The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience or devotional practice [is] that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine [makes] you kinder, more empathetic and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness this [is] good theology. But if your notion of God [makes] you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it [leads] you to kill in God’s name, it [is] bad theology.
Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase
Having looked forward to Alain de Botton’s book On Love, I did not find this as inspiring as I had hoped at first. However, now, half-way through, I have to say that the book is growing on me. Thus far, the chapter entitled ‘“I”-Confirmation’ has easily been the highlight. Consider, for instance, the following reflections on labeling:
the labeling of others is usually a silent process. Most people do not openly force us into roles, they merely suggest that we adopt them through their reactions to us, and hence surreptitiously prevent us from moving beyond whatever mold they have assigned us.
De Botton speaks about ‘shaping according to preconceptions’, adding that:
Children are always described from a third-person perspective … before they gain the ability to influence their own definitions. Overcoming childhood could be understood as an attempt to correct the false stories. But the struggle against distortion continues beyond childhood. Most people get us wrong, either out of neglect or prejudice. Even being loved implies a gross bias – a pleasant distortion, but a distortion nevertheless. … No eye can wholly contain our ‘I.’ We will always be chopped off in some area or other, fatally or not.
Looking at it from the other perspective, he notes:
Though I felt myself attentive to the complexities of Chloe’s nature, I must have been guilty of great abbreviations, of passing lightly over areas I simply did not have the empathy or maturity to understand.