“Feeling Into” an Empathetic Ecclesiology

I didn’t have the opportunity to attend The BTS Center’s Convocation last month, but I was pleased to know that Troy Bronsink would be sharing insights about how to apply design thinking in 21st-century ministries. Where I live, write, and teach in the Silicon Valley, “design thinking” is on everyone’s lips—even if they don’t quite know what it is. For my part, I’ve been thinking a lot about design thinking as I’ve wrestled with how better to engage my millennial students—you know, those young adults who aren’t darkening the doors of any sort of church these days (and who periodically nod off during my scintillating lectures)—in exploring the practices, questions, and commitments of religions that have shaped much of the world as we know it and continue to influence postmodern life across the planet.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to creativity and innovation that is most associated with the Institute for Design at Stanford University and the work of Robert McKim, Peter Rowe, David E. Kelley, and others. Now, it’s easy to see why design thinking is so popular in places like the Silicon Valley, where developing a new platform for managing healthcare expenditures or a device that allows you to check texts and drive safely will make someone a zillionaire. But it’s a little harder to see design thinking as a natural vehicle for reviving the religious studies classroom or, for that matter, religion in general.

But the leap is not as great as you might think, especially when you consider that design thinking is about more than nurturing a creative spark or creating disruptive innovation in traditional products and practices. While creativity and disruption certainly undergird innovation, the true foundation of design thinking is empathy—and that quality is arguably also at the center of most religious traditions.

“Empathy” is one of those words that we all think we understand, but it in fact has considerable complexity that can make practicing it deeply something of a challenge. Perhaps that’s because empathy is, historically speaking, a relatively recent concept, having been introduced into English only at the beginning of the 20th century from the German word “Einfühlung” (or “feeling into”). In early modern Europe, which was fascinated by scientific and evolutionary explorations of the natural world, empathy had to do with using intuition and the five senses, rather than logic alone, to “feel into” a work of art or understand the beauties of nature. Empathy was an aesthetic concept—an expression of the sympathy that philosophers recognized in humans’ ability to understand the feelings of others. According to German Romantics, humanity’s sympathetic tendency could even help individuals connect to, and be emotionally moved by, material objects that would never return the feelings.

Over time, aesthetic notions of empathy expanded, and the concept grew to encompass more than the feelings provoked by art and nature. Today, empathy is an important idea in the area of interpersonal relationships, where it means something different than the similar-sounding sympathy. When I sympathize with you, I comprehend how you feel, because you have told me, and I have listened well. When I empathize with you, I go a step beyond listening: I relate what I discern of your feelings to things that I myself have felt or experienced (or can imagine feeling under similar circumstances). Ultimately, empathy requires more than simply knowing how someone feels. It requires felt connection between what we can perceive that someone else is feeling and our own past and future experience of similar feelings.

At the risk of going wonkier than anyone probably ever should in a blog post, empathy develops at the intersection of perceiving and feeling. It is a sensory experience, rather than a purely emotional or cognitive experience. As the philosophy of empathy eventually came to assert, seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and touching are necessary to cultivate deeply embodied feeling for another.

This is why observation is the starting point for design thinking. Designers spend all kinds of time simply watching people and listening to them as they interact with others in their own environment. Listening and attending closely to others allows us to feel into the lived experience of another person so that our engagement with them is more deeply meaningful, more motivating, more alive.

Observation is the starting point for design thinking. Designers spend all kinds of time simply watching people and listening to them as they interact with others in their own environment. Listening and attending closely to others allows us to feel into the lived experience of another person so that our engagement with them is more deeply meaningful, more motivating, more alive.

Such vital engagement is what I’ve been hoping will happen in my religious studies classrooms, and it’s surely what many clergy and laypeople hope can happen in congregations. We’re all looking for signs of life, hoping to nurture whatever new thing might blossom forth.

Still, applying design thinking to my teaching has not been easy. For one thing, it has meant that I can’t improve my teaching by beefing up my own preparation, clarifying learning objectives, shifting the readings, adding media-rich content, or a whole host of other pedagogical fixes that are pretty much under my control.

20160212_practice_empathyInstead, I have to do things that often start out feeling like they waste a lot of time in a 10-week academic quarter. For instance, I have to pay attention to students’ expressions of boredom and disengagement not as acts of defiance or a lack of preparation, but as data on how the class is going for them given the complexity of lives that I don’t really understand very much. So, I have to invest class time in inviting my students to talk about those lives and in listening attentively when they do. I have to try to feel into my students’ lives so that I can try to create learning experiences that actually make sense in those lives. In one class this quarter, after a conversation about why the class wasn’t clicking for any of us, we ended up tearing up the syllabus and rebuilding the class based on students’ questions about religion in America.

“Design” isn’t focused so much on the finished product as it is on “designing”—on an iterative process of innovation aimed not at improving a product, but at improving individual and shared experiences so that they add greater richness and meaning to life.

There are, of course, a lot of moving parts in my students’ lives, a lot of competing demands, and a lot of things that aren’t going to make sense to me as priorities—just as there are among the people who don’t turn up anymore at local congregations. This means that there’s a lot of mess, and a lot of disorganization, along the path from problem to solution.

It also means that “design” isn’t focused so much on the finished product as it is on “designing”—on an iterative process of innovation aimed not at improving a product (in my case, the religious studies class; in your case, maybe worship or congregational life), but at improving individual and shared experiences so that they add greater richness and meaning to life.

Maybe that’s too much to ask of an undergraduate religious studies class. I like to hope not. But I am pretty sure it’s not too much to ask of the Church. What would it mean in your community to develop an empathetic ecclesiology? To feel into the lives of people within and well beyond the doors of your church?

Image credits:

Cover: Christine Prefontaine, “Design Thinking for Advocacy” April 19, 2013. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 / Desaturated

Inside: Quinn Dombrowski, “Practice Empathy,” September 30, 2012. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, America, The Atlantic, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a co-editor of The BTS Center’s Bearings blog. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.

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