Sympathetic Objectivity Part 2

By , posted June 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm


At A Journey through NYC religions we have a different approach which is built into our organization. Our idea of sympathy is that we have a “fellow-feeling” with our respondents. This solidarity is extended to “fellow understanding.” We empathize with them to the extent that we can think and feel like them. This reproduction of the other person into ourselves is not complete but is enough for empathetic understanding. Of course, the reproduction is constantly revised in light of comments and actions of the original, the person being understood! One reason we decided to launch a magazine rather than a blog was to develop a rigorous editing cycle of revisions.

This process resembles “adduction,” which the philosopher Charles Pierce said was the synthetic interaction of deductive reasoning (reasoning from your first religious or philosophical principles) and inductive reasoning (reasoning based on the patterns that present themselves in the reality that one is examining). He was trying to get out of the deadlock of wars over first principles and the randomness of mere empiricism. Deduction has a tendency to force reality into preconceived, even stereotypical, “stories.” Editors can be prone to this type of mistake. Reporters also carry preconceptions about religion and its adherents that sometimes seem invincible to contrary facts. On the other hand inductive reasoning can end up with lots of small, often contradictory, wandering stories without an overarching narrative. Reporters like to run down a lot of rabbit trails that are fun and interesting but don’t lead to anywhere important. Respondents like stories with pretty facts without judgments about their worthwhileness or whether they tell the whole story.

I am sure that he didn’t quite solve his philosophical problems (Pierce is often associated with the pragmatism of William James). However, I think he did provide a working methodology for journalists who want to go beyond the alienating problems of objective journalism and the opinionated new journalisms or the clash of editorial/reportorial imperialism versus local religious voices. There needs to be a mutually attentive going back and forth between respondents and the journalist. Pierce reminds us that journalism is a synthesis of viewpoints done in community. For A Journey that means that we are a hyper-local news site spending a lot of time with religious people in their communities.

Our sympathy for the subjects of our reports extends to our readers. When we write, we wonder how can they adopt, without having to buy into a particular faith, some of the great ideas, practices and styles of life of other religious people? How do faiths meet: how can Christians learn from Muslims who learn from Hindus who learn from Buddhists who learn from Christians, and so on. We like the idea of Dowser Media which searches out for best ways to solve public problems. We just add religious ways of solving problems to their approach. Much of the positive results of religious creativity is shareable among people of different faiths.


Reporting life in its fullness

We are a platform that strives to show how religion fills people’s lives and cultures with meaning, hope and values. We have a curiosity and appreciation of the immense creative energy that may erupt from their religious lives.

If religion is reported by the same empathetic approach as New York reporters give to art, fashion, and money, then all religions will fare well as will all New Yorkers by seeing the immense religious creativity in meeting personal and social needs. Reporting should start with recognition of the full assets, including religious, of a community before taking a deficit perspective.

Most religious people just want to concentrate on the development of their core faith competencies rather than cultural warfare. They hope to have normal lives of every day enjoyments filled with long term goodness and meaning. Consequently, they are reluctant to live in a state of anger or fear.

This understanding of human motivation also goes against a deep intellectual stream that reaches back to Max Weber, the author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber claimed that religion was basically about getting away from evils by overcoming or fleeing them. He argued that Protestants worked so hard, consequently establishing capitalism and democracy, in order to know that they weren’t damned. He makes slight mention of the sense of “good” and assurance that the Protestants had. A Journey’s journalism understands the religious person as having a different set of core motivations.

Much more of religious creative energies goes into what religious people believe is good, true, and beautiful than into fighting what they disbelieve or dislike. This helps explain a peculiar result that we have gotten from our polling of religious people about what they believe are the most important issues for their congregations in the next year. Unprompted, they seldom mention any of the great culture war issues of abortion, gender, the election of the next president, and the like.

The so-called Anti-Mosque Church, which was briefly set up in 2010 to oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero, had basically four people from out of state plus sixty media people and other gawkers. That is not much evidence for a great church-based culture war over Muslims.

In their most merciful nature people allow each other to believe and follow what Gods that they choose as true and good. This merciful, tolerant way of life, which is encapsulated in the democracy of the U.S. Constitution, doesn’t preclude argument or contrary actions within the limits of our democracy. As journalist Debbie Harkins wrote, A Journey “persuades me that New York is truly the most religiously tolerant city in the world. What a virtue! In this respect we really ARE a shining city on a hill.”

To the degree that people are willing to live in creative tension with each other’s sense of ultimate reality is the degree to which their religions are innovative and mutually beneficial. In fact the creative religious cacophony is one of the essential characteristics of the American people. Though the people of the United States are mostly Christian, they make up for the uniformity with a bewildering array of competing alternative Christianities. New York City is also a majority Christian city but you wouldn’t know it by the expressions of diversity of faiths here. Even the Catholic Church, which encompasses the nominal allegiance of 40% of the city, displays huge theological, cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. The primary driver of creativity in the city is the continual insertion of people, ideas, faiths, and movements from outside of the city.

The diversity of faiths potentially makes the religion sector in New York City an important center for creativity and innovation. Faith-based social service organizations are creating all sorts of new ways to care for those furthest down. All around us are new forms of testifying about God, creation, and self-transformation.

Even the most traditionalist believers are inventive in ways of living out their traditions within a modern context. Traditions are preserved as they are appropriated and renewed by believers to address their current needs. A tradition-orientated faith that is not changing its hues upon its bedrock of traditions is a faith that has ceased to be vital.

Sympathetic objectivity will serve the city very well. Today, we are largely made up of “outsiders:” immigrants from around the world; and migrants from across the United States. We need sympathetic objectivity to have a lively, tolerant city with a true appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of each other. The great changes of the world tend to come from the outside: the people on the edges, the immigrant, the person who goes his own way, the outcast, and the dweller amidst great flux of peoples, ideas, cultures and faiths. These people, mainly those on the margins of power,, are considered as epiphenomena to the “insiders,” the great actors in the centers of power, but in fact they are the generators of the future, not the elites who are basically conservative and don’t want to upset their situation. (However, the outsiders are banging the door to become the new insiders. And some adept insiders extend their hands to newcomers with the result being sustainable innovation and social movements.)

Like George Orwell, the Journey journalist believes that everyone, no matter how humble their station in life, has at least one great story in them if the journalist can only connect enough to discover it. A Journey wants to tell these great stories of everyday people as if they were the stories of kings and queens. It is the excitement of ordinariness. The extraordinary comes out of the ordinary.

However, sympathetic objectivity is not about feel good, positive stories. It is about deeply understanding and appreciating what other religious people have to say to us who have a different religion or those of us with no religion. We discover that the religious people are contributing assets to our lives in the city, not just deficits. Of course, from this position of deep understanding we will run across weaknesses, contradictions and conflicts that our audience ought to be aware of. That is why “sympathy” is only the first step in reporting, not the last step. Even heroes have their clay moments. And even fiends have their inexplicable, to us, attractions. Religious people know that you can’t be “saved” if you are perfect.


Originally appeared in A Journey through NYC religions, March 4, 2013.

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