Jesus Christ & a Religion Based on Empathy

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Drawing credits: Me , Text reads a verse by Faiz: Tera husn dast-e-Isa, teri yaad ru-e-Maryam

Even though the Christian Bible is filled with Jesus’ acts and words urging selfless behavior and unconditional love towards righteous and sinner alike, I identified an overwhelming emphasis on the virtue of empathy in his model and teachings, even though the word empathy itself has not been mentioned anywhere explicitly in the text but implied: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Empathy is generally defined as attempting to understand someone’s situation or feelings by identifying oneself with them, or imagining oneself in their place. So, empathy is evident even in the terms a command as basic as “love thy neighbor” has been formulated: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”” (Galatians 5:14).  It is interesting to note that this urges not just to love your neighbor in any extent, for that could have been understood to mean that even loving slightly or being faintly concerned about them was enough. But this adds an empathetic sense to the command by stressing that one’s love and concern for the neighbor should be matched by one’s concern for one’s own comforts.

The following formulation “do not do unto others what you would not want to be done unto you” has been attributed to Jewish rabbis as well as Confucius’ thought. However, it is interesting how Jesus takes this formulation and transforms it from a command to refrain into a command to act: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law of the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). One can spend a life of inaction and become complacent, deeming oneself to be virtuous on account that one is not causing anybody else any harm. Thus, merely avoiding action which causes others harm is not enough, but you should proactively work and seek to benefit them in ways you want to be benefitted, even if it means suffering to bring good for others: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). This attitude is clearly evident in Jesus’ own lifestyle whereby he not only sympathized with the helpless (“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36)) but also went around helping the weak and curing the sick: “This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17). In fact, it can be argued that the whole idea of Jesus suffering for the sins of others is grounded in the virtue of empathy: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). An act of empathy would also include that instead of preoccupying oneself with one’s own salvation, one should also encourage others to do good and thus effect their salvation as well: “and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrew 10:24-25). Thus, the principle of empathy can be identified working behind almost all aspects of social ethic preached by Jesus.

 

Exodus in Hebrew Bible: Political Liberation or Spiritual Liberation?

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Clearly, the event of Exodus was an incredible event of political liberation whereby God emancipated the enslaved Jews from the strongest powers of Egypt and created a sense of Israelite nationalism in them. It is interesting to note that this political liberation cannot be attributed to any intrinsic motivation for freedom or victory within the Jews themselves (which can be seen in their murmurings against Moses first when he asks Pharaoh for their freedom and later when they are led by him through the wilderness – Ex 16) but to Yahweh’s intervention, which in turn can be attributed to Yahweh’s overwhelming concern for the Jews, owing to His covenant with Abraham, and the hardships imposed on them by Pharoah: “And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them” (Ex 2:25). Nationalism generally entails patriotic sentiments for one’s own people, but it can also constitute a strongly exclusive feeling of superiority over other peoples. Clearly Yahweh’s choosing Jews over Egyptians naturally engendered this latter strain of Jewish nationalism: “And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians” (Ex 11:3), “and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex 16:6).

However, can the Jews’ successful attainment of political freedom from Pharaoh be seen as an absolute freedom for them from all restraints? Can we identify an element of spiritual liberation in the event of Exodus? Clearly, Exodus had to be followed by a strong sense of gratitude and worship towards another stronger power: “When they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Ex 4:31).  It is telling that Moses was instructed by God to repeat the following refrain to Pharaoh: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Ex 9 – emphasis added). This suggests that, in Exodus’s direct corollary, the Jews were essentially going from serving Pharaoh to serving another power, the Yahweh. Arguably, this was not an absolute freedom rather a different type of servitude. Yahweh’s power, goodness, help, and miraculous intervention was not unconditional rather it placed strict expectations and laws, the Ten Commandments, from the Jews in return. Also, God reminded the Jews to always remember this day of Exodus and that their freedom from bondage was due to the power of His hand so He expects all Israelites to sanctify everything unto Him, and every human and animal born in Israel belongs to Him, and that they will have no leavened bread (13:1-3).

In the first glimpse, it appears that the event of Exodus proved quite costly to the Jews in terms of them ending up being subject to an extensive set of restrictions in their new-found ‘freedom’. However, when God commanded “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Ex 20:3), it signifies that Jews were emancipated from all earthly powers only to submit themselves to one higher Divine Power. This submission to Yahweh was not going to be a humiliating experience as the enslavement by Pharaoh was, rather this surrender to the Divine was going to exalt Jews above all the peoples and distinguish them from the rest. In this sense, submitting to God can be seen as an instance of spiritual liberation, because it entails following the Divine law, instead of human subjugation, and finding strength in it. “The Lord is my strength and song, / And He is become my salvation” (Ex 15:2). The dietary restrictions as well as prohibitions from adultery, murder, theft, lying, and envy can be considered by some as commandments militating against absolute human freedom. However, if we view them as intending to emancipate human beings or Jews in particular, from enslavement to the primal instincts of their base self and the state of nature, they can be unequivocally considered by the Jews as leading to a spiritual freedom. This is a spiritual freedom which regulates morality through law and is illustrated by the famous formulation: “the wise restraints that make men free.”

To conclude, if we define spiritual liberation as a freedom from earthly control in favor of a Divine power, or as a freedom from chaotic human instincts in favor of a Divinely-ordained order, then we can see this spiritual freedom as a corollary of Exodus. However, if we define spiritual freedom as freedom to seek out God on one’s own terms, then we fail to find this kind of freedom in Exodus because the laws ordained to please God are very precise and very exacting.

The Analogy of Water in Tao Te Ching

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In Tao Te Ching, Tao is described as a “deep pool that never dries” (ch.4). In some places, it appears that Tao, though incomprehensible, refers to an Ultimate Reality behind all existence; in other places it appears as a way of life or ‘the highest good’ that individuals are encouraged to inculcate by imbibing the power of the former Tao. For me, the most interesting metaphor in Tao Te Ching was the analogy of water to describe Tao and to illustrate the model of ideal Taoist behavior.

I identified two, distinct yet interrelated, facets of the aforementioned water metaphor. Hence, water becomes a symbol of: i) virtues of humility, benevolence and inactivity ii) leadership and governance methods, and the ability to overcome obstacles.

  1. i) “The highest good is like that of water. The goodness of water is that it benefits the ten thousand creatures; yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain. It is this that makes water so near to the Way” (ch.8). Thus, selflessness and willingness to be indiscriminately useful to others can be considered one of the highest goods. Moreover, highest good entails not being over-assertive, not striving to appear on the fore, or not obsessing with getting ahead, but effortlessly adapting to one’s surrounding and surrendering oneself to natural forces (force of gravity in case of water) and being satisfied with being on a low ground, ever-humble, at the same time effectively providing essential support to everyone. The sage avoids positive action “working only through the power of Tao, which alone cuts without wounding” (ch.2). From this I understood to mean that the wise person avoids acting in attention-seeking ways but still manages to make a significant mark in the world. Nonetheless, letting oneself go does not entail being ineffective or purposeless: “The sage just because he never at any time makes a show of greatness in fact achieves greatness” (ch.34) and “By this very inactivity, everything can be activated” (ch.48).[1] Thus, from water, one can learn virtues of a soft yielding nature that seem to bring inner contentment at the personal or individual level. Fascinatingly, stillness of water is concomitant with its clarity: “which of you can assume such murkiness, to become in the end still and clear” (ch.15), which can be correspondingly seen as a reference to the stillness of mind and senses, as in meditation, leading to clarity of thought.
  2. ii) The second aspect of water metaphor seems to have a firmer quality and a social dimension to it in that it seems to teach about the ability to overcome obstacles (by flowing around them) and an effective method of governance (following or remaining low). “What is of all things most yielding, Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.”(ch.43). “Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them that can prevail. For they can find no way of altering it” (Ch. 78). This verse highlights the fascinating paradox of water that despite being the most yielding substance, it can cut through mountains through perseverance. For instance, in case of an obstacle in its way, the water continues to flow around it forming new channels at the same time eroding the edges of the obstacle and altering its shape in the process, and in the end it is the water that prevails. Attempting to translate this symbolism into human social conduct, the first example that strikes to me is that of overlooking or forgiving a person even if he advertently caused the most serious damage or loss to you, which may perhaps melt his heart and make him regretful of his actions and desirous of being friends with you (deeply reminiscent of Quran 41:34). Water can also be instructive in demonstrating leadership qualities: “How did the great rivers and seas get their kingship over the hundred lesser streams? Through the merit of being lower than they; that was how they got their kingship” (ch.66). This chapter explains that in order to be above the people, one must act in ways whereby one appears lower than the people. Also, a good general “fulfils his purpose but without violence” (ch.30). Thus a good leader can emulate the non-arrogant and non-violent qualities of water and still be able to achieve his purposes; a humble and kind ruler will draw the love of his followers which is arguably more enduring than evoking fear (though Machiavelli would disagree).

In conclusion, water seems to illustrate virtues with both a soft/individual and a firm/social dimension, although the latter appears to be derived from and built on the former. Taoist advocacy of inactivity cannot be seen either as an end in itself or as a resigned passivity, but as a means towards the end of activating inner powers that affect the world in imperceptible ways. This appears to be a world quite different from our own which increasingly values continuous perceptible activity as a sign of progress.

[1] I could not help but be reminded of these verses, which now strike as quite Taoist, from my favourite poem by Robert Frost: “Beware of coming too much to the surface / And using for apparel what was meant/ To be the curtain of the inmost soul.”

Filial Piety in Analects: Importance, and Ethical and Political Dimensions

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Coming from a Muslim background, I had been under the impression that Islamic tradition’s emphasis on respecting one’s parents is strikingly exacting: for example certain Quranic verses (such as 17:23) enjoin the reader to not even utter a spoken expression of exasperation (“uff” in Arabic) while conversing with one’s parents. To my surprise, Confucian tradition’s instructions, as laid out in the Analects, for dealing with parents turned out to be overwhelmingly more emphatic than any tradition I have previously read about. A man of excellence is described as someone “who exerts himself to the utmost in the service of his parents and offers his person to be service of his lord” (I:7). This significance attached to service of one’s parents makes it look like almost an article of faith, not just good behavior. Confucius directs his disciples: “What is difficult to manage is the expression on one’s face. As for the young taking on the burden when there is no work to be done or letting the old enjoy the wine and the food when these are available, that hardly deserves to be called filial” (II:8). “Managing the expressions on one’s face” can be implied to mean interacting with one’s parents with a polite countenance instead of annoyed or angry facial expressions (a directive certainly a degree higher than merely controlling verbal expressions of frustration). Clearly, for Confucius materially providing for parents is worthless without being being kind and reverential towards them even in conscious and unconscious body language. To me, this was not only a profound suggestion but also one displaying incisive insight into human nature, and awareness of the incredible patience required when living with aging parents. Against these observations, it was interesting to note that one could trace an ethical as well as, remarkably, a political dimension in Confucius’ stress on filial reverence. Ethical: i) Confucius believes filial reverence to be a mark that distinguishes humans from animals: “Nowadays for a man to be filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with food. Even hounds and horses are, in some way, provided with food. If a man shows no reverence, where is the difference?” (II:7). ii) It is also apparent that Confucius teaches love and respect for parents out of moral concerns of gratitude and reciprocity. For instance, in (XVII:21), when Yu articulates his displeasure with the custom of three years mourning period in the wake of parents’ death as too long, Confucius expresses his disapproval by rhetorically asking whether or not Yu was given three years’ love by his parents. iii) One can also deduce that Confucius suggests parents, on account of their old age, deserve comfort and a sense of security: “Give your father and mother no other cause for anxiety than illness.” (II:5). The following teaching appears to me remarkably specific in the context of staying connected to parents and keeping them informed: “While your parents are alive, you should not go too far afield in your travels. If you do, your whereabouts should always be known” (IV:19).

Political: Even more interestingly, Confucius seems to add a larger societal or political dimension to being an obedient son: “Simply by being a good son and friendly to his brothers a man can exert an influence upon government. In so doing a man is, in fact, taking part in government.” (II:21). This appears to imply that since the purpose of the government is to keep order in the society, one could work towards that larger end by starting with being an obedient or ‘good’ son at home.  In the same vein, “he is good as a son and obedient as a young man [will not have the inclination]… to start a rebellion.” (I:1).  Children who develop the temperament to respect and not transgress authority at home, certainly of the parents, will grow up to be citizens with no penchant for inciting rebellions in the society or causing anarchy of any kind.

To conclude, one can identify an ethical aspect in the Analects’ emphatic teaching of filial piety wherein it can be seen as an end in itself: individuals are to cultivate excellence and benevolence within their own character to be true gentlemen. However, one can also view a political dimension in these teachings whereby filial reverence is seen as a means towards another end: a well-ordered society wherein children’s deference for parents will be reflected in citizens’ respect for order and authority. Thus, it can be interpreted as an attempt to reform the character of the society by reforming the character and conduct of the individuals at the familial level.

 

Postscript: It has been pointed out to me that the Quranic verse I refer to in the article does not merely speak of the ‘speech aspect of good treatment of parents’ but has wider connotations. To this I fully concede. To clarify, I focused on the second part of the verse فَلَا تَقُلْ لَهُمَا أُفٍّ which particularly deals with spoken expression; whereas the first part of the verse says بِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا ‘ihsaan’ being ‘beautiful treatment’ which encompasses a wide range of behavioral goodness in addition to speech. After my initial encounter with the Analects, I suppose I was just struck by the incredible ‘frequency’ with which filial piety is mentioned in the Confucian tradition; but the ‘scope’ of this piety might not be much different from what is commanded in the Islamic tradition. Last year, when I mentioned to one of my teachers that I feel like the emphasis on filial piety in Confucian tradition appears overwhelmingly more forceful than Islam’s, he said: “That is not accurate! Confucianism hoists up the idea of heaven to be a source of virtue and moral order overruling human efforts, and Islam simply places it under the mother’s feet!” 

Ideas of Non-attached Action and Focusing of Mind in Bhagavad Gita

 

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Two themes in Bhagavad Gita that I found pertinent even in the context of modern age and valuable for a reader who may not even be from a Hindu religious tradition are: i) advocacy of the idea of detached action as opposed to inaction as a means to the goal of self-realization and ii) the importance of focusing and controlling mind to find oneself integrated and at peace. It is evident, as we shall also see shortly, that one may not be well-versed in Hindu theology, or may find it baffling to perceive metaphysical notions such as the all-pervasive Brahman or the mind-body duality; one may still find these themes applicable within one’s own contexts.

In contrast with Upanishads wherein the sages seemed to urge renunciation as a means to attain unity with Brahman, Krishna in Bhagavad Gita encourages action rather than inaction: “so perform action which is restrained, for this action is better than non-action; and even the working of your body would not succeed without action” (p. 38). Krishna suggests that action cannot be avoided and there is no possibility of life without it; however the action that he prescribes as correct is in line with one’s dharma and also “restrained” or “without clinging”: neither attached to the outcomes of the action nor directed to please ones sensual desires or ego. Gita appears to teach that such attitude can be developed through devotion to Brahman or Krishna (Brahman is Krishna’s “womb” (p. 155)) and transcending bodily concerns. Krishna discourages renunciation by implying that people may renounce out of confusion, pain, or fear (p. 186) which makes renunciation selfish or “based on desire” (p. 185). Acting without a desire or “giving up of all fruit of action is called letting go” (p. 185). This prescription of detached action makes it more practicable than renunciation because of the ever-present necessity of earning a livelihood. Moreover, in current age wherein most individuals oftentimes find themselves amidst aggressive competition and challenges, the idea of detached action whereby the individual cultivates the serene mindset through which he strives only to do well without either excessively obsessing about winning or attaching his self-worth to the result of his actions may be helpful in curbing the routine anxieties. Such attitude may bring a feeling of mental ‘liberation’ – even if not in the spiritual sense of the realization of an eternal divine acting through the person.

Krishna teaches the importance of self-discipline achieved through meditative exercises to attain not only union with Brahman but also an eternal state of bliss: “who is peaceful in mind, whose passions are calm without evil, of one being with Brahman, reaches the highest joy” (p. 77), and “for one whose thought does not ever go elsewhere, who eternally remembers me … who practices yoga… I am easy to find” (p. 96). In the modern age wherein technological inroads have deeply impacted the human mind, even my personal experience at meditating has more often than not been thwarted by multiple distractions, ever-present in the mind and oftentimes trivial, caused by electronic gadgets, social media notifications, information overload, insurmountably distracting thoughts, and concerns about important emails or deadlines to meet and so forth. These battles a modern person faces against the scattering influences that damage the unity of the mind were surprisingly voiced by Arjuna’s relatable concerns when he pointed out the difficulties in the way of focus caused by “the mind’s instability” and “the mind is ever straying, troubling, strong and unyielding; I think holding it back is as hard to bring about as holding back the wind” (p. 79), to which Krishna assures that “straying mind, without doubt, is hard to hold back – but by practice… it is held back… …it is possible to reach yoga for one whose self is reined in by striving in skilful ways” (p. 79-80). Thus Krishna assures, to Arjuna but also to a modern reader, that focus, elimination of distractions, and single-mindedness of meditation is possible by skill and perseverance. Even if not to realize union with Brahman, a modern person may find this assurance of successful meditation (by devoting thoughts to a single point of focus or any higher power) helpful in the interest of self-integration as well as a peaceful and focused mind.