Sunday, August 21, 2011

News flash! HuffPo (almost) gets a religious concept right!

Yes, folks, you read that right. I would sooner expect for Ann Coulter to sing the praises of Norman Lear than for me to agree with anything a HuffPo writer scribbled about Christ and Christianity. But Maria Mayo, a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt, wrote a piece on forgiveness in Scripture the other day that bears thoughtful attention.

Why is this so stunning? The Huffington Post, to put it as charitably as possible, is a mouthpiece for leftist progressivism. As such, its writers tend to plunk for a vision of Christ's teachings that lean very heavily towards "Buddy Christ": so tolerant that repentance, even basic recognition of sin, is unnecessary … in fact, a Christianity-and-water that exists solely to affirm the believer's basic goodness, not call her to sainthood.

Mayo's piece, "5 Myths About Forgiveness in the Bible", takes this stance apart. (Indeed, it also undermines "once saved always saved".) So to find in a progressivist broadsheet an explanation that tends more towards Christian orthodoxy is much like finding an old issue of Pravda asserting an absolute individual right of property.

What are these five myths about forgiveness? And what, if anything, does Mayo get wrong?

1) Jesus teaches unconditional forgiveness.

When Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus replies, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven" (Mt 18:21-22). As Mayo points out, the "seventy times seven times" is "a number that symbolizes boundlessness".

However, boundless forgiveness isn't the same as unconditional forgiveness. In a parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says, "Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Lk 17:3-4). The condition isn't the number but rather the repentance of the person to be forgiven. You aren't obligated to forgive someone who doesn't repent, though at times it may be the more perfect way.

Further, as Mayo also reminds us, Jesus states that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is forgiven neither in this world nor the next (cf. Mt 12:31-32; Mk 3:29; Lk 12:10). In orthodox Christian teaching, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit takes six forms:

  1. Despair (desperatio salutis);
  2. Presumption of God's mercy (praesumptio salutis sine meritis consequendae);
  3. Impugning the known truth (impugnatio agnitae veritatis);
  4. Envy at another's spiritual good invidentia de bono alterius spirituali);
  5. Obstinacy in sin (obstinatio in peccatis); and
  6. Final impenitence (impaenitentia finalis).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit.[1] Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss" (CCC §1864).

2) Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11).

If you read the story in the Greek, the verb aphiēmi, the word most commonly translated as "forgive", doesn't show up. Jesus does not say to the adulteress, "I forgive you," but rather, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." Mayo argues, "[Jesus'] refusal to condemn her is more a lesson to the crowd about judgment than it is an expression of forgiveness."

Jesus was acting as a rabbinical judge, and his dismissal can be interpreted as a remission from the consequences of her sin. (You can almost hear George Constanza yelling, "Ergo, forgiveness!") And, at the same time, Mayo ignores Jesus' Sonship in declaring that "Since the woman has not done anything to Jesus, he has nothing to forgive her for;" all sins are by definition offenses against God just as all crimes are offenses against the State. Nevertheless, her point here is very much taken — Jesus' lesson was about judgment and mercy more than it was about forgiveness.

[UPDATE — October 16, 2011: Commenter prodigalnomore correctly points out that my response blurs the proper distinction between the persons of the Father and the Son. In fact, Mayo's original point — once the charge was dropped, Jesus had technically nothing to forgive her for, and therefore no sin to remit — was true under the Law of Moses. On the other hand, respecting the distinction, it's still true that all sins are not only against God but also against the community at large; where sin is concerned, there is no such thing as a "victimless crime". So her sin was directly against God the Father, but indirectly against us all, including the Son and Holy Spirit.]

3) Jesus forgives his attackers from the cross.

Here is where Mayo errs again: "… Jesus is not, in fact, forgiving his attackers; rather, he is praying that God might do so." "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30). If Jesus is one with the Father, then to ask God to do what he cannot or will not do himself is Self-contradictory. Therefore, Jesus' forgiveness of the Jews and Romans who participated in his crucifixion is implied from his prayer.

4) "Turn the other cheek" refers to forgiveness.

Actually, no it doesn't; it refers to humility. Mayo argues that it would have been seen as an act of rebellion: "Turning the cheek would force the aggressor to strike with the left hand, which was seen as unclean, or the open right hand, which would signal equality." But this takes the statement out of context:

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you (Mt 5:38-42).

With these parallel statements, Jesus is actually engaging in rabbinical hyperbole, rhetorically exaggerating the lengths one should go to so as to avoid a struggle. Jesus isn't suggesting rebellion at all. But again, Mayo is right in that the commandment is not about forgiveness, either.

5) Forgiveness sets you free.

Mayo is correct here in arguing that the psychological "freeing" of forgiveness is rooted in eighteenth-century moral philosophy, not in first-century Jewish-Christian theological concepts. Rather, Jesus is less concerned here with how "free" we feel than with the equivalence he sets up between our relationship with others and our relationship with God:

"Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40).
"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt 6:14-15; cf. Mt 7:2, Mk 11:25, Eph 4:32, Col 3:13).

To be sure, to forgive others does have positive effects on one's own emotional well-being; hatred, jealousy and spitefulness are soul-twisting emotions which one should release and be rid of as soon as possible. But the main thrust is to set your relationship with God right by allowing others to set their relationship with you right.

Within the caveats I've given above, overall Maria Mayo still gives the lie to the super-indulgent Heavenly Grandfather of liberal Christianity. Becoming holy is not without cost; we don't get heaven just by praising God and trading pious generalities among ourselves. Our forgiveness comes only with our repentance for our sins and with our forgiveness of others for the wrongs they've done us.

That her piece was printed in HuffPo isn't exactly a sign that we're approaching the Omega Point. Maybe Arianna was taking a nap when it was approved. Or maybe they're searching for religious reasons not to tolerate conservatives.

Or maybe — O the deliciousness of the irony — perhaps we're seeing some subversion of the left? One can only hope.

[1] John Paul II, Dominum et vivificantem §46.