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On ‘Empathetic Capacity’ in the perspective of Eternity

I recently read about some 17th century Dominican dialogues with Zen Buddhist monks and the many interesting and moving consequences that such cultural openness brought to the men of that age. I am also currently engaged in some research into the work of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary in China. These men were Christian humanists, engaged in bold cultural outreach in faithfulness to the Gospel injunction to preach to all nations.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts (of which I am a Fellow) recently gave an illustrated talk, now available online, which calls for a ‘21st century enlightement’, or a new humanism for the new century. This is going to be the RSA’s new ‘strap’ or byword. You can watch his fascinating, entertaining (and short) lecture, complete with cartoons at:

Taylor speaks of progress in the development of ‘empathetic capacity’ and notes what he sees as the decrease in person to person violence down through the centuries. It seems to me that such an observation is inevitably anecdotal and subjective, rather than empirical. Try telling that to the child-slaves, or urban beggars in India and China, or the child prostitutes in Thailand; people whose ancestors perhaps serenely tilled the fields; or indeed to the millions of aborted babies who bloody our hands without – it would seem – making much of a dent in our consciences. ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is always with us. The 21st century – is seems to me – is no time to get complacent. And yet, one knows what Taylor means.

And Taylor is right that popular culture is encouraging us to think about other people. He is, here, in the same optimistic line as men such as Pius XII and Paul VI who saw in the new means of social communication the way to achieve not just a shrinking planet, but a more mutually aware and loving one, as long as we can avoid the very modern curse of ‘compassion fatigue’.

He is right to draw attention to the truth that education has no value if it does not, above all other things, foster ‘empathetic capacity’, or - in simpler terms – love. “For I can have all things, but if I have not charity …” as St Paul observed.

Taylor, remembering the inhumanity of various episodes of 20th century history, and the intolerance of some moderns to those different from themselves, invites us - in true humanist spirit, to “have a relationship with your (emotional) reactions, but not to be a slave to them”. And yet he counsels a suspicion towards too much abstraction, for that has tended to ignore human suffering and practical human needs: such abstraction was what permitted the extremes of Nazism and Communism, where the ends (perhaps never fully understood, let alone ever realised) justified the diabolical means. So a relationship with our visceral, emotional reactions is as important to our humanity as is the relationship with our critical faculties. It all seems very incarnational, doesn’t it?

There is a even a distributist note, I feel, in his avowal that technical progress does not necessarily bring happiness, and his despair at the idea that that just because something can be discovered, developed or sold, then it must be. Here there is room for the still, small voice of a reflective conscience, for the voice of the wisdom of the ages.

It has been said ‘In my end is in my beginning’ and this is what Taylor suggests too. How great that we are keen to get man from A to Z with maximum efficiency. But where is Z and what is Z? We need to reflect on our ultimate destination in order to live well and justly now. The sacredness of every human life, the value of every human life (with all the necessary conclusions one ought to draw about abortion – even if Taylor perhaps cannot see or admit that) is a kind of light that might well illuminate the metaphysical darkness.

Taylor rightly deplores the desire to “cram education into the first quarter of our lives” (although it might be worse to respond by placing less emphasis on education in that first quarter, and less still thereafter, which is the modern tendency.) Childhood should be the solid start of lifelong learning. Education, not just in terms of technical skills, but also in terms of the formation of right feelings and taste, can be the key to a life fully lived. Now, who said that first? “Veni ut vitam habeant …” - I came that they might have life and life in all its fullness. Yes, that’s right. It was Jesus Christ who first noticed that we were all half-asleep, or half-dead.

Taylor says that we must stop chasing myths of justice and progress (might this be a veiled reference to political correctness?). Instead we must become more practical and more spiritual.

Margaret Mead, quoted by Taylor, said a lot of odd things. But one observation, that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world” is undoubtedly true. All we need, according to our Lord, is two or three gathered together. The Royal Society of Arts, founded as Britain’s more ‘hands-on’ response to the Académie Française, has, despite its establishment image, a rebel side. Marx was one of our Fellows, and Nelson Mandela too. The RSA today is a mixture of university professors, literary figures, industry chiefs and the rising stars of the new left. The latter group tends to dominate.

Faithful readers will know that I am very pleased to be described as a conservative, and that have no illusions about Marx, and yet it seems to me that men such as Matthew Taylor do care about people’s lives. Their empathetic capacity, despite its awful name, is a challenge to men like me. Perhaps it is now time for the Christian humanists to join debates like these and to bring to them the light of the Gospel, just like – for example - the great Jesuits and Dominicans of the post-Reformation era. 21st Century Christian humanism’s time has come. Because man is indeed the measure of all things. But it was God who made him so. And, in the man Jesus Christ, He has given us some powerful answers about the Z of A-Z: answers about our final destination. Modern man needs these answers more than ever now, as the world grows ever smaller and history moves ever faster, towards its ultimate consummation.

If you are wondering who popularised that thought about beginnings and endings, even before TS Eliot in his Quartets, it was Mary, Queen of Scots, who embroidered it in French, while in prison awaiting her execution for the Faith: “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement.” And she would know.


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