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Book: Social and Cognitive Perspectives on the Sermon on the Mount

Chapter: 4. Altruism and Prosocial Ideals in the Sermon: Between Human Nature and Divine Potential

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.32044


Thomas Kazen, in the first of two contributions to the volume, asks whether the Sermon’s ethics of non-retaliation and love of enemy (5:38-48) are compatible with our innate moral drives. Although the commands should probably be taken as hyperbolic loose talk (cf. Kazen’s second contribution), they are, nonetheless, highly charged challenges to a radical ethics. Reviewing biological and psychological research on empathy and altruism, Kazen argues that emotions are indispensable to moral decision-making, perhaps even more foundational than explicit rational reasoning. Mirror neurons, which contribute to the capacity for perspective-taking (theory of mind), along with other cognitive mechanism comprise the capacity for empathy that elicits altruism and forgiveness. However, the sense of justice is as deeply embedded in our moral feelings as is empathy, and sometimes these two intuitions clash. Moreover, benevolence typically is offered primarily to kin and friends, but under what circumstances can it extend beyond those considered ingroup? The fictive-family imagery of the Sermon expands kin to include even enemies, so that it tilts the balance in favour of forgiving behaviour, since forgiveness is usually favoured over revenge among kin. Kazen sketches a history of development in which the Hebrew God becomes more universal and his grace more emotional under the influence of different strands of Hellenistic thought, which makes God’s fatherly forgiveness toward humanity a role-model for universal love and non-revenge. The fictive kin-imagery with God as prototype thus pushes the limits of ingroup altruism to an extreme that includes even enemies.

Chapter Contributors

  • Thomas Kazen ( - tkazen) 'Stockholm School of Theology'