EMPATHY and POETRY: how to be a good religious historian (and a good writer/thinker in general)

Here are some notes I took on October 26, 2005 while listening to Karen Armstrong being interviewed on “Speaking of Faith” (recorded November 25, 2004), along with some current comments.

As a “religious historian,” you must enter the minds of these mystics and sages and poets and keep on asking, “Buy why? But why?” You must keep filling up with scholarly knowledge and background, until you can say you feel the same, where you can imaging yourself feeling or believeing the same as them, until the intellectual idea reverberates with you personally.

I like Armstrong’s point that a religious historian must immerse herself so much in the other’s beliefs that she comes to the point where she feels the same. But I especially like how this empathy, this understanding comes from scholarly knowledge, from reading, from study. “Cold” studying can produce warm empathy. Definitely.

You must not leave the discussion of a religious idea or person without being able to find out what is at the root of this, not to dismiss them from the “superior” viewpoint of postmodernism.

Now that’s a good lesson for anyone studying (or simply reading) a text from a different time or culture or place.

Theology is poetry. A poet spends a great deal of time listening to her unconscious, pulling it up, pulling it up, until something beautiful is brought up. And we respond to it emotionally. So, instead of tropping out an orthodox formula, or catechism answer, so that when people listen to a theological idea they feel as touched as with a poem. And we should take as much care with our ritual as we would at a great performance. Should be something absolutely beautiful and inspiring. Religion as a kind of art form. We should be more creative and inventive with our theology.

For example: Gregory of Nyssa on the Trinity: When I think of the one I think of the three. When I think of the three, I think of the one. “And then my eyes fill with tears and I lose all sense of where I am.” And that’s what our theological formulations should do for us.

Yes, theology should be powerful like poetry is powerful. Any intellectual pursuit should be powerful like poetry is powerful.

Religion as “ethical alchemy.” You act in an ethical way and gradually it changes you. Compassion makes us dethrone ourselves and put another there.

Hmmm, reminds me of what I wrote in a previous post about C.S. Lewis’ emphasis on the “chest” being what should be kept strong and in shape, so that it can guide the reason and the emotions, so that it can keep the reason and the emotions from taking too much control. If acting in an ethical way gradually changes you (strengthens your “chest”), the resisting and refusing and wrestling against a bout of limerence should also gradually help build up your “chest.”

But, yes, religion is “ethical alchemy” because when one practices one’s religion, one practices ethical behavior (ideally!) — and that practice comes simply from everyday life but also through prayer (especially fixed-hour prayer, I think) and worship, etc. The more the words of grace, love, forgiveness, hope, kindness, faith, etc sink into one’s head, the more they’re going to reach one’s feet finally!

P.S. After re-reading these remarks, I’m not surprised that Armstrong has become such a popular religious historian. She has a way of almost incarnating each religion in herself, so that she can present each religion with the warmth and presence of an actual Hindu, Muslim, Christian, whatever. I think she becomes a little cold, though, when she writes about religionists who judge other religionists (i.e., fundamentalists of all stripes). That is the one religionist under whose skin she can’t seem to slip. But that’s only because that is the only one who is diametrically opposed to her own scholarly philosophy of deep empathy and understanding.


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