Empathy has been called compassion. It has been called sympathy. It has even been called love. The word itself springs from the German Einfuhlung, referring to the capacity of observers to project themselves into a work of art or architecture. In a hermeneutical sense, Gadamer, following Dilthey, places empathy at the fusion of horizons, as one person steps “into the shoes of” the other for the purposes of understanding.
In psychological terms, empathy means the ability of one person to know the consciousness of another. It has been described by the humanist Carl Rogers as “entering the private personal world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it.” And the most recent social theories tie empathy to mutuality, as between mothers and children. Finally, pastoral and other theologians have called it a spiritual discipline that means suspending judgment in order to feel the reality of the other.
But when we talk about the empathy of Scripture, we must mean a very specific thing. For if we recall our controlling image of the therapist, we will find that we have come to that part where the therapist must convey his or her understanding empathically. It is not enough that through Scripture, God interprets humankind. And it is not enough that, through Scripture, God reveals us both as we are and who we might become.
These revelations will have no weight with us if God shows no rapport with us, if we cannot in any way feel the love that God has for us, or the goodness of the future that we may have in God’s love. We will certainly never fulfill God’s promises if we cannot believe God already understands us as we are, if we feel we cannot live up to God’s vision, or if we mistrust the love that God has given us in Jesus Christ.
But with God, such disappointment is not possible. The Kingdom of God has already begun. With Christ’s atoning death, his benefits have spilled out on humankind. The “not yet” has guaranteed that these things are already happening. We are always already becoming the fullest vision of human thriving as the bride, body and church of Jesus Christ. This must include the depths of all our moral, physical and emotional illness.
We do not have to be “fixed” to become what God wants us to be. Instead, we might say that God wants us to be, and as we trust this we become “fixed” on the love that makes us well.
We have seen previous essays that the contents of Scripture show both a complex description of the shattered human psyche and an imaginative vision of human thriving in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. What we shall see in these essays is that the form of Scripture conveys God’s understanding of humankind, as well as God’s desire to empathically reveal us to ourselves. The Scriptures themselves invite us to participate in God’s fullest interpretation of what it means to be human, and convey God’s astounding identification with humankind.
So perhaps we can best understand the concept of empathy not through definition but by use of a phrase that has traditionally denoted much the same: “I am you” as studied by the historian Karl F. Morrison. The phrase seems to have originated with Vedic theology and entered the West generally around the Mediterranean basin in the second century after Christ.
“I am you” referred, tacitly, to the unity of cultic initiates with their gods, and its usage entered Christianity specifically by way of Alexandrian preachers in Egypt. But, implicitly, it also referred to deep structures in burgeoning Christian thought such as the essential unity of humankind in Christ. These same ideas would be eventually expressed by the English poet John Donne’s notion that “no man is an island.”
The phrase or sentence “I am you” refers to, or has come to refer to, profound and disparate notions of association, identity, and union, having explicitly Scriptural expression in Paul’s “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” and “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body.”
Also, “I am you” has explicit theological expression in Augustine’s imaginative portrayal of Christ thinking “In me, they are also I,” and believers responding, “He is we.” More, “I am you” certainly has sacramental expression in the breaking and consumption of Christ’s body in the Eucharist, even as it retains its philosophical implications from both the Platonic identity between parts and whole and the Aristotelian doctrine of the unity of substance.
So, in sum, “I am you,” in Christian thinking refers to the kind-ness of God’s relation to the world, as well as the likeness between members of the human race. We can hear it, perhaps, in YHWH’s declaration that “it is not good for man to be alone,” understand it in God making man and woman in God’s image, and see it in Christ’s incarnation on behalf of humankind.
We can feel the empathy of “I am you” in the prayers of the mystics—Eckhart’s “the eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me”—and perhaps, even, at the extremity, smell its workings in the collapse of God into humanity with the secular modernity of Hegel, Dilthey, and Feuerbach.