On Showing Sympathy, Even When We Disagree

This post is written for “The Rally to Restore Unity,” a blogging event hosted by Rachel Held Evans.

Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan I heard a stirring and challenging sermon from a student here of Japanese origin.  Taking head-on the glaring “problem of evil” presented to his country and its people, he did not offer a theodicy.  Instead, in the spirit of the book of Job, he concluded that “we cannot put God in a box.”  God is wild, not tame, not “nice.”  We cannot control God, God does not always meet our expectations, is not always what we want God to be.  These thoughts, directly related as they were to the human crisis we were all watching unfold on our television screens, were being reworked into intellectual missiles that were fired at the very core of what we often do in theology- put God in a box.  We make God nice, we make God into what we want God to be.

As I was listening to this sermon, the cynical side of me kicked in.  I wondered about how people in the room were receiving this message.  My cynical suspicion was that they were reacting by deflecting the criticism.  I don’t make God into my own image, that’s what other people do.  Feeling almost certain that this was the response most of my peers were having, I became almost angry at them.  From my perspective this sermon sounded like a challenge from an evangelical pastor directed to a group of more “progressive” Christians, but I felt certain most of the students at Yale would think that it was the evangelicals, not they, who were guilty of this crime.  Realistically, I knew that if this sermon had been given to an evangelical audience the situation would have been reversed and they would have assumed that “those liberals” would be the ones recreating God in their own image.  I felt certain that this sermon, brilliant as it was, was lost on everyone in the room but myself, and that this would be case no matter where the audience was.

The immediate biblical passage to come to mind is the teaching of Jesus to remove the log in your own eye before attempting to remove the speck in your neighbors.  Very quickly we can see that moving into the famous maxim “judge not, lest you be judged.”  We could rant and rave about hypocrisy (namely, my own).  But I don’t actually want to do all that.  Partly, that is because I live and work in the academic community, and we survive on disagreement, on “passing judgment” as we “critically evaluate” one another’s work.  While sometimes that process is overblown and out of line, I genuinely believe it can be helpful more often than not.  How do we balance taking part in that actually helpful process of engaging and constructively criticizing one another with the need to also be humble and recognize our own shortcomings?

Certainly I cannot claim to have this totally figured out (as the story above aptly illustrates).  But as I have reflected on this I think the answer has something to do with the art of sympathy.  The art of learning to see through another persons eyes, to spend time walking in their shoes, to feel their emotions and think through their thoughts with them.  This lets us genuinely understand where another person is coming from, why it is that they do and think as they do.  From that kind of an understanding we can meaningfully offer constructive criticism.  That means, I think, two things.  First, that we are offering criticism that serves some good purpose.  Its not just for the sake of being critical.  Its intentional and it aimed at helping a person improve in some clearly important way.  Second, it means that it is offered from a posture of compassion and sympathy and not from a stance of superiority or power.  We are offering the critique because we genuinely care about the person, but we are also offering it in a way that demonstrates clearly that kind of care.

Now obviously this can work with varying degrees of relationship between people.  Some of the best advice we get is from those closest to us, those who know us really well.  Not everyone we interact with, and certainly not everyone we find disagreement with, will be in that category.  But even on the somewhat sterile academic level, where we write about people we never could have known because they died centuries before us or we interact with the ideas of someone who lives on the other side of the world and whom we have never met and who will never read what we’ve written (but still we write, and it is not in vain!), there is a kind of courtesy expected in which we make a strong effort to really understand what our interlocutor really meant to say.  When we fail to do that and criticize them for something they themselves would not claim to believe or argue for, it is known as a “straw-man argument.”  When that happens in a face-to-face encounter, its known as being dismissive or arrogant.  Either way, its bad form and shows a disinterest in the other person instead of the kind of love and compassion we are called to show to all.
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