After we’ve debated the causes of and remedies for the violence of this summer’s tragic mass shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Nigeria, one thought remains that everyone can agree with. There is a pressing need to learn to live with more compassion for one another. No social or political protocols proposed by commentators seem to promise a way to this goal, but I find that these words by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Monitor, speak to our hearts and suggest an answer: “The sharp experiences of belief in the supposititious life of matter, as well as our disappointments and ceaseless woes, turn us like tired children to the arms of divine Love” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 322). Could this spiritual sense of compassion be a practical response?
A recent New York Times op-ed described a study undertaken by a social psychologist who wanted to test whether the “spiritual understanding of compassion was also scientifically accurate.... [D]oes the experience of compassion toward one person measurably affect our actions and attitudes toward other people?”
The short answer to that question turned out to be yes. The study showed that the spiritual understanding of compassion’s value and power is correct. But while acknowledging the wisdom of the Torah, Jesus’ sayings, and the Dalai Lama’s teaching, the article presented compassion in almost Pavlovian terms – as a hardwired physiological response to predictable stimuli rather than a divine, incorporeal healing force in life.
The author concluded that learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of “commonalities” would “generate greater empathy among all of us – and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way.” For example, if we would consciously acknowledge that we go to the same market as someone of a very different background, we would behave more compassionately.
Desirable as it is that we should learn to see one another as connected and able to have more harmonious relations, attempts at mental recategorization to achieve this are rarely “effortless.” Defining compassion (or any essentially spiritual quality) as a merely human response that we can turn on and off at will doesn’t give us much to build on when we are feeling too threatened, frightened, or hopeless to recategorize the way we see ourselves and others for the general good.
In the centuries-old Gospel of Matthew, Jesus challenged his disciple Peter’s understanding of compassion. When Peter asked, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (18:21, 22).
Jesus’ teaching, so counterintuitive to Peter’s more personal and material idea of what true compassion demands, suggests that brotherhood will never be found in a tally of what we think we owe and what is due to us.
Not recategorizing but beginning from an entirely different basis is what Jesus taught. When our humanity doesn’t seem to be up to the spiritual demand of seeking out commonalities, we can remember that the source of compassion or intelligence or inspiration is God, divine Principle, present in all times and places. Forgiveness and brotherhood (or “siblinghood,” if you will) follow not from personal ability, but as the natural effect of recognizing Love’s unlimited outpouring to us all.
This description from the chapter “Science, Theology, and Medicine” in the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health, indicates the normal course of spiritual progress: “As human thought changes from one stage to another of conscious pain and painlessness, sorrow and joy, – from fear to hope and from faith to understanding, – the visible manifestation will at last be man governed by Soul, not by material sense” (Science and Health, p. 125).
The Bible says, “God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). The all-too-human attempts to colonize religious experience – resulting in dysfunctional hierarchical institutions or strongholds of superstitious, sectarian belief – may be behind the tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water. It may seem tempting to jettison spiritual traditions in favor of a purer, more streamlined science of good, but the long history of spiritual understanding found in religious teachings is packed with still relevant lessons and insights. The most important of these lessons has to do with the very real presence and authority of divine Spirit.
Science needs inspiration, and genuine progress comes from our natural responses to divine Principle. As we find that each of us is indeed God’s son or daughter, God’s idea and expression, we’ll be able to live more consistently in a conscious and compassionate understanding of who and what we all are.