Monday, November 11, 2013

Cognitive Empathy in Interreligious Engagement

This is a video from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and I found it on a blog called The Crooked Mouth posted with the title "Empathy and the Conservative/Progressive Theological Divide," where the author, Anderson Campbell, connects the discussion to Christian concerns. Campbell has an intrafaith context in mind when he writes:
Much like the social, political, and economic realms, the Christian theological realm has become highly polarized in the past several decades. The distance between conservative and progressive theological camps is growing wider by the day. Conversation between people of differing theologies is becoming less frequent and is often derisive, not charitable. We have become very good at “othering” because we have a failure of empathy within the Christian church.
 Of particular interest is the discussion is the idea of "cognitive empathy" in application to theology. On this Campbell distills and teases out the relevant section of the video for us:
When most people think of empathy, they often think of a kind of emotional mirroring. When you see someone in distress and you feel badly for that person, you are empathizing with them. This is affective empathy. It is the ability to recognize what the other is feeling and respond appropriately. We often characterize this kind of empathy as soft and passive, largely emotive. Contrast this with cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand or put on someone else’s perspective, when you don’t necessarily share that same perspective. It is the ability to move past labeling the other and step into their shoes, so to speak. This empathy is more potent for change, asserts Krznaric. In contrast “touchy-feely” affective empathy, cognitive empathy ”is actually quite dangerous, because [it] can create revolution . . . a revolution of human relationships.”
I appreciate Campbell's application of this to the divide between progressives and conservatives in the church. I have found value in the thought of certain progressives, such as (dare I say their names?) Marcus Borg on the atonement, and Brian McLaren on interreligious encounters, and had no difficulty engaging progressive thought, but I've taken some heat from conservatives for doing so. I am a part of the Evangelical subculture, and in my experience we tend toward a faith identity that is hostile and confrontational with others, not only in intrafaith contexts, but interfaith ones as well.
Cognitive empathy has potential for addressing this, especially in the context of a theology and praxis of interreligious engagement. Some similarities can be found in my prior proposal on this in my essay on this at Patheos in "A Generous Orthopathy: Evangelicals and a Transformed Affective Dimension of Faith."

Plenty of food for thought here for those Evangelicals involved in interreligious dialogue and religious diplomacy. 

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