Process theology, empathy, and justice


I ran across a blog posting by a proponent of process theology who argued that process theology and liberation theology are irreconcilably opposed to one another. More specifically, the blogger disagreed that the God of process theology takes the side of the oppressed on matters of social justice. I was surprised to see this argument, which really does not jibe with what I personally believe about God--and I am certainly a defender of process theology. I believe that the blogger in this case is creating an unnecessary conflict between these two theologies where none need exist, and I believe it is possible to reconcile them.

The blogger cited her own ordination paper, which stated:

Process thought...avoids absolutes; to one extent or another, we are all representative of both the oppressor and the oppressed. God is therefore not on the side of one person or group. Instead, God is continuously offering salvation through grace, defined as acceptance, love, and forgiveness, to all persons.
I think this somewhat misses the point. To suggest that God is equally both on the side of the slaveholder and the slave, equally on the side of the oppressor and the oppressed, equally on the side of the torturer and the tortured, seems to take all moral dimension out of God's creative lure. While the blogger correctly notes that process theology sees God as the source of novelty and as a creative lure in the evolution of the universe, there is nothing in that understanding of God that precludes a moral dimension to God's creativity. Social justice is, in my view, a necessary and important part of the divine creative lure. One of the ways that God seeks to lure the world creatively forward is by luring us towards ever expanding notions of inclusiveness and justice. When we are more loving, when we treat others with justice, we are responding positively to God's lure. When we are less loving, we are acting contrary to that lure. Those who oppress, those who commit injustice, are thus acting in defiance of the Divine lure, and it would be contradictory to assert that God was somehow "on their side" when they so behaved. To assert that God is equally on the side of the oppressor and the oppressed would be to assert that God did not care whether people responded to the Divine lure or not; and if God really felt that way, there would be no point for God to even bother to participate actively in the world.

But, I would argue, God does care care what happens in the world. God does want us to respond to his/her creative lure. And that means that God wants us to act justly and to oppose injustice when we see it. God does take sides.

It is true, as the blogger points out, that process thought views God as continually offering grace, even to those who harm others through the exercise of violence or power. However, that is not the same thing as saying that God is indifferent to the outcome of events that result in oppression. It may be that the blogger is defining "taking sides" to mean that God has excluded certain people from his/her loving concern when they have defied God's will--and she rejects this view (as do I). But this isn't really relevant, as far as I can tell. Yes, God is on everyone's side in a certain sense--namely that God's love is universal and unconditional; but since process thought focuses on processes--namely, each individual action that represents a response to the possibilities offered by God--then God is always taking a position on what decisions people should be making, and taking a position is another way of saying that God takes sides at each moment of decision. God would ideally want people to respond as God is asking us to do. Process thought suggests that God adjusts his/her lure according to ever changing circumstances; what this means in practice is that those who commit injustice are always given new opportunities by God to change their behavior. To the extent that one does change one's behavior accordingly--to the extent that the oppressor stops oppressing--then God is on that person's side. If they do not change their behavior, God does not give up, but instead continually offers new opportunities for change. Thus the sides that God takes are provisional--they depend on what we do.

When individuals or societies willfully chose act in certain ways that are contrary to the way God wants them to act, and when those actions create victims as a result, then divine will and individual will have clashed; by definition, God takes a side on behalf of the victims. A God who did not do would not be a just God.

One of the ways that we defy God is when we hurt others. When we hurt others through institutional or societal means, God's infinite and perfect empathy feels the pain of the victim. This perfect empathy is a key principle of process thought; God, according to this view, feels everyone's pains and everyone's joys. God does not want people to be hurt. Thus, once again, I conclude that God naturally takes the side of those who are hurt by institutionalized injustice. God's interest in greater inclusiveness and greater love involves luring people away from sexism, racism, homophobia, war, violence, and the other ills that plague society. God wants an end to victimization, a victimization that God actually experiences at the same time that the victims themselves do. One of the ways that God can lure us to become more inclusive is to appeal to our ability to feel empathy ourselves for what others feel, even if we feel empathy much less perfectly than God does. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of injustice are all ways of denying our own capacity for empathy. Once we put ourselves in other people's shoes, it is harder for us to dehumanize them by oppressing them.

It is easy, I suppose, to dismiss the importance of empathy as a path to justice. I am reminded of a New York Times op-ed column by Daniel Mendelsohn titled "Stolen Suffering", in which the author (rather derisively) criticized the ability of people to feel empathy for those who suffer from truly horrible tragedies. Mendelsohn claimed that anyone who pretends that they really know what victims are going through--those struck with AIDS, for example, or Holocaust victims--are effectively devaluing the reality of the pain that the actual victims experienced. Mendelsohn writes:

The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.

While it is true that none of us can truly and exactly understand what others are going through--according to process thought, only God fully is capable of that--Mendelsohn's argument effectively devalues the power of empathy. Our limitation lies in the fact that we can only imagine what others are going through at any given moment, because we are all prisoners of our own subjectivity. Yet what gives us the ability to imagine the pain of others is the fact that, even if we don't know what others are exactly experiencing at any given moment, we can extrapolate from our own past and present experiences, and from that, apply our human capacity for empathy, which ennobles the human spirit. It allows us to, in some sense, "feel for" what others go through. Take away our empathy, and our humanity is diminished or even stripped away. Sadism easily results when individuals don't empathize with others.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a landmark essay more than thirty years ago titled "What is it like to be a bat?" Though Nagel is an atheist, his essay has interesting implications for those who believe in God, and for the subject of empathy. The gist of the article was his argument against a philosophical reductionism that saw the mind-body problem as being explained by purely material causes. Where this applies to the question of empathy is that in making his argument, he brought in the fact that each conscious being, whether they be a bat or a human being or a Martian, has a subjective conscious experience that we can only make inferences about:
But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.

We may call this the subjective character of experience.
And Nagel's point is that each of is limited by our own subjectivity, which is to say our extrapolations about what others experience are only imaginatively conceived descriptions. None of us really knows what it is like to be a bat--let alone another human being:

To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a bat. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.

So if extrapolation from our own case is involved in the idea of what it is like to be a bat, the extrapolation must be incompletable. We cannot form more than a schematic conception of what it is like.
I think Nagel makes a valid point. And yet here is the amazing thing: despite our inability to really know what others experience, we still somehow have ability to make a huge leap and act and feel in ways that express a presumption of empathy. Our human capacity for empathy is, as Nagel suggests, incompletable. It is, in effect, a kind of shadow or a dim reflection of God's perfect and infinite empathy. Somehow, though, despite our limitations, we still find ourselves capable of acting as if we can put ourselves in other people's shoes. We try to extrapolate from our own suffering, and somehow we imagine that other people's suffering must be bad, too. To the extent that we do this, we are reacting to the divine lure.

In response to Mendelsohn's op-ed piece, a letter writer to the New York Times had this to say:
Many see empathy as total identification with the feelings and experience of another person. Yet empathy also deals with accepting another’s experience as totally foreign, individualized and unattainable.

When a person exits that cattle car at the National Holocaust Museum, it is impossible for him or her to “know what it was like.” Rather, as human beings, we have a duty to realize how little we know about what it was like.

Our sacred individuality is what makes us human, and interestingly enough, it is also what ties us all together.

Perhaps process theology would say that, ultimately, it is God's perfect empathy, and the creative divine lure that asks us to share in that empathy through acts of justice, that ties us all together.


Chris said...

Hi Seeker,

On my blog I explore Gustavo Gutierrez's "preferential option for the poor" concept, which is evidently what the blogger you quote was repudiating (within the context of her process theology). I provide the following two quotes from Stephen J. Pope that I think clarify the issue and alleviate her apparent concerns:

"According to Gutierrez, God’s love is universal, “but it is from a point of departure in his preference for the poor that he manifests his universal love, his love of all humanity.” Divine partiality in this case is depicted as a pedagogical strategy, i.e., divine love for the outcasts, the poor, and the powerless emphatically underscores God’s inclusive love for all human beings."

"Because care is proportioned to need, it makes perfect sense to speak of the preferential love for the poor as long as love is specifically understood under its subcategory of care or caring love. For this reason, the phrase special care for the needy seems in some ways more accurate (if less inspiring) than “preferential option for the poor,” “preferential love for the poor,” or “love of predilection for the poor.” The expression “preferential love” is helpful because it highlights the important truth that for Christians care flows from love rather than from an attitude of noblesse oblige or from religious exhibitionism (Matt 6:1-4)."

To these quotes I add my own observation:

"A final note on the universality of God’s love: Gutierrez is very careful to emphasize that equal love does not mean equal acceptance or approval; it means simply that all—even oppressors—are offered grace and forgiveness if they repent and enter into solidarity with the poor."


Carla said...

The existence of mirror neurons and recent research done on them indicate that there is a biological basis for empathy. When I am with someone in pain, see their face, etc., the mirror neurons in my own brain will be activated in the parts of my brain that process sensation and emotion. To some extent, "I feel your pain" can be true. Another example is when you see someone get smacked by a ball, perhaps duck your own head and say "ouch." Or, watch a mom feeding a baby as she unconsciously opens her own mouth as she spoons the food into the baby's mouth.

Matthew said...

"Mendelsohn's argument effectively devalues the power of empathy..."

I'm confused. The writer you quote at the end of your post seems to argue that Mendelsohn's argument *increases* the value of empathy because it gives empathy some humility: people must attempt to empathize, but they must realize that their own empathy is only that - empathy, inadequate and incomplete - and not the suffering of the sufferer.

Mystical Seeker said...


Thanks for comments about Gutierrez. It makes sense to me, and I think it does clarify the confusion--clearly, liberation theology does not say that God's love is not universal. There is a difference between love of a human being and acceptance of everything they do.


It does seem to me that empathy is a basic human trait. Years ago, when I was in college, I remember reading about a study that showed that even nursing babies are capable of feeling empathy for their mothers.


You may be right that the letter writer is in agreement with Mendelsohn, but the emphasis struck me as different. Mendelsohn seemed, to me anyway, to be saying that we cannot possibly understand other people's pain, so don't even pretend that you do or say that you can. The letter writer, at least to me, seemed to say that the effort is still worth it despite the gulf between human beings. Maybe I am misreading his intentions, though.

WES ELLIS said...

good thoughts, as usual. I've always been somewhat sympathetic to process theology and have been a proponent of liberation theology and I've never thought they conflicted too much to be reconciled. There are important differences and i think you recognize them in this post.

Mystical Seeker said...

Wes, yes, I agree that there are differences, but, as you said, I don't see that they are impossible to reconcile.