Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 3, The Scale of Empathy

I recently read Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church by John Nugent, a book that has gotten some attention on various blogs.

As you might surmise from the title, the central thesis of Nugent's book is that the church is endangering the gospel by trying to fix the world. That analysis might strike some of you as strange. Isn't the church supposed to save the world? Isn't the church trying to make the kingdom of God come to earth as it is in heaven?

Yes, Nugent answers, the church is trying to save the world and trying to make the kingdom come to earth. But the church has gotten confused, Nugent argues, about just how God is working to accomplish these goals.

Succinctly, in the words of Nugent, the church isn't trying to make the world a better place but is, rather, seeking to become the better place in the midst of the world.

For every problem facing the world the church--the better place--is God's response and active intervention. God is saving the world through God's kingdom people, a community who invites the world into God's better place.

Nugent's vision here of the church and the world is rooted in the Anabaptist tradition and should be familiar to students of Yoder and Hauerwas. The church is a counter-cultural polis (city) that exists in the midst of the world where the reign of God is displayed and enjoyed.

My focus on Nugent's book in these posts is more interested in psychology than upon ecclesiology, though the two, as I'll eventually argue, are related. Specifically, in this series we are wrestling with the scale and scope of empathy and compassion.

Over the last two posts we've been thinking about the problems related to empathy, and a lot of those problems happen when empathy becomes universalized. True, we are called upon to love the whole world, but the scale of a universalized compassion, turbocharged by the 24/7 social media feed, may be unsustainable, exhausting and damaging to us physically and emotionally. Providentially or evolutionarily, our empathy is been wired to work on the scale of local, face to face interactions. And for most of human history that's where compassion lived and thrived.

Perhaps, I'm suggesting, our empathy is ill-suited to an age saturated by cable TV and social media.

This is not to suggest that empathy for the suffering of world is bad or wrong. Just that universalized empathy will face a suite of temptations that need to be attended to. And for the most part, I'm arguing, these temptations are not being attended to. If anything, by encouraging a non-specific, free-floating and universalized empathy the church makes the situation worse.

So what's my suggestion?

My suggestion is that empathy works best--is most effective and healthy-- when it works at a proper scope and scale, and that if we don't attend to the scope and scale of our compassion we'll be pulled toward all the dark things we've talked about over the last two posts. We'll be pulled in so many different directions we won't settle down to specific and concrete work. We'll focus on emotionally venting and virtue signalling on social media over stepping away from our screens to love others sacrificially. We'll keep contributing to the culture of outrage rather than working shoulder to shoulder with people who vote differently. Lastly, we will burn ourselves out, growing increasing anxious, outraged, depressed, and stressed.

Maybe, I'm suggesting, empathy has a "sweet spot," a scope and scale that makes it humane, effective and sustainable--relationally, emotionally and physically. And that "sweet spot" appears to be a local, face to face community.

And that brings me back to Nugent's argument that the church isn't tasked with fixing the world but is, rather, called to be the better place in the local community.

Perhaps the means of God's mission--the local family of God--is a perfect match for the "sweet spot" of empathy. We love the entire world, but that love manifests itself, and is most effective and sustainable, when it is poured into a group of people I share face to face life with. In this way I love the world universally and generally by loving specifically and intimately.

I'm suggesting a possible fit between ecclesiology and psychology, a fit between God's means of saving the world and our moral hard-wiring. I'm supplementing Nugent's argument with a psychological observation that when the church universalizes its mission--fixing the world over being the church--it universalizes its empathy, bringing along all the problems we've been discussing. Dilution of impact. Outrage and political polarization. Social media solidarity over concrete acts of care. Emotional burnout. And so on.

To be clear, lest there be any confusion, we are talking about means and ends.

We love the world and seek its salvation. That's the end.

But means toward that end, I'm suggesting, is local and intimate. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply