From Empathy to Chaos: Considerations for the Church in a Postmodern Age

Below is an essay I wrote in Feb 2018 for my entrance application for school. I’ve noticed a recent interest in this topic as an article by Joe Rigney has caused a stir. It’s an excellent piece. It made me think that this might be a good time to add these thoughts to the mix. I’ve been mulling over empathy and its inherent problems for a number of years, mainly because it’s reeked some havoc in my heart and it had to be dealt with. My view is similar to Joe’s, but I think it’s important to recognize the peculiarly feminine nature of empathy and to understand that there seems to be good and intentional design features in that. It’s not that all empathy is bad––it can be very good in regard to mothering an infant, but it was never meant to subvert reality.

I first encountered Shusaku Endo’s book Silence as a freshman at Bethel University in 2000. Widely regarded as a thoughtful, albeit torturous, examination of the tensions of Christian faith, it was just the sort of book to put in the hands of green, hopeful English majors. Written in 1966, Silence tells the fictional tale of a Jesuit priest sent as a missionary to Japan in the 17th century amid horrific persecution of Christians. While in Japan, Rodrigues, the protagonist, seeks his mentor, Ferreira, who was said to have apostatized. The book details Rodrigues’s inner turmoil, both that his mentor could have done such a thing, and also that he himself is being drawn closer and closer to doing the same. In the end, Rodrigues must either refuse to deny Christ and be the cause of torture and death for others or deny Christ by trampling on an image of him and save others from a terrible fate. Faced with an untenable situation, he imitates his mentor. In his mind, he hears Christ giving him permission to apostatize to save the innocent. Yet, the cock crows when the deed is done.

Lately, Silence has received renewed attention as the book has made its way into film. Patricia Snow’s insightful article, “Empathy Is Not Charity” opens with an examination of the real story that the fiction book is based on. The historical account is quite straightforward and lacks the unique diabolical tensions of the book in favor of more familiar horrors. The Catholic missionaries are themselves tortured and they apostatize (Snow, 2017). There is no threat of harming others if the missionaries resist apostasy. She says, “What this means is that the deeply disturbing, polarizing drama at the heart of Silence is an anachronism. It is a projection of the modern mind, a hallucination of an anxious, confused, and codependent imagination” (Snow, 2017).

In Endo’s made-up world, “Mercy is pitted against truth, love of neighbor against allegiance to God,” and when caught within its confines it is difficult to grope through the fog and grasp hold of anything solid (Snow, 2017). Arguably, that’s the point: how do we cope, how do we love, when love contradicts itself? In Silence, empathy¹ is the only real means of love. The postmodern age that was superimposed on 17th c. Japan likewise presents us with untenable versions of contradicting love: either affirm same-sex marriage and transgenderism or hate people; either dismantle the “patriarchy” and male authority or oppress women; either view people solely as a consequence of their race or be a racist. In a world where postmodernism² has pulled up the anchor of reality and truth and empathy rules as the primary virtue, societal chaos that mimics the storm of each individual’s emotions follows; therefore, the church must grapple with the virtue and vice of empathy and make itself impervious to an entitled, chaotic empathy without jettisoning love.

An entire age is being shaped by the idea that our feelings are ultimate reality and that to love someone is to believe, value, affirm, and feel their feelings—in other words, loving someone means empathizing with them to the point of agreement or at least non- disagreement. If we drill down to the root of this species of empathy there seems to be a demand: you should stop being you, stop thinking like you, stop seeing the world through your eyes and become me; see the world as I see it and adopt my point of view. It is postmodern, entitled empathy.

But empathy isn’t all bad—there are elements of love in it. Bible stories and passages spring to mind like: Jesus’s compassion on the crowds (Matthew 15:32), or Jesus being moved in his spirit over the death of Lazarus (John 11:33), or the good Samaritan’s help of the assaulted man (Luke 10:33), or the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). All of these examples have empathy in them—a willingness to use our feelings to relate to another with compassion. But when we look closely, we see a clear demarcation between a sympathetic feeling and maintaining one’s own judgement. Empathy in the Scriptures never divorces from a proper and true assessment of the facts. Our cultural moment is one that hasn’t just divorced objectivity from compassion, but pronounced an annulment on objectivity’s existence. What we have left is a reckless, short-sighted compassion that’s very likely to send people to hell in bubble-wrap and band-aids.

Even the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this fulfills the Law and the Prophets,” while embracing an imaginative sympathy, still protects individual judgment (Matthew 7:12 ESV). If we pass the Golden Rule through the sieve of empathy-as-the-ruling-virtue, it would come out saying, “Whatever others wish you would do to them, do it.” This makes nonsense of the rule, because the Bible doesn’t ask us to substitute our own Christian judgement for another person’s. Rather, when we do to others as we would have them do to us, we are the arbiter of what would actually be for our good, and therefore, what would be for another’s good. We value others as much as we value ourselves by being objectively kind and loving toward them.

Every parent knows that implementing the Golden Rule toward our children requires us to maintain a proper understanding of what is good and what isn’t. If our child wants to play ten hours of video games or eat ten pounds of candy, we must do to them what we would want a good parent to do to us—not what our foolish eight-year-old self would want, but what our mature, wise, Christian, grown-up self knows to be best. Similarly, if our son wants us to treat him like he’s our daughter, we lovingly refuse because of the Golden Rule, not in spite of it.

The cardinal sin in a society that has inverted the Golden Rule is to make a distinction between felt needs and actual ones—which is just another way of saying we’re making distinctions about what is right and wrong or good and bad. If a teenaged boy says he feels like a girl, then to love him is to now call him a girl, because that’s how he wants you to treat him. If a woman feels she’s oppressed by “the patriarchy” then to love her is to start calling it out (whatever it is) and using the hashtags she promotes and supporting her decisions, whatever they may be. The facts of either situation aren’t relevant and trying to uncover them will result in a further confirmation of the oppression they perceive themselves to be experiencing. But what does become obvious when interacting with the feelings-are-reality crowd is that they really do have one hard truth that won’t let go of: their feelings are unassailable, not yours. This can lead to infighting among the ranks of people who all use the same inverted golden rule.

Michelle Goldberg catalogues this problem with the genuine question, “What Is a Woman?” where she explores the rift between radical feminism and transgenderism (Goldberg, 2014). Radical feminists convinced a generation of women that because they felt marginalized by the differences between men and women that there actually weren’t any significant differences between men and women. Transgender activists have convinced a new generation of young people that if they feel like the opposite sex, then that’s what they are. These are incompatible views, but fundamentally predicated on the same reason-eschewing value: you help and care for me by feeling what I feel about something—thinking is largely unhelpful, even detrimental, to this task. Only now feminists have changed lanes with nary a turn signal. The same objections those opposed to feminism used to use like, “Women and men are different,” are now being used by the feminists who oppose having a man (called a transgender woman) win a woman of the year award (Goldberg, 2014). Who could be surprised that their late-in-the-game appeals to biological facts over feelings are falling on deaf ears? 

It’s important to note that women tend to be more empathic than men (Simon-Thomas, 2007). The reasons for this are likely many—but what seems obvious is that women have been designed to grow and nurture life. Infants and young children require constant care and give little in return, from a utilitarian standpoint. Empathy may very well be how women are made by God to thrive and endure such circumstances. Babies can’t communicate their needs rationally, but do so with small, almost imperceptible indicators of facial expression, noise, and body movement. A woman’s attentiveness to needs that are not communicated rationally, but hinted at or communicated at a primal level means she exercises a part of her brain that isn’t tapping into objectivity, but intuition and empathy.

Many mothers know their baby’s needs, seedling thoughts, and feelings before any of them can be articulated. This is an amazing design feature in women—the ability to mirror the feelings and emotions of others (Simon-Thomas, 2007). Women bring this empathic nature to every relationship, not just babies. This may be why women are particularly adept at forging communal bonds and are the heart of families. They put themselves in other people’s shoes and are attentive to their needs, their likes and dislikes, their more visceral nonverbal communication. They actually experience the feelings of others as if they were their own to a greater extent than men do.

By and large, in a Christian setting, a woman’s tendency toward empathy should be viewed positively, as necessary design feature that enriches the lives of the whole community, especially men, and grows them in compassion and charity. But, in our postmodern mindset, empathy is in dire need of truth and simple facts. Understanding the direction of the current sway of the world can help us evaluate our churches. The elevation of empathy in the culture, to the exclusion of truth, has made for a perverse ruling feminization, where offended-ness is the primary currency. The local church will likely experience the push in that same direction, even if all their leadership is male.

But, each local church must evaluate carefully its own tendencies and culture, willingly aligning them with the one perfect example of compassion and truth: Jesus. As Jesus interacted with the Samaritan woman, he gives us a template for relating to those who are different than we are with integrity, truth, and love: 1) Don’t ignore them, approach them (John 4:7–9); 2) Point them to what is for their ultimate good (John 4:10–15); 3) Don’t play games or ignore the hard facts (John 4:16–22); 4) Tell them what is loving and true (John 4:23–26). If the church is a bicycle, it must ride on the wheels of truth and love, objectivity and empathy, reality and compassion. In our fallen nature, individuals will tend to pump up one tire at the expense of the other and local churches will do the same.

Robust complementarianism³ is the way forward for the church. Churches must have women who are empathic and wise, who avoid reactionary responses and folly, who have been deeply shaped by the truth of the God’s word, and who are aware of the power and influence they have over the men in their lives. These women must be willing to be helpers, helping the men around them see the marginalized and perceive other’s perspectives without resorting to manipulation or skewing toward subjectivity. And churches must have men who are leading with objectivity, avoiding favoritism, growing in compassion, eager for counsel from wise women, who can gently, and with understanding, steer people (including women) away from reactionary responses or entitled empathy when needed.

It’s worth mentioning that truth and love are not actually two tires holding up a bicycle. They are not two separate tires at all. God is love, and that love includes his truthfulness and justice (1 John 4:16). God is a consuming fire, and that judgment includes his mercy and compassion (Heb. 12:28). God is who he is (Ex. 3:14). So, a church that is heavy on truth, low on compassion, should also evaluate what errors exist in their “truth.” Because if you get truth right, you will get love right. And the church who is high with love, bereft of truth, should evaluate what is in their “love” that is tending toward hate. Because when we love as we ought, we will tell the truth. But the bicycle analogy can be practically helpful to get a church thinking in these categories when they aren’t sure how to address a clear discrepancy in the ratio of truth to love or vice versa.

The church, despite having the perfect word of the Lord and the perfect example of Christ, is not immune to the chaos of entitled empathy. It pops up all over the place, most notably in myself: a longing to protect others from the loving discipline of God, sympathizing with sin, a willful, strident need to be understood and––here’s where it gets dicey––be validated. When empathy takes the bit in mouth, perception is the only reality and there is no way to course correct with external reality. This leads to chaos, divisions, and disorder in the church, as people are left to figure out which narrative resonates most with them, rather than bringing everything under the authority of God’s word. It’s the ingredient list for James 4:1, “What causes quarrels and fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”

Without the tether of truth and reality, without men of steely spines holding fast and guarding that sacred deposit, empathy will tear the church to shreds making special interest groups out of everyone, with all competing to be the lowliest victim and as worthy of sympathy as possible, as the world has foretold in intersectionality, critical studies, and endless protests. But married and made one with truth, empathy will beatify the church, making it not just right, but good. Empathy, rightly deployed by the people of God, is the cushion round the steel, so that truth can be both pillar and pillow.


1 Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious
experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another (
2 Postmodernism: of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language (
3 Complementarianism is the theological view that men and women are created by God in his image, equal in their personhood, but with different, complementary roles in life and church.

Works Cited

Goldberg, M. (2014, August 04). New Yorker. Retrieved February 11, 2018, from The New Yorker:

Simon-Thomas, E. R. (2007, June 07). Greater Good Berkeley. Retrieved February 16, 2018, from Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights For a Meaningful Life:

Snow, P. (2017, October 01). The Institute on Religion and Public Life. Retrieved January 2018, from First Things: charity?platform=hootsuite

Thompson, A. (2018, February 10). The New York Times. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from white- privilege.html? setType=opinion