Forgiveness: A Dissent
Virtually every religious tradition, as well as every new religious movement, affirms the necessity of forgiveness. Turning the other cheek and forgiving the transgressor are at the heart of Christianity. This principle is less pronounced but still deep seated in Judaism. Forgiveness resonates, albeit with different rationales, in Vedic traditions. To forgive is at the center of modern spiritual philosophies like the Twelve Steps and A Course in Miracles.
Friends whom I consider brilliant have argued to me, with persuasiveness, that without forgiveness history could not march forward: Jews could never forgive Germans, Armenians could never forgive Turks, Japanese could never forgive Americans. My friend Richard Smoley writes with sterling precision in his book The Deal that forgiveness is the one escape hatch we are given from our own karma — and that we will soon enough require the same forgiveness we offer another.
I have worked intently with forgiveness for seven years. I have prayed, pondered, assayed, and studied. I reject the moral imperative of forgiveness.
My reason, in the end, is simple: I believe that the moral suasion to forgive often places the individual in an unnatural position and produces inner division that gets diverted into other, often hostile or self-negating behaviors.
That does not mean that forgiveness is unwarranted in given situations. Nor that it has not healed wounds. It means only that I reject forgiveness as a blanket rule, spiritual imperative, or ethical necessity.
Am I arguing for revenge? Not necessarily. (Although my health insurer gives me pause.) Rather, I am arguing that a finer, more realistic, and nobler principle than forgiveness appears in abiding. In enduring hurt, suffering, wounding, or trespass with the realism that life is reciprocal, suffering is inevitable — and the vow that another person’s trespass is wind at your back for the progress toward what you must be and do in life.
I take a spiritual view of life, contrary as that may sound to what I have just written. By spiritual I mean extra-physical. As I have noted elsewhere, we have amassed sufficient evidence, not only from the testimony of seekers, but from studies in psychical research, relativity, quantum theory, and neuroplasticity among others to conclude that materialism — the belief that matter alone reproduces itself — is insufficient to cover all the bases of life. Thoughts impact neural pathways. Anomalous transfer of information, or ESP, is statistically settled. Time bends based on velocity and gravity. Sentient observation effectively determines the locality of subatomic particles. In short, thought is a force. This is true inasmuch as gravity is a force. We can debate terms, conditions, and consistency but gravity exists: mass is attracted to itself. Likewise we participate in detectable extra-physical and nonlinear modes of existence. Hence, to speak of reciprocity (which I prefer to karma) is more than metaphor. What I visit upon another person I ultimately, or in a more immediate fashion, visit upon myself due to our common metaphysics.
I believe that a better — by which I mean realer — response to pain is to use it as a goad to development. This, I believe, is what nature intended. William Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Opposition is true Friendship.” Work with that statement for six months. Opposition not only exposes where I need fortification but spurs me to the creative powers of necessity. Without friction we would remain intellectual and emotional children. I see this as the esoteric meaning behind the expulsion from the Garden: the snake emancipated. With emancipation came suffering. And so the individual became a creative actor rather than an object. Should Adam and Eve forgive Yahweh for the inconceivable cruelty of condemning humanity to forever being born in sin for a single ancestral transgression? Does the parabolic “sacrifice” of his son redeem or compound that sentence? Friction is neither to be forgiven nor understood (especially when “understanding” results in ethical paralysis). Friction is our human and spiritual situation.
From time to time the comments section of my articles abound with religionists telling me how I’ve completely misunderstood this or that; quoting Scripture; telling me how they are going to pray for me; how love will overcome all. Try this experiment. Next time someone presents you with one of those arguments, watch how they behave when they are told “no.” That response is their philosophy. Philosophy is conduct. I am not a Christian. But in conduct I am a better Christian than most of my detractors.
Someone messaged me recently: “Hello Mitch, I enjoyed watching some of your lectures. I just want to say: infinite love will overcome evil.” I replied: “Since some people consider my ideas ‘evil’ I am careful with statements about overcoming.”
The subheading of this article paraphrases Ralph Waldo Emerson from his essay “Self-Reliance.” Cultural prejudice and the endless need for snappy digital copy are conscripting Emerson to critical mockery. There is no antidote for that. But it speaks to why you must eschew commentary for source material. Here is the full passage:
I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.
A law, in order to be a law, must be ever-operative. I do not see forgiveness as an ethical or spiritual law. I see it as an option only. There exist other options. I’ve given you one. Now go and study.
I value your reading time. If you enjoyed this piece you might also like: