The Habit of Empathy: Postmodernity and the Future of the Church-Related College

to appear in: Stephen R. Haynes, ed.,
Waco: Baylor University Press, forthcoming 2001.
Published here with the permission of Baylor University Press and Paul Lakeland.

The rapid perusal of any history of church-related academic institutions in America should easily persuade the reader that tensions between religious traditions and secular culture are ever-present (Cuninggim, O'Brien). In a nation that has always been at one and the same time highly religious, yet formally committed to the separation of church and state, such a situation is probably inevitable. The twentieth-century growth of secularization and the increasingly pluralistic cultural and religious landscape only help to intensify the tensions. The more voices in the dialogue, the greater the challenge to each particular voice both to be heard and, perhaps more importantly, to hear itself above the welter of competing voices.

While there have always been tensions in the life of the church-related college, the kinds of tensions have varied with the times. Different times result in different tensions, which present particular challenges. What then, of the specific situation of the church-related college in our times? To offer at least part of an answer to this question, it will be necessary to describe the lineaments of our "postmodern" moment in history. This will lead to the identification of three challenges that our particular historical situation presents to the church-related institution as college, as church and as church-related college. I shall suggest that cultivating what I shall call "the habit of empathy" may be a way of addressing the situation that emerges from the very character of our present-day world. It will be my contention that the parallels between the impulses of postmodern culture on the one hand, and contemporary approaches to academic and religious life on the other, make this a particularly important and hopeful moment for the church-related college.


The times in which we now live have come to be called "postmodern," for better or worse. There is no particular value to this label, perhaps even no particular content to it, but as a label it has stuck, and so we will use it. Semantically, of course, it merely suggests that we live after modernity, and in itself this too is neither particularly perceptive nor conceptually rich. But it offers us a way to make some initial clarifications, since "modernity," unlike postmodernity, is a relatively well-catalogued phenomenon. What postmodernity means, then, will be a matter of determining the content of the "post" in postmodern.

To take the more pedestrian issue first, "modernity" is normally understood to be that historical epoch in the Western world that stretched from the time of the European Enlightenment to some point in the mid-twentieth century. The Enlightenment itself, while a historical watershed, did not occur out of nowhere, but was in many ways presaged by late-medieval nominalism and early mercantile capitalism (Dupre, Braudel). Nevertheless, the two principal motifs of the Enlightenment serve to denote the modern world that followed, namely, the trust in the powers of human reason and the attendant rise in science and technology. Faced with such a secularly-empowered culture, post-Enlightenment religion lost confidence in its capacity to address and challenge the everyday "real" world. Three typical forms of modern religion emerged; a deism that kept God out of the world-picture, a privatistic pietism that coexisted somewhat schizophrenically with an attention to the world of mundane affairs, and a ghettoized defensiveness. In each case the religious dimension of life became seriously impoverished, and the world in which it existed played by its own newly-fashioned rules.

Precisely because of the post-Enlightenment bifurcation of reason and religion, state and church, world and God, profane and sacred, the church-related college in recent centuries has always been something of a hybrid. While in the age of the so-called "medieval synthesis," learning was sacred and theology was the queen of the sciences, the religious institution of higher learning in the age of modernity would always seem to be trying to meet two incompatible ends: to be faithful to the scripture principle or to the authority of the Church on the one hand, and to pursue the human drive for knowledge of the world in complete freedom on the other. The problems of the church-related college, even in some respects to the present day, all stem from this one dilemma. How can one preserve the character of an institution founded on a religious world-view and yet respect academic freedom? Are there limits on the responsible exercise of academic freedom, and if so, what are they? How much should the lifeworld of the institution reflect the charisms of the founding religious tradition? How subject to the correction of the academy should the sponsoring religious body be? In some more evangelical contexts questions are still asked about how we can be faithful to scripture and teach evolution, or scientific cosmology. Many Catholic colleges struggle with how they can express the values of the church and teach pluralistic approaches to the question of abortion or make condoms available on campus. These questions and the many others that any reader could add are products of the post-Enlightenment insistence on the autonomy of the secular that has characterized modernity. However, the present day ambivalence towards the legacy of modernity means that the ways of posing these questions may have to change.

The postmodern world into which we have now entered is one with many scripts, many narratives, united if at all only in their common agreement that the project of modernity has been seriously flawed. Some postmoder critics will lay stress on the philosophical primacy of subject-centered reason, while others will criticize the emergence of moral relativism and still others will point to the harmful effects of the instrumental rationality that drives scientific and technological advances. In general, however, "postmoderns" espouse on or another of three basic attitudes to modernity. There may be a general regret that it ever happened at all; there may be a sympathy for its objectives coupled with a conviction that it did not achieve its ends; and there may be an embrace of its demise as some kind of new Aquarian moment of unbridled freedom. Thus we have a nostalgic, a critical and a radical postmodernism.

Whichever variety of postmodernism we engage, and despite the fact that each has its own mix of reasons for criticizing modernity, they all share a suspicion of modernity's commitment to the notion of the transcendental subject, the philosophical apogee of Enlightenment confidence in the human. In essence, the notion of transcendental subjectivity makes the human mind, and not God, the measure of all things. In Kant's famous formulation, "our age is in especial degree the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit" (Kant, 85-92). The subject is then the arbiter of meaning and truth. What comes to be asserted is that the self is an unassailable subject, who is capable of determining a foundation for both metaphysics and morals, and who can master the world, both narratively and technologically.

The nostalgic, critical and radical forms of postmodern thought can each influence the church-related college's self-understanding. This may occur in one of two ways, either through the impact of postmodernity on the conduct of the academic mission or, perhaps more surprisingly, through the influence of postmodernity upon the religious self-understanding of the institution. Nostalgic postmodern thought is socially and politically conservative, the critical variety is liberal, and radical postmodernity names its own ideological orientation. To illustrate this situation, perhaps too simplistically, we could look at the recent debates over the literary canon. Nostalgic postmodern thought would not only be comfortable with the traditional canon of the "dead white males" plus Jane Austen and George Eliot, it would also incline to the idea of a closed canon. Critical postmodern thought, while not uncomfortable with the idea of canonicity, would consider the canon open and currently in need of broadening. Eclectic postmodernity would want to destroy both the canon and the idea of canonicity.

Postmodernity in its three forms can also affect the religious self-understanding of the institution. Thus, a nostalgic inclination leads to the reassertion of premodern understandings of institutional religious identity. Radical postmodern thought, committed as it is to the critique of subjectivity, ethics, reason and order, seems in the end to be incompatible with the preservation of a genuine religious identity. And the critical attitude will wish to preserve the hard-won victories of modernity, in which religious identity has been compatible with existence in a pluralistic and secularized world, a world in which the intellectual and cultural certainties of modernity have largely evaporated. Obviously, if I am right about these forms of postmodernity, then only the nostalgic and critical are of any further interest in this particular context. In radical postmodernity, there is no future for the church-related college, if that future would entail retaining any serious sense of religious identity. This would not mean, however, that like Nietzsche's churches after the death of God, nominally church-related colleges would not continue indefinitely into the postmodern future.

All three forms of postmodern thought, like the academic institution and the religious tradition, are embodied within a culturally postmodern world. Any attempt at a succinct delineation of the salient characteristics of postmodern culture must be doomed to the charge of rash selectivity and lack of seriousness. While, however, the charge would stick, this should not derail the effort, since the same selectivity and lack of seriousness are themselves two markers of the postmodern temperament. In fact, seen as a cultural phenomenon, postmodernity is much closer to the radical form of postmodern thought than the other two types I have described. The postmodern world is the world of the internet, of cyberspace and soundbites, of ecological awareness and bodypiercing, of eclectic architecture and an ethics of insouciance. It is not so much that cultural postmodernity is not serious, as that its seriousness is not systematic, that makes it different from what went before. Structure, system, foundation—most especially any overarching story as what gives shape and order to my life, this time, and human history—are what postmodernity rejects.

Certain fundamental attitudes shared by much postmodern thought and the thoughtful voices within postmodern culture can be identified. In a recent and more extensive work on religion in postmodernity, I argued that at least the following statements are true as underlying convictions of the postmodern world (Lakeland, 1997):

  1. No standpoint is neutral or above suspicion. All are rhetorical.
  2. The "metanarratives" (or "grand narratives") of modernity have had the effect of erasing otherness by including the other within "my" metanarrative, thereby removing its otherness.
  3. The task of understanding or interpreting society, if attempted at all, must be conducted through piecemeal, tactical, pragmatic and tentative means. The philosopher must be the bricoleur.
  4. The task of changing society, if attempted at all, must be conducted through grassroots, localized (though sometimes networked), tactical, pragmatic and incremental means. The social activist must be committed to dialogue and consensus-building.
  5. Postmodernity contains within it elements both emancipatory and demonic. No theoretical grid is available which will easily allow the discernment of which elements are which, though the kinds of totalizing impulses which would reject points 1-4 provide important hints.

If these theses are arguably true of the postmodern world, they are certainly not exhaustive. But taken together they indicate that in the postmodern view of things the world today can no longer be explained by anyone's "grand plan." An enormous number of distinguishable groups tell their own stories of how the world is, and offer their own solutions to its problems. Made aware as we all are of this bewildering variety of perspctives through the well-documented phenomenon of the communications explosion, the challenge is to participate, to collaborate, to form alliances and to tackle our problems bit by bit, one at a time. For all kinds of reasons this is inimical to the standard operating procedures of religiously-inspired institutions.

The depiction of the shift to cultural and intellectual postmodernity that I have sketched here suggests three challenges for the church-related college, which I will try briefly to address. First, we must ask what it is that should characterize the academic mission of church-related colleges in this postmodern world, and whether this is something specific to the institution with a religious foundation, or something common to all academic enterprises. Second, we must examine the Christian tradition for resources that will enable it to address the postmodern world in an open and hopeful spirit. Finally, we shall have to envisage how the religious and academic missions of the church-related college might go beyond mere coexistence to a mutually supportive presence. These are respectively, the academic question, the religious question, and the church-relatedness question.


An academic institution, church-related or secular, cannot function responsibly if it does not enthusiastically pursue excellence. In the world of learning, this level of achievement towards which all ought to be striving requires the cultivation of two important intellectual virtues: critique and empathy. The former is more immediately recognizable in an academic context, requiring as it does the disciplined analysis of the particular object of inquiry. But the latter is at least as significant, while far more frequently missing, in the struggle for intellectual excellence. Moreover, while empathic individuals may be born and not made, and are to be found in the most defiantly secular of colleges and universities, an institutional commitment to the intellectual virtue of empathy is more suitable to a church-related institution, though of course not derivable from any one specific religious tradition. In other words, the intellectual virtue of empathy is something to which all the faculty of a church-related institution, believers or not, ought to have a profound commitment. Such a commitment is deeply appropriate to religiously-motivated institutions, as I shall try to argue below, but not derived specifically from their texts or history.

While the term "empathy" is most often encountered academically in psychological and therapeutic circles, and while in popular parlance it is often interchangeable with "sympathy," even of a pronouncedly sentimental cast, the intellectual virtue of empathy is somewhat different. Empathy is the first moment in the broadly phenomenological approach to academic inquiry that has always been an option, but is the favored method of postmodernity. The inquirer as bricoleur must let the object of inquiry show itself as it is. While attention to that which is to be known will of course be accompanied by a profound sense of the context-dependency and historicality of knowledge, and the way in which the rhetorical stance of the subject may have an impact on what can be known, the Kantian transcendental subject--neutral and omnipotent-- is gone. Empathy is then the necessary condition for such a suspension of judgment; the virtue, or perhaps better, the habit of empathy precludes premature analysis or critique and does battle against the strong urge of the academician to place the object of inquiry in some preapproved taxonomy, system, or metanarrative. While eschewing sentimentality, the inquirer must in a real way love the object of inquiry; what is to be studied must be respected, allowed, as it were, to be itself. Only when this happens is there at least a fighting chance that critique or analysis will in fact reach the object of inquiry and not remain within the labyrinth of the inquirer's mental pathways. Empathy, in other words, is profoundly practical.

While the words empathy and love may not be much used in the postmodern academy, the method that I have described in these terms is easily recognizable, and present to a greater or lesser degree in all contemporary colleges and universities. Postmodernity is not much given to abstractions, suspects system and is strongly inclined to minimize the role of the subject in the process of critical inquiry. The academic life of the church-related college, no less than any other, is likely to be affected more and more by such shifts in the intellectual landscape, and, at least in my estimation, largely for the better. While empathy may be distinctly less macho than system, it makes in the end for less distortion of the object of study.

If I am correct that the academic life of the church-related institution is (or should be) strongly influenced by this "turn to empathy," then there are at least two important corollaries. The first is that the same empathy that the academy employs in its work should be extended to the religious traditions and identity of the church-related institution itself. Is there not a serious inconsistency in a scholar committed to the habit of empathy who makes an exception for the church-relatedness of her or his institution, and in that case and that alone feels perfectly comfortable in an immediate critique or dismissal of the religious character of the school? A frequent and often accurate complaint against faculty in church-related institutions who are critical of that very religious identity is that they do not understand or have any "feeling for" religion or church. But while one ought not to expect them to be religious or to submit to some religious authority, one can expect intellectual consistency. The habit of empathy only exists where it makes no exceptions.

The second corollary relates to the special role of departments of religious studies or theology in the church-related institution. Firstly, the role must flow from the particular situation of the discipline, linking both the dimensions of religion and academy. Second, the department must be as committed as others to the habit of empathy (coupled of course with critique), and thus serve a vital pedagogic function in demonstrating to the rest of the academic community that things religious are not necessarily obscurantist or anti-intellectual. But third and most important, departments of religious studies or theology have a responsibility to the church-relatedness of the institution, namely, to educate it to see more clearly the religious value of the intellectual virtue of empathy. It is the religious studies department that is best placed to teach the church that the virtue of empathy is not only compatible with, but actually central to, a Christian encounter with the world.


The fundamental problem of religion in confronting postmodernity is that while the times dismiss metanarrative, religion lives by it. All religious traditions, whether militantly evangelistic or not, are total if not always totalizing systems. There is no question on any aspect of life (or death) to which a religion will respond: "Sorry, we don't deal with that issue." The world of the person of faith is constituted by and structured around the religious story to which he or she is committed. Through its particular blend of offering answers and invoking mystery, it is accepted by the believer as true. Postmodern theologies or a/theologies may try to shift the ground of religious reflection, but the communities of faith remain mostly unaffected. While a metanarrative may not be possessed of any spirit of aggression or imperialism, it simply leaves no room for another.

More technically, the problem with metanarrative as a whole--and thus with religion, which requires metanarrative--is not so much that it cannot entertain another metanarrative as that it erases the Other. Consider, for example, Christian encounter with Judaism. While over the centuries the Christian story about Jews and Judaism has often mutated and today, at least in some quarters, is healthier and more respectful than ever before, it remains the Christian story about Jews. The Jewish story is erased in the Christian metanarrative, just as efficiently and perhaps unintentionally as is the woman's story in patriarchy, the black's story in white liberal reformism, or the story of the poor in society's well-meaning welfare. It is of the nature of metanarrative to incorporate the other in the overall story, and thus to erase the other's story, and so obliterate the Other as other.

In my view, three methodological imperatives for living religions distinguish our age: the use of the historical-critical method, the employment of a hermeneutics of suspicion, and the encounter with the Other. High modernity provided the first of these, in which the claim is made that truth is given to us only in the wrappings of the historical period out of which it emanates, and sensitivity to such historical and cultural conditioning is the way for that truth to speak more clearly. Late modernity gave us the hermeneutics of suspicion, in which we are enjoined to examine the ideological and cultural presuppositions of both the originating and interpreting subjects of a truth-claim, if we would see what truth is being claimed. Postmodernity presents the third, in which a more radical challenge appears. The world which we hold and which makes us what we are, even informed by historical-critical method and a hermeneutics of suspicion, must look humbly and non-dogmatically into the face of the Other, and be open to what may emerge from this meeting.

While it was scriptural studies which gave us the historical-critical method, and liberation theologies which uncovered and refined a hermeneutics of suspicion, it is in what is called today "the theology of religions" that we confront most directly the call to the encounter with the other, a call both threatening and enriching. When in the theology of religions, the Christian tradition faces the truth-claims of other world religions, it is forced to re-examine itself. It cannot be closed to the Other, and so it must abandon dogmatism. It cannot capitulate to the Other, and embrace a pure relativism which as good as says that anything goes. And so it embarks on the hard road of uncovering a healthy pluralism through its encounter with the Other. This is incontestably a lesson of postmodernity.

Like the postmodern academy's pursuit of wisdom, the theology of religions--or its close relative, Christian ecumenism--demands the habit of empathy. However, in the practice of either something is learned too. Inter-religious dialogue does not require the abandonment of one's particular religious metanarrative, but it most certainly expects that the story not be "foregrounded." In other words, evangelism, in most senses of the term, has no place in the encounter with the religious Other. The first moment of, and essential precondition for, genuine meeting is a willingness to listen to the voice of the Other, at the same time suspending the temptation to insert what is said into a frame of reference provided by one's own thought-world. Clearly, this is the religious face of the intellectual virtue of empathy.

If ecumenism and the theology of religions are where the habit of empathy is most likely to be cultivated by religious communities, what are the specific theological justifications for the abandonment of "foregrounding the metanarrative"? This answer is easier to give for more sacramental and less evangelical Christian traditions, which may explain why schools and colleges in the Catholic or Episcopalian traditions seem to find it easier to maintain a religious identity while adopting a distinctly non-sectarian posture towards their academic mission. Liberal Protestant foundations, neither sacramental nor evangelical, seem to possess the most fragile religious identities, while evangelical schools preserve themselves in virtue of their more sectarian posture, but often at the price of a less than open academy.

Two "models of the church" underpin an engagement with the world which maintains the metanarrative but places it behind rather than in front of the community, making it less blueprint and more context (Dulles). The one, "sacramental," model sees the church as being in the world as "sign and instrument" of Christ, as he was in his place the sign and instrument of God. This sign and instrument, however, must be patterned according to what it signifies, and this means attention not so much to the proclamation of the gospel of Christ in a narrow sense, as to the personal preaching and concrete life-choices of Jesus Christ as servant of the reign of God. This is where a second, "servant" model becomes important, and where liberal Protestantism enters strongly into the picture (Bonhoeffer, for one, was a strong proponent of a servant model of the church). The servant model stresses the role of the church as existing not for itself but for the world, serving God by serving the world and, by serving selflessly, being the loving presence of God in Christ in the contemporary world. Both models see the church as oriented to the reign of God, but not as identical with it. Moreover, neither would stress incorporation into the church as what the work of the church is directed towards. Loving presence in the world, and betterment of the world, are what the church must be and do.


Thus far I have tried to suggest that in the postmodern world the fragmentation of knowledge, the sidelining of the transcendental subject, the stress on the perspectival, and the new openness to otherness demand from both the academy and the church the cultivation of the habit of empathy. It remains to say something about the implications for the church-related college, which is where church and academy meet. In general terms, it should be apparent that their mutual commitment to empathy ought to clear away the cruder forms of suspicion and confrontation. However, it is possible to go considerably further and be quite specific about the church-related college as the place where the habit of empathy is cherished and cultivated.

In the first place, the habit of empathy dictates that the church-related college be an open place. "Open" here means both open-minded and with an openness of access--at its best, straining to open its doors to every kind of person and its heart to every variety of opinion and idea. But it must be understood that this openness is not a romantic notion, not mere sentimentalizing. It is a hard-nosed application of the fundamental commitments of both church and academy in a postmodern world. The church cannot serve that which is not the church either by closing its doors or minds to the other, or by drowning out the otherness of the Other in some crudely evangelistic din. The academy cannot investigate the new, the unknown, the different or the alien, if it is not willing to listen attentively.

The openness mandated by the habit of empathy has structural and administrative, even architectural implications. Practices follow from the habit of the virtue. Indeed, they represent an orthopraxis that validates the possession of the virtue. Thus, we should expect the empathic college to be open to the community and to welcome the outsider. Where possible, this should show itself in admissions and scholarships, and although a Catholic school whose student body is only 20% Catholic would be distinctly odd, there ought to be questions too about the reality of any commitment to openness possessed by schools with an overwhelming percentage of Catholic students.

A similar remark can be made about the much-discussed question of hiring practices, relative to the confessional perspective of the school. (Can a school ignore the religious affiliations of prospective employees and not become secularized? And should it set quotas for faculty who subscribe to its religious identity? And what should those quotas be?) While a Methodist school whose faculty is only 20% Methodist is much less Methodist than one with a majority of Methodist faculty, a school whose faculty is 90% Methodist, one might think, is too Methodist and insufficiently open for its own good. But given that it is more important to have faculty with the appropriate interior commitment to empathy than it is to have those who pay lip-service to some religious identity, it would seem that hiring quotas give no assurance of getting the right kind of people. A surer path would be to be a clearly empathic institution, whose empathy derives equally from its religious character and its academic mission. The chances are that committed Catholic or Methodist academicians would be attracted to rather than repelled by the prospect of working in such an environment.

Administratively, the narrow and often secretive attitudes of hierarchical models ought to have no place in the church-related college. In a learning community and in a church, unlike bureaucratic systems in general and the corporate world in particular, leadership is to be understood as a form of service, and the leaders are accountable downwards, not merely to the supervisor in the chain of command (Greenleaf). Both church and academy raise up leaders from within, and it is to the grassroots that they are responsible. "Corporate culture" simply has no place in a church-related college, since its product-orientation and narrow understandings of efficiency are out of step with both the religious and academic mission of the institution. To put it in terms of the ruling insight of this paper, while individuals in the corporate world may be people whose qualities of sympathy or empathy outshine many who work in academia, the corporate models for organizations cannot make a structural commitment to empathy.

The stress that I have tried to place on empathy is most valuable in addressing that thorniest of issues, the interconnections between church-relatedness and the academic mission of the college. Empathy builds bonds of understanding that are very strong, while suggesting no control of academy over church, or church over academy. The religious tradition does not dictate or oversee the academic mission, and the academic purposes of the school need not sideline or distort the religious identity. Rather, church and academy find common ground in the happy coincidence that here in postmodernity both components of the church-related college can and must internalize the habit of empathy, if each is to be true to its respective responsibilities. The church is empathic because of what it is, the community as sacrament to/servant of the world. The academy is empathic because of what it is, a community devoted to the rigorous discipline of learning, whose first moment is an attention to what is to be understood, so that wisdom and not merely knowledge will accrue.

While the emphasis that I have given to empathy in these pages may have led the reader to understand the mission of church and academy to be much the same, there is in fact a substantial difference that, in conclusion, needs to be remarked upon. There is another face to empathy, which in the case of the academy is rightly described as critique. While the first moment in the search for knowledge and wisdom is always one of listening, there is a time for critique, and even judgment. Intellectual inquiry cannot be mere empathy; it must progress to analysis and disciplined assessment. Inquiry conducted in this manner is out of tune with much of cultural postmodernity, which often seems to assume that the juxtaposition of discrete sets of experiences exhausts the process of learning. Wisdom, as the faculty of knowing when--and when not--to pass judgment, goes beyond this.

The other face of empathy in the context of the religious tradition is not the attention to critical inquiry that marks the academic mission of the institution, but the public commitment to a way of seeing the world. Being true to itself as sacrament/servant, the community of faith testifies not so much to the gospel in the narrow sense, as to the importance of faithfulness to the commitments that belief entails. As I suggested earlier, the postmodern church must recognize the legitimacy of the multiplicity of religious perspectives, while it acts out its commitment to one of them. Thus, to the outsider it witnesses to the importance of commitment itself, rather than to the importance of this or that choice. The religious identity of the church-related institution, in the last analysis, is a matter of taking a stand and insisting, in the face of postmodernity's tendency to relativism and indifference, on the importance of commitment. It is radical and countercultural at one and the same time.


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