A Platitude of Attitude

[This is not a screed against my Facebook friends, whom I love. It’s just a gentle reminder, and a crude sequel of sorts to Sam MB’s and Karen H’s wonderful posts earlier this week.]

There’s a paradox inherent in the idea of “true religion”: as certitude increases, empathy tends to decrease.

That’s probably a platitude, but I think it’s one worth bringing up as we go into an election season full of high-decibel cultural clashes between political parties, geographies, religions, and within the LDS community itself. Even now, I browse Facebook and see friends who are so firm in their faith in Jesus Christ that they are completely incapable of civil conversation. Paradox!

We as a people struggle mightily (with sometimes tragicomical results) to understand those not of our faith, our family situation, our economic status, even our geography. And yet the gospel of Jesus Christ is built on the empathy of our Savior, who descended below everything and suffered all the pains of the human condition. He understands us; all of us. His empathy is infinite.

Wikipedia has a bunch of interesting definitions of empathy, but I’m using the word as D.M. Berger defines it: “The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.”

It’s one of the drier definitions of empathy, but even this less emotional empathy holds the key to human interaction, peace, goodwill, and charity.

And a bunch of other things. I work in advertising, which despite its unseemliness is dependent on empathic insight. Before Don Draper can sell Lucky Strikes to housewives, he has to be able to get into their heads, to understand their desires and fears and insecurities. Success in advertising means knowing what the target audience wants and what problems they need solved; to know their motivations is to empathically understand them.

Incidentally, advertisers are, by and large, horrible at this kind of empathic analysis, which is why so much advertising talks down to the audience it’s trying to persuade. It’s nearly impossible for smug urban professionals to understand anyone other than themselves, especially when they expend so much energy being smug urban professionals. (An industry problem since the beginning, which prompted David Ogilvy to ironically chide “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”)

Can we see any similarities to mission work and outreach? As a missionary, I was a smug, brash young man, armed with the true gospel and the mandate to convince unbelievers. Now I read my younger brother’s letters every week from his mission, and hear my younger self in them: “People just don’t get it!,”  “Why won’t they do what they know is right?,” “How are they not seeing what’s right in front of them?,” etc.

What I misunderstood at the time is that a missionary’s job isn’t just to convince. It’s also a missionary’s job to connect. Much harder, right? It requires maturity, humility, and most of all empathy.

This need to connect is not merely (or even mostly) a missionary obligation—it is a Christian obligation. Do we try to understand others? Do we know their real needs? Can we get outside our own heads for a few moments to see what the world looks like from other points of view?

Perhaps we don’t feel the need to leave our perfect heads with our knowledge of the truth, but instead wait for others to see the world according to our superior understanding. But that’s the believer’s paradox: certitude can kill empathy.

I hope we don’t let it, even in this season of absolute, uncompromising political and religious certainty.

Like most of the BCC community, I have a very strong testimony that ours is the true church of Jesus Christ, and that we are led by Him. And I hope I can keep that testimony from getting in the way of Christian living.


  1. Amen, Kyle. Thank you for this.


  3. Karen H. says:

    Lovely, Kyle. Thank you!

  4. Shawn H says:

    How right you are. That certainty in the truth of the gospel seems to translate into certainty in the truth of whatever ideological position one holds. The attitude is “we have a bible”, and very few actually are open to new ideas.

  5. Some great reflections here, especially the line about empathy decreasing accd. to certitude.

  6. Kyle, I liked this. It seems that particular forms of certainty are more likely to crowd out empathy than others. For example, if someone had a fairly high degree of certainty that Gods love extends to all people then the consequence might be increased empathy. I am not sure certainty qua certainty is necessarily the problem rather particular forms of certainty that feed off anxieties seem to have the propensity you discuss here.

  7. The irony, of course, is that the Savior Himself exhibited the greatest empathy, welcoming sinners and cast-offs to his fold with open arms. Even healing the son of the father who did not believe enough and needed help with his unbelief. Great post.

  8. Are certitude and empathy really all that incompatible? Or do we learn them at different times, at different stages of maturity? The wisest, kindest, most empathetic people of my acquaintance who come immediately to mind are also among the oldest people I know — they are absolutely certain of fewer things than younger people tend to be (they aren’t fanatical about politics or about the One True Parenting Method, for example) but their certainty about other things (aspects of religious belief, especially about life continuing after death) is stronger than ever.

  9. “I have a very strong testimony that ours is the true church of Jesus Christ, and that we are led by Him. And I hope I can keep that testimony from getting in the way of Christian living.”

    Wonderfuly said, Kyle.

    Amen, Aaron R. and Ardis. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s the focus of the certainty (and an intolerance toward / denial of others’ certainty), more than the existence of certainty, that is the real issue, imo.

    We have an Article of Faith that addresses this concern very well, I believe. (“. . . and allow all [wo]men everywhere the same privilege . . .”)

  10. That’s a great balance, Ardis. Something to strive for…

  11. Bryan D says:

    Since this is empathy week at BCC, has there been any reconsideration of the amount of empathy that is due to fellow members of the body of Christ like Ralph Hancock and Jon McNaughton? Or are they still fair game for scorn and derision, and this is just a brief pause for self-congratulation before the pile-on begins again? If so, does your closing testimony, on your behalf and on behalf of BCC as a community, have any substance to it?

  12. Aaron, that’s an interesting angle that I hadn’t thought much about. I was mainly talking about the certitude christians have in their truth claims: “My beliefs are the correct ones.” I think it’s compounded in Mormonism by the importance we place on exclusive rituals, levels of heaven, proxy rites, etc. Lots of Us/Them-ing which makes empathy difficult. I like your idea of a certitude that makes empathy easier–and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

  13. Thanks for bringing this subject up. A few years ago I was introduced to a book called “Non-Violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg which is the most empathetic form of communication I’ve come across. It teaches you how to empathize with another’s person needs while simultaneously being true to your own, which I think most human beings do NOT know how to do, let alone believe that it is possible. I wonder if there is a fear within us that if we allow ourselves to see something from someone else’s point of view, it may possibly destabilize or invalidate our own. But as you point out, it’s a missionary’s job to CONNECT, and I would add a CHRISTIAN’s job to CONNECT. Once you become aware of God’s amazing love for you personally, you simultaneously become aware that God feels that way about ALL of his children, which puts all of us human beings on the same playing field in terms of worth to God. The principles taught in Non-Violent Communication (which the author acknowledges are not new ideas, just easily forgotten) gives me practical tools in how to connect with other people who I may be at odds with or who see the world very differently from me. When I am able to succeed at this (I still fail at it often), I am always amazed at how wonderful it feels to truly connect with another human being. I highly recommend this book and website. http://www.cnvc.org

  14. #11 your tone feels a little off to me but your point is an important one.
    I was hoping with the hepatization post to remind us that those people and others are also members of the body.

  15. Brian D.: check out my review of Joanna Brooks’s book, with a brief aside regarding Hancock, here:


  16. Your comment about missionaries struck home. Some of my most shameful memories about my mission are times when my certitude about my message lead to pompous pride. I spent far too many times telling people to repent than I did loving them. It’s a very hard thing to balance. I would be a very different missionary now than I was 5 years ago.

    It’s difficult, however, because Christ loved the sinners but he also called them hypocrites. God is a God of love, but I don’t think he’s all empathy all the time.

  17. Rachel Esplin Odell says:

    Bryan D, though I agree with SMB that your tone is a bit off (it’s a vicious cycle), I tend to agree with your overall observation. As much as we cherry-pick the John 3:17’s and the John 13:34-35’s, we may overlook the Matthew 10:34-36’s and the John 17:14-16’s. Christ may not have fared very well by the standards of modern tribal psychology. (Given that my greatest aspiration is to be a Moroni 7:45 kind of gal, I find it amusing that I am even writing this. You BCC’ers bring out the devil’s advocate in me.)

    Speaking of tribal psychology, a friend just sent me this link: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture. I haven’t actually had a chance to watch this particular interview yet, but I like Jonathan Haidt, and it looks very germane to this post, so I thought I’d pass it along.

  18. I don’t know, but I’ve always seen it as a sign of weak faith if that faith leads to a lack of empathy. In my experience those who hold their faith in humility and love, no matter how certain, are the most empathetic to those who are ‘different’.

  19. Bryan D., you’re welcome to read this post as a continuation of BCC’s derision of Jon McNaughtonism instead of a break from it, if you like. It was definitely half of my inspiration for writing. Just please remember that BCC is a bunch of individual writers with their own opinions.

  20. …of which my (EOR) opinion is the best. I finished your post for you Kyle :)~

  21. #16 medstudent: Christ is clearly the most emphathetic of all. After all, he has experienced what all of us experience, so he knows the pain, the embarassment, the motives, the sin, and so on.

    What his example teaches is that empathy is not acceptance. For Him, truth is still truth, covenants are still covenants, and right is still right. The difference is that He has the perfect view of what is right, and we, sadly, do not always.

    It is interesting to me that from my own missionary experience, I learned I was most effective when I taught, not when I convinced or tried to convert. Teaching, in my experience, involved listening to the spirit and telling the truth. Convincing and converting were more strident efforts to convince someone that my view was the only right one in the room. That distinction, sadly, was not always clear to me in the moment when I was a younger man. (Heck, it’s not always clear now that I’m an older man; just ask my kids.)

  22. Thank you. Many great concepts here, Kyle, Aaron, Ardis. I’m going to look into Robynl’s book recommendation.  Some thoughts:

    Medstudent #16 “Not all empathy all the time?” While I can see how you would think that, I believe empathy was an integral component of His mission. Jesus had the Godly gift of knowing the human heart, knowing the intent. He did not wish to judge the woman taken in adultery and only commented when pressed to do so, “neither do I condemn thee.” Yet put the smack down on the money changers in the temple. First, empathy and forgiveness are not synonymous with condoning. Next, since Jesus perceived the intents of their hearts (overt rebellion vs, inherent human fallibility) and acted accordingly.

    That brings me back to Kyle, and Aaron. Perhaps it certainty in commandments that crowds out empathy, rather than certainty in abundance, or love? Certainty in exclusive truth seems also particularly tricky. If a Church teaches God’s teachings truthfully, with good intent, how can ours be THE or THE ONLY true Church? Only Divinely authorized, maybe. Only True? The gosple of Jesus Christ is true and embodies all truth. But is that gospel only found in Mormonism? Our words have meaning and I think it is advisable that we measure them carefully, both among ourselves and “the world”.

  23. Paul and Ruth

    Yes you are both right. What I said didn’t really make sense, saying that God isn’t all empathy all the time. By definition, I guess God and Christ are both full of perfect empathy by the very fact that they understand us perfectly. And they __always__ want what’s best for us. Can’t get more empathetic than that.

    But was God being empathetic when he told the Israelites to destroy the Cannanites? I guess he somehow still was. I guess that’s why we are supposed to leave the judging to God and just work on the forgiving part. Since we’re not fully empathetic we can’t possibly judge anyone righteously.

    Love others, listen to them, offer what mercy we can, don’t judge them, and stand as a light and offer it to others is probably about the best I can hope to do. Not saying I manage to do it very well, though.

  24. “But was God being empathetic when he told the Israelites to destroy the Cannanites?”

    The real question for me is if God actually told the Israelites to to that.

    The whole “as far as it is translated correctly” concept is a great solution for lots of stuff that was recorded in Old Testament (and NT) times.

  25. Bryan D,
    I believe I answered your question above. But, regarding the two people you mentioned, I’m currently reading a book by Ralph in order to better empathize with him. As for Jon, not living anywhere near him, the sorts of things that would have happen to him in order for him to earn my indirect, long-distance empathy are terrible, the kinds of things I wouldn’t wish on anybody. So, for now, he’ll have console himself with his loads of dough and the well wishes of those who do find his art inspirational. I’m sure it will be tough.

    While I am sympathetic to the impulse behind that approach, I forever worry that we are creating gods in our own image when we give in to that impulse. Fools before God and all that.

  26. I imagine that at the Second Coming, while Judgment and Mercy contend in an epic battle for men’s souls on horseback and Hope walks among those who might yet be saved, Empathy will lie down with those beyond all salvation and keep them company until Death arrives.

  27. Medstudent, Ray, you both make good points, I used to be super bothered by the flood/Noah account….so horrible to contemplate if it is accurate….the plagues on the Egyptions, surely they weren’t ALL bad. Talk about unjust! But was it? We just don’t know the whole story. In this life, we are to live by faith (not certainty?) which includes empathy. I’ll continue to try to treat others in the manner I wish to be treated. There is little more damaging than unrighteous judgement, by unChristian Christians who know best….talk about confusing!

    Dan, whaaaaaa? Empathy is reserved for the damned?

  28. As a non-LDS who has been receiving visits from the missionaries, let me just say that the reason why I look forward to “my” sisters coming every week is because they are able to connect with me. Sure, they’d like to make me into a full-blown investigator, but they’ve shown me visit after visit that connecting is more important than convincing me of the LDS gospel. So amen to this post!

  29. I guess that I am extremely lucky to have close friends, in grade school, that were extremely religiously diverse. Even more important, our parents let us all be involved and understand each others religious practices.

    So, the run down of the religion in my circle of grade school friends:
    4 Mormons
    3 Baptists
    2 Evangelicals
    2 Catholics
    1 Jewess
    1 Ba Hi (I don’t think I spelled that right)
    1 Muslim

    Not every one of us went to all of these activities, but I personally was involved in each one.

    I went to First Communion classes with Tina
    I went to four years of Vacation Bible School at the Baptist Church.
    I observed fasting during Romadon from third through sixth grade with Anwar, and most of the group at least fasted for lunch, at school, in solidarity.
    I went to several Ba Hi weekend retreats, and there was only at least one other member of a different religion on each retreat.
    I went to midnight mass most Christmas Eves of my school years, and have been a number of times as an adult.
    I went to bat mitzvah classes with Wendy, and I learned about Passover during the four years our families celebrated it together.
    Almost all of us participated in ward talent contests, and three non-members were part of our stake road show, four were part of the regional dance festival.
    When conference was finally on cable, and most of us didn’t have cable, one of the evangelical families let all of us girls have a slumber party at their house so that we could watch the Saturday and Sunday sessions together. There were five of us at the slumber party, and only two of us were LDS. (It was even the suggestion of my friend’s mom when she saw an article in the paper about conference being on cable.)

    Those childhood friends are widely dispersed now. I only have occasional contact with two of those LDS friends and one of my catholic friends who found me on Facebook. While the friendships started breaking down on middle school, and less than half of us still lived in the school district after ninth grade.

    While the friendships didn’t last, the empathy, understanding and appreciation for the beliefs of other people has stuck with me for a lifetime. In many ways, since I learned alongside my grade school friends as the discovered and were taught their religion, I never thought of their beliefs as that much difference than mine.

    Despite the general belief that exposure to other faiths will confuse or pull young people away from their faith, that wasn’t my experience. In some ways I think it made us more independent thinkers who came to our own conclusions about our faith.

    I don’t know what happened to everyone, but my Muslim friend is a very successful doctor in Philadelphia. One of my catholic friends is one of the lawyers who has played a prominent role in the prosecution of profile priest in Chicago. Three out of four LDS friends are active in the church in some form. The one who isn’t active is in an openly gay relationship. He came “out” about five years after returning from an honorably served mission. My Jewish friend lives in Israel in a very orthodox life, married to a prominent rabbi. One of my baptist friends is a youth minister of one of the local baptist churches.

    I don’t know what happened to the rest of the group that lived to play “Muppet Babies” until we decided that as fourth graders we were too cool to be playing games based on TV shows. We moved on to other games including a game where one or two people would choose an old testament story and everyone else would have to try and guess it. My Muslim friend knew enough of the old testament from going to our activities and similar stories being included in the Koran, that we were all pretty equally matched.

    I am not sure what I would be without those experiences, but I am able to move pretty easily in most religious settings. The empathy (able to understand and put yourself in someone else’s shoes) that came from those formative experiences have been invaluable in moving through a variety of jobs dealing with projects bringing groups of people who had a similar interest, but otherwise wouldn’t normally work together.

    I have a strong testimony of the gospel. I believe that the LDS church has Christ as its head. I believe in personal revelation, and I have had witness that confirm my faith. I also know that there are lots of very good people in other faiths. I am grateful for my LDS friends, and those who are not LDS. I try to be a good friend regardless of their choice of religious practices.

    I have to admit that I have a harder time understanding LDS parents who discourage their children from having non-LDS friends than I do understanding how people can worship in a way different than I do.

  30. #29 “I have to admit that I have a harder time understanding LDS parents who discourage their children from having non-LDS friends than I do understanding how people can worship in a way different than I do.”

    Agreed. The best friends I had whilst in secondary school (here in Britain), and at university were all nonmembers (DH excepting), and in many cases had higher standards than my peers at church. They are Hindus, Moslems, Methodists… There is more to friendship than a shared religion. Possibly because church members are in the minority, expecting us all to be great friends on account of our religion was very much akin to the phenomenon raised else-thread of expecting all the single women to get along etc.. Yet some parents and leaders still had that attitude.

    I have never felt comfortable with the ‘one, true religion’ rhetoric, and prefer to share my beliefs in a setting where others are doing the same, to the benefit of mutual respect and understanding.

  31. Here is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. This is the project of an LDS woman living in the Marshall Islands and will benefit all of the children living there, not just LDS children. Check it out! http://www.unboundbookmaker.com/the-unbound-bookmaker-project.html (Shameless promotion I know but very worthwhile)

  32. StillConfused says:

    “I went to four years of Vacation Bible School at the Baptist Church.” Yay for Baptist Bible School! I always enjoyed that. I still remember the song for the books of the new testament.

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