January 19, 2004

Milbank, Forgiveness, and the Church

Leaping right into the middle of a challenging topic, we are going to try to begin with a discussion of forgiveness, by way of John Milbank’s chapter on Forgiveness in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003).

(We don’t assume that you will have read this. Feel free to if you want to, but do also feel free to ask questions and chime in without having read the text.)

If I understand correctly (and please correct me, Joel, if you think I’ve misread here), Milbank is, among other things, calling us to attend to Aquinas’ presentation of forgiveness. According to Milbank, Aquinas allows that human forgiveness of other humans might be offered without repentance (without inducing repentance), divine repentance does induce repentance (45). Divine forgiveness (“mediated by the Church through the sacrament of penance” [46]) takes the offending past into consideration and provides the forgiven one with the resources to make restitution and reach reconciliation (45).

This sense of forgiveness stands in contrast to some popular understandings in which forgiveness involves more erasure than remembering. And, Milbank seems to be suggesting that human participation in divine forgiveness leads to the possibility of a positive restoration of divine love (reflected in human love).

Milbank has much more to say about forgiveness, and I’m hoping that you will help flesh this out Joel. Meanwhile, for the moment, I’m wondering if we can begin to think about how this might apply to congregational life, where, in my experience, there is much need for forgiveness, but little fluency or expertise in the performance of forgiveness. I’m talking about the very small scale issues that arise from spending time together--issues which can grow to very large crises. For example, parishioners can hurt each other and be hurt by each other because of opposing reactions to noisy children in church, the use of the church kitchen, or how to greet newcomers (ask them to stand or not). These may seem like insignificant matters, but I know from first hand experience that differences on these points are enough to cause serious wounding. I would love to have a clearer sense how Milbank’s thoughts on forgiveness might lend some aid to negotiating such congregational crises.

My first guess is that the answer would begin with the Radical Orthodoxy theme of “participation,” but I’m eager to see what you think.

Posted by Margaret at January 19, 2004 11:18 PM

Hello. I am Tim Squier, Anglican Studies student at Seabury-Western. Starting next year I hope to study in the MTS program at Seabury. The potential thesis for this program will focus on liturgy with particular attention to the possibilities that RadOx has to offer in this area. So, I am interested in this round table and will do my best to add to the conversation with a limited yet growing knowledge of this theological movement.

Posted by: Tim & Kris Squier at January 20, 2004 09:41 PM

Paul Baxter here. I'm a currently inactive deacon within the Presbyterian Church in America, a "virtual frind" of Joel's, and I live in a small town in N Carolina near Chapel Hill and Durham.

I looked over this chapter in Milbank's book today (for those who don't know, you CAN actually do this through Amazon now), and what struck me was precisely how inadequate Milbank's presentation was to the sorts of questions you ask. I'll be the first to admit that I did not catch all that he said, but I think dealing with forgiveness as a type of philosophical problem seems to work against dealing with it as a practice of the church.

I say all of this mostly because I was so enormously impressed with J H Yoder's essay, _Practicing the Rule of Christ_ (found in _Virtues & Practices in the Christian Tradition_), where Yoder argues that forgiveness is (ought to be?) the defining practice of the church. While Yoder has plenty of things to say about forgiveness as a CHURCH practice, including dealing with things like sexual abuse, Milbank seems content to deal with it as an abstraction, giving the church only a half-hearted parenthetical nod on p 51.

Maybe you can straighten me out if I'm gtting this all wrong.

Posted by: Paul Baxter at January 22, 2004 08:09 AM

Before commenting, I want to make clear that a) I have not read Milbank's book (although I intend to order and read it), b) I know nothing about Yoder, and c) I probably have no business here at all. Responding to Paul Baxter's comments, however, I would like to make a few random observations. And like him, too, I would appreciate being straightened out.

First, I would suggest that the dichotomy between philosophy and practice simply cannot exist in this case. They are inextricably bound together. Guilt is an insufficient ground for forgiveness. Just think of Luke 23:34 -- they know not what they do. They do not even know they are guilty. Nor can recognition be a sufficient ground. Think, for example, of Howard's End where the protagonist is deprived of a legacy and never learns of it. Such silent injustices occur everyday. Nor can private resolve. This is the conundrum faced, as I recall, at the ethical stage in Kierkegaard's stages on life's way. As I seem to recall, it leads to resignation, not forgiveness. One could go on.

In order to forgive, one must have a notion of what one is in fact doing. More importantly, I suspect, one must have some idea of what is happening when one seeks forgiveness and/or is granted it. This is crucial, I think, in a culture such as ours -- including, alas, ecclesiastical culture -- with its persistent stress on therapeutic closure.
Finally, the Christianity simply could not exist without a concept of forgiveness. It is central to God's plan of salvation. Perhaps Christian Churches instantiate it through the practice of forgiveness. But forgiveness precedes the Church. Jesus Christ forgave sins during his ministry. And the crucifixion would ultimately be historically and phenomenologically trivial, would it not, without this understanding. The articulation of "forgiveness" enacts forgiveness. Or, perhaps better said, fulfills it. But the articulation would be mute without the prior thought.

Faith is what enables us to see the two -- philosophy and practice -- bound together but it is not what binds them together.

Posted by: John Koontz at January 23, 2004 12:04 AM