Saturday, November 21, 2015

When Empathy Runs Roughshod over Scripture


I Get It



There are many things I have not experienced. I have not been mistreated dog, been the victim of a terrorist attack, or grown up in a single parent home. However, I can sympathize when I observe them. I respond with feelings such as sadness and anger.

There are things I have experienced with those close to me. Cancer, divorce, death of a spouse. Because these things have occurred in the lives of those I love, I have a heightened level of sympathy (patheos-feel, sym-with) or ability to "feel with" people is similar situations. 

There are things I have experienced. Depression, major surgery, loss of friends. When others go through these things, I can put myself in the situation as though I were that person. I empathize (patheos-feel, em-into), or "feel into" the person's life experience.

I get it that there is abuse in the church and among Christians - child abuse, wife abuse, sexual abuse of both. There are many who write and take action because they have experienced experienced abuse themselves (empathy) or been close to those who have (sympathy). In their cases, sympathy and/or empathy produce compassion, a deep moving within that leads to action to stop abusers and help the abused.

So far, so good. But not so good things can happen. The concern may become life dominating. I once knew a person whose brother was a victim of a commercial plane crash. The person's status as the sibling of person who died in that plane crash became an essential element of the person's identity to the exclusion of other important things. Similarly it seems to me that sometimes having been abused or been intimately involved in the life of an abused person can dominate lives in a way that crowds out other just as important or more important concerns.

Sometimes, when such concerns become dominant, people can see problems where there may not be problems. They understand the traits of abusers, patterns of abuse, and characteristics of the abused. These are legitimate observations, but not if one becomes an "expert" at seeing these things that others cannot see. In the 1980s and 90s there were a flurry of accusations of child abuse in daycare centers. Indictments were issued, trials conducted, and people went to jail. It turned out that a great many of the accused were not guilty and that a great many of these children were not abused. Therapists and prosecutors were so convinced that child abuse in daycare centers was widespread and that they could discern it that they became aggressive in questioning children and going after daycare staff member. They wanted daycare workers to be guilty. 

Such concerns can become "interpretative" grids through which one sees life. The Bayly brothers have so elevated sex (male and female distinctions), sex roles, and patriarchy ("father rule" as they say) that they are driven to see attacks on "God's order" everywhere. They condemn fellow Christians who do agree with them as either benighted or co-conspirators with the enemies of God. They are obsessed with Tim Keller and much of he PCA for being soft on homosexuality and compromising of the roles of women and men. 

It is particularly dangerous when an interpretative grid distorts the Bible. Lately I have responded to Blogs which have suggested that women do not have a duty to submit husbands who do not fulfill their duty to love and may divorce if they find themselves married to an SOB (When Passion Trumps Logic), that sex is not a need ("Sex Is Not a Need." Really? Really?), and that male headship is conditioned by the obligation of Christians to submit to another (No More Football, Guys). I won't repeat my wrestling with the relevant Biblical text (you can read the cited Blogs if you want that), but it is clear that these Bloggers, starting with a a real problem and with legitimate concerns, have trouble letting the Bible say that the Bible says. 

In response to my Blog in which I considered Paul's treatment of sexual need in 1 Corinthians 7, I got the following comment:
I think you may be nit-picking here, Bill. I follow Phil's blog as well, and as you'll note his work is in the field of trauma recovery. I think the intent of his words is clear, in that such teaching of "need" can be twisted (as can all Scripture, for that matter) to excuse abusive behavior. And the church does not have a great track record in ministering to abused, traumatized people. We have to be aware of not just what we say, but the way our words are perceived by the hurting.
The commenter observes that the psychologist specializes in trauma recovery, that the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7 can be used to justify abusers, that the church has not done well at ministering to abused persons, and that we have to be careful about how some who are hurting may receive our words.

It amounts to this: 1.The psychologist may deny the reality of sexual need because he specializes in trauma. 2. Because 1 Corinthians can be abused, we ought to be careful about saying what is says. 3. Because the church has not done well in dealing with abuse, it might not be a trustworthy interpreter of Scripture. 4. Saying what I Corinthians 7 says may be, because of their experience, heard by some as a sort of "hate speech." 

Have we come to a place among reformed evangelicals that we should not say what Scripture says? May we not say that the obligation of a husband to love and a wive to submit is not cancelled by the failure of the other to fulfill their obligation. That for some the "thorn" with which they are called to live is their spouse/marriage? That Paul is a realist about sex who counsels marriage for most and sexual generosity in marriage? That St. Paul and St. Peter instruct wives to submit to their husbands in all things as the church is to submit to Christ. 

Yes, there needs to be careful exegesis of Scripture. Yes, Scripture can be abused. But Scripture must be given freedom speak the truth, and we must open our ears to hear. Scripture and "right reason" cannot be overturned by experience, sympathy, and empathy.  





2 comments:

  1. Nice article about interpretive grids. As you kow the fad du jour in the PCA is racism - personal and institutional. I know you've written much about that topic and it has been very helpful. I'm saddened to see it dominate our General Assembly, byFaith magazine, and even publications put forward by our committees and agencies. I feel like an outsider looking in as I hear repeated calls for repentance and justice.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice article about interpretive grids. As you kow the fad du jour in the PCA is racism - personal and institutional. I know you've written much about that topic and it has been very helpful. I'm saddened to see it dominate our General Assembly, byFaith magazine, and even publications put forward by our committees and agencies. I feel like an outsider looking in as I hear repeated calls for repentance and justice.

    ReplyDelete

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