Embarrassment and Empathy

By Peter Groves

“Are you embarrassed easily?” Devotees of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will recognize, in that seemingly straightforward question, the opening of a famous sketch. The peculiarly English comic genius of the Pythons is never more effective than when dealing with peculiarly English subjects, such as social embarrassment. The feeling is hardly restricted to the English, of course. Indeed, our modern word embarrassment comes to us from French, its first cited use being found in Montaigne. But no doubt we recognize, especially in a place like Oxford, that observing social conventions and avoiding the much-feared “inappropriate” are highly characteristic of an English stereotype.

Anyone who’s ever been to dessert in an Oxford common room can relate to the scene in Ripping Yarns when a young officer passes the port from left to right, and the silent horror of his colleagues is interrupted by the senior officer saying simply “Off you go, Cooper.” The young officer leaves the room, and we hear the sound of a gunshot and a body falling to the floor.

Perhaps my favorite is the treatment of embarrassment in the final Python movie, The Meaning of Life. A polite English country dinner party is interrupted by a faceless man in a dark hooded cloak, who is carrying a large scythe. He is initially introduced as a Mr. Death, who has apparently come about the reaping. Upon learning that their journey into eternity has begun, the guests challenge Mr. Death with the question, ‘How can we all have died at the same time?’ A bony finger points to the food on the table, and the grim reaper utters the fatal words “the salmon mousse.” A rather disappointed host turns to his spouse with the words “Darling, you didn’t use canned salmon, did you?,” and she simply responds “I’m most frightfully embarrassed.”

The Baptism of the Lord is a feast of Christian embarrassment. The early Christians clearly struggled with the fact that Jesus had been baptized. We are told in Mark’s Gospel that John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Surely this cannot have applied to Jesus? In Matthew’s Gospel, these difficulties are articulated in a dialogue between John and Jesus, as the Baptist asks the question: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” It should be the other way round.

But Jesus persists: “Let it be so for now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.” In Luke, which we heard this morning, the embarrassment seems even greater. Luke doesn’t actually describe Jesus’ baptism, but refers to it after the event. We hear the Father’s words, but they are introduced only after everyone, including Jesus, has been baptised.

Baptism is so central a part of Christian life and practice that we rarely consider its origins. Scholars are divided as to why John chose this ritual action to exemplify his message. Baptism comes from the Greek verb to dip, and immersion in water was practiced as an act of ritual purification in ancient Judaism, for those entering the temple, for example, and for those converting from paganism.

It is probable that both of these ideas contribute to John’s use of immersion for those called to repent in the face of the coming judgment of God’s kingdom. But the relationship between the act of baptism and Jesus himself causes angst among New Testament writers. John’s Gospel seems to suffer this angst more completely than the synoptics — Jesus’ baptism is never actually mentioned, and the narrator feels the need to correct any suggestion that Jesus himself performed baptisms (though the natural reading would suggest that he did). But Matthew and Luke, as we have heard, are also embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism. It is awkward, not simply because Jesus did not need to repent, but because it might suggest to some that John was in some position of authority over Jesus, and thus able to baptize him.

Embarrassment might seem odd as the subject of academic study, but psychologists can study anything. And they do. In another field, Sir Christopher Ricks, often called the greatest living critic, wrote a book called Keats and Embarrassment, in which he built upon those scientific studies to defend the importance of embarrassment as an artistic and literary concept, as well as a social and psychological one, a concept that offers particular insight into the poetry of the English romantic John Keats.

Ricks’s work is more about the spontaneous physical experience of embarrassment, and in particular blushing, than it is about the intellectual embarrassment caused by apparently ill-fitting ideas. However, it’s of interest to us because of its central argument: that embarrassment is closely connected to empathy and to sensitivity. The tendency to feel embarrassment, rather than being the curse of polite society, is actually a highly positive characteristic of those better able than most to enter into the experiences of others, and to understand and embrace positions well beyond their own.

Empathy is, of course, also central to Christian teaching about God. Christianity does not hold that the Creator is distant and aloof, but rather that he identifies himself with those he loves into being by becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the doctrine of the Incarnation, God is literally empathetic, that is to say he is the loving person of Jesus who engages with and enters into the struggles and sufferings of those whom he encounters. But divine empathy is also an essential Christian metaphor, for the Incarnation shows us that our God is God with us, God involved, if you like, not God far up in the sky.

Our problem with the doctrine of the Incarnation is our problem with the doctrine of God. We feel the need to protect God from himself, to wall him up with our images and our ideas and decide what is and isn’t appropriate. Gods belong with princes and palaces, we are apt to think, with power and might and earthly glory. But the God of Jesus Christ comes to us in a helpless child, in a feeding trough, in a peasant preacher and in a condemned criminal. In the Baptism of the Lord, the one who made the heavens and the earth submits himself to the waters he created in order to transform them, to make them something new for us, to recreate all earthly waters so that you and I can join him in baptism. He enters into our situation, not for his sake, but for our own.

No wonder we are embarrassed. This isn’t how gods are supposed to behave. But with a wonderful irony, our embarrassment shows that God himself is embarrassed. God himself is trapped in the stifling norms of human assumption, and the spontaneous rebellion of blushing indignation becomes a metaphor for God’s refusal to accept our way of doing things.

Of course it is embarrassing for the Son of God to be baptized. It’s also embarrassing to ignore the niceties of societal dining, to sell all you have and give it to the poor, to spend your time with the despised and the diseased, and to submit yourself to tyranny and injustice so that the very structures that these protect can be brought crashing down. We think it is embarrassing for God to behave like that, but it is God who incarnates empathy, it is God who redeems the situation. And our reluctance to accept that this is the case is, in the end, just a little embarrassing.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Groves is vicar of St. Mary Magdalen’s Church, Oxford.


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