In the normal course of my work I find myself skimming, studying, and often puzzling over the state of religious studies and theology on the web. Much of what I read lacks the urgency of news, and yet to me these readings touch on some deep feeling or intuition about our world today. So, although this religion reading list reflects my highly subjective curation, perhaps it speaks to something you’re feeling, too.
Let's begin with the ancient Hymn to Dionysus, in which pirates kidnap the god of wine and merrymaking, and it does not go well for them. Although I laughed when I first read this, there is an undeniable dark side the the pirates' encounter with the god, invited by their own bad behavior. One may wish a similar ending upon the all-too-modern Syrian kidnappers of war journalist Austin Tice in “The Road to Damascus” as recounted by Sonia Smith. Although Smith treats the apostle Paul’s original Damascus Road encounter uncritically, her invocation of such a powerful myth adds depth to Tice’s brave but reckless attempts to bring the truth of what was happening on the ground in Syria to the wider world. The loose parallel with Paul adds a certain poignancy to Smith’s observation that modern-day Antakya (Antioch), once a hotbed of early Christianity, now serves as a stopover for diplomats, refugees, journalists, spies, arms dealers, and injured fighters, often crammed together in rented apartments and hotel rooms.
You’ve probably already heard about our newly discovered ancestor Homo naledi from Jamie Shreeve’s excellent National Geographic piece “This Face Changes the Human Story, But How?” While headlines have honed in on the fact that Homo naledi may have ritually buried their dead, a religious theme if ever there was one, I found the limited evidence (and with it, depth to the story) disappointing. Far more interesting to me are the questions implied by the fossils’ age:
If H. naledi eventually proved to be as old as its morphology suggested, then [Berger] had quite possibly found the root of the Homo family tree. But if the new species turned out to be much younger, the repercussions could be equally profound. It could mean that while our own species was evolving, a separate, small-brained, more primitive-looking Homo was loose on the landscape, as recently as anyone dared to contemplate. A hundred thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Ten thousand?
Such tantalizing questions about our exact relationship to this ancestor speak to the deeper issue of what it means to be human. Sensing this, National Geographic followed up on their big Naledi news with an unfortunately abbreviated “12 Theories of How We Became Human.” If you’d rather read a more substantial but still recent essay on the subject, I suggest Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Robots Are Winning!” Mendelsohn opens his exploration of human and robotic “life” beginning with Book 18 of the Iliad, in which Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus to order a new suit of armor for her son. The intertwined notions of “automation” and slavery serve as a much-needed primer before you delve into the recent (apparently unauthored) Economist article “Editing Humanity” about new technology that allows scientists to manipulate the human genome with relative ease, and the subsequent moral backlash.
The last essay I want to recommend is Leslie Jamison’s “Empathy Exams.” Jamison weaves stories about her work as a medical actor—to train medical students in proper diagnosis and bedside manner—with stories about her decision to have an abortion followed by an emergency surgery to repair her heart valve. I recommend this article with some reservations. Jamison’s haunted conclusion that empathy is quite probably a fancy version of self-pity—or self-longing, to put it more kindly—left me shaking my head. I don't like collapsing pity, even self-pity, into empathy. From my encounters with nurses and medical students and war vets in my ethics courses and with the more seasoned crowd that made up one hospital ethics committee, I have every reason to believe empathy is more possible than modern literature seems to allow. It is often more pragmatic, too. Jamison's essay called to mind this exchange between nonviolent communication trainer Marshall Rosenberg and one of his patients:
MBR: … Now I’d like you to clarify what you would like people to do that would fulfill your need to be loved. For example, what could I do right now?
Client: Oh, you know…
MBR: I’m not sure I do. I’d like you to tell me what you would like me, or others, to do to give you the love you’re looking for.
Client: That’s hard.
MBR: Yes, it can be difficult to make clear requests. But think how hard it will be for others to respond to our request if we’re not even clear what it is!
Client: I’m starting to get clear what I want from others to fulfill my need for love, but it’s embarrassing.
MBR: Yes, very often it is embarrassing. So what would you like for me or others to do?
Client: If I really reflect upon what I’m requesting when I ask to be loved, I suppose I want you to guess what I want before I’m even aware of it. And then I want you to always do it.
MBR: I’m grateful for your clarity. I hope you can see how you are not likely to find someone who can fulfill your need for love if that’s what it takes. (Nonviolent Communication, 72)
I think we all long for the sort of closeness that delivers intuition. Jamison expressed the same longing when, post-abortion, she said of her boyfriend, “You want him to break with you. You want him to hurt in a womb he doesn’t have; you want him to admit he can’t hurt that way.” Rosenberg wasn’t denying our ability to develop that intuition, as his larger body of work makes clear, but he did think we need to help one another come closer to one another through good communication, without shortcuts.
Empathy at its best is not quite an open, unimpeded corridor with raw emotions running both ways. Two-way pain is still pain. The difference between the giver and receiver of empathy is not a matter of which person’s pain is loudest, drowning out the other. It’s a matter of which person has the capacity to take in what is welling up. We crave empathy in waves; we may fear too much of it coming at us at once only to be strangely rocked when it comes. Someone in this scenario needs to be big enough to embody an ocean. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s something genuinely wonderful about living up to something so grand and intimate. People do it every day.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.