God Does Not Comprehend Forgiveness.
The topic of who god forgives, and for what, and why, is central to christian belief. If you discuss the topic of forgiveness with a christian, they may make an opening move along the lines of declaring that god is infinitely merciful and forgiving – and then, strangely, they stop there. Forgiving whom, for what, and why?
Forgiveness is not some undifferentiated happy-field that simply wipes away blame – it’s a complex interaction between a being or beings that were wronged, a being (or beings) that are to blame for those wrongs, and it would usually seem to involve some kind of understanding being established between the parties. In fact, if that understanding does not exist, the idea of forgiving someone seems to be meaningless, because one of the things we consider when someone forgives someone else is the magnitude of that forgiveness. If someone kills my beloved dog-friend with their car, yet I forgive them because of some circumstance, my forgiveness is more important because of the magnitude of the wrong, and my willingness to forgive them. I deliberately used the example of the unfortunate dog, because it introduces another important consideration into the scenario: the victim. If someone runs over my dog, the person we should all be looking to for forgiveness is the dog. Unfortunately, for the dog, they can no longer grant that forgiveness – and I’ve known plenty of dogs that would never let go of a perfectly good grudge; they might forget but they’d never forgive.
Let’s disassemble the situation and look at the players and where forgiveness and blame comes into it. First, you have the driver of the car, who struck and killed the dog. Then, you have the dog. And lastly, you have the other involved parties, namely, the dog’s care-giver and friend and perhaps a child who witnessed the event and was traumatized. The way we figure out who can forgive whom is by figuring out who is to blame – because it makes no sense to forgive someone who was not to blame. The traumatized child-witness does not need to be forgiven in the death of the dog, because it was not their fault, in fact they suffered what might be called “collateral damage.” No, we’d ask whether the dog was in the road or whether the driver was driving recklessly. Suppose I had thrown a stick and the dog had run in front of the car. Or, suppose the driver of the car was going too fast and swung around a curve and hit the unfortunate dog when it was on the sidewalk. What if the child-witness had called to the dog, and that is why it ran into the road? In the latter case I might feel that the child-witness was more to blame than the driver. This is just an example of why it is so important to be able to establish a notion of responsibility in terms of cause/effect before we can assign blame. Once we have assigned blame, then we can forgive. As I have argued before [stderr] god appears to have problems with its moral understanding of how blame works, so we’ve already got a problem getting from one point to another.
As we can see in the story of the fate of the dog, there might be a variety of factors that would cause us to lay blame differently, and thus, if we chose to forgive anyone, that forgiveness would also track how we laid the blame. Note that each of the people who was wronged in the situation are able to form their own judgement of responsibility and blame, and make their own decision whether to forgive or not. And, sadly, the dog is unable to be a moral actor in the scenario, at all, any more. When we humans make moral judgements, these are the kind of components that we have to deal with, and we deal with them all the time: who is to blame for global climate change? Who is responsible for the death of George Floyd? I know I am harping on this point a bit much, but what we are looking at here is the essential mechanism by which morality works; even if we are a moral nihilist who withholds judgement as to whether we can agree in our moral assessments, we would probably recognize this as a situation which has moral value for the individuals involved. Figuring this kind of scenario out is what morals do.
That’s why this is such an uncomfortable topic, when we consider god’s approach to forgiveness (and, by extension, morals in general) – god just does not seem to function like a moral being. That’s not to say that “god transcends morality” or any such highfalutin’ nonsense, no, god just flat-out does not get it.
A major premise in christianity is that god forgives people for their transgressions. But, if we are discussing human transgressions against other humans, forgiveness is not god’s to give. I assure you that, if Jesus showed up and told the driver of the car that hit my dog, “it’s OK, I forgive you” I’d be hunting for a hammer and some nails pretty quick. Christianity (which presumably reflects an understanding of god and god behaviors) says that god forgives people for pretty much anything and everything as long as you ask for that forgiveness truly. That leaves us in a quandary: either god’s forgiveness is irrelevant, or it’s really seriously messed up. Perhaps if god’s messenger came down and informed all of us, “the dog says he forgives you all and that his hips ached a lot and he’s happy to be up here chasing balls with Jesus” then, all right, the dog is forgiving but I still might not be. Nobody has the right or the power to grant my forgiveness; it’s mine, that’s what it means. Again: see what I did there? I injected more information about the situation, in a way that allows us to adjust our moral judgements. What god showing up and saying “everyone is forgiven!” does not do is exactly that: it’s not god’s forgiveness to give; there is some order of moral judgement we can make as to whose forgiveness is most desired, starting with the dog’s. Yes, a dog’s moral judgements can and should easily trump a god’s.
We can consider moral decisions to be transactions, one form of the transaction being “X wrongs Y” (in some unspecified way) and god only has fairly limited standing to get involved in the transaction. I think most of us might grant god’s interest in the dog situation if god’s messenger came down and said, “god is particularly fond of golden retrievers and you collectively really messed that one up. You’d better sort this situation out among yourselves, because that’s what I gave you morals to be able to do. You’ve got some fast talking ahead of you if you want to stay off of his ‘shit list’ OK?” So saith the lord. Again: more information is injected into the situation in a way that allows the involved parties to make an informed moral judgement.
But god doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he just mindlessly hands out forgiveness like it’s candy. Which is, dare I say, not a moral action at all. In fact, it amounts to nothing less than interference with the moral judgements of others. A moral being, god or not, would not do that. That’s why the title of this piece is, deliberately, a bit ambiguous: god may just not understand how morals work, and that’s OK, but we should not look to god as a source of moral lessons as a result.
A christian might defend god’s position here by saying (as they often do) “it’s a metaphor!” God is just trying to encourage people to be forgiving, and not to be spiteful and hold grudges. (“Do as I say, not as I do,” being the name of the lord) God is not saying, literally, that he forgives the guy who killed the dog on our behalf – he’s just saying that we should all be a bit more understanding that circumstances are complicated and besides, the dog is happy now, etc. That’s an argument, of sorts but it still deliberately and coldly reduces our moral agency. If we consider the “forgiveness” angle as metaphor, then the person encouraging us to do so is either trashing our moral agency, or god’s. I.e.: “god would want you to forgive in this situation, but… whatever.” None of that holds a drop of water when you consider that, allegedly, god also judges the quick and the dead and perhaps maintains a private torture chamber of eternal punishment for people who are not nice to golden retrievers. That radically shifts our perspective on this matter because god is not only assigning and forgiving blame on other people’s behalf, he’s punishing people on his own behalf, based on his own score-card that he keeps. In other words, all that human moral thinking isn’t worth shit in the first place – it’s only god’s judgement that matters, so you may as well not bother, at all.
To be a christian, the notion of divine forgiveness is something that you must accept and rationalize. To be a moral christian, you have to be able to square this particularly nonsensical mess. And, if you cannot, or have not made the effort, you cannot claim to have any kind of grasp on morality that is not already purely human. Personally, I’m OK with a christian claiming that they understand none of this, and follow their own moral judgements – that would be honest, at least.* But if some christian wants to claim that they have learned something of moral behavior from god, they’ve got a lot of… forgiveness to beg.
For the record: no dogs were harmed in the production of this posting; the unfortunate golden retriever is not dead, it’s fictional (I suppose that’s a form of being dead?)
I introduced the golden retriever because I believe they’re a better example of forgiving, moral, kind behavior than god.
* I often refer to christians that assert un-examined belief in divine morality as “moral nihilists” they also do not have any beliefs or moral system, they are just in denial of it. This is a theme I may re-visit later, but, as a place-holder: can an un-examined moral system actually be a moral system? Doesn’t the claim that a person is a moral being imply that they have a system of beliefs that they have judged and accepted, and that they act upon? If this is the case, then the entire idea of accepting our morals from god is in question.
The picture of the golden retriever was brought by google image search; source is [here]
Serendipitously, Andreas just did a posting about our responsibility toward other people’s dogs, [Don’t touch other people’s dogs without the owner’s permission.]