Empathy and the Conservative/Progressive Theological Divide

October 29, 2013 — 22 Comments

In this video from The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Roman Krznaric talks about the importance of outrospection and empathy when it comes to social, political, and economic transformation. I think that the same empathic imagination is needed in the church as well.

Outrospection, says Krznaric, is “the idea of discovering who you are and what to do with your life by stepping outside yourself, discovering the lives of other people, other civilizations.” The twentieth century was largely about introspection. Witness the rise of pop-psychology, personality tests/assessments/inventories, self-help books and gurus. The heavy emphasis on introspection, coupled with the “self-made man” myth and flourishing consumerism, is largely responsible for the plague of individualism present in the Christian church today.

Over and over again in the Bible and throughout Christian history, we read about the importance of caring for “the other.” To care well for the other necessitates knowing the other well enough to know his or her needs, wants, fears, and dreams. If our lives consist mostly of introspection, we leave precious little time to know the other deeply. Many attempts to engage with the other fall short because they are largely self-serving. Masked in pseudo-justice, we make the other an object, a project, a to-do item on our own quest toward internal fulfillment and self-actualization. We remain the only subject. This is not to say, however, that introspection is all bad. Many spiritual practices are steeped in Spirit-aided introspection. However, introspection has been overemphasized in recent history in the West. It is good to “know thyself,” but it is not enough.

“The ultimate art form for the age of outrospection,” continues Krznaric, “is empathy.” When most people think of empathy, they often think of a kind of emotional mirroring. When you see someone in distress and you feel badly for that person, you are empathizing with them. This is affective empathy. It is the ability to recognize what the other is feeling and respond appropriately. We often characterize this kind of empathy as soft and passive, largely emotive. Contrast this with cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand or put on someone else’s perspective, when you don’t necessarily share that same perspective. It is the ability to move past labeling the other and step into their shoes, so to speak. This empathy is more potent for change, asserts Krznaric. In contrast “touchy-feely” affective empathy, cognitive empathy “is actually quite dangerous, because [it] can create revolution . . . a revolution of human relationships.”

Empathy need not be restricted to person-to-person interactions, however. It can be a collective force. Krznaric uses the 18th century end to the slave trade as an example, but Christian history gives us more. The establishment of hospitals and of orphanages were largely Christian innovations dating back to Byzantium and popping up again in Medieval Europe as Christians responded to the exhortation care of the “least of these.”

Yet with all these examples, the movement of empathy is usually from the “haves” to the “have nots,” from the “greatest” to the “least.” Krznaric challenges that one-way empathy, asserting instead that a more creative and adventurous empathy is needed. “[W]e need to empathize with those in power. We need to understand how those in power, in whatever realm it is, think about the world and their lives and their ambitions. We need to understand their values. Only then are we going to develop effective strategies for social, political, and economic transformation.” I would add theological transformation as well.

Much like the social, political, and economic realms, the Christian theological realm has become highly polarized in the past several decades. The distance between conservative and progressive theological camps is growing wider by the day. Conversation between people of differing theologies is becoming less frequent and is often derisive, not charitable. We have become very good at “othering” because we have a failure of empathy within the Christian church.

This is due, I think, to an inability to listen to one another’s stories and to be vulnerable in sharing our own. One’s theology is much more complicated than assent to a set of well-reasoned precepts. People don’t adhere to theology due to some sort of agenda, hidden or otherwise. A person’s theology “sticks” because it helps them make sense of their life. Theology is embedded within story.

Through exchanging our stories, and listening to the stories of others, we can bridge the conservative-progressive theological divide. At the same time, we bring theology out of abstraction and into real relationships. Perhaps the best question is not “what do you believe?” but “what’s the story behind what you believe?” I think we’ll find fewer references to philosophers and theologians and more references to narratives of pain, grief, loss, and love, healing, and hope. It is within an exchange of narratives that we can best have productive conversations about theology.

What might empathic conversation spaces look like? Krznaric puts forward the idea of “empathy museums,” but for the purposes of theological conversations, perhaps it is even simpler than that. What we need are forums in which we listen to and share spiritual autobiographies. Gather together a few people who you know hold different theological convictions from you for coffee or a beer. Make it clear that the purpose of the gathering is not to debate theology, but to share our stories.

Each person commits to practicing active listening and modeling vulnerability. Clarifying questions germane to the story are permitted, but no question can begin with “Don’t you think that…” or “Wouldn’t you say…” or “But the Bible makes it clear that…” The only acceptable imperative remark is, “Say more about that.” At the end of each story, each listener must share the one thing that struck them most about the person’s story, something with which they personally resonate. Perhaps through conversations like this, we can move beyond objectification of the theological other and into dynamic relationship with them.

Anderson Campbell


  • http://jacquelinegardner.wordpress.com/ Jacqueline Gardner

    This is phenomenal. And oh how I appreciate your comment about also extending empathy to those in power, too. Thanks for carving out a vision of what our discourse can look like when we start listening TO the heart, WITH our heart!

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Thanks Jacqueline! You are right… listen to the heart, with one’s heart. Well put!

  • Pingback: Reconciliation Replay (October 31, 2013)

  • A.J. Swoboda

    This is the vision statement of our man-blog. Brilliant stuff. I guess we might say that Jesus, God incarnate, is the Father’s “outrospection” in the broken world. In the flesh baby.

  • Jean

    What a great video…I first saw this when the Vancouver Police Dept showed it during a training for their Neighborhood Watch volunteers. I was amazed that they did that!
    I love the way you’ve gone a step further and connected this to our theology and the way we view “others.” I’ll be sharing this with everyone I know. Thank you!

  • Dan Ward

    Wow. That read was a fantastic ride from start to finish. What a powerful frame for the practical application of listening. Thank you.

  • John W. Morehead

    Of course this is not the case for every conservative. I have argued that conservative Evangelicals need to find a balance for their orthodoxy in a strong orthpathy: http://www.patheos.com/Evangelical/Generous-Orthopathy-John-Morehead-01-08-2013.html

  • Thursday1

    This is due, I think, to an inability to listen to one another’s stories and to be vulnerable in sharing our own.

    I don’t actually think this is the case.

    Have you read the work of Jonathan Haidt? The divide between conservatives and liberals (of both the right wing libertarian type and the left wing progressive type) comes down to having different moral foundations. The fact is that conservatives and liberals have radically different and incompatible conceptions of the good, with conservatives including purity, respect for authority and loyalty to the group as part of morality (as well the universal moral foundations of care and justice, which liberals and conservatives share). The dispute over the status of those conservative moral foundations simply cannot be reconciled, so talking can, at best, result in the clarifying of differences. There will still be lots to fight about.

    I also have to say that, as one particular study of Haidt has shown, conservatives are already perfectly able to understand where liberal morality. They simply reject it. However, the opposite is not true. Liberals cannot understand conservative morality, so end up coming up with all sorts of weird explanations.

    The idea that, if we just talk and get to know the other side, all this unpleasantness will go away is a fantasy.

    • Thursday1

      Your program for reconciliation may already includes assumptions which are part of what is in dispute.

    • Charlie Ammen

      There used to be conservative morality. It is extincts. The one and only conservative agenda is: “Get the black man in the Oval Office!”

    • Charlie Ammen

      There use to be conservative morality, but it is now extinct. The one and only conservative agenda, now, is: “Get the black man in the Oval Office!”

  • Pat68

    This requires divesting one’s self of what they have staked on their own beliefs and being willing to hear other stories which may contradict what you have believed so strongly and for so long. It’s a risk that some are not willing to make.

  • MaryLF

    FEWER references, not ‘less’ references.

    • Bill

      Yes, and since the preface is intro-, not in-, it should be ex-spection, not outrospection. But we both digress.

  • JenellYB

    This all sounds very reasonable ‘on paper” as it is often put. I know its going to sound stereotypically liberal elitist,, but from my own experiences trying to do just what is suggested here, I must conclude there is no reasoning with a conservative. It seems any and every attempt to bring empathy for others in any discussion is met with a wall quickly and forcefully thrown up, as the conservative becomes defensive and hostile, convinced where it is leading is to someone wanting them to give something up (wealth, power, authority), a ploy to “get something out of them,” some effort to “take” what is theirs and give it to some other undeserving person(s) Conservatives are quite simply solidly rooted in selfishness and protection of self-interests.

    • Bill

      As I read the author, that isn’t a counterargument; it’s his point. All sides need to engage this way. Jesus’ words on forgiveness give us no wiggle room: even if my brother has wronged me, and is not yet sorry for it or repentant of it, it is still my obligation to approach him with forgiveness. (It is also his obligation to approach me with repentance, but his not doing his part doesn’t let me off the hook.) So keep at it. At the same time, here’s a potential empathy extension for you. Perhaps the reason you meet with so much resistance is that empathy can be, and in some circles has been, an overplayed card. Empathy, by the model shown here, means trying to understand why a person is predisposed to hold certain truth-claims. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives often view liberals as using empathy as much more than this, as an actual, unassailable source of truth itself. If my interlocutors were coming to me with the argument, “You mustn’t believe that, you must believe what we believe instead, because if what you believe is true, it would make some people sad” (the logical fallacy of Ad misericordiam), then I suspect I’d be primed to respond negatively as well.

    • DDS

      “there is no reasoning with a _____”
      To categorize anyone with a broad label (including “conservative” and “liberal”) and pre-judge that all who are identified with that label are therefore not capable of conversation does indeed cause that to be true… at least in conversation with someone who has given up all hope for such conversation.

      It leads me to wonder if perhaps for you there is no actual reasoning with a liberal, either, because engaging together in conversation with likeminded individuals requires little empathy and creates much less challenge to one’s own perspective. There is danger in this of pseudo-reasoning — reaching conclusions together through spirited conversation and believing those conclusions are therefore well-thought-out.

      For the record, I don’t see this as just a “you” problem, just that you’re the one who brought it to mind with your comment. I see this as a symptom of a more foundational issue, which is a tendency as humans to engage more with people of similar perspectives, which cripples our ability to even understand others. That tendency has always been present, but only recent has become such a powerful force as technology has so significantly re-shaped our experiences of community and information transfer.

    • christiehoos

      As someone whose theology has evolved from a conservative to a progressive perspective on many issues, I have found the same entrenched, defensive stance on both sides. I suspect this is the point of the argument for empathy. Those who seek primarily to persuade and convince, who filter everything they hear through fear, anger and prejudice, will never be able to understand the other, because they don’t actually want to. To do so is threatening to status quo.

  • brian

    This touched me, I was, at times, taught that Empathy was pathetic and anti Christian. God wanted independent souls who not only pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, but God help you if you ever fell down because no one else better not. I learned this really well, down to my very cells. Basically I am left with two verses, I am a dog returning to its vomit and there is no room at the inn. I loved your video, it reminded me of what I use to hold sacred. I have tried to repent of that and have miserably failed.

    Keep it up, there are some of us strange souls who still want to be followers of Jesus. Thanks.

    • @revtylerjack

      Hey Brian I like your comment. I am always saddened to hear about such shallow theology being taught that makes people feel like God is unreachable, its very deists and not really Christian at all. I am reminded of the gospel story Jesus shares about the rich man who never goes out to the front gate to help the man who is down and out. The down and out man goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell for not having been a good neighbor to the other who he didn’t even know was there. In other words he skipped on building empathetic relationships with those beyond his comfort zone and/or social circle. Christianity is a call to such a life, one of reaching out. Peace and blessings.

  • Lyra

    This is a challenging piece. It is very difficult to empathize with those who consider you second-class, *while* they are living their lives of considering you second-class. You know that their votes, their money and their influence are used every day to hold you in that second-class position. I have found it much easier to empathize with those who are less fortunate than I, than to empathize with those who are more fortunate *who use their better fortune to press down on me.*

    The only possible way to have any empathy for people like that is to depend *entirely* on God for the empathy. Empathizing with oppressors, particularly oppressors who don’t see what they’re doing and don’t want to see it, is beyond human capability. We need help to do that. My heart is broken in my case because I’m married to one who is that way and sincerely believes that it the way everything should be–him one up, me one down. Only God can help me empathize with him at the very time he is living that life.

  • http://ourgirlsclub.blogspot.com/ Ginny Bain Allen

    Wow, Che Guevara? Are you serious? He was a monster, not interested at all in empathy. He was too busy draining people’s blood while alive, and putting them before firing squads. Please study history the way it REALLY happened!

    Why no mention of William Wilberforce, the man who basically single-handedly put an end to the slave trade in Britain? You cannot have genuine empathy, wisdom, right thinking, common sense, righteousness or truth without surrendering your allegiance to Jesus Christ, who is the Truth!