Forgiveness: A Brief on its Assumptions | Jesus Creed

Forgiveness: A Brief on its Assumptions | Jesus Creed.

Scot McKnight has just published on his blog a short post (see the link above) that brings to our attention an elaborated article published by Wilfred M. McClay in First Things on ‘The Moral Economy of Guilt‘.

In spite of the uninspiring style of the author, the article is worth reading and it has stirred up already some interesting discussions on the site of the journal and on McKnight’s blog.

Here is also the comment that I have left there:

Scott, this is a hugely important discussion for the issue of reconciliation in the post-communist context where I live.
I must confess that, although very interesting in substance, I am not very impressed with the convoluted style of McClay, nor with his apparently unconscious captivity to a very Western forensic paradigm. Reducing relationality to issues of guilt (or worse, what he disparagingly calls ‘the cult of victimization’) and of forgiveness (be that of oneself or of others) is, I think, simplistic and reductionistic.
I would like to suggest that this view, rooted mostly in the Jewish understanding of law and sin, needs to be complemented with a more Eastern (Orthodox) emphasis on an ‘ontology of love’ (if I am to use the phrase of Dumitru Staniloae).
This reminds me of a brilliant observation made by Michael Green in his excellent book Evangelism in the Early Church. He was explaining there that while the Gospel moved in Jewish circles, a context nurtured by respect for the law of Moses, framing the story in terms of sin, guilt, sacrifice/atonement and forgiveness was the natural thing to do.
It seems to me that this is precisely McClay’s perspective. And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as one does not pretend, as McClay appears to do, that this is the whole story.
However, when the Gospel moved in Hellenistic circles, where issues of morality were not so clearly defined, both Paul and John started framing the Gospel is terms of bondage to principalities and powers and in terms of liberation from under them, that allows for a restoration of relationships between the Creator and his creation, including humans, as well as between humans themselves. It is this view that informs to a large extent the Orthodox approach.
The same Gospel, but two quite different sets of emphases and related terminologies.
McClay’s approach, it seems to me, overlooks completely this perspective, and many Western Christians appear to do the same, especially those in the more conservative Catholic or Reformed traditions.
This same group seems incapable to understand and relate adequately to the current postmodern generation (which looks more like the Hellenistic culture of the first centuries than the previous generations, that were the product of modernity). This happens, I think, because they try to reach them with a ‘language’ they don’t speak. By contrast, the job seems to be done much more effectively by those more postmodernity-friendly among us.
It is not a surprise to me then when I see that, in spite of their vast ecclesial differences, the Orthodox and the emergents have much more in common with each others than with the Catholic and Reformed group mentioned above.
Coming back to the issue of forgiveness, I fully agree with Adam’s comment above (#4) that Miroslav Volf’s approach of this concept and of the practice it encourages in his book Free of Charge makes much more sense, at least in my Eastern post-communist context, and is much more holistic that McClay’s suspicious and judgmental approach.
I will end with a small side observation. I cannot understand how could one talk about guilt and victimization, even scape-goating, without mentioning Rene Girard. I suspect though, that the author is equally suspicious of Girard, because he challenges in a very daring (and successful way, I would say) the one-sided perspective represented by McClay.
Thanks a lot for bringing this to our attention.

What do you think?

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

One thought on “Forgiveness: A Brief on its Assumptions | Jesus Creed”

  1. My former leader in World Vision, Philip Hunt, sent me a comment to this article and allowed me to post it here. Here it is:

    Hi Danut

    I don’t see your comments on “The Moral Economy of Guilt” on your blog yet, but I would be interested to know what you said. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Indeed, that last sentence might say something about McClay’s approach to his topic. “Looking in the wrong place” is a position with which I have much sympathy, having seemed to have used it as a theme for a lifetime of theological meanderings. The more I think, the more I read, the more I hear, the more I become convinced that I know less and less about our Father God. It does not lead me to despair, only to approaching any critique with inadequacy (perhaps some may say “humility”).

    Thus dis-emboldened … here are my reactions to McClay’s article.

    I like the way he talks about the globalisation of guilt. This is a good insight. He’s right that in our modern world “there is almost nothing for which I cannot be … held accountable.” And I agree that often fundraisers (and others) exploit this globalisation of guilt in ways which are manipulative and unjust. I need to contemplate my own sins in that regard and the need to repent.
    I agree enthusiastically with his analysis of the rise in prestige of the victim. And celebrate his statement “there is no doubt that none of this would have happened absent the influence of Christianity”. (A clumsy sentence if I were editing instead of reviewing). If he arrived at this conclusion without reference to Girard, one has to respect how his mind works.
    Also, his “forgiveness” analysis is really good. He is getting close when he sees arrogating the latter-day moral high ground of victim status enables one to scapegoat our guilt onto the victimiser – thus creating another victim. This is the scapegoating mechanism extremely well expressed.
    I like his statement “there is no forgiveness independent of sin”. Good orthodox teaching. But the nature of sin may not (I suggest IS not) always apparent. After all, from the Cross Jesus says “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”. What is it that they didn’t know they were doing, for which Jesus asked for forgiveness?

    On the other hand, I have no illusions about how deeply embedded is the idea of substitutionary atonement in much of our theology. I do not want to speak against the attractive justice of it because it does appeal to our sense of fairness and due process that is good enough to be of God Himself. Yet the simple balanced perfection of the doctrine can block our ears to other ideas, some of which perhaps are of God. Among these may be the following:
    That sin, separation from God, springs from relocating our desires away from God.
    That too much of modern writing (let alone theology) begins with the taken-for-granted assumption that there is such a thing as “individual psychology”. That is, that our persona (or perhaps even our soul) is something we create as individuals. We have Freud to scapegoat for this legacy .
    Perhaps, as Girard et al suggest, God created us as creatures-of-community, giving us an interdividual psychology. He put in us a way of learning and developing as human beings by desiring the things desired by others. In this great gift, he also gave us the opportunity of copying His desires. Perhaps our failure to do that is where sin comes in?
    Enough for now? Thanks for pointing me to the article. I just spent a stimulating two hours!! Feel free to share this if you think it’s useful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s