Social Recognition and the Ethics of Empathy in Pastoral Theological Anthropology: A Phenomenological and Relational Psychoanalytic Study
Bringing together phenomenological and relational analyses through a critical correlational method, this dissertation asks whether empathy can help religious caregivers broaden their consciousness of marginalized persons in suffering. It argues that pastoral theologians originally viewed empathy as an ethical resource for broadening social and political recognition because of its prospects for freedom in interpersonal relation, yet that social theorists and theologians have gradually rejected the idea that empathy is freely able to extend across human difference. As a result, religious practitioners now risk using empathy in ways that obscure the aporetic conflict between the ethical commitment to respond to marginalized suffering, and the social commitment to respect interpersonal difference; we have shown that empathy is limited by social recognition, but have not adjusted our expectations of what empathy can accomplish for responding to social trauma and bettering religious life. This dissertation thus argues that, although empathy remains immensely valuable for certain forms of interpersonal care, pastoral caregivers’ efforts to “be more empathic” in situations where social recognition of personhood fails—particularly around social trauma pertaining to racial oppression and violence—are often unhelpful for broadening ethical and political consciousness. It recommends that theological practitioners accept the aporia of empathy as demanding broader ethical consciousness of marginalized suffering, yet also greater respect for the limits of empathy around human difference.