July 19 2024

Can We Teach Empathy? Lessons from the “Heretics”

Christopher J. Richmann, Baylor University

Empathy by John Edward Marin

Empathy: Demanding, Significant, Definable, Measurable

A few semesters ago, I was facilitating a faculty learning group focused on adapting and improving courses for our recently revised common core curriculum. For context and inspiration, we read together the “vision document” that accompanied the recent changes to the core. As an educational developer and a teacher at heart, I couldn’t help but poke my colleagues with the document’s claim that students “will gain a deeper. . .empathy for people from other societies, races, genders, ethnicities, and socio-economic status.” It didn’t take long to get a reaction.

“You can’t teach empathy,” opined a faculty member. “It’s a wonderful, aspirational ideal, but you just can’t teach it.” This instructor went on to explain that, of course, we hope empathy develops out of the cumulative experiences of learning and exposure to new ideas that characterize liberal arts education. But true empathy needs time to foment, probably more than four years.

As you might suspect, I was not convinced. Instructors can—and should—do more than “hope,” especially if your institution publicly commits itself to particular outcomes. Empathy entails a transformation, which admittedly seems daunting. But all education is transformation. Perhaps empathy is a particularly demanding transformation, since it is entangled with how we think as much as what we know. Perhaps empathy is a peculiarly significant transformation, since it shapes not only the way we engage with scholarly subjects but also with friends, family, co-workers, and strangers on social media. But being demanding or significant are—it seems to me—arguments in favor of trying to teach empathy, rather than justifications for stopping at hope.

I suspect as well that the aversion to trying to teach empathy is wrapped up in the enormity and nebulousness of the phenomenon. But these are just different ways of saying empathy is demanding and significant. It is laziness, not wisdom, to appeal to Justice Stewart’s obscenity rubric: I know it when I see it, but I don’t know how to define it or measure it. I believe we can do both—indeed, we are obligated to do both if empathy is to be meaningful at all—even if my suggestions below ultimately fall short.

Certainly, much rests on how one defines “empathy.” And while many (often-contradictory) definitions exist, I prefer to define empathy as the capacity to know the internal state of another. This differentiates empathy from sympathy, which is sharing the feelings of another reflexively. In contrast, empathy requires an intentional effort to take the perspective of another, combining contextual information with charitable imagination based on common human traits. In short, it rests at the intersection of self and other. It seems self-evident to me that this capacity is central to the study of religion. As a teacher of religious history, I am particularly interested in the species of “historical empathy,” which aims at understanding and explaining the probable motivations of historical actors.

Complete empathy (whatever that may mean) is impossible to develop in four, or six, years. But who among us is fully transformed on any meaningful rubric on the day we receive our diploma? College educators aim rather to set students on a trajectory that, even if incomplete, nevertheless can be measured. Empathy, like its cousin, critical thinking, is not a “mastery” skill; new situations challenge our empathetic skills, and there is always room for growth.

I am convinced, however, that we can identify some markers of empathy and assess how students display empathy in discrete situations. Although researchers have developed valid and reliable quantitative measures of empathy, these tools are narrowly focused on interpersonal empathy, inhibiting their usefulness in measuring attitudes towards subjects that are not immediately present—such as historical figures. More applicable to my work is the qualitative study of empathy in students, especially the decades of work on historical empathy, including the levels of empathy described by Roslayn Ashby and Peter J. Lee.1 According to these researchers, students exhibit five levels of empathy when attempting to make sense of historical behavior which researchers expected to appear strange to students. In Level 1, students regard the behavior of historical actors as unintelligible, explainable only by mental or moral deficiency. On the other end of the scale at Level 5, students contextualize historical behavior as much as the information available to them allows, speculate charitably based on supposed common human traits only when crucial information is missing, and clearly differentiate their own perspectives from that of the historical actors.

Teaching Empathy: One Attempt

At an institution with a Christian identity and mission, my freshman-level course on Christian history and thought is required of nearly all students (part of the common core mentioned above). Along with its sister course on Christian scriptures, this course pulls the double duty of rounding out the required humanities curriculum and giving students explicit instruction in Christian foundations, practices, and teachings. While it is not indoctrination, students are expected to critically integrate this learning into their own religious, spiritual, and ethical development.

An immediate complication for teaching empathy in this course is its focus on a single religious tradition. If empathy is demonstrated in encounter with the “other,” what people or groups would qualify as “other” enough when all our subjects regard themselves as Christian? How much easier is it to find an “other” when teaching world religions! Of course, “otherness” is a matter of degree and combination, not order, so with intentionality and structure, any human subject can be “other” for the purposes of developing and displaying empathy. Additionally, research shows that if the “other” is too dissimilar, people have exceeding difficulty displaying empathy. Therefore, I confidently enlisted those groups regarded as “heretics” by the dominant strand of Christianity in its first five centuries to fill this role, since these groups exist on the margins, rather than completely outside, my students’ religious identities (93 percent of whom identify with historically orthodox Christianity).2

From the beginning, this experiment bore fruit in pushing me to take more seriously the contributions of the “religious outsiders” (in R. Laurence Moore’s term3) in my teaching. I expected students’ empathy could be enhanced with extended time learning about heresies (framed in political and social terms rather than “incorrect” theology or practice), role-playing exercises, and a research assignment that included group discussion and writing in the persona of a “heretic.”


Many scholars recommend role-play and reflection on role-play as ways to develop empathy. I opted for a public presentation and shared experience in which two students, in front of the rest of the class, acted out scripted roles, which I composed, of a particular heretic and an orthodox believer, discussing their key theological difference. For instance, a portion of the dialogue between an orthodox Christian (Marcus) and an Arian (Tertius) reads:

M: So you don’t think Christ is divine?

T: That’s not exactly right. We do believe Christ is divine. But “divine” doesn’t necessarily mean eternal.

M: It sounds like you are splitting hairs. Why do you resist the notion of Christ being fully divine, with all the qualities of God?

T: Let me ask you this: how many Gods do Christians worship?

M: One, of course. We are not pagans or barbarians. We worship the one God who is revealed in the Hebrew scriptures: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of Moses and Elijah.

T: Well, that’s just it. If we Christians worship only one God, we have to be able to say what the One God is. And as you say, this one God, fully divine, is eternal. We can’t have two beings who are eternal, can we? Wouldn’t that mean we worship two Gods?

All students then reflected on the exchange by explaining what they thought was the most important issue for the “heretic” in the conversation, whether they believed the “heretic” got his points across, and imagining—in the place of the “heretic”—how they felt at the end of the conversation. We repeated this exercise with eight heresies, spread out through the first month of class.

Research Assignment

The role-playing exercise was meant, in part, to help students decide what heresy they wanted to focus on for their research assignment. Students were asked to study a single heresy in depth and answer four questions, in the persona of the “heretic”:

  1. What theological problem are you trying to address?
  2. What is your solution?
  3. Why is this solution attractive to you and other people you know?
  4. Why do you think this position was rejected by others?

After exposure to the basics of the heresies in primary- and secondary-source readings, lectures, and the role-playing exercises, students wrote an outline as a first attempt to answer these questions. During a research work day in class, students shared their outlines while also discussing (with others who chose the same heresy) why they chose to study the heresy, the theological commitments or assumptions of the heretical group, and what they believed was the central teaching of the heresy—described in the most charitable, yet accurate, way possible. Each group summarized their discussion on poster board and presented it to me or my teaching assistant. Based on further insights from these discussions, students revised their outlines and submitted them. I or my teaching assistant gave feedback on the outlines, and the students were asked to incorporate this feedback into a final draft of their answers to the four questions, in prose amounting to 1,000-1,500 words.

Assessing Empathy

To analyze student historical empathy, I rated students’ written answers to the four questions using a modified version of Ashby and Lee’s levels of empathy. In Level 1, students regard the behavior of their subjects as stupid or unintelligible. In Level 2, students misrepresent context and use stereotypes to explain people’s actions. For instance, one student wrote, “Most early Christians were not very intelligent due to lack of education, so Docetism was convenient for many.” In Level 3, students use evidence to explain their subjects’ behavior but leave context implicit or incomplete. For example, one student wrote in the persona of a Pelagian, “By believing in our ability to keep the commandments, we ascribe to the command[’s] fairness.” In Level 4, students use evidence, making context explicit but not well connected to subjects’ behaviors. One student, for example, asserted, without further explanation, that “Marcion’s teachings provided a reason for Gentile Christians to break from the Jewish roots of Christianity.” In Level 5, students use more subtle contextual clues and attempt to integrate opposing stances and connect multiple relevant contexts. As one student wrote,

Ebionism is a broad stroke for mitigating conflicting theologies. There are a lot of differences to be found between Jesus’ teachings and what is written in the Old Testament that are resolved in this way of thinking, as well as the issue of monotheism is addressed directly in this wonderful sect. The greatest strength of this religion is that it solves multiple theological problems that have been the topic of debate for some time now.

Of my fifty students, none scored Level 1; 18 percent scored Level 2; 60 percent scored Level 3; 18 percent scored Level 4; and 4 percent scored Level 5. This rating system allowed me to make crucial distinctions between students’ displays of empathy and provided many examples of the characteristics of each level. Additionally, this rating allowed me to see that most of my students display evidence-based empathy when writing about heresies, and many of them exhibit advanced, complex, or nuanced empathy. I did not, however, have a pre- and post-test or control group to compare this data to, since this written exercise was part of the “intervention” itself.

Most enlightening—and most heartening—was a comparison of students’ responses from a control group and the experiment group on this simple question at the end of the semester: “How would you describe what a ‘Christian heretic’ is to someone who has not taken this class?” After reading through the responses, three categories that could account for all the responses inductively emerged: “Descriptive” (heresy as a social construct, not inherently positive or negative), “Non-understanding” (left blank, inaccurate, irredeemably vague, etc.), and “Judgmental” (negative view of heresy, no attempt to contextualize). Compared to the control group, students in the experiment group were more than eight times more likely to give a descriptive response, and about ten times less likely to give a non-understanding response and over three times less likely to give a judgmental response. In short, students who engaged in the empathy-building exercises of my class had a clearer notion of the concept of heresy and a more charitable attitude toward those regarded as heretics, at least in the abstract.


This quasi-experiment (the full results of which are currently in peer-review) provides evidence that when given a nonjudgmental framework, encouraged to combine context and imaginative insight in analyzing human motivations, and allowed to develop their responses in dialogue, most students can approach Christian heretics with empathy. Whether students can translate this empathy to other scholarly subjects or their interpersonal attitudes is another question—a question I believe is worth trying to answer.

1 Rosalyn Ashby and Peter J. Lee, “Children's Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History," in The History Curriculum for Teachers, ed. Christopher Portal (London: Falmer,1987), 62–88.

2 Non-orthodox students are those who on a campus-wide survey indicated their religious affiliation was non-Christian, Unitarian, Mormon, or Jehovah’s Witness.

3 R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press), 1987.

Christopher RichmannChristopher Richmann is assistant director for the Academy for Teaching and Learning and affiliate faculty in the Department of Religion at Baylor University, teaching courses in history of Christianity and world cultures. His research focuses on the pentecostal-charismatic tradition and Lutheran spirituality. Richmann’s articles have appeared in Wesleyan Theological Journal, Pneuma, Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association, Journal of the Lutheran Historical Conference, Word & World, and Lutheran Quarterly. His book, Living in Bible Times: F. F. Bosworth and the Pentecostal Pursuit of the Supernatural, is forthcoming with Pickwick. In the areas of teaching and learning, Richmann has special interests in academic authority in the classroom, teaching as vocation, and how theories of human development influence teaching. He is currently co-editing Called to Teach: Excellence, Commitment, and Community in Christian Higher Education (under contract).