By Anthony Casperson
Normally, when I write these blogs I like to keep the big idea closer to the end. (I tend to be this way with sermons too.) It’s like a punchline to the entire train of thought. I can build my point and then culminate it in a sentence or too near the end. That way, people aren’t immediately turned off of my thoughts and they’re able to understand where I’m coming from before their defenses can be raised against the parts that disagree with their worldview. It allows some conversation before argumentation.
But sometimes that’s not possible.
There are some ideas, concepts, and understandings that fight against my tendency. And one of these thoughts came to me about a month ago. I’ve been trying to make sure I’m not just following my bias to an end I’m determined to see, hence the slowness of writing this. As it stands, I believe I can confidently say what many are likely thinking I’ve spent too much time introducing if I want to consider it to be near the beginning.
Relativistic thought is incompatible with empathy.
Now before anyone who hasn’t already shut the tab leaves, let me explain. Modern use of relativism (particularly the individualistic form common among the western world) is most easily summed up in the terms “your truth,” “their truth,” and “my truth.” Essentially, there are parts of my interactions with the world that you can never understand because you don’t know everything that has happened in my life. And the same occurs with your interactions with the world if I were to try to understand them.
There’s a knowledge or “truth” that is unknowable by anyone who hasn’t experienced the life situation that we have. And until a person has experienced what we have, if they even can, then they are never able to actually understand that “truth.”
We’d need a lot more time to go into the fullness of relativism, but this at least describes a common-level use of the worldview/belief system/epistemological schema.
Empathy though, has this as it’s definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Short version: Understanding or feeling what someone else feels/thinks/experiences without having to feel/think/experience it yourself.
So, if the conceit of relativism as it is commonly used is that there is knowledge or “truth” that you can’t understand without having experienced it yourself, and empathy is understanding the experience of another without having experienced it yourself, you can probably see why I say that relativistic thought is incompatible with empathy.
They’re opposed. The existence of one, by necessity, negates the ability to reference the other (unless someone tries to claim that there’s some “knowledge” hidden from me in this thought process).
So, why bring this thought up? Am I just adding another voice to the already abundant shouting match of current culture? Well, that’s not my intent.
Honestly, I fear that relativistic thought will remove (and has removed) even more of the unity among followers of Jesus that we already fail to keep. You see, empathy is important to unity in the body of Christ. It’s necessary for us to share the experiences, both high and low, of our fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus.
When Paul wrote his letter to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth, he spoke to a very disjointed people. They held divisions between classes, as we see when Paul speaks to the Lord’s Supper. Seemingly everyone wanted to have their moment in the spotlight during the time of gathered worship. A multitude of voices shouting in the midst of a self-ringed circus. And some considered groups of the gathered people as unimportant because their God-given roles held little esteem or were more behind the scenes.
It was to these people that Paul writes, in 1 Cor. 12:25-26, the need for no divisions in the body of Christ. We ought to have the same care for one another as we would for ourselves. And this is because if one part suffers, we all suffer together. Empathy isn’t just commanded, it’s expected. Just like how an injury to one part of the body leads to the whole body working in unison to deal with the issue.
And that’s not something that can happen if we hold to a perspective of relativism that denies understanding for anyone but the one experiencing the pain.
Unity, particularly among the followers of Jesus, is reliant upon sharing in the suffering, and rejoicing in honor, of others. Even when we have not directly experienced it. And this was spoken by Paul to a highly disjointed group among the followers of Jesus. As divisions become more common among us, these words become all the more necessary to remind us.
Rallying around others, who both suffer and rejoice, will lead to the united people desired by Paul’s words. The united people God calls us to be.
Since relativistic thought is incompatible with empathy, and empathy is expected of all who belong to the body of Christ, we must reject relativism. We fail at unity without even beginning to utilize relativism. Why make that failing worse?