Human Compassion: Why?
With the exception of a few outspoken atheists who have been honest enough to allow the full implications of their beliefs to extend to their ethics, most people simply assume that caring for the poor, weak, disadvantaged, and oppressed is a good thing to do. So, whether you believe in God, the universe, some buffet version of popular spirituality, have no clue what you believe in at all, or just believe in nothing (which really is something)…. you’re probably still going to agree that caring for what Christians have always called “the least of these” is admirable and worthy of our effort. You may even feel guilty for not doing enough.
OK. Fine. But why?
I don’t like doing anything unless I have a reason. And that includes caring for the poor and oppressed. Perhaps I’m a little too introspective, but over the past few years I’ve played the devil’s advocate with myself a bit on the whole question of altruism, which has me led back to a place where I can comfortably, confidently, and even urgently justify and pursue tangible care for my neighbor that goes beyond nice thoughts and sentimental Hallmark feelings. Here’s some of my observations on the way.
Actions Without Foundations?
I get the impression that my generation has become more involved in questions of social justice and compassion than previous generations. Twenty and thirty somethings have figured out that this world is a hurting, broken place, and that normal people can mobilize and together do great good. With some exceptions, the 80s and the 90s were all about me, my wants, my material world, and now we’re figuring out how empty those values actually are (Of course, those previously mentioned individualistic, self-centered values are still pandemic).
But what I can’t get my mind around is where the justification for such social concern comes from. I get the impression that my generation has built an amazingly high and impressive scaffold tower of social justice and humanitarian concern on top of a foundation that is ideologically bankrupt and doomed to cave in. Any ideological foundation that exists is a borrowed one, and that borrowed foundation is (gasp!) a Judeo-Christian worldview. The basic assumption of this worldview is that human beings are incredibly valuable simply because the God who created them has instilled such inherent value into their very beings. The logical and practical consequence of such a belief is care for one’s neighbor, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc. For those of you reading who do not share this basic worldview, I will go ahead and acknowledge the obvious – those who follow the aforementioned worldview have often failed miserably to uphold the ethics demanded by such beliefs. For that there is no excuse.
During college I spent a summer studying in Mexico, and while there I had the chance to meet a group of American students from a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds. Many of the people I met were very passionate about social justice and humanitarian issues. But many of those friends did not share my belief in a God who created human beings with intrinsic worth. We would definitely agree with the assertion that human beings are valuable, but not necessarily about the God who created and bestowed that value.
As a Christian, the basis for human care and compassion is pretty simple. God says human beings have worth. He’s the ultimate authority. We take him at his word and get to work. Very simple.
However, I’m very concerned that the new spiritual and intellectual options that have possessed the minds of my peers are bankrupt when it comes to providing a solid foundation for pursuing care for others. In fact, I’m thankful that either the Judeo-Christian ethic of human worth is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it persists, much like a phantom limb, in spite of its growing absence, or, that most people aren’t smart or brave enough to think through the practical implications of their beliefs. I think it would be an understatement that most Americans carry around an eclectic bag of completely contradictory beliefs, held together by only sappy emotions and phrases that have been repeated enough to achieve the status of unquestionable truth. But can compassion continue on a borrowed ethical foundation? In the absence of a biblical worldview, what foundation is left for human compassion?
Science Explains Everything?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fundamentalist picking a battle with public schools. I really enjoy science. But I am concerned that science has been held up in the Western world as the only valid epistemology (way of knowing and experiencing reality). And I’m not the only one. The New Yorker had an article awhile back about the angst of certain individuals devoted to the humanities at the infringement of science into their territory. The idea here is that science oversteps its bounds when it seeks to explain everything, or to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, looks through everything to the point that there’s nothing left to see. For example, the issue of Time that came out in 2007 on the “Science of Love.” The issue was so enlightened as it explained away monogamy, commitment, and love in terms of neurons, chemicals, and hormones. I was left thinking, “OK. So? What implication does this have for my life?” There’s no reason why science has to stand as the be all end all way in which we view life and its meaning, and thankfully, most people don’t function that way. For example, how about trying to form an ethic based solely on science? The most obvious ethic implied by observing nature is survival of the fittest, the strong overcoming the weak, and self-preservation. The Nazis tried building a society on those principles. Most people shudder at the thought of what those principles produced. I’m not so sure that science can provide a solid ethical foundation when it comes to caring for others, especially when that care extends beyond what would be considered “advantageous.” I suppose you could make a case that caring for other human beings helps create a web of give-and -take-interdependence, a sort of social “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” agreement, however, the case seems to break down when it comes to caring for those far different than us, those who have the potential of becoming a burden, or even those who may be our enemies or a threat to our well-being. Some proponents of a science along epistemology have made ethical suggestions in this direction. Take, for instance, Richard Dawkins, who repeatedly gets in trouble for tweeting offensive statements related to women, rape, abortion, children, etc.
Without a doubt, one of the worst movies of all times is the book turned to movie “Eat Pray Love.” Starring Julia Roberts, the film wastes an hour and a half of its audience’s time telling the story of a daring young women who follows the path the universe graciously paved for her by divorcing her husband, bingeing on pizza in Italy, and dabbling in Eastern spirituality in India, where she, of course, falls in love. The universe is a lot more convenient than a personal God, since a personal God can make himself known, and along with that, make known his will for his creatures. The “universe,” however, is so subjective and open to multiple interpretations that it’s easy to justify a lot of selfish, Western behavior. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve either seen five minutes of Oprah or been to a Yoga class. It goes like this:
“Wow… there’s a lot of negativity in this world. People are so disconnected. I think I need to just focus on me and my needs. I need to be good to myself. I deserve to shower myself with love and kindness. I just need to follow my heart. I just need to do what feels right…”
It’s kind of hard to build an ethic of care and compassion out of that. You might get a pint of ice cream and a Lifetime movie marathon, but probably not a lot of self-sacrifice for the good of others.
Taken honestly (and not in its watered-down Western version), there’s a real dark side to Eastern spirituality, and that dark side is Karma. That word has become popular lately, especially when it comes to enemies getting what they deserve. Tracing the roots of Karma back to its Hindu roots, what you end up with is a justification for the suffering of the lowest of the low. Poverty? It’s just karma at work. Suffering? It’s just the inevitable result of bad choices in past lives being played out in the illusion we call reality. Intervention? Compassion? It’s best not to get in the way of those who are suffering under the invisible hand of Karma….
The whole concept of reality is at stake as well. The traditional Eastern understanding of reality is that it is an illusion. If reality, and all the suffering that goes along with it is an illusion, then what would motivate us to intervene with compassion and care? Why exert endless energy on alleviating human suffering if that suffering is ultimately not real? There’s a reason why Mother Theresa was spending her life on the untouchables in Calcutta rather than the Hindu religious leaders. It’s hard to justify human compassion upon the foundation of Eastern spirituality.
Secular humanism left a sort of vacuum as far as ethics are concerned. In the absence of a God who determines top-down what is right and wrong, fully mature and intellectually liberated homo sapiens now had the weighty responsibility of determining morality and ethics by means of majority opinion. The idea was that good, sensible people in a liberal democratic society could come together and decide the best way to fairly live together. In other words, as a human majority we have decided, as the measure of all things, that caring for others is right. There’s no universal truth holding this ethic together… only the thin thread of majority opinion. It’s kind of scary to think that history offers plenty of examples in which care and compassion for the weak and vulnerable was minority opinion. There’s no reason why majority opinion cannot change into the opinion that human life is not valuable.
So, there you have it. A few examples of the faulty intellectual foundations floating around in our universities, media, and culture, all of which I am convinced must do some very impressive intellectual gymnastics to provide a solid case in favor of altruism.
A Better Foundation
As a Christian, and as someone who has thought about all the possible reasons against compassion for others, here are a few large stones in the overall intellectual foundation that give confidence to those committed to loving others:
- Humans are unique among all creatures in that they are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27).
- The character of God as revealed to his people Israel. Israel was always expected to treat foreigners with kindness, keeping in mind that they themselves were foreigners in Egypt. The same compassion that God showed to Israel by delivering them from oppression was also to be passed on to others (Exodus 22:21).
- The Doctrine of the Trinity. God is love, and has existed as love in ages past in the divine community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To live in love for others is a reflection of that eternal love and community.
- The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. This is really an extension of the previous point concerning the Trinity, for the incarnation and life of Christ is an in-breaking of the divine love of the triune God into the human story. The different aspects of that incarnation have specific meaning for our consideration of human mercy and compassion. The incarnation (“taking on flesh”) of the eternal Son of God is the ultimate affirmation not only of this physical creation, but also of humanity. That God chose to enter our story as one of us shows his great concern for our well-being, and consequently, creates our concern for other human beings. His substitutionary death for our sins on the cross reveals the depth of God’s love for even his enemies (Romans 5:6-11), and thus reveals the reality of human worth. If God so loved us, even his rebellious creatures, to the point of death, then there is no human being beyond the reach of God’s love, and consequently, no human being beyond the reach of the church’s love and compassion. Finally, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the great promise and guarantee of the restoration and redemption of this good, yet broken, physical creation, and along with it, our bodies as well (Romans 8:19-23). Since God is committed to bringing this world back to good, we are also committed to that same goal, and that includes the care of those human beings who, though broken and sinful like ourselves, are of incredible value.
With that said, Christians have no excuse to ignore the needs of their neighbor, as well as a solid intellectual foundation in relation to social justice and humanitarian concerns. In other words, there need not be a disconnect between heart and head, but rather heart and head are confidently committed to doing right. I’m not so sure that such a union exists among our atheist, agnostic, and “spiritual but not religious” friends. I hope that they stay committed to works of mercy and justice (many times they put Christians to shame!!), but I also hope that they would give some detailed introspection to the reason for such care and compassion that goes beyond feelings or ingrained habits.