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.