I saw a meme stating that you don’t need faith, just empathy. It bothered me everytime I saw it but never actually rationalized my discomfort with the statement. Then I got to thinking…
Without a defined moral compass, empathy and the compassion that it would beg has no focus. Just being there and reflecting someone’s feelings may make a person “feel” understood, but it does nothing to help that person’s dilemma. Conversely, you can have someone empathize with you and then try to have you subscribe to a solution which has no positive effect for you or may exacerbate your problem.
I can empathize with someone who is in severe psychic distress. It may stem from a tragic incident, or hitting bottom from a destructive lifestyle or just frustration at a string of bad luck events. This person may express the desire to do something drastic to quell the pain, or may just want to do nothing and wallow in self pity. I have faced these situations before and can certainly empathize. But empathy alone does not help the individual.
That is where the certainty of faith comes in. There is a defined higher purpose rather than the tenuous guide of moral relativism that pervades secular humanism.
A good example (and this actually happens in Belgium I hear) euthanasia, can be an option for someone in the throws of a deep depression. It may certainly be understandable and easy to empathise with. I don’t know how many times I may have said or thought “If my wife or child died, I don’t know how I could go on living.” But people do go through it, they grieve and they continue living and they even find happiness again. It is my faith principal of the sanctity of human life that guides me in these matters. It guides my help to others and most importantly, it guides my perception of others in empathy. I would never suggest that a person in severe but surmountable psychic stress end their life, and more so, I would never aid or abet it.
I may empathize with the victim of a violent act. I may empathize with their anger and need for vengeance. However, my faith tells me that vengeance is wrong and that retaliation is a sin. Forgiveness is the key toward healing such an affront.
If I see someone who is angry or upset because they work very hard, but do not reap the same benefit as someone else, I may empathise with their disappointment and even their envy of the other person. A very empathetic feeling of “fairness” may make me want to take from the more fortunate and redistribute to the less fortunate. However, my faith tells me that this is theft. It is wrong even if many utilitarian justifications say it isn’t.
Empathy is not enough. It may incite very negative and counter productive reactions. Reason alone is not enough either for it denies the transcendent nature of the human spirit. Faith, moreso religion, in my case Christianity offers me the perspective and defines the spiritual so that I can not only empathize with another person, but can act in a consistent way out of true love and compassion.
In any case, empathy only comes when one’s own self interest is sidelined. One must humble oneself in order to place another’s emotions tantamount to oneself’s. The core of my faith is humility with the fact that all of us are as brothers and sisters. We are all flawed and yet loved beyond reason by a loving God. To seek God is to seek each other. It is the inherent selflessness of faith that runs counter to any natural empathy which rarely goes beyond familial or social bonds. My faith seeks out the enemy, the outsider, the stranger as my own brother, my own sister.
No, empathy is not enough. Not by a long shot.