Quantitative thinking frequently gets us in trouble theologically. By “quantitative thinking” I’m not referring simply to questions that can be answered or realities that can be measured numerically, but to what we might call a “fixed substance” mindset. This outlook instinctively sees life in terms of binary choices and fixed entities. That mode of thought works well of course in some arenas of life, for example, how much gas will fit in the tank of a car or how much medication to prescribe and take for a specific illness (and other substantial matters). When it comes to matters such as relationships, justice, grace, forgiveness, and love, that approach often spells confusion if not disaster. How many relationships have gone aground when couples or friends began keeping score in one way or another?
Numerous examples could be offered from theology (if we define theology as the study of God and God’s ways with the world). Quite often I try to make my students aware and wary of these. Recently a new example came to mind – the capacity for empathy. Don’t ask me what brought this to mind when I was sitting and sweating on an exercise machine at the gym. Maybe I was having an empathetic moment for someone – or wasn’t – and wondered why.
Anyway, I have heard countless people who were in some form of struggle, like a severe loss or a tragedy, say to others that they cannot understand (empathize) unless they have had the same experience. That statement could be pressed to such a limit that one person must have an identical experience – a precise iteration – in order to empathize. But even then those two people would have had the experience as two different people, with the uniqueness of each of their lives shaping they way they had that experience. In that case, nobody could ever really empathize with anyone!
That approach is a prime example of the quantitative thinking I described. When sufferers isolate themselves from the empathy of others who have not had the same or something close to the same experience, they treat their suffering as a substance, a thing that has its own unique shape and features such that others can only enter the pain of that experience if they have had the same “thing”. Yet, the capacity for true empathy does not work that way, and it’s good that it doesn’t! Quantitative thinking applied to empathy tends to isolate those who need empathy.
Could the capacity for empathy derive from being human; from the capacity for emotion; the capacity for experiences to have meaning and for that meaning to be shared with others? Certainly, those who share the same or very similar experiences can have a deeply meaningful and unique bond. That type of bond has great value and therapeutic potency. It is not to be trivialized. Yet, empathy is not so restricted. Empathy is open to all who can genuinely experience their humanity.
When another person enters our pain or delight through their own, that matters. If only those who have experienced the same or almost the same iteration of pain or delight can be considered empathetic, those who need empathy relegate themselves to a tiny corner where they are least able to receive it. I say that as one who has walked through the unimaginable that relatively few have experienced and that I wish nobody else would ever experience. Yet, I have been upheld in life-giving ways by the empathy of those who were willing to hurt with me. Most have not hurt in the specific way that I hurt but they entered with me through the fact that as human beings we all hurt.
Empathy is open to all humans. It’s not limited only to those with the same experience (the quantitative). Those who need empathy may have far more at their disposal than they realize. Those who don’t share the specific experiences of others they care about, still have far more to give they may think.