Monday, August 04, 2008

Clifford Orwin's (& Hitchens) Misunderstanding of Christian "Compassion"

Clifford Orwin's essay on "compassion" troubles me because it misrepresents the Christian take on compassion.

Orwin says that compassion is an emotion. Orwin writes: "As even or precisely those who take compassion for a virtue acknowledge, it is an emotion. Can an emotion be a virtue? Yes, if the keynote of virtue is naturalness in the sense of spontaneity or authenticity. No, if what defines virtue is the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion." Orwin seems to say that "compassion" is the human default setting. Greek rationalism corrupted this.

Ancient Greek rationalism (esp. Plato and Aristotle) viewed any emotion as inferior to reason. Plato, e.g., saw passion and feeling as positively misleading when it came to the issue of truth. Orwin writes, correctly: "the classical view was that the virtuous must master their pity even as they do their other passions, indulging it only insofar as it is just and reasonable to do so (Republic 516c, 539a, 589e, 620a). Reverence for pity there was none."

Moving swiftly, Orwin writes that paganism then submitted to Christianity, and the result was an even further move away from natural human compassion. He says, "it would be mistaken to suppose that what Christianity taught was compassion."

Here's where my troubles begin. Jesus often looked on people"with compassion." What happened then is that some (not all) forms of "Christianity" submitted to Platonic otherworldliness. It's incorrect to say, as Orwin does, that "Christianity" did not teach compassion. Keep this in mind as you read on.

Orwin writes: "A single and omnipotent God who, having become flesh, suffered all that flesh can suffer; a morality that begins in the contemplation of the Passion of this God-man, an injunction to universal charity as the supreme virtue — this was far indeed from the humanistic and aristocratic rationalism of the pagan philosophers. At the same time, Christian charity was also far from what we mean by compassion, so far, in fact, that the latter emerged only by way of a profound critique of it."

What does Orwin mean by this? He goes on to explain.

"Charity, then, was not a (merely) natural virtue such as those taught by the ancients, but a “theological” or “infused” one. As such, moreover, it necessarily aimed not only or even primarily at the relief of our neighbor’s earthly suffering but at his eternal salvation. Salvation alone was the good (and damnation the evil) beside which all others paled. [I.e., Platonic other-worldliness.]

So while Christianity may indeed have multiplied soup kitchens, it never confused happiness with the absence of hunger pains. Truer to say that while modern compassion seeks to eliminate suffering, Christianity, recognizing its inevitability for mortal and sinful beings, sought to make it meaningful. It sought to teach us to grasp it as that suffering in and with Christ on which salvation ultimately depends. When, then, Christopher Hitchens excoriated the late Mother Teresa for not being a true “humanitarian” at all, he was perfectly correct: she could not be a mere humanitarian because (as she made no secret) she strove to be a true Christian. compassion."

Orwin reasons:

a. Compassion is a natural human disposition; Christian "love" is not. It's "theological" or "infused." [I.e., Platonic/Aristotelian.]

b. Christian "love" has as its aim, not relief of hunger or suffering, but a person's "eternal salvation." [Platonic other-worldliness]

c. For Orwin, compassion seeks to eliminate suffering; Christian charity does not. More than that, Christian charity makes human suffering a virtue in that, as Christ suffered, we ourselves suffer and that's a Christ-like thing.

It's true that certain realms of Christian theology made suffering a virtue and defined "salvation" as a Platonized future-only thing. But it's untrue that such a theology describes actual Christianity. I think it's not, as Orwin claims, that "paganism submitted to Christianity," but that certain elements of Christianity submitted to paganism. This is essentialy where his reasoning goes wrong, and why it's essentailly false for him to claim that "Christianity does not teach compassion."

Conisder the Christian idea of "salvation." There's an abundance of recent non-Platonic Christological material that argues for the meaning of "salvation" as including release and rescue for the poor and needy and sick and marginalized. Salvation has an inextricably social component. Here it's precisely the influence of Greek rationalism that got mixed with theology and created the dispassionate, other-worldly view of salvation. See, e.g., N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church; and the stuff by "Red Letter Christians" such as Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, and Shane Claiborne. And see especially Donald E. Miller's Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement for examples of many current examples of Jesus-followers who do not have Platonic views of salvation, and for whom "salvation" is holistic.

As for Hitchens, he famously has written that Mother Teresa "was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction." Mother Teresa was, says Hitchens, a "fraud." This, written from a man who, as far as I know, hasn't given his real life over to helping the poor but who was recently faux-waterboarded to experience being tortured.[Did we really need Hitchens to do this so: 1) we would know waterboarding was torture {as if we didn't already know this}; and he could write about it in Vanity Fair?]

I suggest reading Red-letter Christian Shane Claiborne, who spent time as an intern in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. You can read about Shane's views of MT in his The Irresistible Revolution. Claiborne looks at her life, not her theological reflections on that life.

I don't think Mother Teresa was a great theologian. She tried to make Christian sense of the suffering she sought to eradicate. To critique her for this and call her fraudulent is absurd. She inherited a pagan-tinged Christian theology. It would be like critiqueing Hitchens for being an atheist and still trying to find meaning in this life.

Orwin's error is that he only critiques a certain Platonic "Christian" theology of suffering and conflates this to "Christianity." All Orwin can see is what he calls "Christian otherworldliness." This causes him to fail to see the many visceral acts of true compassion happening through followers of Jesus.