Empathic elation is the joy that is felt when an observer succeeds in relieving the distress of a victim. This was a good idea (by that I mean that I’m glad God decided to put empathy in the package of “human nature”). It ties us together, and motivates us to love one another. In Martin Hoffman’s words, empathy acts as a pro-social motive. These things are obvious, but how does empathic elation connect with the Divine?
Its difficult not to find a connection without anthropomorphizing God, but perhaps anthropomorphic conceptions of God can be used with an understanding that they are inadequate.
The first thing that came to mind was this verse: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. Repentance (or turning around) could be seen as the end of distress, and heaven could be seen as experiencing a certain type of empathic elation. This understanding doesn’t seem to work out entirely since ushering in the kingdom of heaven (presumably, the desire of God) demands that we place ourselves in distressing situations.
Perhaps the politico-religious metaphor of “the kingdom of heaven” can shed some light on why repentance is a joyous act. If the collaborative project of ushering in the kingdom of heaven is conceived of as a politico-religious revolution, then repentance could be seen as another person joining the cause. Turns out that empathic elation doesn’t seem apply very well to the repentance situation.
Let’s try this verse: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Marcus Borg suggests a very different translation of this passage: “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” He then provides an etymological definition of compassionate as a “womb-like” response, i.e., a visceral response to the other’s situation. Perhaps a better understanding of the verse, then, (assuming Borg is right) is that the passage is referring to a compassion-motivated mercy towards one’s enemies (since the context is about enemies). If Borg is right about this translation, then an interesting question arises: Does God feel joy when God exercises compassion-motivated mercy?
Mercy implies that the judge will not give the judged what they deserve. “What they deserve” is tied to an understanding of justice. These thoughts go along nicely with some heretical thoughts that I was having the other day: “God’s love transcends Justice.” Two sources (in addition to the Jesus narrative) motivated these thoughts. Michael Sandel’s discussion of the empirical conditions necessary for justice and Bonhoeffer’s discussion of loving our enemies as “cutting across all concepts of good and evil.”