Review: The Compassion Quest 1 August 2013
From the moment I saw it, ‘The Compassion Quest’ challenged my expectations. As a work of theology, I expected a much bigger book. For some reason, the books I’ve read recently have been heavier, hardbound and bulky making them a chore to read anywhere but a sturdy table. The Compassion Quest, by comparison, was something that could fit into a bag without you noticing it was there. The pages were a nice brilliant white and the text well sized and dark. Although ergonomical design and readability are things you can expect from a novel, in books of theology they are quite rare. Already placed in a good mood by the book, I began reading a deeply thoughtful and introspective book by a clearly thoughtful and introspective writer. I was pleased to find that its physical readability was echoed in the accessible nature of the text.
The author is Reverend Trystan Owain Hughes, Chaplain at Cardiff University, he has previously authored ‘Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering’. In ‘The Compassion Quest’, the Reverend Hughes explores the role of ‘interconnectedness’, as he puts it, and how it relates to human compassion. The book is full of references, not just to scripture, but songs and popular movie quotes. It is the latter that emphasise the reflective nature of the author. It is also one of the strengths of the book – it doesn’t feel like a work of popular theology, or a pious sermon, but an honest reflection on what it means to be Christian. The honesty of the work is emphasised by the main anecdotes found in the book that draw on the author’s personal experiences. Hughes’ willingness to share these personal moments with myself, an absolute stranger he has never met, forced me to offer a more receptive ear to his message.
And what is his message? Well, it can be seen in two vague halves. In the earlier sections of the work, there is an attempt to remove the preconceptions that Hughes believes can hinder spiritual growth and compassionate action. A large part of this is the ‘Cartesian’ world view, which is mechanistic and highly focused on the self. Platonic dualism is also given criticism for a dichotomy between body and spirit that Hughes believes is not truly Christian. As the book progresses, the author makes the case for interconnectedness – to stop seeing human beings as separate entities within the cosmos, but just like everything else, connected to and part of the entire universe. The importance of relationships is explored further in the third chapter, which includes discussion of the ever-popular ‘science/religion’ dichotomy. The fourth chapter offers a fresh view of what Jesus Christ incarnate means. It is in this chapter that Hughes shows his confidence and competency in Biblical theology, and as a Christian, I certainly found it to be the chapter which challenged my preconceived notions the most.
The latter half of the book continues from Chapter 5, which makes the case for compassion. The author fleshes out what compassion means in this half of the book. How empathy, grace, forgiveness and reverence for life operate in our own lives and the lives of modern-day exemplars. Compassion is a divine quality, argues Hughes, one which is a necessary part of salvation. It is not the miraculous healings of Jesus Christ in which God is revealed, argues the author, but rather the compassion that led to them in the first place.
The Compassion Quest is clearly a book aimed to achieve practical results. The author makes it clear that its purpose is not to be referenced by students of theology, or to contribute to contemporary Christian debates. Rather it is a book that seeks to change the reader. I can say then, with confidence, that the book certainly made me stop and think, and that it has forced me to reconsider the way I view myself and my relationships. I can’t say I’ve become a more compassionate person since reading the book, but I certainly want to be more compassionate, and that alone is a significant achievement for such a small, readable book.
After reading the book, I was reminded of a discussion with a Muslim friend about the theology of ‘love’. The word love is only in the Quran a handful of times, he admitted, but every other line mentions mercy and compassion. We discussed whether compassion is different from love, or whether one is a subset of the other, or if you could make the distinction that compassion is ‘love in action’. We didn’t come to very solid conclusions, but I was struck that Islam has developed a language of compassion and mercy, and Christianity has developed a language of love, and that the two sometimes talk past each other, even when the same point is being made. ‘The Compassion Quest’ certainly provides some ground for further discussion between Muslim and Christians on this topic.