Imagine a discussion, whether a structured bible study or a more informal conversation, on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Someone interrupts the developing conversation with the question: “Well, isn’t it all just empathy?” Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you aren’t unnecessarily defensive about the need for lengthy exegesis and moral theology when discussing Scriptural passages. It is a difficult question. After all, Bible does appeal to empathy: the Israelites should not mistreat foreigners, remembering that they themselves had been in the same position (Exod. 22:21); Christ, we are told, is not a distant high priest who is unable to “feel with” or “empathize” with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15; see also an article on biblical morality and the emotions here).

Empathy has its place.

But if we are brutally honest with ourselves, we will admit, at the very least, that empathy is rather fragile and unreliable. We might be more ready to empathize with and assist a wounded traveler if we are in a certain mood or if he or she happens to be attractive.

The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has a provocative article entitled “Against Empathy” in the Boston Review, in which he catalogues the manifold problems with “emotional” empathy, here defined as placing yourself in someone else’s shoes. And he makes some good points in the article. Yes, we are more likely to feel empathy for attractive people or people who look very much like us (assuming the categories don’t overlap). Also, constantly feeling everyone else’s pain can lead straight to burnout. Finally, there are relationships in which distance and objectivity or a focus on a shared project or interest are much more desirable than empathy. For example: should your doctors, teachers, and colleagues also be your therapists?

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One of Bloom’s respondents, the essayist Leslie Jamison, notes yet another problem with empathy. It can mutate into self-absorption. Here, the point of empathy is no longer actually helping a victim, but rather experiencing certain fascinating emotions and perceiving ourselves to be sensitive, caring, beautiful souls. “[Empathy] can also offer a dangerous sense of completion: that something has been done because something has been felt.” It becomes less about the specific needs of wounded travelers and more about those self-proclaimed visionary leaders who, dangerously armed with inspirational quotes, can feel.

So, what then? Can we save empathy? Or is there an alternative?

Bloom’s one theological respondent, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, attempts to save “emotional” empathy by suggesting that visions of Christ’s passion can lead to an intensified, more universal empathy. And, as for burnout, “many of us venerate a number of Christian figures whose empathy overwhelmed them even unto death.”

Bloom is unimpressed by Bruenig’s “medieval nostalgia,” and he elsewhere counsels something like “a reasoned, even counter empathetic analysis,” drawing on another religious tradition, namely Buddhism. He speaks of a “great compassion,” philosophically and neurologically distinct from empathy, “which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress.”

Does this cohere with our own faith? Is there a Christian alternative to empathy in which we react to others with compassionate warmth and care without imagining that we need to experience what they experience? I’m going to answer affirmatively, and my response may have less to do with visions of Christ’s passion (à la Bruenig) than with contemplating Christ as our high priest. This is a theological theme that’s been relatively common in Reformed theology but has also been a recent focus of the eminent and prolific Jesuit theologian, Gerald O’Collins.

In part of a recent article in Horizons, O’Collins writes about an activity that might be neglected almost as often as assisting wounded travelers: interceding in prayer for those outside our community of faith. If we take empathy as our preeminent guide to moral action, we would presumably have to mirror the spiritual state of those of other religions, find ourselves drawn to them, yet discern how much they “need God” (or something like that), and finally be moved to pray in holy altruism.

This previous sentence might immediately strike the reader as unlikely or problematic. Perhaps presumptuous. Indeed, this doesn’t seem to work very well as a description of intercession. Intercession shouldn’t require specific, moving knowledge about the person for whom we pray. It can be general. “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Tim 2:1-2). Furthermore, intercession is a priestly act in which a baptized person shares in the priesthood of Christ; it is done in the name of Christ, and its limits must not be determined by the intercessor’s capacity to empathize. Finally, intercession has a mysterious efficacy, subject to God’s “inscrutability” and “unsearchability” (Rom 11:33), and cannot be aimed at giving the person for whom we pray that magical, specific consolation for their pain that we have so achingly felt.

Of course, when we pray for friends and family members, we might be moved by specific knowledge and moments of empathy, and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. But those simply can’t be the only moments that we intercede. And perhaps they shouldn’t be representative of the act of intercession.

In Catholic theology, according to the Second Vatican Council, “no action of the Church” other than celebrating the liturgy “equals its efficacy” because this is the action closest to the priestly ministry of Christ himself (Sacrosanctum Concilium 7) . The intercessions at the liturgy are clearly not limited to friends and family members; in fact, O’Collins notes that the Second Vatican Council “stipulated expressly the celebration of the Eucharist as the context in which the prayer for all human beings should be practiced.”

It might seem, then, that interceding for “others” is something that should be done but will only be done because of ecclesiastical command. This might seem to be the sort of act for which it is difficult to discover any real motivation other than a grim sense of duty. We grit our teeth and pray for “others.” But O’Collins quotes Richard Foster, “intercession is a way of loving others.” How are we, in the absence of empathy, really supposed to love “others?”

The themes of love all have to do with Christ. O’Collins notes that love includes a “love of delight,” which means a wonder at others, a “love of benevolence,” which reaches out to serve the interests of others, and a desire for reciprocity and union. In “delight,” we participate in Christ’s “approval” for others in “their unique, personal reality.” In “benevolence,” we participate in the redemptive actions of the Son and Spirit. The reciprocity is the fellowship of the Body of Christ. There may be, in all the elements of this love, a distinct awareness of something greater than our own capacity to understand and feel, a something that is not ours but in which we may dimly take our part, whether to pray or physically assist a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho.

This “something” is Christ’s speech as humanity’s high priest, spoken to the Father when we would stutter or be silent. It pulls us out of our biases and self-absorption to a larger fellowship; it means that we need not rely on our own faltering capacities or limited faithfulness but can stumble our way to acting for others as Christ did. As Andrew Purves summarizes, “our faith is laid hold of, enveloped, and upheld by Christ’s faithfulness.” Somehow, it is “not I,” but the Christ that “lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

What does this mean? I don’t think that it necessarily means an intensified empathy at all, but rather something that would look very much like the Buddhist “great compassion” of which Paul Bloom writes.

The featured image is an early modern stained glass fragment of “The good Samaritan.” It was uploaded by Flickr user Bosc d’Anjou and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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Many years ago I had to pastor a family through a horrific tragedy–a closed-head traumatic injury to a teenager, and the decision to withdraw life support. If I had been too empathetic, I would have been overwhelmed and unable to function. My (innate) capacity to preserve a degree of detachment helped greatly in my ability to do what I needed to do for them.

Neil, I found this post very thoughtful and very practical because it speaks directly to the guts of Christian life, the twofold commandment to love. Intercessory prayer seems an ideal place to to explore the limits of empathy for understanding that love. I think you are right that we are called to something that outstrips empathy. After all, we are told to love our enemies and to pray for even our persecutors. I suppose if my prayer depended only on my capacity to feel for others, it would be impossible to pray for them unless I could muster tender feelings… Read more »

The question interests me, and I’m sympathetic to the point — both the more or less secular analysis and the theological reappraisal. What follows is not a criticism of the above, but a genuine question. I’m stumbling over the post perhaps for a habit of using “empathy” for something more routine and basic than robust definition that is at work here. If “empathy” is not the name for it, there has to be a name for the — always imperfect, at best only approximate — practice of imaginining the world through another’s eyes which grounds and sustains charitable relationships. When… Read more »

I think you may be drawing a greater dichotomy here than perhaps is necessary. I agree with the assessment that sometimes a certain amount of distance is needed for us to do certain types of work, but I think that is a reality of the fall more than it is God’s intention. In the fullness of time, in the eschatological vision, I think it likely that empathy without limits will be a part of the new reality that we will be called to live in. Our empathy with one another now is a small foretaste of that hope. But because… Read more »

Jonathan, it was not clear who is drawing a greater dichotomy than is necessary. Me? Or did you mean Neil’s original post. Anyway, “empathy without limits” sounds almost like the end of intersubjectivity altogether. But I confess that I can’t quite picture what the alternatives could be.

Woody, I meant the original piece. My apologies. Your comment wasn’t even there when I started mine. This is what happens when you leave a window open in the morning in order to write a comment in the afternoon.

Jeff Hupf

Thanks for the provocative article. I would second your instinct to be careful about dichotomies in this matter since, as many feminist psychologists have pointed out, our conversations about emotions frequently are embedded in gender biases. As Christians it seems important that we embrace a whole person approach which doesn’t elevate male preference for emotional control over female preference for emotional flow. Empathy, at its best, is both an activity of emotional resonance of the limbic brain and cognitive, value based action from our prefrontal cortex. As such, why would we need an alternative to empathy when it guides us… Read more »

Thanks, Neil. It looks like, had I followed up with Bloom, I would have figured out his emotional v. cognitive empathy distinction, which I think I can accept, understanding that the line between the two is fuzzy. My only rejoinder would be to say that I would expect that a “normally ordered” person will, on balance, actually be more moral for having exercised their imagination in cognitively empathic ways. So, of course, no panacea, but it is a habit that we should teach our children and practice with our friends and expect from our leaders, yet a number of cultural… Read more »

I wish you had returned to the story of the Good Samaritan. Some questions that might frame the question of the place of empathy: – The story of the Good Samaritan is given in response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” How does empathy help use understand who is our neighbor? – The priest and Levite are contrasted with the Good Samaritan. Do they show a lack of empathy? Why? – The Good Samaritan takes pity on the man. What is pity? What is its relationship to empathy? – The expert in the law replies, “The one who had… Read more »

“I’d suggest that the story doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with empathy.”

Yes, you’ll notice I only asked questions. ;-)