I've been thinking about empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Without empathy we will never be able to enjoy dialog with one another. I have formulated a test for myself to determine whether or not I am truly empathetic: can I sincerely express that person's opinion or tell their story in such a way that that person would agree with it? Here are the three scenarios I actually find myself in where this test is employed:
- The church I was pastoring went through a devastating church split in 1997. It was a horrendously destructive to so many relationships. The church, even though it survived‚Ä¶ barely‚Ä¶ will always bear the gruesome scars from that crisis. I have kept a journal for decades, so I have a carefully documented report of the ordeal. And I have to tell you: it is a bizarre story that would make a Frank Peretti novel read like non-fiction. But I have withheld sharing that story because I realize it is just from my perspective. Of course. I am waiting for when I can tell the story and it be appreciated even by those who I believe were the antagonists. They believe they were sincere and innocent. If I can't write the story with that dynamic at work, then I will have failed to tell the whole story.
- The second scenario that requires empathy from me is this blog. I am particularly concerned with how I can be in dialog with those who have strongly differing beliefs than I do. How can I create a space where liberals, moderates, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, evangelicals, and fundamentalists can communicate? How can we continue with a conversation that has obviously become emotionally charge because our prized positions are at stake? This, I am convinced, requires empathy. If I can't understand and articulate with sincerity a fundamentalist's position, then I have failed to contribute to true dialog.
- The third scenario that I believe requires empathy is the situation in the world today. We are witnessing a more intense polarization of religious positions. We are seeing the polarization of Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, fundamentalists and moderates and liberals, atheists and believers, and so on. I believe that it is incumbent upon us all to understand and even empathize with the opposite party. For instance, I think it is extremely necessary for Christian fundamentalists to understand Islamic fundamentalists and vice versa. I think it is critical for believers to understand atheists, and vice versa. And so on. Until this begins to happen, we will never get to a place where we can actually empathize with our polar opposites and perhaps come to a place of agreement where eventual peace will be made manifest.