Friday, January 24, 2014

These Essays: The Empathetic Imagination

What all iterations of the empathetic phrase “I am you” have had in common, however, has been an ability to make the physically absent spiritual or intellectually present through mimesis. And here Christians who are wondering why we have the Bible might perk up. For while empathy as understood in the phrase “I am you” has many hermeneutically laudatory aspects, its most salutary quality for our purposes may well be its imaginative capacity. 

As the Augustinian scholar Peter Brown writes of empathy: “to let the imagination run; to give serious attention to reading books that widen our sympathies, that train us to imagine with greater precision what it is like to be human in situations very different from our own.”

So we might find that imagination has serious implications for these essays. For I have said that an interpretation’s potential to heal may be called its salutary force. And I have said that Christians ought to prefer those interpretations which possess salutary force to those that do not. Further, I am seeking to argue that they ought to prefer them because those interpretations which possess salutary force will have made more sense of Scripture’s form, content, and transformative purpose than those that do not.

Now I hope I have shown in these essays how interpretations which heal will have been faithful to Scripture’s content; I am currently attempting to show how interpretations which possess salutary force will have been more faithful to Scripture’s form. If Scripture possesses imaginative form, it will have conveyed God’s empathy with humankind, because imagination requires empathy.  

 t is no accident that an Augustinian scholar should have written the quote above; Augustine was one of the main explorers of mimetic empathy in the ancient Christian world, and he did so precisely in the context of reading Scripture. 

As he defends the very purpose of On Christian Doctrine, he writes, “love itself, which binds men together in the bond of unity, would have no means of pouring soul into soul, and as it were, mingling them with one another, if men never learned anything from their fellow-men.”

Now we have spent some time in the last chapter on the latter clause, but we cannot go on without noting the language, perhaps startling to a modern Christian, of pouring soul into soul. Such empathy is dangerous, dazzling, perhaps violently ecstatic; it threatens to erode the boundaries of self and other—and it happens, for Augustine, around the interpretation of Scripture. 

This is mimesis not only in the modern sense of imitation, mimicry. It is also mimesis in the ancient sense of participation through shared experience—and in this particular Augustinian case, the oratorical expounding of the meaning of Scripture, teaching tied to understanding.

So empathy has in Augustinian thought a particular trajectory. Mimesis not only shares experience, but also forms a moral imagination. Augustine could love someone like the Apostle Paul “not as a man, but because of his righteous mind—that is, because his love conformed with a steadfast and unchangeable pattern.” 

The empathy which nears the dissolution of souls in charity also presumes a vast gulf between them; Augustine certainly does not regard himself as having a steadfast and unchangeable mentality.

So the pragmatic problem with Augustinian charity, with Augustinian empathy, is not that it mixes souls. Rather, quite the opposite occurs, and it remains a bit one-sided: “even among brethren, one knew the love with which he loved more than the brother whom he loved.”

Augustinian love seems to work out, all too often, one-directionally, or at least one-dimensionally. One may love God in response to God’s love for us, but God will never “return” our love to us; God’s love for us will not compound because we love God, too. In similar terms, one may love a neighbor, or a brother, but agape has little space for reciprocation. 

With that in mind, “infusing souls and nearly mixing them” sounds less like peril and more like promise, less like disease and more like remedy for the chasm that Augustinian mimesis presumes. I imagine because I cannot myself experience; even conversation between people was, for Augustine, “one abyss calling to one another.”

This difference allowed moral transformation to occur mimetically—or, more accurately in Augustine’s understanding, to grow through imitation by stages. The wise man imitated God, and “union of the lover and the beloved occurred through imitation of subjective reality.” Likewise, “through the Holy Spirit, God diffused a greater than human love in the hearts of the elect.”

This two-step process is the essence of Augustinian hermeneutics—and, we would note, the essence of Augustinian empathy. As Morrison writes: “understanding Scripture meant two contradictory things: first, the estrangement of each human being from God and neighbor, and, second, the renewal through charity of unity with God and with other redeemed souls in God.”

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