Forgiveness and Reconciliation
As humans, we desire wholeness: we do not enjoy the awareness of being a divided person, incomplete in the way we feel, think, and behave. Yet that seems to be our experience of ourselves. “Sin” is the term in which the Christian theological framework expresses our sense of incompleteness and inadequacy, our lack of awareness of God’s presence. When the framework within which we conduct our lives excludes God, we are said to be “in sin.” We are led to presume that we know more than we in fact know; that we have whole, even complete, picture, rather than partial pictures, of the world and the opportunities open to us; and that we know what to do when we don’t: “It is the desire for ‘wholeness’ that draws us on in our best moments—wholeness as it touches us when life declares beauty; and then when beauty flashes the blinding coordination of each to its own” (Hollingworth, 2013, p. 8).
I have earlier referred to the experience of beauty as a wholeness that is healing because it reveals the truth and is rooted in justice. Chappell, following Nietzsche, makes an analogous point: “Seeing ‘existence and the world’ as beautiful is surely one way of seeing them as meaningful and worthwhile.” Chappell goes on to talk of glory as another morally revealing term (Chappell, 2014, pp. 158-84). He says, “We might put it, with a little formality, like this. Glory is— typically—what happens when a spectacularly excellent performance within a worthwhile form of activity meets the admiration that it merits” (p. 160). Glory is something that we are free to desire and actually to work for, which involves us in a dependence on others; in a concern with facts (i.e., actual achievements) that are, strictly speaking, beyond our control; and in the approbation of others. It, along with the beautiful, gives meaning to life.
Moreover, in St. John’s Gospel, “Glory” is a term used to indicate “the presence of God.” The source of this desire for beauty, for glory, for wholeness is God, whose redemptive creativity inspires our curiosity and the search for meaning. God will not abandon us and leave us to our own devices; not even sin will utterly extinguish our sense of right and the good or our desire to be whole.
The pursuit of truth and the search for meaning has been a dimension of human aspiration throughout history. The world’s meaning is implicit in this desire, for it owes its origin to God. Interestingly, St. Augustine takes up this theme from Seneca with whose work he was familiar, so the idea is not simply Christian but one grounded in human experience per se. Hollingworth in his intellectual account of Augustine’s life refers to Seneca as the “Humanist Saint” and quotes him as follows:
The maker is God; matter is the material; the form is the general character and lay-out of the universe as we see it; the model naturally enough is the pattern which God adopted for the creation of this stupendous work in all its beauty; the end is what God had in view when he created it, and that—in case you are asking what is the end God had in view—is goodness. That at any rate is what Plato says: “What was the cause of God’s creating the universe? He is good, and whoever is good can never be grudging with anything good; so he has made it as good
a world as it was in his power to make it.” (Hollingworth, 2013, p. 35)
Seneca’s conversation was taken into the Christian theological framework, where it is treated as the God-given dimension of human experience that gives rise to the worthwhileness of confession and the hope of forgiveness. I use the term “worthwhileness” here because, as we have seen previously, Aquinas confirms that reason cannot be eliminated while the mind remains active, and the mind cannot be wholly extinguished by sin. My conscience actively reminds me of the real possibility of the wholeness that I desire. So my expression of apology and my desire to restore relationships may in turn stimulate a promising awareness of my personal failure and moral unworthiness. I use the term “promising” here because it can put me in mind of the dimension of human experience that must also be coped with if I am to become myself and again take up my responsibilities. The fact that I can choose to do so is God’s gracious gift.
Of course, for the most part, we know that we are free to become more response-able and therefore potentially more responsible; in any case, we cannot eradicate our sense of right and wrong, even if the sense only emerges into consciousness from time to time. On reflection, our conscience will accuse us of wrongdoing and insistently require us to do something about it. But what can we do about it? How should we attempt to put things right when conscience tells us that we have wronged someone or behaved irresponsibly? We want to be reconciled, but forgiveness and reconciliation are independent experiences (Govier, 2002, pp. 141-57). Very particularly, as Chesterton says, those whose consciences prick them are in need of forgiveness; they want to be healed.
And when things go wrong, I shall want not just to be forgiven but to be forgiven by the person I have wronged. Such forgiveness can bring healing to the wronged person because, as Roberts understands it, implicit in forgiveness is the virtue of forgivingness (Roberts, 1995, pp. 289-306). A person who evinces forgivingness is able to overcome resentment, anger, and any desire for revenge: he or she is therefore free to seek good relationships with the offender, whatever the circumstances. The power of forgivingness, however, not only heals the forgiver, it liberates the wrongdoer thereby healing him or her too. This is important for if we take Strawson’s insight seriously: it is the perception of the wronged person’s resentment associated with the wrong done that has to be removed in order for me to feel forgiven. This is tantamount to the qualities of affectionate concern that are attributed to God: he heals and makes whole the person who is forgiven. God’s forgiveness is personally renewing, not exclusively focused on objectively removing the fault.
The moral framework implicit within the Church’s celebration of the lively relationship of God and the world provides the context for understanding good personal, institutional, and professional relationships. It is at one and the same time both practically reasonable and theoretically intelligible. It takes into account the wholeness of the person, body, mind and spirit; the nature of creation; and the God- given liveliness of human curiosity to explore it and come to terms both with it and with one’s own self.
Acceptance of personal responsibility for ourselves and our actions is implicit in the doctrine of sin. The acknowledgement of sin, far from being a matter of despair, is the ground of hope and the healing root that stimulates profound gratitude. The realization that God has not removed himself from us despite our sin is a sign that we are already forgiven, even though we do not recognize it. It is this that gives us the confidence to tell ourselves the truth about ourselves in full knowledge of God’s presence in order to enter into the already- existing relationship of God’s acceptance for who we are and who we can become. The Christian Church provides a formal context in which, by confession and the receiving of absolution, we can learn what it feels like to be ourselves and accept the gift of God; above all, we know what it means to be a forgiven person and to recover the strength to forgive. The sacrament of penance informs the establishment and reestablishment of all broken relationships; the revelatory power of beauty is the healer.
The theological framework I have been exploring provides a dynamic and nourishing layer of interpretation through which to come to terms with what exactly is involved in picking up the pieces. The opportunity for a fresh start is grounded in the view of Aquinas that the desire for God cannot be ultimately extinguished in human life, which implies that it is not ultimately possible to be a human being and not want to inquire. Essentially, it is an ineradicable aspect of our humanity to want to put things right. It is worth recalling Rahner’s point: “Our actual nature is never pure nature. It is a nature installed in a supernatural order, which man can never leave, even as sinner and unbeliever” (Rahner, 1966, p. 183). It is a point we can generalize: John Wesley, I remind you, that most Catholic of Methodists, affirms a similar sentiment when, in a sermon on Philip- pians 2:12-13, he writes, “No man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he has.” There is always the opportunity, however dimly aware of it one may be, to respond to the world as creation, to “find oneself’ and recover that lively sense of gratitude on which one’s human nature depends. The sacrament of penance offers the healing experience of forgiveness, which liberates people to be themselves and live for others; it enlivens the sense of what it means to live freely as grateful people. We can aim reasonably to practice the good, but we are not defined by the purpose of simply trying to avoid the evil.
The peace of God’s presence is dynamic: it is the beauty of his healing power incarnate in Christ. The positive infection of the gratitude we feel is caught by others through our dealings with them. It was G. K. Chesterton who wrote, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."