Friday, December 13, 2013

These Essays: Caution: Authority May Lead to Empathy

In our brief survey so far, we have seen Scripture’s experiential breath, its integrative depths, and its persuasive capacities, all of which build our case that the Bible wields psychological authority in its very content. So it seems that interpretations of Scripture which heal because they possess similar qualities have both more textual fidelity and theological purpose than those that do not. 

Yet if Theissen is right that Christ actually changes psychological identity, and that the net result of this is positive, then we may add another quality to the authority of Scripture. For the Bible does another thing for Christians: it gives us Christ. Certainly we cannot talk about the psychological contents of Scripture without discussing this.

Scripture bears Christ; it gives us the gospel of the very Jesus of Nazareth of whom Theissen speaks. And here Scripture begins to do psychologically what psychology itself cannot: address transformation beyond our original selves. For it is not only the case that Christ would make us whole and well; it is the Christian conviction that Jesus will make us whole in ways our own mentality cannot yet fully imagine.

There is health, Christians might say, and then there is health. There is the image of God in which we all are made, and then there is the image of Christ, toward which we are becoming. And Scripture gives us both.

Interpretation will, like medicine, begin with information and understanding, and then proceed to a more sophisticated process of judgment. In so doing, interpretation will, like medicine, employ the frequently non-empirical suiting of questions and decisions to proper situations. Neither medicine nor interpretation can eschew the variety nor the depth of the application of “case history” throughout their respective traditions—nor ignore the limitations of such wisdom when engaging the complexities of living human beings.

Medical and hermeneutic decisions alike include but also pass beyond the rational and deductive to include the reasonable and inductive, the experiential. Through shared experience, trust builds between a patient and his doctor and a reader and her text. The identity we develop through reading becomes the one we more actively live in healing transformation.

So we see that what the Bible knows about us as humans and what Scripture does for us as readers cannot ultimately be separated. Its authority, its power to heal the human entirely, while perhaps dual in aspect, is singular in nature. Christians believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the Bible shows us, ultimately, humans as we are meant to be.

And we believe that, and my criterion of salutary force trusts that, something of Christ’s nature comes to us through Scripture. This does not happen  magically, but consequently, because of Scripture’s status as moral, intellectual, and affective revelation. Whatever else we make of him, we certainly do not understand Jesus Christ of Nazareth as an isolated brain, or as a vaporous proposition—rather, we understand him, at least, to be an entire human being.

Why, then, would the revelation of him in Scripture be any less comprehensive? The truth that Scripture persuades us of, the understanding that the Bible attempts to convince us of, the words that the God of love would speak for us to hear, are biased on our behalf. We are to be healed. We are to be whole. Far from being truth for truth’s sake, the Bible give us truth for our sake. Scriptural authority is authority-for-us.

And here a curious thing has happened. What began as authority somewhat opposed to us (with Biblical assumptions about human nature being radically different from those of much Western culture) has become authority inclined toward us (with Scriptural interest in and help for a vast array of psychic experience) has become authority invoking us, demanding our participation in its symbolic world (by way of reading and experiencing its metaphorical imagination).

Scriptural authority has become empathic, authority that understands us both as and better than we understand ourselves. So it here that our brief discussion of Scriptural authority must pause, lest the word lose all sense of its common understanding. Rather, our next discussion shall be of empathy, of Scripture’s unique integration of and sympathy with human nature, especially as engaged in the wildly intimate act of reading itself.

I have called these essays “The Healing of Interpretation,” and I hope we have seen how a sense of Scripture’s authority as therapeutic partner can mend both our understanding of its texts and our understanding of psychology itself. Now we shall explore the other sense of the healing of interpretation and ask how interpretation might itself be an empathic, therapeutic act when engaging Christian Scripture.


Shelly Mann said...

Ah, but more so, the authority in Scripture must lead to compassion. For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not ruled out that the priest and the Levite had empathy for the dying man along the road. They may very well have recognized and felt his emotion, yet they did not act in a Godly manner. The Samaritan had COMPASSION for the dying man. He chose to pick him up and bear his burdens with him. Com-passion. The Latin roots tell us this word means to suffer with. Scripture calls us to take up one another's burdens and calls us to be more than empathetic. In some strains of Christianity, it is popular to take a hands-off, "empathetic" approach and to say that one is praying for another and trusting him or her to God's hands. If we are called to compassion and to be Christ's hands and feet in the world, trusting another person's pain to God's hands is picking that person up, acting compassionately, sharing his or her burdens, and loving him or her through the pain.

Shelly Mann said...

More than empathy, the authority in Scripture calls us to compassion. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan does not rule out that the priest and Levite felt empathy for the dying man. They may very well have recognized and felt his pain and emotion, but they still chose not to act. Jesus tells us that the Samaritan acted with COMPASSION. From Latin, this word means to "suffer with." The Samaritan picked up the dying man and chose to suffer with him and shoulder his burdens with him. Some strains of Christianity will say of another's pain that all we can do is pray and trust it to God's hands...but we are called to be compassionate and to be God's hands and feet in this broken world. If we are to act as compassionate Christians, trusting the other to God's hands is taking on the other's pain and loving and supporting the other. Christ's authority in Scripture leads us beyond empathy to true Christian compassion.