Compassion Considered

It is hard to continue on the point of yesterday's post without sounding as though I am on a tirade against the solid intellectual foundations of faith.  My first task is to dispose of that notion.  I do not stand opposed to careful and clear articulation of fundamental doctrinal and dogmatic understandings.  What I do stand opposed to is that Jesus, or for that matter any other spiritual leader, ever intended that to the be legacy that they left us with.  The true legacy of a profound spiritual teacher is the changed lives of his or her followers--not the knowledge that they have of hidden things.

Too often that sort of knowledge is put to poor use as a bludgeon to batter those less intellectually inclined--or, by demagogues for purposes even less charitable.  But misuse of knowledge is not a credible argument against its acquisition.  And the purposes of such thought should be ultimately to help the follower in faith to live his or her faith.

Yesterday was another case in point at my Church--a predictable one.  In the United States the celebration of the feast of the Ascension has been moved to the Sunday before Pentecost.  While done for good and meaningful pastoral reasons, all of this moving about of feasts is actually counterproductive because it accommodates the spiritual life to the secular life.  That is, the purpose and portion of non-Sunday feasts was, at least in part, a continual reminder that the faith life is not to be confined to an hour on one day of the week.  When the faith is lived rather than merely acknowledged, all days are holy and precious for the insights they bring.

Back to yesterday--on the Ascension--a feast celebrate the compassionate act of Jesus both as teacher and savior returning to the Father in preparation for sending out the Holy Spirit on Pentecost--we got a lecture on ecclesiology, Christology, and eschatology.  In point of fact, many people can't even pronounce the words--and if they're so inclined they might puzzle out what at least one of the three is all about.  But how does knowing the word and hearing a bit about the role of Jesus in salvation history actually inspire the listener to worship Christ in the only way that matter--imitating Him?  I'm certainly not going to ascend on clouds of heavenly glory.  Still less am I likely to found a Church (although I suppose much could be made of the question as to whether that was ever an intent as well).  What I need to know as a person occupying a seat in a pew is what does this action in salvation history call me to do for my brothers and sisters today.

It isn't that Christianity doesn't view this question as important, it is just that throughout history many of the major teachers have been notoriously bad at explaining it in any way that would foster the kind of growth that produces compassionate people.  The wrong things get emphasized and division is the order of the day.

Or worse yet, this sort of compassionate activism becomes the end-all be-all of religious life and is as hollow and empty as many of its detractors claim it is.  Living the life of faith is a delicate balance between knowledge and action--contemplation and activity.

Here, in a nutshell is what Ms. Armstrong (among many others) has to say to us about compassion:

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

Compassion impels us to work tireless to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, with exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in bot public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others--even our enemies--is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women

--to restore compassion tot he centre of morality and religion;

--to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. . .

I like particularly the last part of this.  How many of us have seen signs from some who call themselves Christians that say something like "God hates f_gs"?  God hates?  How do the two words even come out of the same mouth in such a juxtaposition? How is it conceivable to even think in such ways?  If God can hate (at least persons) then such is not a God I can have any interest in serving.  If God does not regard each and every one of us as a particular, singular, and precious child, then only Atheism offers a release from the terrors of such a monster.  Or perhaps Antitheism would be the more appropriate term.  Needless to say, I do not believe this in any way describes the God we meet in most of the sacred scriptures of the world.

While doing the prayer for Vespers yesterday, I came upon a passage from Hebrews referring to Jesus, "now he waits until his enemies are placed beneath his feet." And was brought to an abrupt halt.  If Jesus is the savior of all, who then might be His enemies?  And it occurred to me that this had a very simple answer--the enemies of Jesus are not people but spiritual entities that pervade the world--ignorance, anger, hatred, fear, cruelty, visciousness--all attributes of humankind--but not the only attributes.  It was these that are the true enemies of any Christ-life one might wish to undertake, and until they are vanquished in is impossible for the individual to be what is required of each of us.


  1. This is not exactly an answer to your question about what does the Ascension do for the man in the pew in helping others ... but your writing did prompt me to share this instead of keeping it for my own private ponderings.

  2. Dear Julie,

    Thanks for this--the article was great!




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