Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Earthly Compassion is the New Immortality

If mimesis changes the conversation, compassion is the elephant in the room. It's been there all the time and we've hardly talked about it; or even known how to talk about it.

Compassion is a taken-for-granted neural ability placing us in unity with our world, especially with feeling creatures like ourselves if they are young, vulnerable or suffering. It is especially lively among children, and in mothers.

In its widest, fullest sense compassion is the nil state of hostility to our surroundings. In a "state of compassion" we wonder why we could have nourished any animosity or resentment to particular individuals, or why we should desire that particular object or person, rather than being at peace with them. There is a physical warmth and vitality to it, the feeling of a deeply shared life.

Yet in terms of Christian preaching or teaching compassion is a poor relation. It doesn't have the theological centrality of "love." It is usually mentioned vaguely and in passing as a human emotion, losing out to moralizing "good works;" or , in comparison to faith, is more or less ignored.

But, now, with the entry of mimesis into our language and thoughtworld the relevance and importance of compassion has increased hugely. If the thought of mimesis is so big--for our constitution as humans, and as part of scriptural revelation--then the status of its neural twin must grow correspondingly.

For compassion can be seen as exactly the same preconscious imitative state (as mimesis), but without the competition. It is essentially the same mirroring, but without the imitation of grasping that sets off rivalry. It allows us be in exactly the same feeling space as the other but without the conflict of desire. In positive terms, compassion is a humility and nonviolence toward the other that allows us to be for them and with them in the exact human event where they are.

As such it emerges as an absolutely critical anthropology.

New Testament love is of course something decisively new in the world, brought to us by the Crucified. Because Christ was abused and did not abuse in return, and forgave his tormentors, even to the point of death, there is a standard of self-giving erupting into history that exceeds anything known of compassion. Love is higher and stronger than compassion. It is the Holy Spirit. But love understood without compassion becomes dogmatic, false spiritual and priggish. Compassion is what gives love its work and its world, and because of love Christian compassion becomes radical, even to showing solidarity with our enemy.

Love puts its roots down in compassion, into the hundred-thousand-year-old sentient world of shared humanity, and little by little draws it up into all the cultural situations of anger, hostility, and violence. In this way it creates forgiveness and peace in real organic political terms, making a tree of life for all.

The gospels show this radical meaning of compassion is already the meaning of God. The word "compassion" is only used of Jesus or in parables where divine forgiveness is shown, including the most powerful, the Prodigal Son or Two Brothers. By some marvelous identity of frequency God resonates most truly with human beings at the level of nonviolent, forgiving mimesis, i.e. compassion.

As Christianity grows to understand all this then compassion will become progressively pivotal to its meaning and program. Radical compassion will become the framework of discourse and understanding of 21st century Christianity, its evangelizing lifeworld, just as much as death, the soul and heaven were to the first centuries; or guilt, death and hell were to the Middle Ages.

Earthly compassion is the new "immortality," the core salvific construct.in which contemporary Christianity moves to speak, convert and operate.

As it does so it will inevitably teach a better way than morally indifferent capitalism as the necessary model of human business. Maggie Thatcher famously argued the Good Samaritan could not have helped the victim on the wayside unless he had industriously made his pile of cash first. Whatever the value of her historical-critical reading, her remark showed how in her classic Protestant worldview there was a hierarchy of two orders: first business, then compassion. We all know the disastrous results produced by that grim hierarchy. What would the world be like if Christianity could teach, all over again, that compassion in and throughout all human affairs is the core and complete meaning of God in Christ?

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian


  1. Tony,

    Last year Preaching Peace produced the video series 'Transforming Our Minds' with Dr John Carmody where he shows how compassion is hard wired into the human brain. He also connected it to positive mimesis and Christian discipleship. There are also several books on this topic, particularly related to "mindfulness." It is out there being talked about but perhaps not yet to the extent that is necessary. Archbishop Lazar Puhalo also makes this same point in the movie Hellbound?, so perhaps your timely blog here will help others see compassion more clearly as the heart of the divine and the gospel. Michael Hardin

  2. Tony, this is very exciting, good work, and I hope you will continue writing on it. I'd like to see you do an article for evangelical Christians on this, which might be published in Christianity Today, or the Evangelicals for Social Action magazine or newsletter.
    Several things strike me:
    First, the concreteness, or specificity, of compassion in psychological and anthropological terms gives definitive content to the language of love. Love has become so vague in our language that this kind of definition is crucially needed.
    Second, it seems to me the language of compassion has great evangelical, or witness, potential. For example, your discussion of how compassion is original and universal in human nature: "Compassion is a taken-for-granted neural ability placing us in unity with our world, especially with feeling creatures like ourselves if they are young, vulnerable or suffering. It is especially lively among children, and in mothers." Add to children and mothers men, who need to be shown/reminded of their own past proclivities and practices of compassion as an an encouragement to become all they can be. In other words, we can share the good news with all humans, all of humanity, that any and all of us are only alive today because we have been recipients of large doses of compassion starting with our mothers' gifts, and we who live only because of compassion can be fulfilled by giving compassion to others.
    Also on sharing this idea/message, it seems to me you can make a great connection between compassion and that idea/experience of connectedness with all things of which all of the mystics and poets speak. If at the center of the universe lies this reality that everything is connected with everything, then compassion is the energy and practice which makes that real in our lived experience.