Empathy, perspective, and the log in all our eyes.

A story about ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu goes like this,

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” said the friend, “so you can’t really know if they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu, “so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

 

I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of our roots and heritage that the Christian church is obsessed with sin. What is it? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Is it something I do? Something I think? Something I believe? All the above? In fact we’re so gripped by the idea of sin, actually we’re gripped by the idea of sins more so than “big S” Sin, so obsessed with them that we read the idea of transgressions back into the text where it may not even exist.

Consider Matthew 7:3-5:

“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Now this passage, in my personal experiences, especially in the house church movement, has been read in two major ways.

On the one hand, it has been used as a reactive defense against confrontation. If someone says to you, “You sinned by going to watch that Batman movie.” (I wish I could say this is a fictional example.) You might say to them, “Yeah well I saw you smoking a cigarette! Get the log out of your own eye!) Hopefully shutting down the confrontation.

On the other hand, some have focused on the last verse and said “Look! Jesus meant for us to help the brother to get the speck out in the end. As long as I am free from sin in my life I have every right to point out my brother’s sin and help them remove it.” In my experience if the brother in question didn’t agree to accept the “help” it wouldn’t be long before exclusion from the community was a consequence. I’ll write more about this sad process later.

But what if we have sort of missed the point of the whole thing? If the basic premise of living a Christian life means slowly but surely eliminating your sins until you look like the “sinless” Jesus then yes, this verse would seem to fit into that paradigm somehow though it becomes very destructive. I can bear witness to this in my own experience.

But does this look different with a new paradigm of the Christian life? I think it does. What if the Christian life is about transformation through renewing our mind? Finding and exploring new ways to think about everything! And what if this is a lifelong process instead of a one time destination? This is much closer to my current view of living the Christian life. Along with other things of course.

So with a paradigm of mind renewal driving personal transformation, how might we read this verse anew?

How about instead of seeing the speck and the log as sinful behaviors or even thoughts, we look at them as faulty modes of thinking or faulty ways of seeing reality. Here’s why I think this makes sense. The eye is the key here. If something is in your eye, you can’t see properly. Everything is skewed and blurry and distorted. This isn’t a metaphor for sin. It’s a metaphor for illusion or blurred perception. I think most people who didn’t grow up in the church, or who have rejected the church at some point but are now exploring faith and spirituality understand very well the concept of not judging others and showing mercy. I would like to think I’ve tried very hard to get past my tendecy to judge the thoughts and actions of others. What I have replaced that with is a pattern of evaluating the views, beliefs, thought patterns, and perceptions of others to contrast them with my own, pass judgement on their correctness, and do my damndest to bring them over to my point of view and my way of seeing things. I want to read this passage again in terms of illusions and paraphrase a bit to explain how it’s challenging me.

Why do you always take notice of these little “incorrect” pieces of other people’s beliefs while ignoring that your entire perspective is fundamentally flawed? And how can you possibly help them change their perspective when yours is so wrong? First fix your perspective until you understand reality, then maybe you’ll be able to help the others with their illusions.

The powerful and paradoxical part of this is that most likely, it was your flawed perspective that made you think your friend was incorrect in the first place! Another paradox is that if this mind renewal perspective shift IS a lifelong process, when does it become appropriate to try to force anyone else’s perspective to get closer to yours? Reading the passage in this way really challenges me to consider that there may be better ways of sharing our journey without constantly trying to correct each other’s perspective. This is where the Chinese philosophy comes into play.

In the story at the beginning, Chuang Tzu is a victim of his friends attempt to “fix” his perspective. Just stopping right there, I have to reflect on how many times per day I do this, both internally and out loud. Just think about that. It’s not a matter of whether or not this activity is right or wrong, The fact is, I have to assume my own clarity of perspective to be so confident in my denunciation of a differing one, and where does that confidence of clarity come from? Do I really imagine that my friends don’t have that same feeling of clarity? It would be foolish to assume that my perspective is somehow more valid in an objective sense than my neighbor. So the log in my eye isn’t some bigger sin than my neighbor for which I need to repent before judging my brother, the log is the very idea that I can have certainty about the clarity of my perspective. And what if this log is removed? Perhaps the friend of Chuang Tzu, instead of denouncing his perspective, would have sought to learn more about his perspective, to understand what Chuang Tzu was really trying to say or perhaps how he was so familiar with fish feelings. In other words, he may have acted from a position of trying to experience what his friend was experiencing in that moment, which can loosely be defined as empathy.

That’s where I’m going with all of this. I think Chuang Tzu in his response was being a good friend AND a good teacher. He could have flatly contradicted his friend and emphatically stated that he knew the fish were happy. He could have backed off for the sake of avoiding conflict by saying something like, “It just looks like they are happy. You’re right, I don’t really know.” He could have gone into great detail in his knowledge of fish emotions and attempt to persuade his friend that you can know what fish feel. But instead Chuang Tzu took another path. He bypassed the assumption that there was, indeed a speck to be removed in either party’s eye and he went right for the log. “You are not me, so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?” This whole conversation is about a simple question:

Do you believe that empathy is truly possible? 

Chuang Tzu’s friend, in order to make his correction, had to assume that he understood the full range of human experience possible. So he assumed his own full empathy with humanity while ignoring the possibility that his experience was limited and growth was possible. Chuang Tzu simply took the argument to its logical extreme, which is that no empathy is actually possible because “you are not me.” In fact, the statement, “you are not a fish” is actually just another form of the more general “you are not me”. If this is true, empathy is gone. Understanding another point of view is gone. Not only will we never understand the perspective of our friends, but they cannot understand ours either and so we cannot convince them. The whole system, built upon the desire to change the mind of our brothers and sisters into the form of our mind, falls apart at the seams because if they are truly different, than they always will be and each of us is an island of self, surrounded by dark waters of our perceptions of reality, unchangeable by those around us.

The log of Jesus is the logical conclusion of Chuang Tzu’s friend. “You are not me.” If we believe empathy is possible, we fundamentally assume some kind of essential sameness. We can debate all day about the fine points of that sameness but it is required for empathy. To some extent the idea of “you are not me” is not true. The log is both the idea that I can be certain of the clarity of my perspective and the idea that you are not me. The path away from the log is one of humility and empathy.

Humility leads us away from the certainty of our own clarity and empathy leads us toward oneness with everything. Another hidden lesson in the Chuang Tzu story is the arbitrary category separation of humanity and other parts of creation in terms of the ability to empathize.

I am not saying we should never try to convince others of things, even this article is trying to convince you of something, as were Jesus and Chuang Tzu. But perhaps our arguments would look different if we were walking with the humility of knowing we are still working on our log and mentally tearing down the walls of differentiation that we build between us and everything else through the process of growing up. Both the Chinese story and Jesus’ parable give us a way to examine these ideas with benign examples void of much emotion. Only by becoming disentangled with the actual issues can we realize the bigger log, otherwise our emotional response to controversial and passionate issues blocks our ability to see it.

Of course if we find ourselves in a state of the log being removed, which some would call enlightenment, we may see that the speck in our brother’s eye was an illusion, that it isn’t important compared to the log we all carry, or we may realize that we were seeing a part of our self all along.

House of Cards: Universal Morals in Christianity

I do not intend to prove or disprove the idea of Universal Morality (UM), the definition of which is more airy and difficult to grasp than one might imagine. I do intend to lay out and question the “standard” christian theistic arguments for the origin of UM and our basis for understanding it. The dialogue below is my way of doing this. I hope the scope of this dialogue is sufficiently narrow to hold our attention yet apply to enough interested readers for widespread consumption. I write this as a christian. I try to present a fair hearing of the more common christian views of UM to avoid attacking straw men. If I’m missing some major thoughts, let me know in the comments by all means.

Part 1 – From where?

Paul Matthews (PM): But you must admit that there are objective rights and wrongs outside the opinion of humans!

Roger Watts (RW): There are many questions to raise about this statement but too many for now. Let’s narrow this down a bit. What is the christian view of these objective rights and wrongs? Where do they come from?

PM: I’m glad you asked. They come from God.

RW: Do you mean God decides what is moral and what is immoral? Is morality so arbitrary that one personality in the universe simply gets to decide the definition?

PM: Some might say that, but I believe it falls far short of the truth. If the God of Christianity does exist, than He created everything else that exists. In my view morality is not something that God creates or decides to differentiate as a creative act. Morality is not part of the created world. Rather, I would say that morality as a standard is derived directly from God’s character. In other words, if any action or thought is in alignment with the pre-existent, eternal character of God, it is moral. If it falls outside of that character, it is immoral.

RW: I want to be sure I understand you. God does not create a moral standard by which all other things are judged as moral or immoral. All things are judged directly by their alignment with the character of God. If this is so, how are we to know if an action or thought is moral or not?

PM: The answer is in what you have already stated. You must evaluate your action against the character or holiness of God.

RW: You give me a very difficult task. I can’t comprehend the character of an infinite God. I would find it hard enough to comprehend my own. Is this moral standard to be known by my subjective understanding of God or is it revealed in scripture?

PM: I think it’s both. However, I would be very careful basing moral comparisons on a personal relationship with God or subjective understanding. After all, He is too big to comprehend fully and there is a great risk that you will completely miss His character. Because we are unable to fully comprehend His character, we must trust in what He has revealed of Himself through His word. If we followed His commands and teaching, we would certainly be in line with His character. Also I would warn that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to do the things He does. Because we are a different order of being than God, the things that God does may be immoral for us to do.

RW: That’s a lot and we should painstakingly, or perhaps painfully, work through each point. Let’s take a step back though. Perhaps I won’t be swayed so easily that morality is derived from God’s character/nature. Let’s use the term nature instead of character. Why shouldn’t I simply believe that God created the difference between morality and immorality and mandates that standard to his creation? It seems like a feasible option.

PM: It may be feasible. But I think there are problems with it. First of all, the answer wouldn’t change the fact that the best way for us to know how we can live up to that standard is by following God’s revealed commands to us. Is that something we can agree on?

RW: Yes, I agree that this question wouldn’t change that idea. However, you have yet to show that we can know the standard by the method you suggest.

PM: Good, fair enough, I’m just trying to find our common ground of reason. So let’s tackle this question. Does God create a standard of morality, deciding that certain things are moral or immoral based on His own internal thought process, or is morality, as a definition, a standard that exists based on the very nature of God? I think this may be a false dichotomy. If we say that God creates the standard of morality using some Godlike thought process, shouldn’t we see that thought process as stemming from the nature of God? At some point, all the decisions that God makes find their source in His nature. Not that we are able to fully understand that nature, but all His actions certainly come from that nature.

RW: Ok, I’m not sure I have further argument to draw a distinction. Let us say that God does not act outside of his nature, and further, let us say that all created reality stems from his nature since he created it. That brings me to my next question, with that line of reasoning can there exist anything that doesn’t come from the nature of God? Can there exist anything that is apart from his nature, or by your definition, immoral?

PM: That will lead us to discuss the nature of humans. My short answer is yes. For example, I believe God’s nature is to tell the truth and He only tells the truth. By logical necessity that means He doesn’t lie. However, we know that people tell lies, so beings exist that lie, an action which is outside of God’s nature. The question is how does this work?

Part 2 coming soon.