Pathos and Sympathy

The other evening I attended a talk on Abraham Joshua Heschel. The speaker touched on his book The Prophets, which prompted me to reflect on this particular excerpt: 

The nature of man’s response to the divine corresponds to the content of his apprehension of the divine. When the divine is sensed as mysterious perfection, the response is one of fear and trembling; when sensed as absolute will, the response is one of unconditional obedience; when sensed as pathos, the response is one of sympathy.

A couple pages later, Heschel continues: 

The unique feature of religious sympathy is not self-conquest but self-dedication; not the suppression of emotion, but rather its rededication; not silent subordination, but active co-operation with God; not love which aspires to the Being of God in Himself, but harmony of the soul with the concern of God. To be a prophet means to identify one’s concern with the concern of God.

What I find interesting and important here is the connection between theology and anthropology. We must know God in order to have any hope of understanding man. 

Many people are trying to have an exhibit sympathy. Does this sympathy conform to God’s concern? Maybe. Maybe not. In order to know, we must understand God’s own pathos, thinks Heschel.

How can our souls harmonize with the concern of God? What a beautiful question. 

Surely the question leads us to the Bible and to get acquainted with God’s own character, and with his pathos. 

Heschel so eloquently teachers, “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”

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