.

Christian faith goes wrong when it tries to force belief in Jesus as the Christ into the mold of our desire to leave behind our creaturehood and become divine. Our lust for power, prestige, and privilege, however, demands that we reject our own creaturehood – not only our mortality (the fact that we shall all die), but our grateful receiving, day by day, of the gift of life that relates us to each other and all other creatures.

What are the relational desires that contrast with our lust for power, prestige, and privilege? They are empathy, compassion, and justice. Empathy seeks to understand and be with the other person and even with the frightened or hungry animal. Empathy represents our capacity to feel with and stand in solidarity with another person. As a friend has reminded me, the more correct word might be sympathy, but that word has become too much connected with pity for the pitiful: “Poor thing!” No one wants to be pitied. So, the psychology with which I am most familiar uses the word empathy to speak of a tenderness that drops its defenses enough to care for and become somewhat vulnerable to and with another.

Compassion derives from the idea of suffering with another whose suffering is not our own until we let ourselves care. Compassion is empathy in action for the sake of the other with whom we stand in solidarity.

Justice sets limits upon empathy and gives spine to compassion. It is not the enemy of compassion but keeps it from sliding downward into self-indulgent weepiness and hand-wringing. Here I find it helpful to keep in mind the insistence of Abraham Heschel that the world does not need more people who speak highly of justice as a concept but more who cannot abide the specific injustices done to others even when those injustices do not harm them directly.

So, the goal of our salvation is to restore our rejected relationship with God and our denied relatedness to other people and groups of people and on to the nonhuman creatures. It is to heal and restore our damaged humanity, our creaturehood. It is to make us human as the Christ became human for us and the world.

The rest of relearning Christian faith follows from this. Hall continues:

Will we say “Yes!” to being creatures? That is the question. Until we are ready to repeat our own “amen!” to the Creator’s gift of life, we have not made good our own peculiar creaturehood. (338)

2 Comments on “Where Now?

  1. Debbie Homan

    Your explanation of justice’s role for empathy and compassion makes a lot of sense. A healthy desire for justice probably discourages empathy from degrading into pity.

    1. Dick Sindall Post author

      Yes, but there’s more, and I’m working on how to understand and express it helpfully. There is an integrity of the self that keeps empathy and compassion in check, and biblically that integrity as a self comes from our relation to God. Drawing from Leviticus, Jesus says the second great commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not instead of yourself. We are not called to be doormats. But there is danger here, which I think is an opening for authoritarian thinking and its judgmentalism. Trouble comes if I start asking who deserves my compassion and who has to clean up his/her life before expecting any sympathy or compassion from me or from us as Christians.

      Neither should my/our caring violate the integrity of the other person, which is something I need to think about more and push my thinking. I cannot fully understand another person (and have no right to), which is where the problem with the word empathy enters. Care-givers can be tempted to dominate the other person with their caring, to overstep the boundaries of the other’s integrity.

      Rethinking takes work. I appreciate your help.

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