Do Novels Increase Our Empathy While Systematic Theologies Blunt it?
My middle schooler conscripted me to help him with his English assignment last night. Initially I was given thesaurus duty and was expected to supply synonyms on demand.
My son reached a certain question and threw his hands up.
"How am I supposed to know what she was thinking?"
"You read the chapters?"
"Who is she?"
"The stupid teacher in the book. Scout shows up at the first day of school knowing how to read and Miss Fischer gets mad?"
"The chapter doesn’t say why she was angry?"
"Can you dig deeper?"
"No, she’s stupid. She doesn’t have the right to be angry about this."
"I agree. But everyone has reasons for their behavior, even if it is stupid. What are some possible reasons?"
"How am I supposed to know? The author doesn’t say in the first three chapters."
We discussed how the teacher was encouraging him to develop theories about why Scout’s teacher reacted unreasonably. I suggested that maybe Miss Fischer had some ideas about social class and who had the right to be educated and when. He rejected that notion because it wasn’t a good reason. I agreed and suggested that reasons just are regardless of merit. I suggested his teacher was inviting him to see the world from someone else’s perspective. I admitted that even in middle age I naively assume everyone sees the world as I do. That seemed to satisfy him and he was willing to develop hypotheses as to why Miss Fischer was so disagreeable.
A recent study suggests that reading novels increase a person’s empathy. This seems reasonable as good fiction places you in the mind of characters much different from yourself, and these characters in turn struggle to understand the thoughts and actions of other characters who are much different from themselves.
Conversely, it seems that reading certain theological systems reduces a person’s empathy. Earlier this year Rachel Held Evans, offered a poignant post, The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. She wrote about the public execution of an Afghani Mulsim woman named Zarmina marked a turning point in her faith. She wrestled with the injustice of her death and with how quickly her Christian friends insisted Zarmina was in hell because of her faith:
Oh, the Calvinists could make perfect sense of it all with a wave of a hand and a swift, confident explanation about how Zarmina had been born in sin and likely predestined to spend eternity in hell to the glory of an angry God (they called her a “vessel of destruction”); about how I should just be thankful to be spared the same fate since it’s what I deserve anyway; about how the Asian tsunami was just another one of God’s temper tantrums sent to remind us all of His rage at our sin; about how I need not worry because “there is not one maverick molecule in the universe” so every hurricane, every earthquake, every war, every execution, every transaction in the slave trade, every rape of a child is part of God’s sovereign plan, even God’s idea; about how my objections to this paradigm represented unrepentant pride and a capitulation to humanism that placed too much inherent value on my fellow human beings; about how my intuitive sense of love and morality and right and wrong is so corrupted by my sin nature I cannot trust it.
They said all of this without so much of a glimmer of a tear, and it scared me to death. It nearly scared me out of the Church.
Theology aside, I think she's onto something: Emotional intelligence seems to decrease when a person over identifies with any brand of systematic theology . Perhaps God was aware of this risk when he gave us the Bible in narrative form instead of a twelve volume, leather bound systematic theology.
Rachel goes on to cite Richard Beck, who coined a phrase for being theologically smart at the expense of being empathic:
Alexithymia–etymologically “without words for emotions”–is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others’ emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.
There’s a place for systematic theology . Over two thousand years the church has gotten into needless jams by neglecting the discipline. But perhaps is okay and even wise to admit that the discipline is our human attempt to make sense of God’s narrative. As such, there’s going to be errors. Beyond that, we should admit that our quest for order can create boxes that aren’t conducive to the human experience.
The second commandment tells us we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves. Empathy, then, is an essential skill to please God.
A good spiritual discipline might be set The Institutes down in favor of a David Foster Wallace novel. Better yet, we can blunt the excesses of our theologies with a good honest reading of the Bible while allowing ourselves to get inside the heads of the people who participated in God’s big story.