Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Some thoughts on Jesus and Forgiveness: With Special Guests: William Blake, Walter Benjamin, and Vladimir Jankelevitch

John Moriarty, in Serious Sounds, a story of his childhood growing up in Catholic Ireland, writes: "Was it Blake I wondered who had said that the difference between Jesus and Socrates was that Jesus could say, Your sins are forgiven you." He's close. Blake does write something like this, in pencil, in one of his notebooks (that is now recognized to be an unfinished, or at least unedited, poem). Blake writes:
There is not one Moral Virtue that Jesus Inculcated but Plato & Cicero did Inculcate before him what then did Christ Inculcate. Forgiveness of Sins. This alone is the Gospel & this is the Life & Immortality brought to light by Jesus. Even the Covenant of Jehovah, which is This If you forgive one another your Trespasses so shall Jehovah forgive you That he himself may dwell among you but if you Avenge you Murder the Divine Image & he cannot dwell among you [by his] because you Murder him he arises Again & you deny that he is Arisen & are blind to Spirit.

Blake then gets out his pen and jots down some rhymed couplets. The first stanza reads:
What can this Gospel of Jesus be
What Life & Immortality
What was [
It] that he brought to Light
That Plato & Cicero did not write
We find out that, according to Blake, what Jesus "brought to light" was the "forgiveness of sins":
Then Jesus rose & said to [men]
Thy Sins are all forgiven thee

While it may be true that, contrary to Charles Griswold's claim, Plato's (and Aristotle's) use of
sungnome doesn't amount to the forgiveness of the Abrahamic heritage, "forgiveness of sins" simpliciter is not unique to Jesus. We should avoid, here, making the same mistake as Hegel in "The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate" when he claimed that Judaism only knew the Law, not love or forgiveness. Such a mistake is similar to those who want to claim that Jesus "died for the truth of the gospels" and then go on to do some fancy intellectual footwork that includes reducing Christianity to some set of religious abstractions (which usually includes forgiveness) and then denying those abstractions (forgiveness) to Judaism. Jesus is doing something else when it comes to forgiveness. He did not discover it, he did not invent it, as if the Jews knew nothing of forgiveness. Rather, the Jews knew quite a bit about forgiveness and what Jesus says about forgiveness in the Gospel accounts would have been met with, at worst, a yawn, and, at best, support. What Jesus says about forgiveness in the Gospel accounts would have been, to borrow a felicitous phrase from E.P. Sanders, " about as controversial as motherhood" to the Jews (E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 333).
Unless, of course, we look at Jesus' claims about forgiving "sinners" - the
hamartoloi (behind which we see the Hebrew resha'im), the "wicked." This should hold our attention for awhile: the forgiveness of sinners, the forgiveness of the sins of sinners, the forgiveness of the sins of sinners who remain sinners (because if they were repentant and reformed sinners, they wouldn't be sinners anymore). This would be a forgiveness "without Money & without Price" that we saw in the previous post in which we find a quote from Blake's "Jerusalem." For Blake, this is the Jehovah's forgiveness, this is Jehovah's salvation. Perhaps, as we can see in the Benjamin quote from three posts ago, forgiveness maintains its foremost significance by not being a priori referred exclusively to humans. Perhaps this forgiveness is not a human possibility, perhaps there are things that are, as Arendt writes in a footnote in The Human Condition, "unforgivable, at least on earth" - which refers to a realm in which such things are fulfilled; namely, God's forgiveness. However, that doesn't mean that we can simply be satisfied with our human-all-to-human forgiveness, with the calculations we make and the conditions we set. Pure forgiveness, a forgiveness "without Money & without Price," does set our "duty" for us, does "determine and orient our efforts," as we see in the Jankelevitch quote two posts below. We can get "infinitely nearer to" pure forgiveness, to a forgiveness "without Money & without Price," a forgiveness of the sin and of the sinner who remains a sinner, the sinner qua sinner, a forgiveness of the sinner not "despite" the sin and the fact that they are a sinner, not "even though" they have sinned, but "precisely because" they are a sinner and have sinned.

(When I started writing this, I didn't plan on tying all these quotes together, but once I started they just came together. It needs work, but I think it is a good start.)


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Anonymous said...

I too am a PhD student but in Spanish Literature studying sixteenth-century religious dialogues.

For a brief but worthy blurb on forgiveness see page 198 of The Names of Christ by Fray Luis de León - The translation is by Manuel Durán and William Klublack New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

Anonymous said...

From your analysis, it sounds like we could use a more nuanced typology between the old and new testaments regarding the forgivness or redemption of human sin. But I wonder if we tend to focus in on this a bit much, thus diminishing the rest of creation/cosmos being reconciled up in Christ as well.

The Noahide and Abrahamic covanents redeemed/re-tracted not just humans-gone-wrong but all of creation. Further, even with covenant intact, critique against self-righteousness rightfully came from within the covenant people themselves; actions which crucially included the role and play of creation, even when human sin is the issue at hand: Jeremiah appeals to the mountains as his witness in his judgment against idolatrous Judah, and Amos talks about the mount of the temple being reduced to rubble, only to be replaced by a "wooded height." These are just two examples of critiques leveled from within the Jewish est. via creation/cosmos.

Also, if we were to take a closer more exegetical look, the covenant with Abraham, founded on the cosmic covenant tied with Noah, checks against the Jews being wrongly accused, as you point out, for being overly concerned with law -- the very definition of "covenant" requires the breaking of law in the first place! Hmm, I wonder how Hegel explained away this foundational or canonical structure which footed Jewish identity!?

All too often the "Western typesetter's case" is, if you will, fixed by rigid, confined dimensions writ large in tense dialectic, and we thus sit at the feet of Scripture not as sensible, sensitive dialogic exegetes but lone metaphysicians, looking inward at self (like Blake's Urizen), contemplating the Bible as a proof-text in the heady attempt to shrug eschaton into completion.

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