Monday, April 18, 2011

The Moral Economy Of Guilt

A new issue of First Things is out, and there is an interesting article by Wilfred M. McClay on the The Moral Economy of Guilt. Longish, and it covers more than one topic.
Forgiveness in its deepest sense is something different from “letting go of anger” so that we can individually experience wholeness and healing. It involves an extraordinary suspension of the normal workings of justice: of the normal penalties for crimes, and the normal costs for moral failings. By definition, it is something that can be done only rarely without undermining the basis on which it rests and without creating an entirely different set of moral expectations. The famous admonition from Tuesdays with Morrie that we should “Forgive everybody everything” is perhaps appealing as a psychological instruction, but it is appalling as a general dictum. It resembles the child’s dream that every day should be Christmas.


terri said...

Another question or two or three for you....

I sense different threads running through a few of your posts...

1. Much of what we are and think and believe and do is beyond our control, not just in our ability to affect it, but also in our very ability or perceive or understand it.

2. "Easy"(forgive everybody everything) forgiveness is cheap and undermines other important virtues. Forgiveness should be used sparingly and in appropriate circumstances.

Doesn't it follow that if we are so desperately up to our necks in illusion that we should forgive everybody everything?

If we can't see our own need, or even have an awareness of our spiritual desperation, wouldn't that make a compelling case for universalism?

If you follow this rabbit trail too far you'll be coming up against C.S. Lewis, someone I know you think very highly of, in innumerable ways....because he always emphasizes choice and the need for people to consciously recognize their spiritual need and not only recognize it but respond appropriately to it.

I know your not making a systematized theory here as much as you are ruminating about things, so I wouldn't expect a detailed solution. I was just wondering if you noticed that there are competing themes working against each other running through these posts?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, we'll see, perhaps, but I am not anticipating the contradiction you perceive. I see the point, certainly, that if we are 80% deluding ourselves, why should we presume to hold another's illusions against him, and why should God hold any of it against any of us? But I don't think it's going to work out that way. I think I am seeing a way through.

When I get there, of course, the way may blocked.

Dubbahdee said...

Actually, I have for some years been in a similar place to what Terri brings up. It does not necessarily lead to universalism, but it does open one up to being very patient with where people are coming from.

I have been accused of being a great fan of quiddity -- of the whichness of things, the particularity of something. That is taking things for what they are on there own terms. I suppose when dealing with people, we would speak of the "whoness" of someone.

I will own that and say that if it is true, it is largely because I am vitally aware of the limitations of knowing. Mine and others. We can guess, presume, calculate, make stabs at estimating the likelihood of this or that. But KNOWING? Certainty? That is really much slipperier than we think.

I apply this to my view of scripture interpretation as well. This is why I have come to prefer the poetic and multi layered approach that I have come to learn was favored by Augustine. It allows for a lot more elbow room and still remains grounded in the text.

And it does not make me a universalist in the Rob Bell sense of thinking that there is no Hell. But I do think that in the end, God will sort it out in a much broader way than we tend to think of it now. I think Bell is right insofar as we allow accreted pictures to become certainties in our minds without warrant. We ought to take more notice of our inability to be sure.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ben linked to a Rob Bell where he is emphatic about the existence of hell, but also of free will, which seems like a popularised arminianism against a popularised calvinism, to me. Which would make sense, that my Asbury-trained boys would lean more that way than their father.

They're just wrong, of course. I've failed them deeply by letting this happen. But there you are, closet semi-pelagianism happens in the best of families.

Dubbahdee said...

Semi palagian indeed. It's everywhere. But don't get me started. I find myself in a third category I can't define an that's a whole conversation of it's own.

I did not read the FT article, don't have time right now. Yet the quote you post here seems off somehow. The way he describes forgiveness, as problematic and removing the foundations of justice, misses the point entirely. That is of course exactly what God is up to in Jesus. No sense messing about with justice. The problem is simply beyond of the scope and ability of justice. Therefore God decided that forgiveness (I call it the Cosmic Reset Button) is the ultimately the only solution.

So, he let's criminals, perverts, liars, rebels and malicious idiots like you and me (and everybody else) get off scot free. If that seems wrong, well, that's why St. Paul said that the Gospel is a fool's game. It makes no sense, but there it is.

Now how do we apply the Gospel to living daily? If we are really serious about it, it's the ultimate libertarian politics. See this article by Tullian Tchividjian to see how it may apply to churches for starters.

james said...

I read that aspect of the FT article a little differently. (It could have been a trifle clearer. It was much clearer with other themes such as the vileness of repenting for other people's sins and the open-ended guilt trip we get from fast communication and power.)

The action of forgiveness doesn't happen unless the forgiver is aware of an injury. If someone asks me to forgive him for putting white paper in a blue envelope, I can't forgive because there's been no injury. I don't care.

If I'm asked to forgive my neighbor for "papalua benja" I'm equally unable to forgive because I've no understanding of what he means. I can't seriously forgive a "I'm sorry for what I did." A "blanket" forgiveness is too fuzzy carry much meaning, or much forgiveness. But if my neighbor says "When I returned your lawnmower I accidentally set fire to your garage" I have an injury and an understanding of it, and now it is up to me to decide whether I value my neighbor and my soul more than the garage. That would be a meaningful act of forgiveness.

A "get out of jail free" card isn't the same as forgiveness; at least for us. The infinite knowledge and love of God can see all the possibilities that would mean, and be able to forgive them--but for us it tends to debase forgiveness into not caring. And God's forgiveness doesn't exclude judgment--guests get thrown out of the wedding feast for having no wedding garment; and everyone is rewarded according to his works. He cares, and still forgives, if we want it.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

The infinite knowledge and love of God can see all the possibilities that would mean, and be able to forgive them--but for us it tends to debase forgiveness into not caring.

Well put, James.

Texan99 said...

C.S. Lewis said that forgiveness doesn't mean pretending that the injury didn't happen, or that it didn't hurt, or that it wasn't wrong, or even that the person who did it isn't likely to do it again -- which is one reason it's hardest to forgive someone who's not repentant. He said it meant something more like not savoring the rancor in our hearts, not wishing for the wrongdoer to have a worse fate in store than he already inherently does as a result of what he's done (and who he is that he would do such a thing).

In other words, to forgive is to continue our duty to love the wrongdoer no matter how painful it is to maintain the connection. We might be shooting man who was about to harm a child and couldn't be stopped any other way, while also being under a duty to forgive him, without our forgiveness in any way altering the fact that we were right to shoot him.

It seems to me that it's about acting in justice rather than in spite, and acting in mercy rather than in justice whenever that would not do more harm than good.