Compassion and Reason

“Sympathy” is a word often regarded as synonymous with “compassion”; it has an analogous derivation, but from Greek rather than Latin. While in many contexts, “compassion” and “sympathy” are used synonymously to indicate a harmonious sensitivity, sympathy does not go far enough to carry the performative vigor implied when, for example, God is declared to be “a compassionate God.” A useful comparison can be made between the Christian understanding of empathy and the admirable traditions of Buddhist teaching, which emerged in India from Hinduism in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Both talk of compassion, but in illuminatingly contrasting ways.

The Buddhist story has it that Prince Siddhartha Gautama lived in the sixth century BC on the borders of Nepal and India. He abandoned his family and friends to pursue a spiritual journey, which led him to enlightenment when he was awakened to the truth that all things and therefore all human experience are transient. In the face of this, he realized that suffering arose from trying to achieve an impossible permanence. There was, he taught, no soul, no god, and no truth beyond the realization that all suffering was illusory in the sense that one would be relieved of it once one recognized the truth. Suffering was a creation of the human mind, as it strove to achieve what was beyond reason. At first, he was disinclined to share the truth because he thought he would be ridiculed, but he was persuaded to do so by Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. Gautama focused the rest of his life on the task of introducing others to his liberating discovery, as a result of which he is known as “the Compassionate One.”

Gautama is regarded as the Supreme Buddha; however, Buddha is in fact not a person but rather a state of mind experienced by the enlightened ones who are thereby released from all suffering. The Buddhist is comforted by the knowledge that suffering is an illusion. Undoubtedly, the vision of life Gautama achieved was one that, for him and for many Buddhists, removed any identifiable self. But while there was no self to take account of, he was far from indifferent to the actual suffering of those who were not yet enlightened. Concern for the well-being of all the world’s creatures, not just humankind, is an explicit perspective of Buddhism. But while Buddhism may involve courteous attention to others as one seeks to teach them the truth and restraint from taking the life of any other living creature, it is not empathetic and therefore distinct from the Christian approach. The Buddhist cannot enter into the suffering of another person because, as an enlightened person, he or she knows that the suffering of every person is illusory. The Buddhist’s task is therefore limited to an attempt to demonstrate the illusory nature of all suffering so as to encourage others in their spiritual journeys toward enlightenment.

At the center of the Christian Faith, on the other hand, is God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, whose intention in creating is to share the life of the world to which he has committed himself so as to bring it to perfection. His empathy for humankind is theologically explored in the doctrine of the incarnation. This remarkable claim that God became man and took upon himself the suffering that is the continuous experience of all humans is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God’s gift of himself, for which Christians are grateful. The gracious “revelation” of God in Christ (if “revelation” is the right term to use) is that the world in which we find ourselves as human beings is a world from which God has never separated himself. Thus, although human beings may be in sin (that is, they may fall short of the glory of God through not recognizing his presence), God’s compassionate nature is an ever-present reality. Aquinas affirms this when he writes, “in no human does [sin] so rule that the whole good of nature is corrupted.” He continues with confidence, “an inclination to do those things which are in accord with the eternal law remains” (Aquinas, 2006, I.II, q. 93.6 ad 2).

Calvin, on the other hand, believed that humankind was utterly depraved. Human beings could not do anything to enhance their understanding of their miserable position in the world or inform their understanding of their absolute dependence on God for life and in death. He claimed that a person’s future, day to day and at the end of life, depended entirely on the unmerited grace of God in forgiving sins. He therefore confined freedom to God and argued that a person’s future was predestined. But he was mistaken. While it may be true that the health of humankind depends on the forgiveness of God, God’s forgiveness is unconditional, real, and absolute: mankind is in principle forgiven and free.

Aquinas was therefore right when, for very good reasons, he rejected the idea that mankind was utterly cut off from God by sin. How could it be? Humans had been endowed with reason by God, and while they may be tempted through fear, poor judgment, and what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul” to abandon their search for God, they could be assured by reason that God had not abandoned them. How could they otherwise have even entertained the thought of the reality of God and his gracious relationship with the world?

Aquinas, in complete contrast with Calvin, in complete contrast with Calvin and Barth, maintained that reason, the residual goodness of humankind created in the image of God, underpinned an irremovable and essential freedom to choose to be compassionate. Of course, however, in setting out to express one’s concern for others, one may be dismayed by one’s failures and lose hope. And honesty will compel us to acknowledge our weaknesses and shortcomings. We fear the consequences, as the demands on us may be unsustainable. But at the same time, we know not only that we can seek forgiveness but that we are forgiven.

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