A review of Compassion, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, 1966, rev. ed. 1982, Image Books.
I read this book as part of a group book study. Very early in the study, one of my study partners commented that I was having a real problem with the idea of compassion and was clearly pushing it away, or at the very least pushing against it. That wasn’t true but at that point in the book, I couldn’t put my finger on just what I was pushing against. Eventually it became clear.
There are two very different ways of understanding our salvation. The one, most common in Roman Catholic and Protestant communions, is that salvation is a transformation of the heart and will and thus is worked out ethically (although I’m not sure this is the best word). God changes my mind allowing me to change my actions. The Orthodox understand salvation to be far deeper and more pervasive than that. Salvation is physical and encompasses the whole person, body in addition to mind and will.
There is a profound unity of body and soul, heart and will. In Orthodox anthropology the will would be classified as a bodily (or animal) function, and when Christ united himself with humanity, he united himself, even at this most primitive animal level in order that our whole being could be saved.
The differences between these two conceptions of salvation are often subtle and a bit hard to grasp. I will offer two examples from the book. The first comes in ch. 4, entitled “Community.” The foundation of the authors’ understanding of community is Phil 2:1-2. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
The Orthodox begin, not with the mind, but with the body. Community begins in communion, which is a process of union with Christ which is physical and spiritual (the word mystical is helps convey this profound unity). At the Table I eat his body and drink the blood of the covenant. As a result of this a union begins to be formed that is completely real, although invisible.
The call to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” is therefore not the goal, but rather a necessary warning. A body (in this case, the Body of Christ), that is mystically united cannot be warring against itself. In medicine we call this cancer. The unity that Paul calls for is thus an outworking of a far deeper unity that already exists objectively.
In ch. 7, entitled “Patience,” the authors consider the need for discipline. All three are Roman Catholic priests and they have a difficult history to overcome on this subject, because “discipline” in the form of misguided practices such as self-flagellation, has a long history in the Roman Catholic church. Instead of offering a classic or historic definition of discipline they opt for the Protestant version:
“In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on a lamp stand what has been kept under a basket.” This is not a bad definition as far as it goes, but this understanding of discipline will result in a feeble light.
Again, we need to remember that salvation is not only mental but physical. We were created in God’s image, and from that starting point we need to grow into the fullness that this divine image allows. The word that’s used to express this is a Greek word that is problematic to translate. Nous, is sometimes translated mind and sometimes translated heart, and refers to the most inner part of our being. (Note: the word “like-minded” and “mind” that appears twice in Phil. 2:1-2, above, is a different word, phroneo.)
The most remarkable characteristic of the nous, is that after it is brought to life from spiritual death (the first step of salvation) is that it can grow … and grow. It reflects, to the extent possible in a created being, the infinity of God. Through the Spirit it is filled with divine love that shines out in the darkness, and as the nous grows, it is able to “contain” or “reflect” (here I suspect human language fails) more and more of the divine light.
But expanding or stretching out our nous requires discipline; not just an uncovering of what is already there, but a further development of what the divine image might become. Paul compares it to athletics (both a boxer and a runner) and military training. Thus, this process of discipline is called askesis (the Greek word from which we get the English athletic) and it is often compared to military boot camp.
I realize that at this point we get into an area of the spiritual life where there is a profound difference between the Latin west and Greek east. There was a great controversy in the 14th century, called the Hesychast controversy that had to do with this precise thing. The Orthodox and Catholics came down on different sides of this controversy. I therefore realize that Roman Catholic and Protestant readers might well have some heartburn over this. But that is not the question at hand, the question is, “Why do I find myself pushing this book away?” It’s not that I have a problem with their ideas about compassion, it’s that I find their conception of salvation, and thus the root and outworking of compassion, to be truncated.
This differing understanding of the expanse of our salvation truly comes to a head in ch. 9, entitled, “Action.” The chapter begins by saying that the discipline of prayer necessarily leads to the discipline of action. They turn to James to remind us that faith without works is dead. Thus, the goal of the Christian life is the active life. It is a very specific sort of active life to be sure. Christian action is not action for action’s sake, it is an outgrowth of the disciplines of patience, prayer, etc., but action – being in the world – is where all these disciplines inevitably lead us.
From an Orthodox perspective, this is quite a muddled version of salvation. All of these disciplines, this askesis, leads to the transformation of the person. The goal is not centered in “the other” and particularly in service to the other, the goal lies within the self. This is certainly an idea that service oriented Christianity finds troubling, so more needs to be said.
Since salvation is ultimately physical and not ethical, our disciplines need to focus on the preparation of our physical selves (through prayer, fasting, alms, the three classic disciplines of the church) so that God can transform us. This does not mean that Christians ought not care about the world, it rather puts into perspective how Christians ought to care for the world. As I am transformed, my nous expands and is filled with more and more of God’s love. Thus the actions that would be described as service to the world are not something I do, they are something that I am.
It does little good, from the perspective of God’s Reign, to help the poor because, as Jesus reminded us, the poor will always be with us. Helping the poor, in this context, is an application of the sort of “works” that Martin Luther and the Protestants railed against. Rather than being an expression of God’s Reign, it is an attempt to help it along or to bring it about.
I suspect most Protestants will disagree with me. Presbyterians are especially fond of the dynamic between grace and gratitude. God gives us his grace and we respond with gratitude. Our action in the world is not works because it is a response to salvation, i.e. gratitude, rather than attempt to secure salvation. My response to this is that it still sells the breadth of salvation short and therefore fails to faithfully describe what’s going on.
So I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it is. There is plenty of room for ecumenical dialog and further nuance. But my starting point, if that discussion is ever to happen, is that this book failed to take seriously the depth of salvation and, as a result, reduced compassion to an activity that can never be a satisfying form of service.