To Become the One Who is Near to Others

“Humility says, ‘How can I serve you?’ Hubris says, ‘Here’s how to fix yourself.’” – Fr. Greg Boyle, Homeboy Industries, Los Angeles, CA

A lot of my scientific work falls under the areas of affective neuroscience, social neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, moral psychology, and mindfulness or contemplative studies. It sounds like a lot to keep together. Admittedly, keeping it together doesn’t always work (especially near the end of the term!), and interdisciplinary connections can prove elusive, confusing, even irritating, especially if they require reshaping of one’s own beliefs or of the sacred disciplines themselves. These hallowed halls of academia can sometimes feel rather like hollow silos, lacking the life-giving stores of wonder, curiosity, humility, and openness in a community of seekers, in solidarity to and for one another. But halls, after all, are for connecting. Hallways do the bridging work in terms both spatial and social. Thanks to the generous spirit of colleagues and communities who have led the way and who continue to seek (and find) connections that many suspected were never, and could never, be there, hallways still open up before us, sometimes unsuspected, much like NASA’s recently discovered magnetic portals linking Earth to the sun.

I entered one of these bright portals during my sabbatical in 2013-2014 at the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in Princeton, NJ. CTI, which next year will begin two years of interdisciplinary encounter on the societal implications of the search for life in the universe (astrobiology) funded by NASA, is located in spirit and in space between Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. During my time there, though, our community of colleagues from biology, psychology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and theology worked in the broad area of religious experience and moral identity. We were one part of a three-year experiment, or inquiry, in deep interdisciplinary engagement, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and run by and at CTI’s wonderful offices. The generosity, expertise, and deep rigor of my colleagues stay with me and shaped my work in ways that I’m still discovering.

One of the lessons I learned from the work at CTI was about which questions to ask, rather than which answers to follow. The central question that took us all of nine months not (!) to answer was: How do we recognize compassion, justice, and the good of others before we become sensitive to the salient features that shape what it means to be for others in loving encounter? Feature set, sensitivity, and selection are central problems in decision theory, touching fields from neuroeconomics to political psychology to robotics and artificial intelligence. Are we sensitive to the features to which we need to be sensitive? How would we ever know if we are not, since knowing one’s insensitivity is only theoretically possible through suitable sensitivity? Could we follow programs already well established and celebrated by those around us we admire? If we follow the best moral principles, how do we know that we are not acting out of a love of our own pure consistency, or out of a fear of being inauthentic? If we follow the most admired moral authorities, how do we know that we are not acting out of a love of their praise and admiration of us, or out of fear of their disapproval? Will our need to belong with the morally superior overcome our acceptance of those who do not belong, who will never belong, who do not want to belong? Even if we lead our own crowd in acts of heroic altruism, how do we know we are not acting out of love of our own reputation or out of fear of its loss? These questions circled around the tables and followed us into the halls of CTI.

One weekend, a few of us from CTI went on a field trip to visit St. Francis Inn, a Franciscan community in nearby Philadelphia. Every day, about 250-450 people from the surrounding area come for a midday meal. Most are single, many live on the street, but almost all come with at least one other person. Many entire families come, children sometimes with both parents, sometimes with only one. All of them sit at tables, place orders, and servers bring their food. They don’t shuffle through a food line. They can sit, and talk, and enjoy their meals in peace. The children can sit with their sisters and brothers and parents and relax in a place that is chaotic at times but full of smiles and friendly voices. They are never asked to bus their own tables. I was a busboy that day, probably because the leaders took one look at me and saw right away that I couldn’t cook, wouldn’t do a great job cleaning, but that I could probably carry my fair share of stuff. No one at St. Francis Inn calls anyone else by any title. Even the priests don’t get the “Father” treatment. The implied hierarchy gets in the way of knowing who the other person is, gets in the way of genuine encounter. Everyone is just “sister” or “brother”. The place runs without federal funding, not because they wouldn’t be able to use it, but because the dollars would come with distinctions that no one there wants to make. If it took the federal money, St. Francis Inn would need to turn away lots of people who come and sit and eat while drunk or high or who are experiencing some other kind of challenge. In the principled language of federal funders, St. Francis could still seat the “worthy poor,” but not the sisters and brothers who come to the door.

In adherence to principle or authority, the place and face and voice of the other person in real encounter are supplanted by a search for stable moral guidance and moral purity. So a principled stance can leave one standing outside of the place of genuine encounter. Let me be clear: we can all learn how to do good things for other people, and so how to be beneficent, and wouldn’t it be great if more of us did just that? Honest reflection, though, reveals that beneficent action does not entail benevolent action, does not entail that we learn to genuinely love the good of others for their sake, with an affection for them and for our imperfect selves. In other words, we can do good things for others while looking right past them. We may look toward moral certainty and look away from risky moral encounter.

In my project at CTI, I wondered about the desire for a kind of moral certainty that shuts out risk and, at the same time, feeling. My work led me to a little and little-known book published in 1955 and edited by a Dominican friar, Albert Plé, entitled Love of Our Neighbor, first published in French in 1954. In that book the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has a little essay called “‘Associate’ and Neighbor”. Unfortunately for the English language, we use “neighbor” as a wholly insufficient translation for the original Greek term, plésion, meaning “the one who is near.” Other languages, French among them, have no such limitation, for the French translation has prochain(e), “the one who is next to.” In his remarkable paper, Ricoeur discovers the “surprise” that is the heart of the parable of the Good Samaritan: the epistemological purity and certainty sought by the moral inquirer is denied and instead supplanted by a call to action, a call to “go and do likewise.” Recall that the parable is placed where it is because it is an answer to an eternal question, “Who is the one near to me?” Who is this person that I am to love, as seen in Leviticus 19:18? How can I recognize her? Tell me, what features must I look for to show me who is worthy of loving encounter? We hear the Samaritan’s story as providing the answer. The Samaritan is said to have “compassion” (in the Greek, a movement of the inner area of the viscera or womb, like a “gut feeling”) on the one who was attacked and left to die, and to immediately have gone into action. So we can hear the story saying that the Samaritan knew who his neighbor was, and acted accordingly. But at the end of the story, the question the storyteller asks is not, “Who knew, who recognized, the neighbor?” Instead, the question is, “And who was neighbor to this man?” And then the surprise: “Go and do likewise.” The answer is imitatio in action, not a principle of knowledge. We don’t know the near one, we rather become the one who is near others. As Ricoeur notes, “So there is no sociology of neighbor; a science is at once ruled out by a praxis. I have not got a neighbor: I make myself somebody’s neighbor.” (p. 150)

Of course, we have already noticed the paradox of making oneself into something one is not already. So instead of the “I make myself” of Ricoeur, we have instead the “Go and do likewise,” a word spoken from the mind and person of Christ. So could it be that in becoming the one who is near to others, one so takes on the mind of Christ, a mind of compassion embracing oneself, the face and person of the other, and the very encounter itself? Could our call be to bestow love without first sighting evidence of another person’s lovability? Could these be the questions that continue to circle and follow us into the hallowed halls?

Michael is a professor of psychology & neuroscience at Scripps College. He heads the Scripps lab on Emotional Understanding and Decision for Agency, Intersubjectivity, and Mindfulness of Others’ Needs In Action (the EUDAIMONIA Lab, or “EU” Lab for short). He is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Photo credit: MaxStraeten from

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