Altruism vs Compassion: From Separation to Oneness

Altruism vs Compassion: From Separation to Oneness

Compassion is not the eleventh commandment. Why not? Because it is a spirituality and a way of living and walking through life. It is the way we treat all there is in life -- ourselves, our bodies, our imaginations and dreams, our neighbors, our enemies, our air, our water, our earth, our animals, our death, our space, and our time. Compassion is a spirituality as if creation mattered. It is treating all creation as holy and as divine... which is what it is.

Compassion Is Not An Ethical System

Those prone to building ethical systems or to moralizing will not be at home with the way of living called compassion. For compassion is not an ethical system. It is the fullest experience of God that is humanly possible. While it includes ethics, as all true spirituality must, it blossoms and balloons to something greater than ethics -- to celebration of life and relief, where possible, of others' pain. Compassion is the breakthrough between God and humans. It is humans' becoming divine and recovering and remembering their divine origins as "images and likenesses" of God. 

When the Creator made us, God "breathed a portion of His breath into us. Each of us has a share in that breath. Each of us is a 'portion of the divine from on high'. Every soul is joined to every other soul by its origin in the Creator of all souls." It is the "truth of all truths", Rabbi Dressner declares, "that every man is our brother, that we are all children of one Father, all sheep of one Shepherd, all creations of one Creator, all parts of one infinite, gracious spirit that pervades and sustains all of mankind." And he goes further in his grasp of what is at stake in compassion. "We are not only brothers under one Father, but all the very same brother, all the very same man, all part of one universal man" (D202f.). Compassion then becomes the "love of man for his fellow man, which is God's love for all men" (194f.).

Compassion: A Break from Dualistic Separatist Thinking

The breakthrough in compassion is the break from dualistic and separatist thinking and acting. This separation is manifest at every level of existence, including that of human as distinct from divine existence. Compassion heals this wound, for it refuses to separate love of God from love of neighbor and experiences both at once. According to Matthew (22.37-40), Jesus taught exactly this: That the "law and the prophets" could be summarized in two great commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. By simply operating out of the Hebrew sources that Jesus himself knew so well, Rabbi Dressner sheds light on this New Testament teaching of compassion. He says:

The possibility of fulfilling the commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, is only understood when we read the next phrase which follows it in the Bible, I am the Lord. Thus God tells us, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself  because I am the Lord. That is to say, because your self and his are bound up in Me; because you are not really distinct and competing beings, but together share in the one existence; because ultimately you are no 'self' and he no 'neighbor', but one in source and destiny. Because I love you both, you shall love Me in him as yourself. (D201)

Matthew's Gospel quotes Jesus as summarizing the law and the prophets when he says, "Whatever you want people to do to you, do this to them" (7.12). Miranda observes that Matthew "takes it for granted that the God of Isr'l is loved in the love of neighbor" (70). And Paul reduces these two commandments to just one: "The whole of the law is summarized in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself' " (Gal. 5.14). For Paul, as for John, love of neighbor is the name for love of God (1 Cor. 8.1-3). Compassion is one energy, divine and human. "Love one another, as I have loved you so that you might love one another," Jesus is cited as saying in John's Gospel (13.34). It is our works of compassion and love of neighbor that will constitute the dwelling of God among us -- "if we love one another, God dwells in us." (1 Jn. 4.12) 

Truth & Sincerity: The Quest for Perfection

There is still another way in which morality and compassion as spirituality must be distinguished, and this concerns that tradition in spirituality regarding the "quest for perfection". This tradition bases its language ostensibly on Mt. 5.48, where Jesus is reported to say: "Be you perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." However, the word often translated as "perfect" "does not have here the later Greek meaning of being 'totally free of imperfections' " and above all it "does not refer to moral perfection."

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Altruism vs Compassion: From Separation to OnenessInstead, to be perfect is to be about truth and sincerity and being a "true" person. For this reason W.F. Albright translates the passage: "Be true, just as your heavenly Father is true." What is evident is that this line is the final summary of Matthew's entire chapter on the Beatitudes and the parallel saying in Luke also occurs in the context of his Beatitudes. Luke says: "Be you compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate." (Lk. 6.36) Both Matthew and Luke precede this injunction with the admonition to "love your enemies". 

Spiritual Perfection is to be Compassionate

Thus it can be said with certitude that the Biblical meaning of spiritual perfection is to be compassionate. It does not mean to attain some kind of static state of moral purity and perfection. Indeed, this is the conclusion Albright comes to when he cites a rabbinic commentary from the first-century A.D. which says: "Be like him. As he is gracious and merciful, so be you gracious and merciful." Jesus is recalling in down-to-earth terms (including love of enemies) this basic Jewish commandment.

Compassion, then, becomes the fullest experience of the spiritual life. It and it alone deserves to be called transcendence and even contemplation. For in relieving the lot of the pained we are truly 'contemplating', i.e., gazing on God and working with God. "When you do it to one of these little ones, you do it to me" (Mt. 25.40) said Jesus so simply. Compassion is a flow in our walking in justice and even an overflow. It takes us far beyond imperatives. It takes us to where Jesus promised it would take us: "That all might be one, Father, even as I am one in you and you are one in me" (Jn. 17.21). The oneness indicated is not a oneness of mind alone but of action and of deep feeling and of celebration. A oneness of compassion.

While it is important not to reduce spirituality and a spirituality of compassion to mere moral norms and principles, it is also important to emphasize the integration of morality and spirituality. For in the fully developed individual and in a truly spirit-filled society, morality will become a way of living or a spirituality. When will this happen? It happens when compassion truly takes over. Then morality (justice-making) and spirituality (a way of living lives of justice and of celebration of justice) become one.

Compassion Is Not Altruism

Altruism has come to mean in common usage the love of another at the expense of oneself. Instead of loving others as we love ourselves, the degenerated use of the term "altruism" implies that we love others instead of loving ourselves. If this be the operative meaning of altruism today, then compassion is surely not altruistic. For the entire insight upon which compassion is based is that the other is not other; and that I am not I. In other words, in loving others I am loving myself and indeed involved in my own best and biggest and fullest self-interest. It is my pleasure to be involved in the relief of the pain of others, a pain which is also my pain and is also God's pain. Altruism as it is commonly understood presumes dualisms, separateness, and ego differences that the compassionate person is aware are not fundamental energies at all.

Today an even more pressing need exists for recognizing how compassion is to everyone's own best interest and that is the issue of the survival of our common global village. If compassion is the best and perhaps only route to common survival, if it is true, as William Eckhardt maintains that "the world is dying from lack of compassion", then compassion is not altruism in the sense of loving others who are different from ourselves. It is loving ourselves while we love others. It is loving the possibilities of love and survival. It is one love that permeates all.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Inner Traditions International.

This article is excerpted from the book:

A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice
by Matthew Fox.

A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice by Matthew Fox.In A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox, the popular and controversial author, establishes a spirituality for the future that promises personal, social, and global healing. Using his own experiences with the pain and lifestyle changes that resulted from an accident, Fox has written an uplifting book on the issues of ecological justice, the suffering of Earth, and the rights of her nonhuman citizens.

Click here for more info or to purchase this book on Amazon.

About the Author

Matthew Fox author Altruism vs CompassionMatthew Fox is a spiritual theologian who has been an ordained priest since 1967. A liberation theologian and progressive visionary, he was silenced by the Vatican and later dismissed from the Dominican order. Fox is the founder and president of the University Creation Spirituality (UCS) located in Oakland, California. Fox is author of 24 books, including the best selling Original Blessing; The Reinvention of Work; Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation; Natural Grace (with scientist Rupert Sheldrake), and his most recent, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh.

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