Stepping Up to the Age of Empathy

'Empathic Civilization': When Both Faith And Reason Fail

While our radio talk shows and 24-hour cable TV news programs
incessantly play off the political rift between conservative and
liberal ideologies, the deeper conflict in America has always been the
cultural divide between faith versus reason.

At the dawn of the modern market economy and nation-state era, the
philosophers of the Enlightenment challenged the Age of Faith that
governed over the feudal economy with the Age of Reason. Theologians
and philosophers have continued to battle over faith vs. reason ever
since, their debates often spilling over into the cultural and
political arenas, with profound consequences for society.

Today, however, at the outset of a global economy and the biosphere
era, a new generation of scientists, scholars, and social reformers are
beginning to challenge some of the underlying assumptions of both the
Age of Faith and the Age of Reason, taking us into the Age of Empathy.

The empathic advocates argue that, for the most part, both earlier
narratives about human nature fail to plumb the depths of what makes us
human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete
stories--that is, they fail to touch the deepest realities of
existence. That's not to dismiss the critical elements that make the
stories of faith and reason so compelling. It's only that something
essential is missing--and that something is "embodied experience."

Both the Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--as well
as the Eastern religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, either
disparage bodily existence or deny its importance. So too does modern
science and most of the rational philosophers of the Enlightenment. For
the former, especially the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a
source of evil. Its presence is a constant reminder of the depravity
and mortality of human nature. For the latter, the body is mere
scaffolding to maintain the mind, a necessary inconvenience to provide
sensory perception, nutrients, and mobility. It is a machine the mind
uses to impress its will on the world. It is even loathed because of
its transient nature. The body is a constant reminder of death, and
therefore, feared, disparaged and dismissed in the world's great
religions and among many of the Enlightenment philosophers.

Most of all, the body is to be mistrusted, especially the emotions
that flow from its continuous engagement with and reaction to the
outside world. Neither the Bible nor the Enlightenment ruminations make
much room for human emotions, except to depreciate them as
untrustworthy and an impediment either to obedience to God in the first
instance or to the rational will in the second instance.

In the modern era, with its emphasis on rationality, objectivity,
detachment, and calculability, human emotions are considered
irrational, quixotic, impossible to objectify, not subject to detached
evaluation, and difficult to quantify. Even today, it is common lore
not to let one's emotions get in the way of sound reasoning and
judgment. How many times have we heard someone say or have said to
someone else, "Try not to be so emotional . . . try to behave more
rationally." The clear message is that emotions are of a lesser ilk
than reason. They are too carnal and close to our animal passions to be
considered worthy of being taken seriously--and worse still, they
pollute the reasoning process.

The Enlightenment philosophers--with a few notable
exceptions--eliminated the very mortality of being. To be alive is to
be physical, finite, and mortal. It is to be aware of the vulnerability
of life and the inevitability of death. Being alive requires a
continuous struggle to be and comes with pain, suffering, and anguish
as well as moments of joy. How does one celebrate life or mourn the
passing of a relative or friend or enter into an intimate relationship
with another in a world devoid of feelings and emotions?

New developments in evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and
psychology are laying the groundwork for a wholesale reappraisal of
human consciousness. The premodern notion that faith and God's grace
are the windows to reality and the Enlightenment idea that reason is at
the apex of modern consciousness are giving way to a more sophisticated
approach to a theory of mind.

Researchers in a diverse range of fields and disciplines are
beginning to reprioritize some of the critical features of faith and
reason within the context of a broader empathic consciousness. They
argue that all of human activity is embodied experience--that is,
participation with the other--and that the ability to read and respond
to another person "as if " he or she were oneself is the key to how
human beings engage the world, create individual identity, develop
language, learn to reason, become social, establish cultural
narratives, and define reality and existence.

If empathic consciousness flows from embodied experience and is a
celebration of life--our own and that of other beings--how do we square
it with faith and reason, which are disembodied ways of looking at
reality and steeped in the fear of death?

When we deconstruct the notion of faith, we find that at the core
are three essential pillars: awe, trust, and transcendence. The
religious impulse begins with the sense of awe, the feeling of the
wonder of existence, both the mystery and majesty. Awe is the deepest
celebration of life. We marvel at the overwhelming nature of existence,
and sense that by our own aliveness, we somehow fit into the wonder we

Although faith is set in motion by a feeling of awe and requires a
belief that one's life has meaning in a larger, universal sense of
things, it can be purloined and made into a social construct that
exacts obedience, feeds on fear of death, is disembodied in its
approach, and establishes rigid boundaries separating the saved from
the damned. Many institutionalized religions do just that.

It is awe that inspires all human imagination. Without awe, we would
be without wonder and without wonder we would have no way to exercise
imagination and would therefore be unable to imagine another's life "as
if" it were our own. We know that empathy is impossible without
imagination. Imagination, however, is impossible without wonder, and
wonder is impossible without awe. Empathy represents the deepest
expression of awe, and understandably is regarded as the most spiritual
of human qualities.

But faith also requires trust--the willingness to surrender
ourselves to the mystery of existence at both the cosmic level and at
the level of everyday life with our fellow beings. Trust becomes
indispensable to allowing empathy to grow, and empathy, in turn, allows
us to plumb the divine presence that exists in all things. Empathy
becomes the window to the divine. It is by empathic extension that we
transcend ourselves and begin connecting with the mystery of existence.

In the empathic civilization, spirituality invariably replaces
religiosity. Spirituality is a deeply personal journey of discovery in
which empathic experience--as a general rule--becomes the guide to
making connections, and becomes the means to foster transcendence. The
World Values Survey and countless other polls show a generational shift
in attitudes toward the divine, with the younger generation in the
industrialized nations increasingly turning away from institutionalized
religiosity and toward personal spiritual quests that are empathic in

Reason too can be salvaged from its disembodied Enlightenment roots
and be recast within an embodied empathic frame. While reason is most
often thought of in terms of rationalization, that is, abstracting and
classifying phenomena, usually with the help of quantifiable tools of
measurement, it is more than that. Reason includes mindfulness,
reflection, introspection, contemplation, musing, and pondering, as
well as rhetorical and literary ways of thinking. Reason is all of this
and more. When we think of reason, we generally think of stepping back
from the immediacy of an experience and probing our memories to see if
there might be an analogous experience that could help us make the
appropriate judgment or decisions about how best to respond.

The critical question is where does reason come from? The Cartesian
and Kantian idea that reason exists independently of experience as an a
priori phenomenon to be accessed does not conform to the way we reason
in the real world. Reason is a way of organizing experience and relies
on many mental tools. The point, however, is that reason is never
disembodied from experience but rather a means of understanding and
managing it.

Experience, as we learned earlier, begins with sensations and
feelings that flow from engagement with others. While one's sensations
and feelings make possible the initial connection with the other, they
are quickly filtered by way of past memories and organized by the
various powers of reason at our disposal to establish an appropriate
emotional, cognitive, and behavioral response. The entire process is
what makes up empathetic consciousness. Empathy is both an affective
and cognitive experience.

If empathy did not exist, we could not understand why we feel the
way we do, or conceptualize something called an emotion or think
rationally. Many scholars have mistakenly associated empathy with just
feelings and emotions. If that were all it was, empathic consciousness
would be an impossibility.

Reason, then, is the process by which we order the world of feelings
in order to create what psychologists call pro-social behavior and
sociologists call social intelligence. Empathy is the substance of the
process. Reason becomes increasingly sophisticated as societies become
more complex, human differentiation more pronounced, and human exchange
more diverse. Greater exposure to others increases the volume of
feelings that need to be organized. Reason becomes more adept at
abstracting and managing the flood of embodied feelings. That's not to
say that reason can't also be used to exploit others, for example, to
advance narcissistic ends or create terror among people.

By reimagining faith and reason as intimate aspects of empathic
consciousness, we create a new historical synthesis--the Age of
Empathy--that incorporates many of the most powerful and compelling
features of the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason, while leaving
behind the disembodied story lines that shake the celebration out of

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