Empathy

A number of weeks ago I sat in the dining room of an inn some miles outside of London. The meal was excellent–rabbit and wild mushroom pie, goose fat roasted potatoes, and sticky toffee pudding for desert. I ate with a close friend and associate. It was a perfect evening to have been disrupted by another group of businessmen, one of whom was American; his accent was obvious, but so too the uncanny capacity to speak an order of magnitude louder than is required.

This American had taken it upon himself to educate his presumably British and European colleagues on the mysteries of Mormonism. His choice of descriptors betrayed his likely-youthful exposure to a certain brand of professionalized evangelical counter-ministry (really, who uses words like “false prophet” at a business dinner). My companion smirked knowingly as I suppressed the urge to surprise the hall and reveal my own Mormonism. It was easy to roll my eyes at his snide and bigoted comments, until the man made his own revelation. He was married to a Mormon who had stopped going to church years ago. He described the missionaries that regularly came to his home and who had clearly missed how their persistent inquiries translated in the mind of this man to a creepy inability to leave him alone.

That moment kindled the recollection of what I consider the greatest failings of my mission, all of which involved my lack of empathy. Despite my earnest religiosity, superficial scriptural fluency, and hard work, I simply did not understand the situations, suffering, and feelings of a very many number of the people with whom I worked. This understanding has taken years to develop, and I am sure that it will only become more profound with time. It took my own children, family health scares, and crises of transition to realize.

The previous trip to fair England I walked with Ronan down the street to visit Annie Darwin’s grave and to have chicken tikka masala in the land of its origin. Of the many delightful topics we riffed on was soteriology, a mutual confession of sorts. The greatest gift of Mormonism to Christian theology is liberation from the ultimately perverted and perverting requirements of penal substitution. The Spirit knows all things says the prophet. Nevertheless Christ suffered in the flesh so that he could know according to the flesh. And with that knowledge he heals us. I believe in this atonement because I have, in a small degree, witnessed it in my own soul with others and with Jesus.

Despite our historic flirtations with the Imitatio Christi and the sublimity of Pope John Paul II’s Salvafici Doloris, I do not believe our suffering is required for our glorification (though I do believe that it does empower us, like Christ to be healers). I also believe that the chasm that separates us from each other is only bridged by that suffering on one hand, or the miracle of the atonement on the other. And like many other miracles it is frequently elusive.

Comments

  1. Fantastic post. Thank you.

  2. Beautiful, Jonathan. I fully agree. We will suffer–that’s just how it is–but our suffering can expand our understanding and should expand our compassion. We do not redeem ourselves. We do not measure our suffering and consider that we have paid for X number of our sins. That way lies madness. People could earn passes to adultery in that kind of world, which was exactly the sort of thing Martin Luther fought against–the selling of indulgences. I do wonder how you handle Section 19, though. “But if they would not repent, they must suffer even as I the Lord suffered, which suffering caused me…to shrink…”

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Margaret for your kind words and additional thoughts. Section 19 is interesting. The idea that Christ suffered and that we will suffer without Christ doesn’t hinge on the premises of penal substitution. A one sentence summary of my thoughts are this: we do and will suffer if we are not healed.

  4. Not as well said, but pertinent: http://lifehacker.com/5941009/?post=52454639

  5. Sharee Hughes says:

    You must have suffered having to sit within hearing distance of the “ugly American.” It seems to always be the ones who don’t know what they’re talking about that talk the loudest. But I did enjoy the post, also Margaret’s additional comments.

  6. Excellent post. I’ve come to view suffering very differently since my mission. Pre-mission I viewed it as horrible. I reluctantly accepted it as something that needed to happen–I guess–but I was not going to be happy about it. Now I… glory in it, I suppose is probably the best way to put it. It’s not the happy, easy times that have defined me and that I remember, but the virulent and heart-wrenching ones. I am where I am today thanks to my suffering, and I’ll be who I’ll be tomorrow for the exact same reason. For me, suffering brings me close to my God and my Savior in a way that nothing else can.

    Likewise, the closest, most meaningful relationships I have today are not the ones where life was easy, but the ones where we struggled and suffered together. A mission companion in an area we tried desperately to do something meaningful in, only to seemingly fail when we both received the one assignment we would have traded heaven and earth to not get. Fellow BYU Democrats during the 2008 presidential election (I’m going to assume the struggles speak for themselves).

    Suffering seems to have a way to bring people together in a powerful way. Whether the second party be God and Christ or a soon-to-be friend, suffering is powerful.

  7. Wise words, J. Thank you.

    “That he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people”. That has always been an especially meaningful passage of scripture for me. Part of the genius of Mormonism is its ability to produce the kind of fellow feeling you describe.

  8. Thanks for this. The idea that Christ gained empathy for us through suffering, and that we gain empathy for others through suffering, is a beautiful idea. I think it is also one of the most satisfactory ways (or at least one of the least unsatisfactory ways) of resolving the Problem of Suffering. It seems to me to be very similar to the Irenean theodicy – how do you see that playing into all this?

  9. J., in tandem with this view – which I agree with wholeheartedly – I have flirted with the idea that although some forms of suffering are outside our experience our efforts to feel (or open ourselves up to) the suffering of another is the beginning of what it means to become a source of healing and comfort. It is also the beginning of a genuinely dialogic revelation (different from Givens’ purely conversational reappropriation of Bakhtin). This openness allows us to, in some fashion, be an extension of Christ’s ministry in the world.

  10. This is beautiful. I have often contemplated the role of suffering, and whether we have to suffer as penance for our sins or not, given that Christ already suffered. I love how you describe it here. Thanks for this post.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks all.

    themormonbrit, I think that there are aspects of that theodicy that are similar, especially as refracted through process theology. But personally (as one with an affinity for Nauvoo-era cosmology) I think Mormonism is much more radical. The uncreated spirit along with the Nauvoo theogony comprise a very different universe.

    Aaron, I love that.

  12. I remember that conversation, J. And the curry.

  13. wreddyornot says:

    I believe suffering is only one aspect of atonement. Becoming flesh embraces not just pain and sorrow but the whole gamut of mortality, including the opposites of pain and sorrow. It’s not just sin that separates the holy from the unholy, is it?

  14. J. Stapley says:

    wreddyornot, my inclination is to answer affirmatively to your question, though I’ll need to think about it some more. Being holy is not the same thing as being Christ, or a healer, or having empathy.

  15. You are a braver man than I for implying that Scotland and England are the same “land” (the most widely accepted birthplace of chicken tikka masala is Glasgow). :)

  16. J, your answer is very similar to my own thoughts on a Mormon version of the Irenean theodicy.
    Nate: *like*

  17. This is simply lovely, J. Thank you.

  18. Thanks, J.

    I believe deeply that one of the worst aspects of our modern Mormon culture is out tendency to remove ourselves from the lives of people who are objectively different than we are in ways we consider to be sinful – specifically because segregating ourselves from them robs us of the chance to feel their pain and succor them in it. It removes us from the actual life-model of Jesus of Nazareth.

    I loved Pres. Uchtdorf’s talks in which he told us all to stop it – and, specifically, to stop judging others for sinning differently than we do – and to be His hands. Until we feel someone’s pain in some real way at some real level, we simply can’t partake in the Atonement in a real and meaningful way. At the most basic level, that simply must include real-life interaction and personalization. It has to rest on empathy, not sympathy – and certainly not loathing, disgust and disdain. It has to involve succoring people IN their pain, not just preaching to / lecturing at them about why we think they caused that pain and how we think they can make that pain stop.

  19. Here here

  20. Or rather: hear hear!

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