Friday, August 2, 2013

Wil Darcangelo
Supplemental Writing Sample for Andover Newton Theological School
Application Requirement for non-Baccalaureate Candidates for M. Div Program
Submitted July 2013 for Fall 2013 entrance


Analysis Commentary of CS Lewis' Essay on Forgiveness
published in 1960 by Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc.

I would like to begin by disclaiming the fact that I have not yet read Mr. Lewis' other theological writings though I know now they are numerous.  As I am at the virtual beginning of my adult academic life, I look forward to exploring a number of such works in the future.  However, once I had decided upon Forgiveness as my subject for this analysis, I decided I would use my ignorance of his other work as an asset; or at least something I was willing to work with.  I only know of his storytelling (i.e. the highly allegorical Chronicles of Narnia, etc.) and knew nothing of his prolific career as a theologian and philosopher until a fortunate choice of words in a search engine brought Mr. Lewis' essay to the top of the list.  I thought this was an opportunity to examine only one small piece of a puzzle to see what might be visible of its whole.  I look forward to discovering my own hubris as time goes on, perhaps.  Or maybe the larger man is truly visible in all things he wrote.  For me, time will tell.  For now, I will attempt to analyze a rain drop in the hopes of knowing the lake.  People tell me I have a tendency to over-analyze things.  They may be correct or, possibly, they may be too under-analytical.  Since this is a free forum for analysis I will go whole-hog and gleefully take his essay and pick it apart; undoubtedly deriving and inferring things that poor man might never have meant to imply. Perhaps there is a better distinction between analysis and critique than I as yet realize.  But maybe this writing assignment is important if only for the opportunity it provides to give my own feelings about his subject matter a springboard for comparison.  In which case, I hope Mr. Lewis wouldn't mind a bit of freshman arrogance.

Right from the onset of Mr. Lewis' Essay on Forgiveness (see essay in its entirety at the end of this analysis) he seems to be under the impression that one of the principal tenets of Christianity as I understand it - the concept of Forgiveness itself - is something which is simply known without being taught.  As if it were, or should be, instinctual.  More troubling is his assertion that God's forgiveness is conditional.  The main point of his essay is thus: "We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us.  There is no doubt about the second part of this statement.  It is in the Lord's Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord.  If you don't forgive you will not be forgiven.  No exceptions to it.  He doesn't say that we are to forgive other people's sins, provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort.  We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated.  If we don't we shall be forgiven none of our own."

I agree that we were taught by Jesus to forgive no matter how egregious the trespasses against us may be.  However, there is nothing in the Lord's Prayer to suggest that forgiveness is conditional in any way.  Forgive our debts/trespasses as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us.  The statement as we have come to understand it today is "AS we forgive", not IF we forgive.  I might interpret the line to mean that God already knows we forgive, if not always, often.  God forgives as we forgive.  Our faith teaches us that we are a part of God. If that be true, God's gifts are our gifts also, insofar as we choose to use them.  Forgiveness is part of our natural balanced state; our equilibrium; on the soul level.  Forgiveness is only held in abatement by other, more human factors.  Factors that, once removed or assuaged, can no longer stem the tide of our natural state.  His lack of doubt and the absoluteness of his belief is unjustified.  Yes, we are to forgive them all, but the love - ergo the forgiveness - is unconditional. 

He also na├»vely contends that the authors of the Creed must have wanted what was in our best interest when crafting the document, when it is quite possible that (consciously anyway) they were responding more to their political agenda than their spiritual altruism.  According to James Keifer as reported by spurgeon.org, much of the Apostle's Creed was written in the first or second century likely in answer to the Gnostic belief that God did not make the Universe (it is evil), God did not take human form (Spirit entered the body at baptism and departed before Crucifixion), and that Gnostics believe that it is enlightenment which is needed most, not forgiveness (ignorance is the problem, not sin).  Lewis makes an uninformed assumption about why the drafters of the Creed included the statement about forgiveness.  And though the common religious beliefs of Mr. Lewis' time did not culturally encourage such dissenting thought (and therefore might innocently not occur to him), the original authors were more likely countering the Gnostic belief as a theo-political move rather than attempting a deliberate long-term plan to save Christian souls.  Fortunately, the message of Forgiveness remained with the main body of Christ's teachings despite the possible rocky road to its inclusion.

He also contends that "forgiveness is not as easy as I thought."  This is a very curious statement.  At what point in his life did he have the thought that forgiveness was easy?  At what point was he disabused of this notion?  This essay was written at age 62, three years before his death.  It was written the year of his wife's death to bone cancer, unknown if before or after, but one might assume that her illness was lengthy.  It's possible that he had forgiveness issues with God over this, but it is only a supposition.

He also spends a large amount of time arguing the appropriate form in which our request for forgiveness should take.  When applying to God for relief from the burden of our sin, are we asking God for forgiveness or are we asking to be excused?  Mr. Lewis goes on to explain the "important" distinction between the two concepts as he sees it and yet as he writes, he only seems to reinforce the idea that they are in fact the same.  To compare, I looked up the two definitions:

                Forgive  v. (used with object) 1. to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.

                Excuse  v. (used with object) 1. to regard or judge with forgiveness or indulgence; pardon or forgive; overlook (a fault, error, etc.).

Here, as in his writing, there appears to be virtually no distinction between Forgiving and Excusing.  Why then spend such an inordinate amount of time arguing the difference between a Chrysler minivan and one made by Plymouth?  They are virtually the same car with different names.  He continues in the subsequent paragraphs to argue in favor of the very contradictions to his own case as indicated here: "One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do.  If there are real "extenuating circumstances" there is no fear that He will overlook them.  Often He must know many excuses that we have never even thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they thought.  All the real excusing He will do."  So, does God know all or not?  Why does Mr. Lewis virtually suggest we approach God with worry in our hearts that we will not be forgiven if we don't ask for it correctly, when he then goes on to explain that it's pointless to do so since God already knows anyway?

Repeatedly, Mr. Lewis states God's forgiveness is conditional.  One must ask for it and ask for it correctly.  One must discern excuse from reason.  But I ask, does God hold back his forgiveness until it is asked for?  Or perhaps, as Mr. Lewis inadvertently debates, does God forgive and excuse the "sin" before it is even committed?  For whom is the concept of forgiveness anyway?  The act of "forgiveness" implies the "sinner" was first held by God in a state of being "unforgiven" prior to being awarded the state of being "forgiven."  Is God waiting around not forgiving us until we ask for it correctly?  Or, perhaps, it's possible (as I personally believe) that God has never once held any of us in a state defined as "unforgiven."  I would make the bold assertion - using the unconscious subtext of Mr. Lewis' essay as evidence - that God does not need to forgive because there is nothing for which we need God's forgiveness.  WE are the ones who benefit from the act of forgiving.  God does not need to make God feel better by forgiving us for being nasty to one another.  WE need to make ourselves feel better by KNOWING a state of Forgiveness.  It is arrogant to think we can offend God.  What I hope God really wants is for us to forgive ONE ANOTHER.  God's doing just fine.  Forgiveness is for the forgiver, not the forgiven.  It makes me wonder what type of bargaining conversations Mr. Lewis had with the Creator.  Further, this statement: "Forgiveness says, "Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before."  I would argue that the act of being forgiven and of receiving forgiveness changes the dynamic relationship forever - it could never be exactly the same as before.  It would be more profound.  And there, unwittingly to Mr. Lewis, might sit the distinction itself.  Perhaps to excuse someone is more akin to resuming the previous relationship - including it's flaws, while to forgive is to build on that relationship and synthesize both the deed and the resurrection from estrangement into a higher vibration of human entanglement, compassion, and love.  Both allow for a removal of the blockage, but one makes the pipeline even wider.

If God knows our excuses before we make them, what is the point of his essay as he writes it?  The compartmentalization of "sin" into "excusable bits" and "inexcusable bits" seems to be an exercise in pointlessness.  In one breath Mr. Lewis says God knows all and has already anticipated your excuses (meaning how you feel about your own "sin"), and in the next he's saying the jury is still out.  He's telling you to make sure you're not going to God with too many excuses because God knows them all already so there's no point in making a fool of yourself trying to explain your actions.  God already knows what you did, why you did it, and feels compassion for you because you suffer from not being able to forgive yourself for doing it.  Mr. Lewis inadvertently makes the case for this when he says, "We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused. When you go to a Dr. you show him the bit of you that is wrong - say, a broken arm.  It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right.  You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that."  But I say: What doctor looks at his patient and says, "I don't forgive you for breaking your arm until you ask for my forgiveness."?  The doctor has no need whatsoever of even going through the motions of forgiveness.  Likewise, God has no need to forgive us when we are forgiven before we even commit a sin against ourselves in the first place.  As the doctor doesn't need to forgive his patient, God is only there to heal and to mend what someone has only done to themselves.  What forgiveness is required for that?

According to Lewis, Remedy One: Don't make excuses.  Remedy Two: Believe in the concept of Forgiveness.  "Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it."  Is this the view from God's perspective or of the man in the mirror?  God must view the "sin" as part of a complex tapestry of circumstances and choices and environment.  God must know the labyrinth of lefts and rights we take when making our decisions and why each choice along the way was made.  God must know that we constantly make what we feel to be the best possible choice for ourselves in each moment of our lives.  Even when those choices prove to cause more harm than good, we do our best at each moment without even meaning to.

"In our own case we accept excuses too easily, in other people's we do not accept them easily enough."  I believe this to be mostly true.  Except in the case of accepting our own excuses "too easily," it makes me wonder if we shouldn't find a way to cut ourselves a break once in a while?  What does "accepting our own excuses too easily" amount to?  A partial lack of forgiveness?  Or is he trying to say that we need to pay attention to our excuses for our own sake?  I do believe that paying attention to the excuses we make can lead us to knowing the root of why we commit "sins" against ourselves and others in the first place.  I'm not certain this is what he meant, but it is what I have inferred nonetheless.  "One must therefore begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought."  Is he asking us to make excuses for others' sins?  Or is he inviting us to experience compassion?  If that's the case, I think he would have managed to use the word 'compassion' at least once in his essay.  Since forgiveness is the natural result of compassion and compassion is the natural result of knowing one another, he is perhaps inadvertently advocating for it. "...attend to everything..." He asks us to take our time and explore all possible avenues toward excusing/forgiving those who trespass against us.  And why?  Because even though Mr. Lewis spends considerable time explaining that we need to ask for forgiveness (and give it) in order to receive it, he contradicts that by saying "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you."  One can only assume that forgiveness was already, and perhaps always, granted.  No questions asked.

In the end, perhaps he comes to a better conclusion than the slipshod trajectory of his essay would direct.  He is wise to acknowledge the somewhat counter-intuitive notion that a single great injury is easier to forgive than the "incessant provocations of daily life."  For that is where the difficulty with living a forgiving life exists: in the mundane, banal annoyances and inconveniences that seem too trivial in the micro to bother forgiving, but without constant care they emerge into the macro of our lives with a vengeance.  Perhaps he wants us to know that without living in a state of reciprocal forgiveness you can neither forgive others (or oneself), nor have faith in the concept of forgiveness.  To live without it is to absent oneself from the cycle of compassion and humanity.  Anger, frustration and annoyance become our very religion, our personal philosophy, our dharma, the way we navigate the minutia of our lives.  But to forgive is the only way to know forgiveness.  Mr. Lewis intuitively steps into this but fails to make his argument with words when he makes God's forgiveness of us conditional upon our forgiveness of others.  It is not a punitive act that God withholds forgiveness until we get our act together.  It is that we are unable to experience the flood of forgiveness constantly gushing over us when we cannot know forgiveness of others and ourselves.  He tells us to risk closing the umbrella in our grasping hands and simply allow the rain to wash us clean.  And in this, he is correct.


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Essay on Forgiveness

by C.S. Lewis

Macmillian Publishing Company, Inc., N.Y, 1960

We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed " I believe in the forgiveness of sins." I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. "If one is a Christian," I thought " of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying." But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don't keep on polishing it up.

We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us. There is no doubt about the second part of this statement. It is in the Lord's Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord. If you don't forgive you will not be forgiven. No exceptions to it. He doesn't say that we are to forgive other people's sins, provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don't we shall be forgiven none of our own.

Now it seems to me that we often make a mistake both about God's forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people's sins. Take it first about God's forgiveness, I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, "Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before." If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites. Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two. Part of what at first seemed to be the sins turns out to be really nobody's fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven. If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call "asking God's forgiveness" very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some "extenuating circumstances." We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don't cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves without own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.

There are two remedies for this danger. One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do. If there are real "extenuating circumstances" there is no fear that He will overlook them. Often He must know many excuses that we have never even thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they thought. All the real excusing He will do. What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin. We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused. When you go to a Dr. you show him the bit of you that is wrong - say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right. You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that.

The second remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins. A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that is not forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.

When it comes to a question of our forgiving other people, it is partly the same and partly different. It is the same because, here also forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. (This doesn't mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart - every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.) The difference between this situation and the one in which you are asking God's forgiveness is this. In our own case we accept excuses too easily, in other people's we do not accept them easily enough. As regards my own sins it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think; as regards other men's sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think. One must therefore begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought. But even if he is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine per cent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one per cent of guilt that is left over. To excuse, what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.

This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life - to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son - How can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night "Forgive our trespasses* as we forgive those that trespass against us." We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God's mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.



*Trespasses=offences, being offended or offending.
(Notes are not authored to Mr. Lewis)


1 comment:

  1. Wil, I like all of this, but especially love your point that forgiveness is for us not for God, that our fear of offending God is arrogant - and your point that forgiveness would in fact change a relationship fundamentally for the good, not just return it to its status quo ante. Thank you!

    I don't know what the original text would be that has been translated into "forgive us as we forgive others" - would be interesting to know. I always thought as you describe - no conditionality. I also always thought that "love your neighbor as yourself" (similar language) meant not only that it was important to love our neighbor, but that it was ok to love ourselves.

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