Christian Compassion

“The Stone” is a column run in the New York Times that asks professional philosophers to contribute to the continuing cultural discourse. The June 19th column was “Is Your God Dead?”. It was written by George Yancy, a Professor of Philosophy at Emory University who wanted to make the point that the essence of the three great monotheistic religions was the emotion of compassion as that was recognized by Christians like himself who avert their gaze from the homeless and the destitute and therefore show themselves to be failed Christians in that they have not lived up to their religion. Commenters on the article said that atheists as well as followers of religion can appreciate the centrality of compassion, which is a point well taken if religion is reduced to the evocation of one or another of the human emotions that are available to all people rather than an esoteric emotion, such as faith, which is available only to the faithful. I want to make a more radical point, which is that compassion is, as moral virtues go, a relatively minor one because it largely has to do with people you don’t know who don’t impact on your life while other emotions and virtues do have a significant impact on your life.

Professor Yancy’s argument is precious because it has an exquisite and delicate sense of the demands of compassion-- that you should not look away from human suffering and that recognizing human suffering is the most important thing you can do-- in the same way that it is precious to regard the exquisite working of the materials that go into a diamond ring as the highest form of art. Craftsmanship deserves its due but no more than that. Compassion is, maybe, a virtue but hardly the most important of virtues. Industriousness at work and in the service of one’s family; loyalty, in the many senses of that word, to wife and children and even to nation; integrity and honesty in dealing with oneself and others, are also commendable virtues, there being no reason to rank some as more important than others. So why should matching rather than avoiding the glance of a distressed person rank so high? Some Christians may insist that compassion is the premier virtue endorsed by Jesus but, in fact, Jesus modeled other emotions, including loyalty to him over loyalty to family, as well as making sure that one was compliant with Pharisaic regulations even up to reporting the cure of a leper.

Moreover, engaging the glance of a beggar also seems to me precious because it does not do anything about the condition of the beggar. Rather, averting a glance is just the natural thing to do in social life, where we as a rule avert our gaze from things that are unpleasant, like mangled bodies except when they are seen for a moment at the roadside, or worm eaten meat, or people acting in an ugly way to one another. The drama fades away quickly enough, to be replaced by averted eyes. This is something sociologists note as just part of everyday life, neither meritorious nor particularly reprehensible, so why make so much of it? The reason is the Christian’s penchant to think the worst of himself, to think every moral failing, however trivial, is a sign of his original sin, while any sense of self-worth is to engage in the sin of pride. Instead of bemoaning our insensitivity to the poor and needy, just go out and vote Democratic because Republicans just want to cut programs for the poor so the money saved can be spent on tax breaks for he rich. If you do that, you can with a clear conscious avert your gaze from the more desperate people around you. unless, that is, you think that inflicting the pain of their suffering on yourself does them any good.

The author’s argument is self-flattering as well as precious. Yancy points to his sensitivity in noticing how easy it is to dismiss the distressed people around him. His consciousness is sufficiently raised so that he can understand as a shortcoming paying insufficient attention to the distressed. That makes him a better person, more of a Christian, than the rest of us. Such a self-regarding moral philosophy, that always puts first how one’s own moral life is doing, is consistent with other Christian principles of morality, such as the Golden Rule, which says that people should treat others as they would wish themselves to be treated, which is to make morality into a transaction where a person, in some grand compact, trades doing well by others for others doing well by him. One hand washes the other. Far more rigorous as a moral standard, for example, would be insisting on treating others as worthy of respect and the satisfaction of their material needs whether or not they can return the favor. Do the right thing by people because it is the right thing to do. The beggar does not have to thank you for his alms if he is receiving them in the form of benefits from a government program that redistributes your money into his hands without him or you knowing about the transaction. That is a higher form of charity than offering some soothing words along with a few dollars to the beleaguered person in front of you. But the Christian is, after all, primarily after his own salvation, whether that is understood as a heavenly reward or the reward of moral satisfaction, and so charity is not for itself alone but for a purpose.

The author is perhaps most self-flattering because he thinks he has liberated the question of Christian and Jewish and Muslim compassion from supernaturalism. He declares that this is the true and essential message of the three Abrahamic religions. Now this is news to me, who notes that religion goes back to prehistoric times, and that cave men engaged in funeral rituals, which suggests that they had a sense of an afterlife, and were trying to appease the gods so as to get a smooth passage there as well as whatever good things their offerings might earn them there. Religion has always been a matter of placating a god or gods, and doing so by leading a moral life does not enter the picture until the time of Moses, and even then only by order of the deity. For the most part, religion has been a way to get people to comply with the authorities, under pain of death and worse, whether the authorities are the secular ones or Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor who was harsh because, he thought, that was the only way to get things done. Religion has been under attack at least since Origen, in Third Century Alexandria, felt compelled to give symbolic readings to make Biblical passages have some credibility for the educated and cosmopolitan audience to be found there. That project was certainly set back by the medieval world and reemerges in the late Nineteenth Century when Liberal Protestantism once again proclaimed that the essence of Christianity was not suffering but a symbolic way of recalling the perennial wisdom of moral philosophy, however much that may mean, as with Professor Yancy, recalling moral platitudes as if they were emotional traumas, the person made better by a token glance at the poor. There is no point to such a totally secularized Christianity, one that has lost its ties to mysticism or spiritualism or an afterlife or to a god who is both all forgiving and also, so some Christians say, able to consign most or all of humanity to eternal fire. It is a religion with all the juice taken out of it.

It is no wonder that Yancy and other “Stone” contributors have moved from engaging in what had for twenty five hundred years qualified as philosophical discourse, which means the logical elaboration of essential categories for the understanding of life, such as existence and justice and perception, to the advocacy of such concepts, like compassion, that seem to the author as being essential. That is because the search for essences has been replaced by the study of contingencies, which means the circumstances under which one concept applies as opposed to the conditions when it does not apply or when it applies only a little bit. Existence has, except for the Existentialists, come under the purview of natural scientists, who are always on the lookout for making comparisons. Compare how an object travels down a steeper inclined plane to how it travels down a less steep one. Similarly, the question of perception is left to psychologists and the study of justice, should that concept have any meaning at all, to sociologists who look at how the various institutions of social life play off against one another. So much for philosophy.

If we begin with contingency rather than essence, then we can look at compassion in a more accurate light. The moral issue of compassion disappears to be replaced by the issue of the circumstances under which a person feels compassion and under what circumstances is compassion absent. I would suggest that compassion is an emotion that arises at the contemplation of people weaker than you are. The centurion feels compassion for Jesus crucified because there is no danger for him or for Roman rule in this defanged prophet. Slaveholders, on the other hand, had limited compassion for their slaves because they always feared the slaves would revolt and grab the upper-hand. So Jesus’ counsel of compassion is a way of saying pity these poor people who now have the upperhand but will not make it into heaven. On the other hand, you don’t feel compassion for a spouse in pain. That would be condescending. Instead, you feel love. Compassion, then, is, at best, a minor virtue conferred on strangers in passing and not as significant as other virtues, such as love and honor and industry, which engage to a person’s whole way of life. And, at worst, compassion is, as Nietzsche said, an expression of resentment  at one’s own condition. So much for Christianity, if that is its essence.