Tuesday 30 August 2011

What is Christian forgiveness?


Forgiveness is close to the core of Christianity, to forgive is mandatory - the implication is that we will be forgiven in the same manner and to the same extent that we ourselves forgive - yet I have found it very difficult to understand the concept.


What happens when we forgive?

In normal terms forgiveness seems much like forgetting, 'not thinking about' something - but that can't be correct in a heavenly perspective, because everything is 'remembered'.

Nor is forgiveness a matter of ignoring sin, or of making oneself believe that there is no difference between good and evil, or that what seemed bad was actually good (as when people always put the most optimistic and well-intentioned construction on events, regardless of the reality).


But I feel closer to understanding forgiveness having read the first four chapters of Charles Williams He Came Down From Heaven.

I have tried to read this book many times, but this time it 'clicked' and the book strikes me as without doubt one of the most profound theological writings I have encountered - almost alongside Pascal.

In essence, and as far as I understand it, to forgive is to put events into the ultimate and heavenly perspective when even the most deliberate evil is is seen as unable wholly to escape from Good, and will become an occasion for good.

The necessity to forgive is then, perhaps, an order not to despair; an injunction to be aware that God created all things, and makes them happen; that evil can destroy but Good is primary.

At root, the injunction to forgive is a statement of the nature of reality.


Note added: Conversely, failure to forgive - i.e. persistence of resentment, or grudge - is implicitly acceptance of the primacy of evil, the dominance of the demonic. It is denial of Christian Love as the ultimate principle. It is therefore the denial of reality.



The Crow said...

Forgiveness is a tonic - a vitamin pill. It keeps you regular.
It becomes easy when one inhabits only the present moment.
Keeping an eye on the source of past trouble is a good precaution, though.
Be like a soldier in the enemy camp.

James said...

Dr. Charlton,

I've always had trouble wrapping my head around forgiveness. Your post "clicked" in a very sweet way. Thank you. You might be interested in a blog called One Cosmos. It's Christianity for the thinking man.

Bruce Charlton said...

@James - I'm glad this helped - I shall be trying to pass on more of the wisdom of Charles Williams over the next weeks.

a Finn said...

Charlton: "Nor is forgiveness a matter of ignoring sin, or of making oneself believe that there is no difference between good and evil, or that what seemed bad was actually good (as when people always put the most optimistic and well-intentioned construction on events, regardless of the reality).

Conversely, failure to forgive - i.e. persistence of resentment, or grudge - is implicitly acceptance of the primacy of evil, the dominance of the demonic. It is denial of Christian Love as the ultimate principle. It is therefore the denial of reality."

- You have written so many good articles that it is perhaps unforgiving to criticise this without balancing it with justified praise. But, that rendering of Christianity is a mistake. Also, it is dangerous, both religiously and societally, despite the first paragraph I quoted. I sense that this mistake have deep roots in our being and thinking, so that it has propensity to rotten new ideas and thinking. Thus my criticism is a mostly a general critique.

Middle-eastern Muslims have a monotheistic custom that predates Muslims. When they make e.g. figures to carpets, they are often very symmetrical, but not perfectly symmetrical. They could make the figures perfectly symmetrical, but they break the symmetry deliberately. In this and other things they do essentially the same thing. With this they respect the God's exclusive rights, perfections and universals.

Western man sees himself as an individual in competition with other individuals. He has a tendency to some extent exaggerate his accomplishments and downplay his negative sides. He always tries to rise above the rest, like a cone-shaped wave with concave slopes. He tries to rise mostly with intensive personal efforts, but also by pressing others down and with various elaborate, but thin social arrangements, ideologies etc., and their complex lift - press down effects. He reproduces this basic pattern in his thinking; the greatest this, the ultimate that, beyond this, the highest that, the perfect this, the first that, etc. He often neglects or undervalues things, ideas, concepts and people (including his own relatives) outside his selective and limited, but paradoxically always expansive purview. When there is no balancing and mediating communities and cooperation, Western man and his thinking resides precariously and ambivalently between alternating atomistic individualism and collectivism. In his thinking there is always subtle and almost invisible tyrannical flavor, whether the individual himself notices or recognizes it or not. He doesn't brook contradictory ruling and/or social ideas, that are not de facto subdued to ruling principle and/or ideology, fixed in a hierarchical organizational and collective order.

Cont. ...

a Finn said...

Part 2.

Thus to Western man Jesus taught de facto contradictory and irreconcilable things, and hence to him endless and uneasy interpretations would be necessary even without ubiquitous individual competition, which makes it worse. There is no solid ground, despite that Jesus taught exactly that. To Western pseudo- and commercial Christian there is no solid ground, although he never fails to advertize his Christianity as a solid ground. Instead of thinking like Jesus in terms of community and congregation, hence balancing; connecting, but at the same time durably separating; preserving; and protecting seemingly contradictory things and concepts like particularism and universalism, love and hate, forgiveness and unforgiveness, ingroup and outgroup, earth and heaven, man and God, Western pseudo-Christian always discerns the greatest principle, which he separates, cuts it's proper connections, lifts it up to a ruling void, and from there it starts, selectively or wholesale, to suffocate other principles. In his wake he leaves at minimum "neutron bombed" pseudo-Christians, whose souls have died, but they bodies live on in a decaying society; or at worst a secular tyranny.

When Western men plan to cooperate, weakly and transiently, they display their strong sides, and decide if they receive enough utility from cooperation. Western Christians should lay the foundation of their long term ingroup cooperation, in coherence with Christianity, to:

a) Counterintuitively to weaknesses, insufficiencies, inadequacies and perhaps defects. These should be displayed. These have five functions: 1) Another man's weakness or inadequacy in one area is balanced by another man's strength or greater strength 2) Every man pledges to improve himself in the weak areas for the group, especially if the weak areas are important 3) Realistic knowledge of the group and it's members increases. 4) Revealing personal information strenghtens the bonds between members 5) The significance of one unit of risk because of weaknesses and inadequacies is greater than one unit of utility because of strengths

b) Extra, but not blind and indiscriminate, forgiveness in the group not based on personal and earthly utility, of which the latter is perhaps done anyways. Extra forgiveness is rewarded personally in the life after death by God and at the group level here on earth.

c) Extra, but not blind and indiscriminate, services to the group not based on personal and earthly utility, of which the latter is perhaps done anyways. Extra services are rewarded personally in the life after death by God and at the group level here on earth.

d) No great status differences in the ingroup.

e) Strengths and capabilities of members coordinated to mutually strenghtening cooperation, where the effect of the whole group is greater than the sum of the parts.

These together with daily Christian life will, quite naturally, teach how to balance and connect the "components" of Christianity with each other. Or secular ideas.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Finn - I'm sorry, I don't understand you. Could you be clearer?

a Finn said...

I add about Hutterites (without evaluating the details about them, their customs and Christian orientation) that they can easily reconcile e.g. strict ingroup endogamy (particularism) and universalism in permanent manner in their Christian life. They are satisfied about their endogamy and ethnicity, but at the same they are proud (not secularly proud) that they have converted people to Hutterite Christianity as far as in South-America and Africa. They admit that especially in Africa Hutterite things have gone wrong, but they move on with their lives, they have done their best.

How long it would take that this kind of strong "contradiction" or some accentuated principle in our atheist/pseudo-Christian, atomized individualist and large complex organization -society would veer either to some extreme, become totally corrupted or blow to pieces? What are the reasons for this in our thinking and way of life?

Does this comment make it clearer?

a Finn said...

Addition. To put it another way, in Christianity, forgiveness, like everything else, is a solid and highly connected "team player", understandable only in real life Christian congregation or community context. It is certainly God's mercy, forgiveness and love that ultimately will save us, low and insignificant life forms compared to God, but shouldn't we leave all the perfections of the world, ultimate principles etc. to God, and try to gather the unavoidably imperfect "team" we need in this world and to gain access to the next?

Sojka's Call said...

My experience is that true forgiveness allows us to experience the state of grace. Forgiveness becomes the act of letting the transgression go by releasing all judgement about right and wrong. It feels like a karmic weight of some kind is completely lifted and there is no debt between the people involved left that requires any action - there is no wrong left to right. Both people feel the state of grace - the one forgiving and the one being forgiven. It is extremely powerful and there is not doubt what happened.

Bruce Charlton said...

My point is that it was or is quite hard for me to distinguish forgiveness, as a 'psychological state', from forgetting or indifference.

Clearly it is not forgetting, clearly it is not indifference: what is it?

Forgiveness seems to be an addition rather than a subtraction; perhaps it can be conceptualized as the addition of Grace; since it does not come from ourselves.

Lack of forgiveness can apparently be seen in those people (and peoples) who seem to be consumed by resentments and grudges, to which they cling, which they rehearse at every opportunity.

This is an evil state; but as C.S. Lewis points out, it is also evil to have been the cause of creating such a state in others; yet sometimes this is deliberately done to people, as an act of aggression.

Sojka's Call said...

@BGC - definitely not indifference or forgetting. My experience is this was an action of releasing judgement. I "knew" but on the other hand it did not seem like me as an individual had really done the act of forgiving - it felt like something helped me (holy spirit maybe) - I cannot take credit. When the other party and myself realized what was happening and actually felt ourselves in a state of grace it was like a miracle had occurred. I struggle to wrap words around an experience beyond my capability to convey using language since it was a feeling and experience very rarely discussed, at least in my circle of friends and family. And, when we do discuss, then people's definitions of grace and god and who can and cannot do what based on which biblical teaching one chooses to focus on then make the discussion of the experience difficult. I only know what I have experienced and cannot explain why it happened to me. The act of forgiveness was done on my part without any thought of gaining a reward somehow - it was spontaneous and without analytical thought processes of right/wrong, reward/punishment, etc. I only knew it was the right thing to do at that instant. I think it is a spontaneous action that must be done at a precise moment when the individual is presented with that choice. You must choose forgiveness right then.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SC - your tale reminds me of Gollum nearly but not quite repenting in the tunnel at Kirith Ungol.

Sometimes there is a moment, we understand the issues and we waver, then choose (to forgive, or to hold to our resentment) - the choice may turn-out to be permanent.

Anonymous said...

I have read the post but not all the comments so I could repeat something that has already been said.

For me, which I am not still technically a Christian, it's forgiveness what attracts me the most to Christianity. I'm having trouble with dogma and Christian theory. If it was not for forgiveness, I would have thrown in the towel.

But reading an intro book for Christianity "The Reason for God" (I know, I know, I am reading books for kinder and you are in college), I realized the sheer BEAUTY of the Christian message, especially, about forgiveness.

For me, forgiveness is "hate the sin, love the sinner", that is, to separate the evil action from the person. So it is refusing to say: "This person is bad". Instead it is to say: "Everybody is good (made in image of God) and bad (original sin)". So you can forgive their mistakes because you remember your own mistakes.

Forgiveness is one of the best recipes for the ego. Instead of adopting pharisee religiosity (like in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican) and say "I would not do this ever", it is to adopt a position of "We are all sinners and forgive me my Lord because I have sin".

Forgiveness is SO HARD. Forgiveness takes a lot of pain. I tried to forgive my ex for years. C.S.Lewis tried to forgive a person for decades (both of us succeeded).

It feels like dying. The same way Christ died forgiving our sins. But after dying there is resurrection. And you are reborn: more mature, more peaceful, a better Christian.

Forgiveness is to follow Christ's example and the Father's example, like "Our father" prayer says.

And to know that God is forgiving our sins is the summit of beauty.

Only some thoughts from the kindergarten for some experts like you.

Kristor said...

"It feels like dying." Yes.

Christian forgiveness is a participation in Divine forgiveness and kenosis, or else it is nothing at all; for no creature is competent to repair the ontological damage of the suffering he has endured due to the sin of another, for just the same reason that creatures cannot compensate for the ontological damage their own sins have inflicted upon the world. We cannot find the total release and cleanliness either of redemption or of forgiveness, except insofar as we participate in, and communicate, Grace.

For example, if John through carelessness has caused Edward’s hand to be lopped off, there is no way that John can fix things so that Edward is as good as new. He cannot redeem the damage caused by his own sin. But, conversely, there is no way that Edward can fix things for himself or for John so that either of them are relieved of the horror of the situation. He cannot make his own hand as good as new, and neither can he wash away John’s sin. Only God can repair the damage of the amputation to both men. And this he can do only to the extent that either man accepts his help.

For there is creaturely agency involved in forgiveness, just as there is creaturely agency involved in redemption. In both cases, the creaturely act in question is the surrender and sacrifice of all worldly attachments and loves, in favor of the love and worship of God. One cannot accept salvation with the proper poverty of spirit, and thus enact the total turn toward God that alone opens sufficient room in the heart for full salvific efficacy of Grace, while one is still attached to worldly things. This is why it is so hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom. Likewise with forgiveness, it is not possible to redeem a debt of injury owed to us by another creature unless we renounce that debt altogether; and such renunciation is really possible only to him who has wholly turned away from worldly attachments, and toward God. Only thus may the human heart be so surfeited with otherworldly love as to overwhelm the pain others have caused. When our own death has been swallowed up in victory, so will all our injuries at the hands of others. Those injuries then will have no further purchase upon our inward economies, but will be erased as positive factors of our future lives. They will be salved, healed, made well, and very well: as good as new. At that point only will we be able really to say, “I forgive you.”