Why Have We Forgotten about Forgiveness?

Why Have We Forgotten about Forgiveness? January 25, 2018

I ran across this article decrying our inability to offer redemption to those who have engaged in harmful or bad activities but have gone on to apologize and make restitution. The author indicates that this may be a feature of the way we use social media. I think it is more basic than this. I see this inability as a consequence of our changing world view from a Christian one to a secular one.

Research indicates that religious individuals have more capacity to forgive than non-religious individuals. This difference is not an accident. Indeed, it is the natural outcome of how religious individuals conceptualize our human nature. Of course not all religions promote forgiveness. It matters what type of religion we are comparing to non-religion. The ideals of Christianity put Christians in a great situation to develop the capacity to forgive. So as I contrast a secular idea about the nature of humans to a religious one, I am relying on traditional Christianity as my religious source.

What is the traditional Christian stance on human nature? Christians see humans as fallen and flawed. Christians do not see us as able to overcome our corrupted human nature by ourselves. Indeed, the need for Christ is because we recognize our fallen nature and have to look for intervention from God to grow out of that corrupt nature. Indeed, most Christians do not believe that we will reach perfection this side of heaven. True perfection is for the afterlife. But in the here and now, we can become more of what God wants us to be if we realize that we do not have the ability achieve the level of fulfillment that only God can provide. If we rely on God who is greater than us, then we can neutralize at least some of the unhealthy elements in our fallen nature.

The key implications of this understanding of human nature is that we are flawed and there is a limit of what we can expect from humans on this side of heaven. It is not realistic to think that we can live a perfect life. As such we can see each other as peers who are also struggling to grow towards perfection but will fail, just like us. There is a need to offer forgiveness to others, if for no other reason than we will need that forgiveness ourselves in the near future.
This is in contrast to a secular idea of human nature. In a secular idea of human nature, there is no supernatural help. The only help we have is from ourselves. But that is okay since humans are the highest evolved beings that we have seen to this point in our history. So over time we have evolved in ways that enable us to grow not only physically but also morally and ethically. Thus, our society has challenged all sorts of oppressions and improved itself. This improvement is due to our evolving ability to reach towards societal perfection. From a secular perspective, perfection is not only reachable, but it is also desirable.

Because humans are responsible for achieving perfection, they have to be held accountable. Believing that perfectibility is achievable means that we are obligated to strive for perfection. Forgiveness may actually inhibit our achievement of perfectibility as it can be seen as providing individuals with a way out of their responsibly to achieve perfection. Someone exhibiting racism, sexism or some sort of other “ism” makes it that much harder for us to reach the ideal society into which we are evolving. Sanction and punishment of that person can set the example to discourage other transgressions. If we are prefectable, it makes sense not to forgive those who do wrong even if they regret their wrongdoing and made amends for it.

When we think about the clash of religious and secular worldviews, we often default back to social and moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Of course these are valuable ways to distinguish the differing moral orientations between the two groups. However, they are not the only, or perhaps even the most important, distinctions. The nature of who we are as humans is a more basic difference between these two ways of organizing our society. Are humans perfectable? Do we need to expect perfection from our peers? Should we use nonforgiveness and sanctions to reach our perfected society? Or are we fallen? Do we need healing and forgiveness to limit the damage we can do to each other? Should we have some level of sympathy for those who have done wrong since we know that the capacity to do wrong lives in all of us? Should we take seriously the idea – there but for the grace of God go I?

Ultimately one of these approaches to human nature is more accurate than the other. Either we humans can come close to achieving, or even achieve perfection, or we cannot. There is potential folly in following a plan where humans will become perfect, when we do not have the capacity to achieve that goal. Likewise, there are costs of not expecting perfection when such perfection is possible. Determining which perspective is correct is vital for us to determine the proper attitude we should take to those who engage in moral or ethical failings.

As a Christian I accept the latter set of assumptions about human nature. Why I do so may be the subject of another blog, but I will not enter into that argument today. For today I only want to point out that it is valuable to see this difference and understand that our growing inability to forgive stems from acceptance of a secular understanding of human nature. As such if forgiveness is something to be desired, then individuals endorsing a secular approach have to consider whether they can develop an understanding of human nature that can incorporate that value. Otherwise the more secular we become, the less redemption will be available in our society.

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