Turn Me In First

I may be late for the good-bye session of the Teaching Greek Consultation, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to link to Steve Himmer’s take on the current civil-liberties climate in the land of the free (thanks for the tip, Tom). (I think you’re cool, Steve; I just have a peculiar name.)
I want to save citizen-spies the trouble and tell the Bush administration that I’m out of step with the boosterist chauvinism of the present administration. If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it.

Perhaps this is all, for now, on forgiveness

I’ve saved the hardest for last. What does one say about injuries that we “can’t imagine forgiving,” offenses that are “unforgiveable”? (I should have waited on the Pet Shop Boys, to enlist them as the epigraph for this blog, not using them up a couple of days ago; but then that might have seemed insufficiently sober an introduction to so very serious a topic.)

First, as the question itself implies, we ought to distinguish those responses. If we say, “I can’t see how Sara can forgive Bill after what he did,” we leave open the possibility that someone who has a more capacious imagination might indeed find forgiveness. When we say that we can’t imagine forgiving someone, we confess our own limitations as much as we describe the scale of Bill’s wrong-doing. (Sorry, Bill, whoever you are—but you oughtn’t to have treated Sara that way.)

When we categorize a particular kind of evil as “unforgiveable,” though, we rule out the possibility of forgiveness—indeed, we often go so far as to argue that offering forgiveness in such cases allies the forgiver with the transgressor, it makes the forgiver into an accomplice.

Both the “I can’t imagine” and the “unforgiveable” claims meet resistance from the awkward persistence of forgiveness in the face of our limited imaginations and even our flat assertions about what can or cannot be done. The other day I linked to the example of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, some of whose members exemplify an extraordinary commitment to forgiveness (MVFR itself exists to oppose the death penalty, and does not expect its members to necessarily to forgive). Desmond Tutu advocated forgiveness for South African whites, even those who participated actively in the hideously violent subjugation of their black neighbors; an anonymous correspondent calls my attention to an article in the NY Times (free subscription required) that sketches forgiveness from a variety of perspectives, with special attention to Tutu. When we call an act “unforgiveable”, we repudiate the healing work by which some well-known and many more unfamiliar souls endeavor to heal some of the world’s wounds.

At last, we should acknowledge that Bill and Sara may find themselves at odds in ways that defy their capacities for forgiveness, but not because some deed can’t ever be forgiven, nor because they don’t want to forgive, but because the relationship has been fractured in a way that impedes forgiveness. The impediment may be circumstantial—if, for instance, Bill died before Sara could resolve her ambivalence about his malfeasance. Sara may need more talk with Bill, more time within which he might show himself reliable and gentle, time and talk that death has made impossible. Or Sara may have betrayed Bill’s trust so radically that he can’t understand any basis on which they might come together to begin the work of repairing the breach. Our news reports overflow with accounts of child abuse; can one truly ask a child who has been so heartlessly exploited to forgive the abuser? Our headlines repeat tales of bombings and shootings and destruction; can one legitimately ask the relatives of those who die in military or paramilitary violence to forgive the killers?

I’m not in a position to ask that of anyone; such misfortunes as I have experienced pale in comparison to the wounds that any reader could cull from the newspapers or from her or his own heart’s history. Even when a forgiver calls everyone to come toward the freedom that forgiveness makes possible, some aggrieved souls won’t see the way toward that goal, or won’t see the goal as worth striving for.

Does it help if we frame this situation in the terms I described earlier? If we can aptly suppose that forgiveness requires a narrative context, we can understand that sometimes some of the characters in the narrative don’t see a convincing way forward toward a resolution of the plot that includes forgiveness. Sara considers the various outcomes she foresees from trying to reach out to Bill for forgiveness, and she sees no alternative that she can live with. Bill reflects on his childhood and sees only suffering so intense that he can’t bring himself to live out a path that seems in any way to palliate or soft-pedal his abuser’s crime.

Point One: No one benefits from my telling Sara, “You really ought to forgive Bill.” It doesn’t do me or Bill any good. I ought to know better than to try to exert that kind of spiritual compulsion on someone else; and Bill needs a stirring from Sara’s heart, not from her advisor’s repertoire of Good Counsel. Doesn’t help Sara; it’s liable to pile guilt and defensiveness on top of the wounds she’s already suffering.

Forgiveness comes from grace, and grace can’t be arm-twisted.

Point Two: So far as I can tell, the most powerful obstacle to forgiveness arises from our own readiness to take forgiveness seriously. As potential recipients of forgiveness, we prefer to be lat off the hook than forgiven; or we doubt the genuineness of our forgiver’s good will; or we cling to a familiar guilt rather than take the chance that we, once released from the determination of our past wrongs, might offend again; or any of a vast reservoir of reasons to duck the stunning freedom of forgiveness.

As potential forgivers, we see a world in which retribution and reciprocity govern our us. The amount of social attention that US culture pays to forgiveness amounts only to dust beside the prominent mountains of attention paid to striking back, getting even, restitution (in the non-Weinbergerian sense)—to taking revenge, whether in prettified dress or in its cruder manifestations. We aren’t nourished with narratives in which forgiveness heals the world; we are fed the junk food of blood lust and vengeance, and we develop cardiosclerosis, hard-heartedness, which constricts our capacity even to consider any other way of dealing with our injuries.

Point three: If we yearn for a world in which forgiveness make sense, we can’t stop at blogging about it, hair-splitting about conditions and definitions, thinking charitable thoughts in a general way. If we want to live in a world where we may plausibly hope to be forgiven our blunders, and even our spasms of malice, we must begin to make that forgiveness real in the parts of the world that our lives touch. Not congratulating ourselves or chastising others, not finger-pointing, and especially not presuming on others’ grace; forgiving with the full power of honesty, love, humility, and hope that bring forgiveness to vivid life in our own imaginations, and perhaps even in our neighbors’. Love set in motion for living, and loving, better.

I’d like to leave this topic alone for a while. If I receive a packet of emails to which I need to respond, I’ll do that—but I need a break from Heavy Blogging.

That said, I want to thank the anonymous reader whom I cited above for provocative reflections on forgiveness in Buddhism; compassion and detachment provide a different path for dealing with injuries, and I respect much of the teaching that builds on those premises. In the end—and probably a fair ways earlier than the end—those premises differ enough from my own that I have to take a different path. It would be a joy if the two paths turn out to converge somewhere.

Thoughtful readers Steve Yost and Kevin Marks note that forgiveness isn’t just a nice idea–it can be shown game-theoretically to be in our best interests (“It’s not just good, but good for you” as Steve entitled his email to me). Kevin’s Non-Zero blog referred Steve to this article that they find a convincing argument in favor of altruism in the “classic ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’ test environment.” I don’t have any business evaluating this kind of theoretical argument, but hey, David Weinberger never lets that stop him, so I’ll just say that the lab results look promising–but I’d try to live a more forgiving life even if the Journal of Artificial Societies (I thought they all were pretty artificial) and Social Simulation didn’t recommend it.

Change of approach

Mark Wood says,”How refreshing and, quite frankly surprising, to see AKMA’s on-going thoughts on forgiveness in the Daypop Top 40.”* My sentiments exactly–it did look odd to see Monday’s observations floating around alongside the “ass-o-tron.” Instead of rattling on monologically today (not the wisest way to learn, nor the deepest use of the web) I want to take time today to bat ideas back and forth with friends who’ve offered questions and suggestions. Don’t anticipate any tomes, therefore, but volleys. And if you want to make sure that I touch on your topic, feel encouraged to write.

* ‘Daypop’ used to be a list of the most-visited blogs, updated on a daily basis. Think of the ‘trending’ function built into your choice of social medium, and then imagine it as a separate website registering the pulse of thousands of blogs in a world with neither Facebook nor Twitter (nor Instagram nor whatever). This is what it looked like:

Forgiveness feedback

One of the great joys of blogging comes in the back-and-forth with people who read and care enough to give me the opportunity to fine-tune what I’ve been saying.
I’ll make room first of all for David Weinberger, who (I predict–because Blogger failed him this morning) will sometime say something such as,

You make restitution because doing something wrong fractures the world and you need to try to make it whole. . . . The reason to be righteous in the world is not to put beliefs into action or to make G-d like you but because, well, that’s what’s right and it’s what we have been commanded to do.

Wish I’d have said that, because I couldn’t have said it any better. Steve Yost appreciates my account of these things, but the tenor of his praise suggests to me that he’ll like David’s version even more. (By the way, Steve, when I said “Christians have set themselves over against Jews…,” I may have been carrying over some idiomatic expression from another language, or just using words idiosyncratically—I meant, “Christians have defined who they are over against Jews.”)

Note that when David says these wise words, he focuses on the one who’s restituting (in I may use that barbarism), the one who’s moving toward making-right. What he’s describing can’t be mandated from outside, and that’s something I was trying ineptly to get at in my sleep-befogged writing about restitution.

Jonathon Mays raises the question of we should stop at forgiveness. Forgiveness, after all, simply takes for granted that people suffer wrongs—in Jonathon’s words, “[b]eing offended necessitates taking things personal.”

I suppose I had been making the assumption that people will continue to suffer wrongs; Jonathon submits that perhaps the goal involves more than mere forgiveness, but imperturbability. He wonders why I might feel offense if a drunk driver kills my child–“The accident had nothing to do with me nor my children. It had to do with him.”

I should think about this longer, but my first reaction supports what I had simply been assuming. I would hesitate before assenting to the premise that we ought to “transcend” feelings of loss and injury. It’s certainly easy to get caught up in those feelings, to overinvest in one’s wounds; but I would fear that there’s something less than fully human in “transcending” a love for one’s children that feels wounded if a careless driver killed them.

“Forgiveness,” as I understand it, aims at cultivating a right affection for the wellness of the world, rather than cultivating detachment from misfortunes.

Vergil Iliescu would add to my observation that “forgiving entails recognizing a wrong, looking at it clearly and honestly, assessing responsibility for it, and resolving not to permit that wrong to determine our lives from thence forward,” the comment that “it is not so much ‘resolving not to permit that wrong to determine our lives’ but more resolving to allow it to determine our lives in a positive, more inclusive manner.” Vergil, you couldn’t hear the intonation as I said the word “determination,” but it is the word I wanted; our past isn’t defined, determined by the wrongs we experience or commit. Instead, forgiveness frees us—and then, yes, I very much agree that forgiveness issues in a positive, constructive orientation toward the future.

I loved all these answers, but was especially deeply touched by Tom Matrullo’s following the winding Way that negotiates the uncertainties that beset humans who try to live with integrity without a net, without guarantees.

This appears to put us, as humans, in an interesting double bind (double register?): we must reck to be forgiven, and also, to forgive, not reck whether the other recks.
This introduces a complexity in human transactions that departs from all the usual double-entry reckonings of supply and demand, quid and quo, tit and tat, mutual consideration, etc. As a model distinguishable by its asymmetry from the economics of standard moral bookkeeping, it is provocative. It seems to say, forgiveness is not a mutual, reciprocal act like a greeting, a treaty, a war or a deal.

I have not yet tackled head on the question of particular people forgiving horrific sins that others have visited upon them. I will try to get to that, perhaps tomorrow. Thanks, all, very much.

Still more forgiveness

So ask yourself now: Can you forgive her
If she begs you to?
Ask yourself: Can you even deliver
What she demands of you?
Or do you want revenge?
But that’s childish, so childish!
(But that’s childish, so childish!)
–“Can You Forgive Her?” from Very, by the Pet Shop Boys

My friends have been helping me out with ideas about what I should write more about, or what I should write next. I’ll see if I get to all your good ideas and pertinent points today, but if I don’t I’ll try to get to you tomorrow.

I left off with the question of when, how, whether, and why we forgive others. Some of these elements deal with forgiveness in fairly general terms: prudence, good will, and honesty supply particular reasons for forgiving. Other rationales derive from theological understandings of sin and forgiveness. David Weinberger has already called me on this. If anyone takes exception to this theologian sounding more, well, theological, I can’t exactly apologize but I do at least appreciate your having borne with me so long. If you’re patient with some theologizing, too, I can get further tonight.

Human wisdom teaches us that it just makes sense to forgive people most of the time. We all need forgiveness, more than we care to admit, so if we encourage as wide a practice of forgiveness as we can, we contribute to social relations where the forgiveness that we need will more llikely be offered to us. Our good-heartedness stirs upa forgiving spirit; we don’t want to hold offenses against our friends, or even against strangers. (Strangers make a harder case, but I would argue that most people of goodwill would prefer to forgive, even if suspicion and self-protection win out in specific cases.) Honesty precludes our arrogating to ourselves a freedom from error that would warrant our sitting in judgment of others. Forgiveness, in general, makes the world a better place. My correspondent Chaz suggested that “Forgiveness is voluntarily relinquishing your right to take revenge”—that gets at one way of envisioning a world freed from the entangling nets of retribution that endanger so many people who long for peace.

To these I would add the particularly theological factor that the God whom Judaism and Christianity worship instructs all people to practice forgiveness–at least in part to reflect God’s own forgiving character. When Exodus reports that when Moses received the Torah and was granted a vision of God’s “hinder parts,” Moses hears God identified as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” If that be God’s character, then those who revere this God and endeavor to make God’s ways evident in their lives presumably ought to fill their lives with mercy, grace, patience, love, and forgiveness.

But as my students will quickly quote back at me, “It’s more complicated than that.” Two large objections dwarf any others: the first, that some acts so grotesquely defy human and divine goodness, they so rapidly extend to the extremities of evil, that one just can’t forgive them (nor can one placidly assert that God will forgive these horrors, lest one make God an unfeeling monster. Presumably, Exodus points toward such evils when it continues that God “by no means clear[s] the guilty, but visit[s] the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation..” If that seems unfair to the second, third and fourth generations, it at least indicates that God doesn’t take evil lightly.

Yes. And we should note that God reaffirms an extreme response to evil in the New Testament—if mere “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (the Gospel of Matthew’s favorite description of God’s plan for evildoers) isn’t severe enough, reread the Revelation to John. The God of the New Testament is not a cuddly stuffed-toy God, to be opposed to a mean, cruel Old Testament God. Both in New Testament and Old, in Hebrew and Greek, the writers describe God in one breath as loving the whole of everything, and as showing indiscriminate mercy—and in the next breath as resolutely opposed to evil, and as punishing transgressors with frightful chastisements.

In both Judaic and Christian theology, both points sound necessary notes. If God doesn’t regard evil differently from good, we can’t offer any cogent reason to pursue good rather than evil. On the other hand, “forgiveness” that doesn’t apply to them, whoever “them” may be, puts God in the position of budgeting out a limited sort of forgiveness.

Theologians need to work in the difficult terrain that affirms both God’s mercy and God’s justice, God’s willingness to offer humanity extra credit on the final exam, and God’s unwavering readiness to flunk someone who scored 0.001 below the threshhold for passing (end-of-term metaphor there). I once talked with a priest who assured me that he believed in forgiveness, but not in judgment; I was left at a loss to explain what the point of forgiveness might be if I wasn’t going to held accountable for my life. God cares about what we do with our capacities, and God promises not to allow an honest account of our shortcomings to eclipse God’s love for us (the Letter of James expresses this principle as “mercy triumphs over judgment”).

I do not presume to know God’s disposition toward particular sinners. So much, however, seems clear: We ought not cavalierly reckon that anyone (whether as fundamentally decent as “we” or as morally deficient as “they”) will be covered by a blanket amnesty—that disregards both the self-reflective honesty I proposed earlier in the week and theological warnings from the God of the Judaic and Christian traditions. By the same token, we ought not dare to decide on God’s behalf that any particular sinners fall outside God’s capacity to forgive. Prophets and teachers have reminded their audiences, time and again, that God alone determines who will encounter divine mercy—and that depends not on personal merit (that we can amass and calculate), but solely on grace. Solely, only, exclusively, that’s all.

By extension, we too ought not decide in advance what category of people may not be forgiven. Our determination that such-and-such a group of people have crossed the line of forgiveability tends to cut off the possibilities of discovering extraordinary grace and love in the forgiver’s heart (and by no means ought we make such judgments in our capacity as spokespeople for God: “Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him?”). God extends forgiving grace beyond our capacity to parse it, as Jonah discovered. Both divine and human wisdom indicate that we’re not equipped to pass that kind of judgment.

Not that we fall into equivocal stammering. We must form some kinds of judgment so we can order our lives. We need patiently and humbly to situate our provisional judgments relative to our limitations, our own sins.

That leads to the second objection I hoped to address tonight. It’s getting late, so I’m not sure how much I can cover, but I’ll give it a try. David opens the way to this objection by observing that I make no mention of “restitution”:

The one thing missing from AKMA’s article is the idea of restitution. . . . My religion, Judaism, as I understand it (i.e., not at all) puts particular stress on making whole what one has ruptured through one’s bad behavior. Yes, you resolve not to do it again, and yes, you don’t let that behavior rend the fabric of the relationship. But you also run out to the store immediately and buy Margaret some more damn pepper.

Make that pepper and chocolate (not for simultaneous consumption, of course).

Part of the problem with talking about “restitution” as that term functions in contemporary US society lies in our cultural proclivity to slap a dollar tag on everything. We then enter into a tussle over how much restitution befits the offense in question, and we rend the fabric to which David adverts even more seriously. The restitution that should serve to help us mend, under these circumstances, institutionalizes the estrangement that set two people at odds. (Parenthetically, he said redundantly since the digression already appears within parentheses, I suspect that the catch here lies how tightly or loosely the community that defines “resititution” is linked; most of the constituents of US civil society show hardly any sense of community with one another or with the kinds of agency that would be determining any restitution.)

That’s obviously not what David had in mind, and I certainly don’t think it’s where a Judaic sense of accountability leads. The more [sic] As I said, I avoided the topic because I wanted to avoid invoking the cultural pattern of restitution-as–time-to-cash-in. I tried to point in the direction David suggested by emphasizing the reorientation of one’s life–but he’s right to ask tha tI state more specifically that one who asks forgiveness should in general enact her or his genuine desire for reconciliation. I can’t simply demand your forgiveness of me, but I can show by my behavior–by reaching out toward restitution–that I am endeavoring to live more harmoniously with you.

David’s right to note a divergence here between “Jewish” and “Christian” sensibilities, but it goes deeper than that too. Many Christians feel a strong attraction to an ethic that emphasizes putting beliefs into action, walking the walk, whereas another large body of Christians recoil in horror from what they regard as works-righteousness, the notion that you can earn God’s favor by doing the right stuff. (Both sorts of Christians have set themselves over against Jews, though with different spins).

To wrap up for tonight, then, I’d suggest that presumption poisons the possibility of forgiveness, whether the presumption that my sins arenb’t such a big deal so of course you (or God) will forgive them, or (on the other hand) the presumption that no one can forgive the injury that I have suffered, and that of course God will side with me. If we want to live in a world characterized by generosity and forgiveness, if we believe in a God of forgiveness, then we can’t afford presumption. In an odd way, presumption constitutes an antithesis of forgiveness. . . .

Forgiveness, part two

Filled with fear
Possessed by pain
Bitter tears
I’m crying again, no
I don’t know when
I lost the will to live
And I found the will to forgive
— “Forgive to Forget,” from Deep Natural by Michelle Shocked

One element of forgiveness that I skimmed over yesterday involves time. An inescapable element to temporality lies implicit in my observations relative to practicing forgiveness; as forgiveness involves a transition from a problematic past to a more hopeful future, narrative includes an inescapable narrative element. Yesterday I did something wrong; today I admit that wrong and seek reconciliation; tomorrow I will not commit the same offense again [at least, I’ll try not to].
Moreover, such a narrative involves more than just one person. One of humanity’s persistent mistakes comes in underestimating the ramifications of our wrongs. As advocates of recycling, civil activism, culture jamming, vegetarianism, internationalism, and countless other causes remind me, my casual disregard for the cumulative significance of my trivial actions effects a larger, more morally weighty body of actions and complicities. In personal terms, where we are most likely to care ardently about forgiveness, we typically concentrate on me or you, whether I can or should be forgiven, whether I can or should forgive you. Offender and offended form the foci of an ellipse, but the ellipse includes many, many other people whose lives absorb (or amplify or refract) the shock waves our wrongs generate. We don’t have the capacity to limit the scope of our actions; the cast of characters whom we affect extends beyond what we could possibly imagine (as our best novelists so vividly remind us).

In broader social terms: sure, it might not matter that much if I just toss just these two spent AA batteries in the trash instead of seeking out the designated disposal site; but by not making the effort to handle my battery waste in a responsible way (and here, in public, I acknowledge this specific shortcoming) I tacitly endorse handling hazardous waste carelessly. The perception that no one disposes of batteries properly derives its convincing force from the fact that so few of us do, and from the invisibility of the pains that some take to dispose of batteries properly. As Steve Yost wisely points out, just such small habits as these shape the ways we handle larger-scale questions, and they teach others about our patterns of judging what’s important; we become implicated in the plausible inferences people draw from our behavior.

So forgiveness becomes a tremendous question in the exquisitely complex interactions of lovers, families, communities, strangers. If we opt to disregard apparently-small offenses, we set in motion the social expectation that any of us can afford to aggrieve another so long as we think it’s a small matter. If we practice disregard for our trivial behavior, we presume on others’ patience and resilience (and we’re liable to feel that we have been offended if their patience doesn’t match our expectations). Margaret reminds me (and Halley, and Marek, too, in a differently beautiful way) how forgiveness falls beyond our grasp when we can’t sustain even <em>relatedness</em>—whether by reason of general estrangement or because distance or mortality have separated us from those with whom our injuries are intertwined. Our lives may limp from old wounds, apparently incurable now that those who wounded us have left us behind—or we may regret our neglect of opportunities to forgive others who now are removed from us.
We are wiser by far to take daily life with a higher degree of mindfulness, demonstrating our concern for others by seeking forgiveness when we offend, and not presuming ourselves to be in the right when others report their dissatisfaction. (*This’ll take some nuanced expansion later on–I’m not saying, “It’s your fault if anyone ever thinks it is.” If a narcissist runs you over and then complains that you dented his bumper, you have good reason to hesitate before accepting blame.)

All this has concentrated on my relation to forgiveness as an offender, probably because we have great difficulty in recognizing our own need for forgiveness, whereas others‘ need for forgiveness practically leaps to our attention. More, if I begin talking about forgiving others before I sketch out my own culpability, my reflections on forgiving may lose their integral relation to my accepting forgiveness. Someone who knows her own weakness has a sounder position from which to weigh another’s wrong than does someone who judges from the default position that “I’m not the one who offended.” That will have to wait for tomorrow, because I’m too weary to write any more about important things tonight.


Sunday, May 26, 2002
( 4:35 PM )

DELMAR: Preacher said my sins are warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo!
EVERETT: I thought you said you were innocent a those charges.

DELMAR: Well I was lyin’ – and I’m proud to say that that sin’s been warshed away too!

O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers

I’ve been stalling a long time before getting around to the topic of forgiveness. Here are some of my ruminations on forgiveness; they do not carry any official imprimatur, and I’ll probably change my mind and emend them as you point out the weaknesses in version 1.0.

When I say, “Forgive me,” I mean something different from “Let’s pretend it never happened,” or “It doesn’t matter,” or “Just drop it.” “Forgiving” certainly doesn’t entail forgetting, or discounting; it may be the only way to take an offense with adequate seriousness. Forgiving entails recognizing a wrong, looking at it clearly and honestly, assessing responsibility for it, and resolving not to permit that wrong to determine our lives from thence forward.

Pretending something never happened may be a workable approach to some utterly insignificant , but even then it’s liable to misfire when it turns out that the un-happened event affected you more deeply than me, or when the aftereffects of the incident in question bring the original transgression to the fore again. “Forgiving” involves no pretense—the offense really happened, and we’re living in its aftermath.

“Forgiving” likewise precludes claims that the offense “doesn’t matter”; if something doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t need to be forgiven. When we say that something doesn’t matter, we take ethical considerations off the table. Under ordinary conditions, it doesn’t matter whether I put pepper on my fried eggs. When on the other hand I know that Margaret—who is quite devoted to pepper on her eggs—hasn’t yet had the chance to season her breakfast, and I finish off the contents of the pepper-shaker, it certainly matters that I chose to pepper my eggs. The consideration may amount only to a misplaced sense of mischief, or may extend to spiteful malice, but if I deliberately deprive Margaret of her morning’s repast, it definitely matters.

Overlooking wrongs–just letting them drop–falls far short of forgiving. An offense overlooked remains available for resuscitating at a later convenient time. “Remember that time you finished the pepper before I could even season my eggs?!” Overlooking wrongs leaves room for the offender to repeat the offense, thus making a habit of the wrong. It doesn’t allow for exculpation or mitigation, simply leaving the offense compounding interest in the aggrieved person’s imagination. Overlooking offenses doesn’t deal with anything, buying placidity at the cost of honest engagement with another.

Forgiving wrongs requires us to take them utterly seriously as injuries to one another and to the relationships of which we form a part (each of us the central part of the network of links that join us, loosely, to our significant other, to relatives, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, citizens, bowling club members, the strangers we encounter). Asking forgiveness means allowing oneself the self-reflection that assesses our self accurately in all its glory and shame, its generosity and selfishness. Asking forgiveness means observing the damage we’ve done to those we care about–and for almost every soul, that damage amounts to much more than we care to admit. I speak here not of “total depravity” or of self-abasement, or inadequate self-esteem; I speak of looking into the eyes of my dearest, and seeing reflected in her eyes a self who has casually inconvenienced, wounded, neglected, and short-changed someone I profess to love. Our linked-ness to the world of others, our dependence on the world, measures far higher than the extent to which we accommodate, avoid offending, take care of others and of our world.

To avoid seeing that disproportion, I tell myself, “It doesn’t matter”–but I am not the one who may make that discernment. I’m not in a position to know how badly Margaret wanted pepper on her eggs, nor even of whether she ought to have wanted pepper that much. I’m an interested party to the evaluation, and when I decide in my own favor–“having that much pepper isn’t good for her,” or “she’s over-reacting”–I ought better to recuse myself from the case.

Yes, everyone falls short of what we might ideally do if we marshalled our fullest efforts. But honest recognition of that shortfall doesn’t let me off the hook. To the contrary, it means that I already know that I’m inclined to injure and offend, so that all the more I ought to work to avoid causing injury or offense.

In such a context, “forgiveness” involves both “reckoning a wrong” and, emphatically and, resolving not to permit this past wrong to determine where I go from here. I have injured my beloved; I need (for my own sake as well as hers and for the sake of our relationship, and our relationships with our children, our friends, especially our friends who themselves have uniquely intimate relationships which reflect and model my loved one’s with me, even for the sake of strangers who may observe us at a restaurant) to make my recognition of my wrong effective in endeavoring to live differently hereafter.

So, to conclude the first round on what will almost certainly be a topic I’ll have to revisit, for “forgiveness” really to be “forgiveness,” it must involve my recognizing that I have wronged another, that my vivid (not morbid) perception of that wrong include a degree of resolution to avoid repeating my offense, and my effort to live out a life characterized by the manifest embrace of a better way forward. No denial, no self-deception, no exaggerated sense of the importance of my sins–but love set in motion for living, and loving, better.

Catastrophic hardware failure

The Short Version

This blog will in time be replaced by alonger, more detailed version of the story. This is the barest outline.
First, I have to thank Dorothea with all the firm, orotund, look-her-in-the-eyes genuine gratitude a friend can muster (I’m not blogging each permalink because she’s doing this in segments, and each is noteworthy, and together it’s overwhelming. Go to her page and scroll). She’s taking apart my blog template, line by line, and not only cleaning it up and fixing all the sillinesses, but is teaching me (and, if necessary, you) how to do it right, and why. This is the sort of thing people pay The Big Money for, although then they usually don’t want to know the “why” part. And Jonathan Delacour and Mark Pilgrim are watching and chipping in. Amazing–thank you all. (CSS next, I think, though it’s a hard choice. Do I now just paste in the code for all the stuff ou’ve written so far, or should I wait till the whole deal is squared away?)
But–and here’s the reason I am so late in acknowledging Dorothea’s work–this morning we woke up to get ready for church and Mother’s Day to find two+ inches of water in our basement, our basement that serves as storage space and hang-out center for our home, where everything sits or lies on the floor. Except when it’s floating around doing its “This is Lake Michigan, isn’t it?” imitation. Ho, ho, ho.

The kids and I all had roles in church this morning, so we went off to worship, leaving Margaret to celebrate Mothers Day in a dark,wet basement. Even after we got home from church and had been working for hours, we had gotten nowhere. Margaret said, “We just can’t do this by ourselves,” and called some of the seminarians. In no time flat, three seminarians and spouses (no, to be exact, one solo seminarian and one seminarian with spouse) showed up and were hauling out wet carpet and dragging wet book boxes (sob) to the trash. In A while another three or four showed up, and by four o’clock all of the worst work had been done, and a fair amount of the next-to-worst. The basement is drying, and though we still have a horrible mess to deal with, and no carpet, we went from despair to relief in scant minutes through Margaret’s brilliant common sense and the generosity of Jeff, Todd, Jolene, Frank, David, and Jennifer. A.J. and Holly came by after quitting time, too.

An on-line barn-raising and a physical-world salvage operation, all gifts of grace from staggeringly generous friends. God bless you all.

Oh, and happy Mother’s Day.


Fried motherboard, or clogged sump pump: which is worse? Up till this morning I’d have thought it was a no-brainer, but when you fry your motherboard, you have a strong incentive to buy a whole new computer, which will invariably be more powerful and fun than the one you had before. When you ruin a carpet and a futon with seepage, you wind up with. . . either an empty-looking basement (us) or a new carpet and futon, which don’t really measure up for excitement to a new CPU.
So I was thinking, if I told the Dean that I had a catastrophic hardware failure and needed a new laptop, would he fund a computer purchase? That would make all the bailing and the backaches more nearly endurable.

The earlier report turned out to be longer than I thought, so I’ll wrap up our Terrible Mother’s Day report and go to bed, hoping that my back won’t entirely seize up overnight. I had to bring the earlier blog to an end because the boys were scheduled to sing in the choir at the concluding Bach Week performance at St. Luke’s, and Margaret and I were ushering, and Pippa was being a wild card. So we showered off, stumbled down to church, where everyone was lovely and the music was exquisite, and we careened home as soon as we could. The basement is actually approximating dryness now, thanks again to our spectacular friends, and there was a message waiting for us on the phone. One of my advisees heard about the disaster and was too late to help bail, so he baked us a pie, a beautful cherry pie with a heart-shaped cut-out, and some ice cream “to cut the sweetness.”

For a really dreadful day, some awfuly wonderful things have been happening to us. Thanks, Markover gang, and thanks, seminary mop-and-bucket crew. Now I have to crash.

PS to Dorothea: usually MSIE 5 for my Mac, but I’ve been seeing Mozilla on the side. And sometimes iCab will take you places no one else will. But I’ve never been to the Opera. The ideal execution of the design would have a purple border running straight up the left side, with the title illustration not overlapping (that’s the way our stationery looks), but when I saw that MSIE placed the illustration over the border, I rather liked the effect and was content with it. So I’m not very worried about whether the purple border runs under or beside the title jpg. Thanks for asking.

10 March 2002

No Particular Place to Go

David Weinberger has been thinking in public again, giving us plenty to chew on. I’m with ‘most everything he says. I had been wondering for a while before I read these remarks, though, about the applicability of spatial metaphors to the Web.

I’d been tempted to reject the notion altogether before I read what David has to say about the Web’s “persistence.” He points out that our experience of the Web’s “persistence,” its durable continuity, grounds our perception of the Web as a place — in contrast to such modes of interaction as telephony and ham radio (and he might have added in light of Friday’s talk, instant messaging). That’s a good point, and I hadn’t been thinking in those terms. Still, wonder if our sense of the hyperlinked aspect of the Web (DW’s point #3) doesn’t far outweigh our sense of the Web as an enduring spatial domain. “Space” typically entails “extension” for everyday life; space has dimensions of height, breadth, depth, all of which are absent (or extremely different) with relation to the Web. Our first round of metaphors helped us grasp the notions of linked compositions (hence, a “Web” or a “superhighway”), but the very metaphors that communicate “linking” also imply distance. In physical reality, we need links to connect two remote locations; in the Web, though, our pages are not so much physically far from one another; for all we know, the pages we read and write are being served from the caches of a single server.

I’m not about to supply a newly-minted, copyrighted Superior Metaphor. None has come to mind. But one of my concerns as we modulate into the new regime of hyperlinked presence involves the ways our leftover metaphors constrain our behavior under different conditions. Davids’ talk seems to draw on an etymology of “Utopia” as eu-topia, from a Greek compound that would mean “good place” (DW fretted with the possible/impossible extent of “perfection” in the “new” and “fresh” Web), but one might also derive “utopia” from ou-topia, “no place,” and that line of thinking appeals more to me. How might we imagine the Web if we tried to conceive it nonspatially?

But If You Study the Heuristics and Logistics of the Mystics. . . .

Mark Woods blogged my dismay at his spotlight on Alex Burns’s paean to Elaine Pagels. Now that I’ve climbed down from my high dudgeon, I ought to re-emphasize a few points, and perhaps clarify a basis for my irritation.
First, Elaine Pagels is an outstanding scholar. I agree with her about some things and disagree with her about others, but my pique was directed at Alex Burns,not at her. Second, the responses that Mark obligingly cites from First Things are only somewhat more likely to yield illuminating assessments of Pagels than is disinformation. First Things leans heavily toward a particular (generally conservative) version of Catholic teaching, such that it would be surprising to find a positive review of Pagels’s book there. At least First Things knows something about theology and church history, and they enlisted as a reviewer Jeffrey Burton Russell, a scholar of stature roughly comparable to Pagels. (Some would disagree about that; the point, however, isn’t their precise equality, but the fact that both are widely-known, widely-respected scholars.) Third, and this is the point I wanted to make, Burns fallaciously ascribes to Pagels authority as a spiritual teacher, whereas her studies, credentials, and writings justify her authority as a historian. Historians can be spiritually enlightened, and people with a rep for spirituality can be frauds–but Burns treats her acknowledged brilliance in one field as the basis for a very different sort of authority.

9 March 2002


That was the sound of my button being pushed, hard. Mark Woods quotes a very short essay by Alex Burns about Elaine Pagels from disinformation, the closing words of which are,

Pagels’ magisterial and witty writings reveal an important neuro-political lesson: Salvation must be found from personally mediated truths.
Heed her call and remember. Always.

Okay, some premises: First, Elaine Pagels is way, way smart, and has lived gracefully through intense heartbreak. Second, orthodox Christians have involved themselves in rotten things like the excesses of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Third, Christians have consistently beaten up on Judaism, for a variety of (bad) reasons.

Burns’s adulatory endorsement, however, screws up multidimensionally. First, Pagels’s interpretation of Gnosticism has been debated not just by hidebound traditionalists who oppose her exclusively for ideological reasons (as he hints); there are worthwhile scholarly disagreements about her historiography. Though she’s not by any means out on a fringe, neither are some of her critics–and it does a serious scholar no favors to impute unworthy motives to her opponents. Let’s talk through the disagreements, not write them off as knee-jerk reactionary impulses. (I should add that I say this in part because I disagree firmly with some of the premises of her recent work on the origins and social function of Satan.)

Second, Burns makes of her a martyr-prophet, opposed by the clerical villains while the historically-sensitive masses shake off their shackles to the bloody juggernaut of orthodox Christianity. Observe, though, that Burns offers no reason for anyone to assent to Pagels’s premises or his romantic battle-cry of spiritual autonomy. Personal tragedy doesn’t authenticate historical arguments (or spiritual counsel), though, and Pagels’s life has not been utterly blighted by her harrowing losses of the mid-eighties (she’s married again, she has several lovely children, she’s a tremendously successful author and speaker, all without trading in her scholarly standing or the appreciative respect of those of her students whom I’ve known). Few of the dissenters to her theses fit Burns’s picture of scheming reactionaries. If the reading public that she attracts worries a lot about Christianity’s historic iniquities, they are more attentive to the church’s failings than to any other cultural institution’s. She has not, so far as I know, repudiated Christian faith; we used to attend the same church in Princeton, and she has been a regular visitor to the Cistercian monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. None of that stops Burns from concluding with the pompous, “Heed her call [to seek salvation in personally-mediated truths] and remember. Always.” Why? First, why Pagels? Then, why “always remember”?

One can put together a reasonable argument for the kind of personal-mysticism spirituality that he espouses, but Burns declines to do that. Instead, he relies on the premise that “more controversial is better.” He proffers this under-reasoned exhortation with a degree of self-righteousness that would embarrass even his ideological adversaries. Pagels’s readers should think through her scholarship and learn from her insights without the intrusion of under-informed, self-important journalist-oracles.

( 8:22 AM )
Proceeding by Digression

What can be said about digressive blogging more than what Jeff Ward has so eloquently said? Well, a lot–partly because that’s the nature of digression, and partly because Shelley (once, twice) and Jonathan and probably others whom I’m forgetting to acknowledge have expatiated on the theme so helpfully.

Digressing and storytelling share many elements, and (as Jeff suggests) they can coalesce in ways that sometimes illuminate, sometimes obscure. In my freshman year Shakespeare classes, the professor regaled us with free-ranging monologues about his relationship with his father, about his role in the Korean War, and so on; I later heard that he was under the influence of strong medications. Some people liked the class more with the semifictional meanderings, but I wished that Shakespeare had figured more prominently in the class. Other professors wove digressions around the main topic for the day, but by drawing on biographical asides, intellectual genealogy, sketches of the material conditions relevant to literary-philosophical-theological explorations, these digressors enlivened their exposition and heightened my interest in whatever they talked about. (Cornel West was one of the best lecturers and most entertaining digressors I heard.)

I’m probably inclined toward the digressive side myself. My students readily point this out to me, and anyone who reads this blog will realize that I don’t know the meaning of short-form.

8 March 2002

Sweet Home Chicago

Well, it’s Evanston, to be precise, but it’s home and Robert Johnson never wrote about Evanston. Uneventful travel, except I’m exhausted and a couple of days behind.

My talk in St. Louis went very well. I was acquainted with a number of people from the Church of St. Michael and St. George from when I preached there last year at the Easter Vigil, and from when I preached at Church of the Atonement, Fish Creek, Wisconsin last summer (at the invitation of Jean Pennington and her daughter Tracy, from CSMSG). What’s more, my uncle-in-law Roy Pennington (no relation to Jean) came over from Kirkwood, and Alyssa Cornell (who was a friend of Margaret’s back in school days) is a member of the congregation—so in all, it felt surprisingly like home away from home.

The talk itself went well, so far as I can tell. People seemed to be listening well, the questions were good, and Phoebe Pettingill (Communications Director) said they received some positive phone calls the next morning.

But it’s good to get back home, to be with Margaret and Pippa again, to receive reports from Si and Nate, and to confront the backlog of mail, teaching, and administrative tasks. Come to think of it, maybe I should just have brought Margaret and Pip down to St. Louis.


A lot of talking about faith and spirituality online this week, and of course I welcome that. The topic presents tremendous challenges, since it seems to represent one of the top two or three most heartfelt topics for the people who write about it. If I (or anyone) were to question an online compadre about her or his spirituality, we would risk giving the impression of passing judgment on that correspondent’s whole identity.

That being the case, I wonder whether my online friends would suggest that one cannot wrong about spirituality, or whether some things are quite out. The Taliban gets lots of bad press, but they clearly represent a vigorous, popular spiritual ideology; can we say that Wahhabi Muslims are spiritually wrong? On my limited understanding of Wahhabi Islam—the prevalent form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and the basis for the Taliban’s and Osama’s theology—adherents are at least nominally committed to the elimination of other forms of Islam, but few Muslims seem inclined to act on that premise. On what basis would we assess the legitimacy of Wahhabism, or (to choose an even less ambiguous phenomenon) the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate groups? If all paths are one, or all lead to the same goal, do these count as “all-one” paths?

Many people operate with an intuitive criterion of “all faiths that I see as more-or-less benign” counting as legitimate, while faiths or ideologies that explicitly, deliberately aim at destruction or oppression don’t count as “faiths” or as “pointing toward the One goal.” But I’m curious about whether we can give a more robust criterion for accounting for which count as benign and which don’t. If we can, it would help everyone, I think, to find out about it. If not, isn’t our talk about “all one” or “all the same” or “different paths, same goal” conceptually confused to a dangerous degree, inasmuch as such rhetoric allows us to claim that we are talking about “all” paths without accounting for the ones we may be excluding?